This is How Samuel A. Adeyemi Uses Poetry to Reimagine Nihilism

samuel adeyemi

We have strong literary voices coming out of Africa of late, especially with the help of the internet, which has given these voices an avenue to push out unique creative writings. One of such voices is Samuel Adeyemi. If you are an ardent follower of African literature, specifically the emerging ones, there’s a possibility that you may have come across Samuel’s poetry online and offline. He’s the author of Heaven is a Metaphor, a thought-provoking body of literature published by Praxis Magazine.  

Samuel is a Poetry Editor at Afro Literary Magazine, and his works have appeared in Palette Poetry, Agbowo, and other notable space for fine literature. A Best of the Net Nominee and Pushcart Nominee, he is the winner of the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize 2021.

Getting published has always been one of his dreams. In January 2021, Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani selected Samuel’s manuscript for the jointly edited New-Generation African Poets chapbook box set.

Your poems unlock some thoughts in me, and these thoughts make me wonder. Sometimes I get the answers as I read on, and other times, I’m made to seek for answers outside your poetry. Did you start writing to make your readers feel this way? 

I never write to make my readers feel lost or bewildered. If anything—and it may sound selfish—sometimes I do not write with a reader in mind. Maybe when the first draft is complete and I begin editing it, I might consider what other eyes would think (that makes sense since I didn’t start writing poetry because of an audience). But then, that might be the problem. When you write for yourself, you shut out the world. It becomes difficult for others to know what’s going on. They do not have my experience or feel how I feel. 

You might hear someone say, “That’s a beautiful line. I don’t understand it, but it’s beautiful. ” What’s happening there? The aesthetic of language is present, but its semantics is lost. That’s poetry. We can get away with that. Sometimes the poem is not a glass house to be seen through. Sometimes it is a mirror. I’m talking to myself, not the rest of the world. 

You see, the poems that make you wander are probably the ones I wrote for myself. But I believe most of the poems I put out there are not like this. I try to be simple and relatable. I guess our eyes will always be different. 

Twice, I’ve read Heaven is a Metaphor. A thought-provoking collection. There are many things I keep asking myself every single time I remember that you collated powerful poems into that chapbook. I ask, what does this poet read? At such a young age, he’s been daring enough to bend the poetry genre into a fine taste intellectually. I mean, not everyone has this luxury of brilliance. Are you amazed at your level of creativity?

To be honest, I do not enjoy commenting on my creative ability. I like to leave that for others to form an opinion about, and often, their comments are positive and encouraging. Although I’m sometimes amazed at what I write and the little I’ve accomplished so far, I do not like to dwell on that or be intoxicated by the praise. There is so much more that I can do, and I want to focus on the possibilities of what I can still accomplish. 

How did the title of your chapbook, Heaven is a Metaphor, come about? And Heaven is a metaphor for what? 

Oh, the title came weirdly. I was texting a friend, and she jokingly questioned my morality, asking if Heaven wasn’t the goal. And I replied to her, saying,” Heaven is just a metaphor now.” That’s how it came about. 

In the context of the title, Heaven is a metaphor for anything good. It’s a way of addressing how the meaning of things changes when your belief is shaky or shattered. For a Christian, Heaven is a place of God. To an unbeliever, it’s just a word to describe something pleasant. As in, “The ice cream tastes like heaven.” (a simile is a type of metaphor) or “Your room is heaven.” To a heathen, the word’s religious meaning is no longer relevant. 

How did the chapbook become whole? Take us on a brief journey on how you collected all the poems together. 

The chapbook was not difficult to compile once I knew what I wanted it to become. What came next was waiting for the pieces to fall into place. A good number of the poems were published online already. The remaining ones were written to complete the manuscript. Everything was planned from the start. I had always wanted to write a book on those themes, so I began writing to publish a collection when the time was right. 

I guess this is one of the beauties of interviews. It’s an avenue to unravel mysteries. Now, let’s look into the chapbook. Journeying through this chapbook, I realised this is far from mere imagination. You leave your soul and vulnerability in some of the poems. At a point, I asked myself, and I still ask myself, if you aren’t leaving too much of your reality in your lines. This is why I said earlier that you’re daring(at this age). Weren’t you afraid of putting too much of yourself in your lines? 

