“IF SOMETHING HAS HEART, IT'S LONGSTANDING” // a conversation with Victoria Adukwei Bulley
// by francesca ekwuyasi
02.16.2018


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Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s work is a deep well of gentle, glistening water. She is a British born Ghanaian poet, writer, and filmmaker whose work has been shortlisted for the Brunel University International African Poetry Prize, featured on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour and in The Poetry Review, and commissioned by the Royal Academy of Arts. Victoria’s intergenerational poetry, translation and film projected, Mother Tongues, is supported by Arts Council England and Autograph ABP.

Through the magic of the internet, I came across Victoria’s poem, "Revision," in Tongue Journal. I was moved by the tender expertise with which she coaxed language to hold more than its weight in meaning. All of her work that I’ve experienced is brilliant and strikes a gorgeous balance between  sincerity and wit. Her words and works resonate profoundly: she makes language dance.
 
In this interview we talk about blackness, spirituality, beauty, and diasporic angst.


In Learnings you wrote "The sound of my own voice still feels loud. I’m learning, gradually, to speak and write anyway." Will you please share the story (or perhaps a story) of when you first found your voice as a writer?

There isn’t a definitive story, but perhaps as an example are a series of rough poems I wrote in late 2016, titled scratchings. At surface level they were a way of allowing myself to write as disjointedly as I felt, as faithfully as I could to my own kind of dream logic. At the time I was carrying a sense of loneliness and loss that wanted to laid bare – not necessarily exorcised, just expressed. But I couldn’t achieve that at the same time as holding onto anxieties about being understood, so I chose instead to cling to the rawness of whatever came up. A stunning poet-friend of mine, Zahrah Sheikh, wrote recently ‘I write to light the cave in me’. This will stay with me forever because I think that as poets we have to be poets for ourselves, first – we enter that unknown alone, initially. Anyway, I shared some of the scratchings poems, read them at events, and ultimately, the responses I received made me so much braver in my vulnerability. A couple of them are published now; "About Ana", on tonguejournal.org, is one of them.

 

This may be a bit blatant, but your poem "Revision" in Tongue Journal, gorgeously and irreverently explores the unique weight that language carries as a result of colonization. As a British-born Ghanaian writer, is your work coloured by the particular historic and political context of language and colonization that links Ghana to Great Britain? Will you share that?

If I didn’t write about this reality I would have to be actively avoiding some of the most plain facts of not just my heritage, but my day to day life. Language is relentless, every word exists in relation to another, competes with another, replaces another. Colonialism turns up the heat on that fact. Some languages are deemed worthier than others, some declared more beautiful, some thus erased. If, as a writer, this is what’s at stake with the tools that I use, then I do want my work to defamiliarise what we accept, and on whose terms, and according to whose histories. This isn’t for the sake of just being anti- something – that’s not sustainable. I love language deeply, language as music (not just as meaning), and since English is the only language in which I am fluent – at least for now – for the sake of my own attention span I want to make this language strange to myself.

 

What was the inspiration behind your poetry, translation, and film project Mother Tongues? What does your mother have to say about it?

Multiple inspirations. The fact that languages are going extinct at an alarming rate – half of those in existence today are not being taught to children. I am an example of that. The fact that I’ve grown up hearing my parents’ language but not understanding it – and yet knowing its signature and cadence so intimately. The fact that for a while now I have felt that the worldviews which make me feel most whole as a human don’t originate, culturally, in English – or in any of the other languages I was taught at school. And then there’s the fact that I am always trying to record things in some way, and filmmaking is another way that I want to do that. My mum is very pleased about the project, it’s opened her eyes to the work that I do and she’s even said she’d love to translate some Shakespeare into Ga, which is her mother tongue.

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A few years ago, I read an NPR interview with Helen Oyeyemi where she talked a bit about beauty; I always want to know from other black writers: How often do you think about beauty, blackness, and belonging? Can you share about the ways that beauty and poetry intersect in your mind and in your work?

I think about beauty a lot – mostly when I don’t feel beautiful. And, of course, if you’re a human on this planet then it’s likely that at some point your beauty will be graded in terms of its relationship to whiteness – often by people who aren’t, themselves, white. Reading that interview with Oyeyemi was painful because although I haven’t experienced that severity of racism, I know it. For many of us, the process of healing what we have internalised will be a lifelong. A saving grace has been that at most stages of my life I’ve had good black and brown female friends, and more recently great black and brown male friends, in whose company I feel loved and beautiful. That I get to call so many of them fellow artists is important because having their company feeds into the normality with which I want blackness to inhabit my work.

 

You seem committed to community, tell me about your work as a creative facilitator, why does it matter to you?

