Bash Amuneni sees architecture as a tangible form of poetry

Bash Amuneni explores creativity in poetry and architecture. It’s like a double dose of blessing. He sees poetry in architecture and architecture in poetry, both intricately intertwined in a beautiful artistic knot. He is also a visual artist and voice over narrator. He narrated a version of Abubakar Adam‘s The Whispering Trees for Recordedbooks USA. Having amassed years of poetry performance experience, including KABAFest in Kaduna, Poetry Africa International Festival in Durban, SLAMeroun Int’l Festival in Cameroon, he now runs a quarterly performance poetry class where he mentors young poets. His poetry is laced with love, memory and the subtleties of the human condition. In December 2018, Bash was a guest performance poet at the commissioning of The African Development Bank building in Abuja by the Nigerian Vice President.

In this interview, he chats with Haneefah Abdulrahman about the beauty of practising architecture as a poet, the challenges of both practices, and the importance of language in poetry.

Bash Amuneni at Lip Fest 2019
HANEEFAH ABDULRAHMAN: Have you ever imagined the world without the Black society or Black existence?

BASH AMUMENI: For the fact that you mentioned it, I now imagine it. But normally I do not think I would have thought about that. Why would I imagine not existing? I’m Black myself. So, I don’t think I’ve ever imagined a world without Black existence. It’s not possible. Come on. We are important. That’s why you’re here. Right? Yeah. So, I do not think I’ve ever had that flash of thought that ‘what would the world be like without Black people.’ But what would the world be like without White people? I don’t know.

Really, a world without Black people is unimaginable. So how do you celebrate yourself as a Black person, as a Black poet, and an architect?

I celebrate myself every day. The fact that I exist and the fact that I add value to the world through these two disciplines of mine is enough to say that I celebrate myself every day. Poetry for me is an expression of self, in varying languages. Yeah, and poetry has helped me not only express myself, but it has helped me to add value to society in my own way. Most of my poems touch on societal issues and the dynamics of human existence–loss, memory, love, and so on.

Poetry has taken me to a couple of places within and outside Nigeria that I wouldn’t have been able to, if I never had poetry, or if the world didn’t want to hear poetry from me. So, I celebrate myself every day by writing and expressing myself through poetry, and also through architecture. Everything that I do adds value to people. Seeing the beauty of your creation come alive and seeing my clients totally happy that I delivered on the design agreement, it’s something amazing. It’s like seeing your baby being born and growing up to become an important person.

I am blessed to have twin disciplines that complement each other. I mean, architecture is poetry, poetry is architecture, it depends on perspective. I see architecture as poetry in a more tangible form: in lines, in brick and mortar, in painting and colours, in abstraction, in everything that represents a solid building as it is.

Using my skill as an architect in creating spaces where families are celebrated, where love is shared, where dinner is served, you know, and all of that warmth that comes with family, it’s just a blessing. I celebrate these privileges every day as a Black poet and architect.

You know, you’re talking about poetry being architecture and architecture being poetry, which takes me back to some time ago when I was discussing with my colleagues about poetry as existence, as everything and anything. It’s exciting that you also perceive it in that light. You talked about performing internationally. What was the experience like performing for the first time outside Nigeria, in a country like the US for example?

I felt accepted. The fact that an invite has been extended to me is glorious. They wouldn’t just do that if they do not recognize that I have something to offer. So, it’s amazing that I’m accepted to come to perform my poetry.

[Listening to poetry] is beyond real comprehension, it’s more of a spirit, more of taking in the vibe, the aura. The essence of poetry goes beyond language.

While preparing to travel, were you usually conscious of potential racist treatments?

When we talk about racism, the issue of racism is as old as mankind; there are certain phenomena that cannot exactly disappear from the face of the earth, as long as humans exist. It is part of humanity’s social construct. We all have our biases because, truly, biases are part of who we are. We can only try to reduce the impact of racism in terms of how it affects us. But essentially, as long as humans exist, as long as we all have our biases, and as long as we all have our minds, there will be issues of racism, whether it’s against Blacks or against other races. And, you know, we talk about how racism affects us as Black people, but sometimes we do not imagine that Blacks can be racist. You know, that’s an interesting angle to it and I really like to do some research on that.