There is always the issue of vulnerability with the kind of poetry I write. I reveal a lot. Is it too much? I don’t know. I don’t think so. As I said earlier, I didn’t start writing poetry because of an audience. The process is more of a session, a conversation, and a documentation of my state at that particular point in time. The page always listens, you know. It might seem too revealing to readers sometimes, but there are still people who relate to and experience the things I write about. Maybe I didn’t start with an audience in mind, but at the end of the day, the poems always reach someone who finds themselves in them. 

In Every Gen Z poem is about the body, you wrote, “Do you know what it is to wear the wind as colour?” In another line, you wrote, “Anatomy says the body is up to sixty per cent water. I must have been too transparent for flesh—what magic….” These lines and the poem make me remember how I worried a lot about my nose, face, and dissatisfaction. But why do we have to worry about our bodies? We worry about being too fat or short, and in this poem, you being skinny.

I’m glad you are addressing this through literature. Many Africans often make emotionally piercing jokes about people’s bodies. You have been there. I’ve been there. Many people have been there. And it only has one result- low self-esteem. Could you please contribute to the aforementioned observations and my web of thoughts? 

Low self-esteem from body-shaming is more dangerous than people think. People don’t know how much others struggle to change their bodies behind the curtains. A simple sentence has so much power to crumble the little confidence you’ve built up trying to improve. I recently experienced this. It was from a fellow creative, so it was quite disappointing.

Anyway, “Every Gen Z Poem is About the Body” is not exactly about body-shaming. I have a few poems on the subject, but not this one. Although it is, in a way, about low self-esteem. The speaker doesn’t see his body as worthy of writing about. But the body here doesn’t reference just the physical body. It’s more about the self and personal experiences. It’s an old poem, so perhaps the message could have been more lucid. But that’s the beauty of poetry. We see things differently. Hence, the interpretations differ. That wasn’t my intention, but it was a beautiful and interesting analysis.

I understand you’ve had a lot of episodes concerning your faith in God and Jesus as a Christian. I’ve had my episodes too, and it’s a struggle. The breaking point is where everything makes no sense, and your curiosity without solid resolution tears you apart.

As someone who acknowledges the existence of a supreme being, finding yourself in a bracket of scepticism is inevitable; as you wrote in Evanescence, “…I don’t show him the doubt inside me. Oh, to live as a pitcher punctured. Ask me to hold rain & watch water permeate. My mind, a sieve. I cannot say what stays or filters away.”

The faith struggle is also evident in Babel, a disturbing poem for me. I want to believe this is an assumed voice, but at the same time, I want to believe this is you talking about one of your mum’s unhealthy times. A son hoping for a miracle. A son questioning the sainthood of some prophets praying over his unwell mother. A son wondering why a drop of God’s grace didn’t drop into his mother’s palms even though she’d held onto the fabric of faith all her life. You quoted the Bible, “For she said within herself, if I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole.” – Matthew 9:21. And then you wrote, “Not once, not twice, her hands have held onto the fabric, clenched, seeking to squeeze grace out of the threads. Yet not even a drop blessed her palms.” — what an irony!

I hope I’m not awakening any dead wounds. Tell me about these struggles. 

I frequently write about faith and religion but do not enjoy conversing about them. It’s an irony, but I think it’s worth respecting.

Anyway, those poems (and many others in the collection) are about my struggles with faith and religion. One thing to note is that it doesn’t mean I still struggle with them. The book represents a time in my life when I did. It’s a recording of the problems I faced trying to hold on to Christianity. 

There were always so many questions I had that always went unanswered. Prayers, too. The poem, Babel, which has been heavily edited in my next book, is indeed about me. It’s about one of those situations where you wonder what it takes to witness a miracle. Why will someone faithful all her life be starved of God when she most needs Him? Moments like that are enough to shatter the already fragile faith you have. I do not have those struggles anymore, though. But the agony remains.  