It matters because, at least in the UK, poetry is taught as something that’s the height of culture in a way that I think is warped. Warped in that it’s not available to just anybody, it uses language that belongs to a particular class, meaning that if you’re familiar with it then you’re worthy of it: it’s yours. Working in schools, with young people, or with anyone who would hesitate to write poetry implodes that outdated sense of superiority. It comes closer to what poetry is really about – which, to me, is life in all forms – something not answerable to those who would use it as a marker of status. I’m still learning, but I wouldn’t be able to call myself a facilitator without having been through the Barbican Young Poets, lead by Jacob Sam-La Rose, an incredible poet in his own right. I’ve found such kinship within this community and it’s changed my life. If I want to continue to create this for others it’s because I know what it feels like. If something has heart, it’s longstanding.

 

In your piece Learnings you mention Diasporic Angst (I hear you, truly), and "lonely acts of devotion and reverence", and self acceptance by way of passion and deep feeling, it would be a gift to hear more about that.

I used to be afraid of being too sensitive, or too fragile, which meant that I would hold back on my pain or my enthusiasm. Then I realised that if I restricted one, I restricted the other – and wrote poems that were stunted or boring or unable to reach the lessons that deep feeling could gift me. It was a rejection of the idea of being stoic. That post was also about a time when I began exploring ritual – created ones, as well as ones that sit outside of Judeo-Christian traditions. I’m very moved by indigenous belief systems. I’m still inconsistent but, ‘devotion and reverence’ right now is writing morning pages, meditating (when I make time), setting intentions and giving thanks (which some might call prayer), and often carrying a tiny pouch of Accra sea salt in my bag – which some might call silly, but it means something to me.

 

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Your chapbook, Girl B, is just straight up filled with light. Where did it come from?

That’s really kind. It means a lot. I have been somewhat shy about the manuscript because I didn’t expect to have a pamphlet out so soon. I had a collection of poems that were not any kind of collection but individuals, and I was asked by Kwame Dawes to submit for the New-Generation African Poets series. This was after I was shortlisted for the Brunel International Poetry Prize in 2016. I was reluctant to accept the invitation because I didn’t feel ready, but ultimately I was persuaded. I have to give credit to the wonderful poet R. A. Villanueva for that push. The poems address much of what you’ve asked me about here – blackness, beauty, spirituality, ritual, my body.

 

I'm fascinated by the way that different forms of art speak to each other, what sounds, images, and otherwise immersive experiences inform your writing? What are you reading right now?

I’m a very diffuse reader, which I’m trying to correct in 2018 – one thing at a time, with focus. I’m currently reading Whereas, by Layli Long Soldier. I love the way the collection operates by its own rules, establishing delicately, first, then building itself accordingly page by page. I just read Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith, who I’m about to see perform twice this week – which tells you how I feel about him. I’ve been midway through Toni Morrison’s Beloved since before Christmas; I put it down because it was hurting me but I’ll come back to it. Elsewhere, I’m finishing a book called Anatomy of the Spirit, by Caroline Myss, and I dip into Poetry Magazine when I feel like it. Shoutout to the bar I used to work at for buying me that subscription.
In other news, I recently watched a beautiful film called LoveTrue, which was recommended to me by another amazing poet, Amaal Said. I love some of the work of Terence Nance, a filmmaker. I’m listening to a lot of King Krule (or Archy Marshall) at the moment. I’m also listening to a lot of gqom music because I was just at Afropunk in Johannesburg and haven’t really returned. Finally, as uncool this sounds, there’s a podcast called Dissect where some guy spends whole episodes doing close readings of a single Kendrick Lamar song at a time… and I can’t recommend it enough.

 

Tell me your thoughts on power, and its interplay in your personal life and/or creative career.

Not sure how to respond here, as it’s a big deal. I do believe I am powerful, which is to say I do believe we are powerful beings, albeit not supreme. I also believe we often need to get out of our own ways to experience it – to maybe even submit, or allow, in order to redefine what power means; recast it inherently as something that can’t be given or taken away. In the same breath, I would like to have the power to afford a nice place in London one day soon, or to be based Ghana or Africa for considerable parts of each year, increasingly. And then I see how that power doesn’t feel so real any more because it starts to sound too much like money. But I know it’s there, and I believe it’s not money. And I know I should be careful with it.

 

Have you had the experience of seeing yourself in another author's words? Will you tell me about that, or the absence of that? There is something to be said about the incredible value of representation, but can you share your thoughts on the soft magic of writing yourself real?

I saw myself in Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ when I read that at university. I’d never read anything like it before and it hit me in a soulful way. Outwardly, I probably don’t have much in common with him, and that’s okay. Later on, I found Zora Neale Hurston, Lucille Clifton, Tracy K. Smith, Aracelis Girmay, and now other British writers who I feel very grateful to call friends.                                                                                                
As for writing oneself real, it’s a continual process because the self is fluid and so easily a uniform we wear to move through life. I find that each new poem I write refers to an event of myself that I might not encounter again. So every act of writing is placing some self or other of me into recorded existence, as if only to say yes, she was here. Which she that is – or was – is changeable.


Keep up with Victoria on her portfolio at victoriaadukwei.com and watch an excerpt of her film project Mother Tongues.