Colorado Book Award Winner Uche Ogbuji on Engineering, Poetry and Engineering Poetry
Uche Ogbuji, the 2014 winner of the Colorado Book Award in the Poetry/Chapbook category.
The book of poetry penned by Uche Ogbuji that won a 2014 Colorado Book Award is titled Ndewo, Colorado. That name should give you some idea of the gorgeous contradictions between its covers, poetry that pays homage equally to landscape and scientific concepts, penned by a computer engineer and immigrant to Colorado by way of Nigeria (and several other countries). We recently sat down with Ogbuji to talk about poetry, travel, inspiration and how he distills complex science into descriptive prose.
Westword: How did you first become interested in poetry?
Uche Ogbuji: My father was a product of the typical Nigerian colonial education, and poetry was one of the things they had to recite. I was born in the immediate aftermath of the Nigerian civil war -- the Biafran War, as it's often called -- and my parents both fought on the Biafran side. My father, through battlefield promotions, eventually ended up a major, and my mother was a field nurse. Stereotypical romance: They met as my father was convalescing with a bullet in his thigh.
I was born in the aftermath of the war. My parents were on the losing side. It was pretty civilized; the winning side did try to integrate the country, but if you had ambition, it was probably better not to be wandering around the country as a member of the losing side of the war. So my father went abroad to make his career, getting his bachelor's degree in Egypt, his master's in England and his Ph.D. in the United States. My mom and I would have to wait until he was in the country and had a visa before we could come, so in that way, my parents dragged me all over with them.
As a product of this British colonial education, when we were all together, he would often try to spend a lot of time with me just sort of passing along his interest in the world and everything else like that -- Rudyard Kipling and Tennyson, the sorts of things that the traditional British education would include. That always struck me and stuck with me, and the funny thing is, I don't think it even stuck with my father that much. But it had quite an impression on me.
When I went to university, I was actually too young to go -- I was fifteen when I was accepted to the University of Nigeria. I really wanted to be a writer, but my parents said no, that's not practical, so I went into engineering -- but my heart wasn't in it. I made friends with some people who were poets, mostly in the writing and drama programs, so I struck up friendships with them and before you know it, I was ignoring my engineering studies, reading poetry, writing up poetry. And there is a club, the Anthill, where famous Nigerian writers went to work on their craft, and I could go there and rub shoulders and elbows with such people, and that energy and excitement always stayed with me, even after I finished up my engineering studies in the U.S. That energy and desire for poetry stayed with me, but I haven't really felt that sense of community since then.
I was lucky in Nigeria to have gone to university in a crucible of so much literary exploration at that time and, more recently, I have come across that sense of community in Colorado. But there was a long period where I didn't, and I was writing in isolation.
Did you find that difficult?
It's somewhat a double-edged sword. It did, I think, cause some problems because it's hard to maintain energy when you think you're in isolation. I would have periods where I would work and work and work and then think, I don't write poetry like anything else I see being published in the U.S., I don't really know folks who are excited about poetry, what am I doing this for? And that was difficult because this would come in spurts. And you have to work for inspiration. It comes from work, from method, from craft.
But the good part about it is that I do actually think that I was forced to develop a craft in a way that I might have cut corners if I was part of some sort of school or scene. I worked very hard when I had the bug, memorized a lot of poetry and studied a lot of poetry, the type of poetry that I like. I would note that when I met people who liked poetry, the kind of poetry we liked wasn't the kind of poetry available in the mainstream in the U.S. So I think being isolated helped because it helped me develop a voice that, as I've been told since, is rather unique.
How do you start by going back to the first half of the twentieth century and before, and adapt that type of craft in poetry to everything that's happened since hip-hop? I'm a huge hip-hop fan, I'm a music fan in general; in Nigeria, we never really discriminated. Everything from country to hip-hop to soul, rock, everything, I love it all. But hip-hop really touched a chord with me, and I recognized that what they're doing is a combination of what the African griots were doing, going from village to village and teaching kids chants, and what the great troubadours who sparked the Western tradition in poetry were doing. And hip-hop to me was a very strange amalgam of those two great traditions, but in a way that wasn't obviously interpretive -- it started out as kids in the ghetto starting to express themselves. Working by myself, I'd read a bunch of poetry by Thomas Hardy and Gerald Manley Hopkins, etc., and then right after that I would be listening to Talib Kweli or the Roots, and I was always thinking about, "How can I fit that together?" Keep reading for a poem from Uche Ogbuji.