Reading Softness cements my thought that you are caught between existentialism, which is having the choice to always do your bidding, and absurdism, where your will is subjective. Absurdism also brings about the nothingness of life, but I love to think that you find purpose in life contrary to the strict teaching of absurdism.

You wrote a poem with a line where the absurdist concept comes to play: “When what you crave does not want to be touched, and peace passes through one’s palms and hands not gracing the bloom of a dream.” And you ended this poem with, “I reckon everything is a weapon if chiselled on the right choice, and if you carve a poem well, it may cleave open an ant”— this line of choice points to the concept of existentialism. Despite how absurd life appears, you choose to create your own choice, interestingly through poetry. What do you make of this? 

I love how the last question progressed into this one. Like that, the natural progression for many people is to move from broken faith to existentialism. That was the case for me. Existentialism tells you there is no divine intervention. You build, shape, and are responsible for your life with every decision. Trying to make sense of an absurd world on your own, with no structures to follow, is frightening.

The thing with existentialism and absurdism is that it leads to nihilism—the belief that, ultimately, existence is meaningless. Nihilism is not precisely the problem, but one’s perspective on nihilism can be. One can be nihilistic and say, “Since there is no meaning in life, what’s the point of trying to stay alive? Everything is useless, and there is no objective truth, so why live?” That pessimistic approach can contribute to depression and suicidal tendencies. But one can look at nihilism from an optimistic lens and say, “Life is meaningless, but I can create my meaning and purpose. I can shape my beliefs and values and try to focus on the things I can control.” Of course, optimistic nihilism is not a cure-all for depression. But it can help in preventing depression resulting from an existential crisis. 

I observed that allusion is one of your powerful tools. From Babel to Applying Psalms 121 to a Gentile to Sanctuary, to some other lines in this brainstorming chapbook. What influences this, and how do you apply the device without hassle? Is referencing the Bible a difficult choice? 

It’s not difficult to reference the Bible when you grow up in a Christian home. My parents aren’t just Christians; they are active ones. Because of that, I have a basic knowledge of the Bible and its teachings. That gives me material to draw from, allusion in this case.

Since the collection is about my faith, it was only natural to allude to the Bible once in a while, whether to question God or to pray. 

Deist hymn explores the loss of faith and blasphemy. Even the poem, Applying Psalms 121 to a Gentile. I read this, and as a believer, I got worried. At that moment, several thoughts ran through my veins. Were you not scared while writing this poem? What do you seek through the Deist hymn? 

Scared? No. Not at all. Perhaps the last lines were daring, but there was no fear while writing them. The poem was intended to show the weakening of faith and how most people weren’t just born into disbelief. The poem establishes that I grew up religious before the departure. It also goes on to express anger towards the end. The anger, I believe, is valid because how else would you feel when it seems like all you’ve practised from the start is meaningless? Many people have felt that anger, but not everyone can put it out there. Maybe that’s where the fear you mentioned comes in. 

Kaveh Akbar inspired some of your poems. Tell me about him. 

Oh, yes. I love Kaveh Akbar. He’s been my favourite poet for a long time now. His influence is evident in the chapbook a few times. There isn’t much I have to describe him. He’s brilliant. You should experience him if you haven’t. 

Finally, congratulations on your forthcoming chapbook, erase the wound. How do you feel as one of the selected poets? Also, what are the subject matters you explore in the collection, how African are they? Is it a continuation of the subject matter in Heaven is a Metaphor? 

Thank you. I feel great. I remember when the acceptance mail came in. It was a dream manifesting. The theme of faith continues from the previous chapbook, few of the poems also reappear. Other themes like loss and family are also present in the new work.

How African are they? Well, the poems are not so cultural. But one or two do reference culture, with one poem heavily anchored on my tribe. Also, we had to change the name of the chapbook. I loved “To Erase the Wound,” but it didn’t work out in the end. 

Oh! Looking forward to seeing the new title. Thank you so much for your time, Sam. Like the last poem in Heaven is a Metaphor, may you find the Sanctuary you seek.

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