I remember performing to a French audience in Cameroon in 2021. Of course, I don’t speak French. I did my poem in English to a completely French audience. And it was well accepted. I mean, from the applauds and feedback. And I kept wondering, “Your official language is not English, so how did you guys understand what I was saying?” This just tells you about the power of poetry. Sometimes it goes beyond real comprehension, it’s more of a spirit, more of taking in the vibe, the aura. The essence of poetry goes beyond language.

You’ve achieved a lot with your poetry and architecture, and for every success, for every accomplishment, there would be struggles. What is your story and what was it like when you first started out?

Poetry wasn’t really a struggle, there are just countless challenges that come with it. The challenge of writing well comes with the challenges of having to read and research well. Then there is the hard work of writing your own poem, editing, and sharing it. The hard work of standing on stage in isolation and all eyes on you: there is no cover-up, there are no props, there are no costumes. It’s you, and you alone. Sometimes I get off stage and I’m drained mentally, like the energy literally seeps out of me. The challenge of delivering, of not forgetting your lines on stage, of always turning up and giving a 10/10 performance with new audiences. The challenge of keeping up with the trend, of making sure your art doesn’t die and you don’t just get jaded. The challenge of writing something fresh every single time, of mentoring young poets who look up to you. And then you need to balance that with your personal life. You know, it’s a whole lot of challenges. 

Then in architecture, you grapple with the challenge of getting your clients to understand why you’re making certain decisions. There is the challenge of money. I think the most daunting of all challenges is staffing. If you do not get your staffing right, boy, you are in trouble. And you know, human capacity in Nigeria is at an all-time low. People are not really skilled, and people are not honest. You’d have to deal with dishonest staff. It’s so bad that I’ll say only 1 out of 10 members of staff would be entirely honest. You’d wonder what is going on. Could it be pressure from society or the bad economy? Many people are so desperate to make money anyhow, so they do not mind cutting corners.

How did you find your way to poetry and architecture?

Poetry found me. And that was a long time ago. I grew up in a house where my elder brother used to do a lot of writing and reading. As a curious younger brother, I  just wanted to be like my brother. When I was in JSS 3, I won a  poetry contest in school. That was a turning point that informed me I could do this. Then when I was in SSS 2. I won the Benue State Christmas Festival Poetry contest. Then when I got to university in 2001, a friend of mine got me to submit my poem for an online poetry contest, and I was top four in the world. These events gave me some confidence.

In secondary school, I did well as a fine arts student. I had a distinction in fine arts in the WAEC, even though I was a science student. At some point, I thought I should go ahead and study arts at the university but I was a science student. So the next best thing was architecture. It was science and arts combined. So, I went with architecture and I ended up falling in love with it.

There’s this thing about poetry and cliché lines. It was once a topic of discussion in a poetry class I attended, how poets overuse certain words and imageries. How do you create beautiful works of poetry without overusing seemingly overused words like the sky, trees, moon, water, river, etc?

There are certain word choices that just resonate with poetry. As poets, we are a people in touch with nature, therefore were automatically fall back to using certain elements of the world in our poetry. In that light, we might sound cliché. However, if your word pool is rich, the tendency that you might go cliché will be very slim. What makes some poets sound clichés is that they don’t read enough. When you don’t read enough, your word pool is limited and you can only write using the words you have handy. You should therefore read more than you write and you will never sound cliche as a poet.

Richard Ali in one of the interviews I had with him states that “poetry and politics can never see eye to eye”. What do you have to say about that? And what do you have to say about poetry as a justice system?

I agree. And the reason is that poets are very open people. Poets reach into their souls to express their pain and their concerns. And, you know, politics is not a very honest sport. In contrast, poets often write from a very honest place. And how will honesty and dishonesty sit at the same table? Poets always attempt to be the conscience of society: whenever society is losing its soul, poets always try to bring it back to reason. This is why politics and poetry are not essentially friends.

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