Chris Abani is one of the rare writers who can combine the sincere power of an authentic African voice with the disciplined cultural literacy of a classicist. Born in Nigeria to an Igbo father and English mother, Abani is able to straddle two worlds and speak with authority from both. In his newest poetry collection, Smoking the Bible (Copper Canyon Press, 2022) Chris Abani ventures into the holiness of self, a place where identity, brotherly love, and family dysfunction are examined under an unyielding flame.
Each poem in Smoking the Bible is bare and raw, revealing the shared lives of two brothers: Abani, writing from a place of exile from his home country of Nigeria, and his brother, who was diagnosed with cancer. Abani’s brother dies, leaving a wake of grief that is palpable on the page. The moving elegy reaches beyond borders, and touches the reader with familiar themes: “I want to say I love you to all the men / our father couldn’t be, all the men / our brothers are trying to be, and the man / you are—a creature incandescent yet wrong for it.” Abani peels back the layers of toxic masculinity with exquisite patience, revealing the scathing, truthful reality of its after-effects.
Abani speaks to and about his brother, his father, and his mother, all of whom have been taken from him. His poetry speaks of ancient Igbo traditional beliefs and Christianity, both of which affected his family, as well as his native Nigeria. The result is a stunning collection of poetry that leaves the reader satisfied and seen, a thoroughly heartfelt achievement of verse.
Chris Abani’s unique experience permeates his poetry, fiction, and plays, and informs his life as an educator. He has won both critical acclaim prestigious awards, including a Guggenheim, and several PEN’s and a faithful audience. His latest novel, The Secret History of Las Vegas, was published by Penguin in 2014. In 2010, Abani published three poetry collections: Sanctificum (Copper Canyon Press), There Are No Names for Red (Red Hen Press), and Feed Me The Sun – Collected Long Poems (Peepal Tree Press).
Recently, Abani has added another occupation to his resume: father. Abani’s baby girl has allowed him to see life, and writing, through a different lens. “I love her and have little room for anything else,” he says. Through a series of emails, Abani and I discussed the construction of his poetry collection, the power of language within it, the transforming properties of poetry, and how Igbo traditions have informed his thoroughly modern life.
The Rumpus: When someone asks you about Smoking the Bible, how do you describe it? As a collection of poetry, or a book?
Chris Abani: Every book of poetry I write is always conceived as a book. I write poems to fit an arc, a theme, and a general narrative thrust. I only write for book projects. I always envy poets who can write poems which later suggest an arc. The main difficulty with doing a book length project is figuring out how to make each poem stand alone even as it adds up to a book. I hope I succeeded.
Rumpus: I admit, the title of the book aroused my curiosity. Is it a play on words? An intricate knitting of language, culture, and beliefs? In the poem “White Egret” the speaker says: “The Holy Scripture / is animal not book. / I should know, I have smoked / the soul of God, psalm burning / between fingers on an African afternoon.” The lines and the language seem spring-loaded. They feel fun, like the speaker is leaping on a trampoline, turning backflips between cultures. As a reader I saw flight achieved here. How does the use of language inform the title? Build bridges between here and there? Bring a sense of a deeper movement?
Abani: My understanding is that a poem is centered in enactment. In other words, a poem is an event, a happening. So, it has to enact things, which I build around the idea of an automaton, a machine that turns towards and away from the ineffable trying to make meaning at every level and to every reader; not in a specific way, but along a line of tension. Poetry to me is also the only form of writing in which language is as much, if not more of, the subject as any subject in a poem. So, it’s about the idea that language is always communicating in layers deeper than we can access at once. In a sense, a more succinct way of saying it is that a poem is always turning towards the ineffable.
Rumpus: How did you set up the order of this collection? All the poems seem to be perfectly placed, like different spices in food, layers of flavor that will explode in the reader’s mouth…
Abani: The architecture of a book is always a vital part of it. It’s like building a cathedral, which direction to orient the building for light, dome or no dome, chapels off the main church to saints and Mary; it’s about guiding readers in subtle ways such that any order in which they read yields a narrative of meaning.
Rumpus: The book begins with “Flay” and ends with “The Calculus of Faith,” where pens are featured as healing instruments. In “Flay,” the pen “opens up a hole / into a soul’s dereliction…” and in “The Calculus of Faith,” you refer to your mother’s turquoise fountain pen as a miracle. There is hope imparted by the pen, isn’t there?
Abani: Yes, you speak directly to the heart of the matter. At the core of all my work is hope, or more like an uneasy grace, hard earned sometimes, but always pointing towards transformation. I am humbled in my life by small daily miracles, by the idea that all transformational things are an aggregate of small daily movements. One of them is a spiritual practice, and sometimes the craft of writing, and its instruments are the ritual methodology. My hope is that the work I make has the potential to craft a pathway for myself and readers to a new hope, a place of epiphany, and a gratitude for the quotidian miracles of our lives.
Rumpus: “Quest” was my introduction to what happens throughout the book: single words hold double-meaning. This theme is found throughout the book. In the poem “Cameo: Broach” the word “broach” is used as a noun and verb: “…I trace a cameo not unlike / the broaches Mother wore high on the neck. / You were always her favorite. The best of us. / How to broach influence?” How did you decide to use the “twinning” of words, or language with double-meanings like this, to show its double-edged capacity and experience?
Abani: Every book is a quest, not in the picaresque sense, but in the sense that a quest is a questioning. Questions are always a twinning, at the very least, a sort of punning and play within language and meaning. Quest is a way to move beyond binaries, or at least to chart a pathway between binaries, to always lean into the intersectional, or the liminal or the ineffable. Igbo, my father’s language, and so mine, is a tonal language and the same word, toned differently, can mean radically different things. It’s a linguistic formulation, seen also in Yoruba, that allows for language to do magical things.
Rumpus: Your poem, “Quest,” is a container of so much pain. It’s the first in this collection, and shows the twin journeys of two brothers: one leaving his home country, the other with a life-changing diagnosis. The position of this particular poem in the collection seems purposeful, almost confrontational. Is this on purpose?
Abani: Yes, it is on purpose. The story is about choices and turns and the unexpected. It’s about triple immigrations and emigrations. We are bi-racial, both immigrated to London, and then I immigrated on to the US. We have been linked by trauma our whole lives, by a loving, if violent father, surviving a civil war, systemic racism, and then just when his life, which was mostly in service to others, was about to culminate in a great harvest of joy, he got sick with terminal cancer. And I returned to help with those last months of his life, by his bedside, trying to sing him across with as much light as I could summon and to make a lasting link of joy between him and his family. So yes, it is very much on purpose that the tone of this poem speaks strongly with all the anger of our impending loss and my helplessness in the face of it all.
Rumpus: There is so much grief and celebration, juxtaposed in this collection. What is the most important thing you, as the author of the collection, see? How much of this book is autobiographical, if you will excuse such a clumsy word?
Abani: It is all in this case, largely autobiographical, including my leaning into the speculations of his internal life. It is also in the sense of us smoking parts of my dad’s bible. The realizations, the epiphanies, and other openings occurred in the writing and still occur in visited readings and re-readings. That part is not autobiographical, but pure enactment.
Rumpus: There is a strong spiritual awareness in this collection, as if you’ve come into your own realization of how you define God, how you celebrate faith, and pray. The poem, “Insomnia” describes prayer, “…as relentless as the grit of sand in a shoe…” How has your faith changed over the years?
Abani: I have always been in pursuit of God and in some spiritual practice my whole life. I think everything I do emanates from that center. I was raised Catholic, and in Odinala Igbo tradition, even went to seminary to be a priest, eventually culminating through Buddhism, Shivaism, and many, many mystery schools, back into the original traditions of my people, as an initiated Ifa priest. This journey continues as I continue to learn to serve.
Rumpus: You make many so many biblical references in the collection, like two brothers (Jacob and Esau) wrestling for everything, including the attention and affection of the father. “Allegory” portrays them as boys, who “pine for the gravel of a father’s touch…” but instead, experience his temper: “Father beat me with a branch of a palm tree.” Themes of sonship and brotherhood permeate the book. Why?
Abani: Masculinity and its damage are at the heart of all my work. Masculinity isn’t a thing. It is an absence, an excavation. Men are raised in the erase of all that is tender and good and loving until for many of us, all that is left is an unfocused rage. That is what masculinity has become, a coring of the self and the mean excavation of tenderness. Much of the journey in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are focused on this. The original Egyptian practice that these come from had a gentler approach, which we find in traditional systems of practice. I attempt to reclaim tenderness in language and art, for a different masculinity, one made of presence not absence, one where we stare darkness in the face but turn instead to the emanation of the sublime. It’s an ongoing negotiation. I am grateful that in some places you can see and feel this balance between sadness and the joy of the process.
Rumpus: You’re known for having a genuine voice. Is there a secret to a writer or poet finding their voice and bringing that to the page?
Abani: There are no secrets to finding voice, one has to just stop treating it as a parlor game and stop being clever and instead reach for the elusive elegance we find in all art. To see and understand why a stone is the perfect consciousness, or as the Brazilian poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrande, would say, “There is a stone in the middle of the road.”
Craft is a complicated thing. It is the application of self to rigor and waiting. Like all skill, it’s about finding the perfect balance between momentum and stillness. The journey to this is to find one’s process. Part of process is ritual—how much we write, what time of day, etc. Process is deeper, and is linked to personality as much as anything. If you have a driven, type-A temperament, then writing every day is important. Not because you’re producing anything, but because if you don’t silence the anxiety of your nature, you won’t make anything. I am far from type-A.
Rumpus: What is a good writing day like for you? Has writing changed with the addition of your baby?
Abani: Things are always cooking in me and then sometimes come out in spurts that go on for days and months and then other times it’s just stillness. My perfect writing day is when I can get away with not writing and not feel guilty. The baby makes writing harder, not just because of the obvious time that care takes, but also because she has refocused my life.