Tele Flame (a poem about Colorado's wildfires from Ndewo, Colorado)
What of these wisp-worn worry lines of mine? No more than creases on a neat, linen shirt, Unworthy of their subcutaneous name Set against those canyons, the hoe-dug woe On brows of homeowners arranged roadside, Questioned by reporters: "Oh what a shame!" Who can feel at helicopter height The heat behind tinned-up, televised flame.
That's a hawk's sweep from where I lived up north While down south what thirsty brenn-baum monster Jumped the mountain pass to press the game; Those houses, ghastly landings for the bouncing Fire front are larger than mine but placed For familiar profit, our Front-Range fame; Yet somehow still abstract, that catastrophe, Barely half-lit by tinned-up, televised flame.
The flight of these intruders drone, rasping My roof from Jeffco port, slurry bombers Ceaseless reminder fires burn untamed; I'm devastated by the need to ask You to repeat those drowned-out, horrid words, To double-take a grief my mind can't frame. You do across these leagues guide my snookered hand To some true scorching through this phoned-up flame.
How do you think writing poetry has affected your work life, and vice versa? Has writing poetry made you a better engineer, or has your engineering work helped your poetry?
I definitely think writing poetry makes me a better engineer. Once I came to the States after going through that phase in Nigeria when I was sort of going to engineering classes and doing a lot of poetry classes, I came to the States and basically slept-walked through engineering school. And engineering is very hard. It came very easily to me -- maybe it's from the corpus callosum and the left-brain, right-brain connection -- but synthesis seemed to come so much more easily, and the abstraction. You're trying to translate what's happening in an automobile engine or a computer circuit into an abstract quantity -- and, of course, then there's the writing. Engineers are required to write up the results, and my colleagues would struggle and struggle, and I write effortlessly because writing is my first skill. So it definitely has helped my engineering side.
In my career, I've been lucky to pick my path and pursue it. I've been very fortunate; I've been working for myself since 1997, riding a lot of ups and downs, and I do think it's a more complete way of thinking of the world that's helped me navigate that. And, of course, there's the relating to people as well, because sometimes engineers have trouble with that. It is a stereotype. But if you have broader experience and can talk about history and culture in addition to talking about technical engineering topics, it helps you relate to people better. Keep reading for another poem from Uche Ogbuji.
Humane Gaze (an unpublished scientific/philosophical poem)
Gaze affects all things in this cosmos: mass, space, Time and time's own arrow; and who constructs gaze? Homo Sapiens -- Zeno's revered, unseen One, All and essential.
Nothing rests because we resolve all Things; The arrow doesn't define its stilled space, Clocking never instants, but human hands sweep Seconds as always.
Gifted thus with flush apprehension, mankind Makes ballistic all possibility, makes Volute impermanence of his condition Over the ages.
Quantum theory tempts us to poetic false use, Every moment frozen from some unfathomed Science, yet progress breathes with us, bids us shoot blind, Sure of the bulls-eye.
Which do you think you'll be remembered for?
On the poetry side, only time will tell. I'm a believer that no poet will know their success and role throughout their lifetime. Which is an infuriating idea! Poets who were heavily celebrated in their day are almost footnotes. John Clare was an absolute celebrity in England in the late eighteenth century, and you see a lot of these poems that are almost forgotten.
I do think it's not what you do in your lifetime, but how does your work effect everything, hopefully over the course of hundreds of years? I don't know whether the right-brain side and engineering side has made the poetry better because I do know that a lot of what I write is a lot different from what other people write because I use a lot of scientific concepts, I use a lot of analogues between science and the natural world I'm describing in the poem.
I don't make it easy for the reader. I expect a fairly sophisticated level of scientific knowledge. Not that I'm doing it from a perspective of, "This is how people should be," it's just that poetry is constrained, I don't have a lot of space. It's compact, and I'm trying to give it punch, so I don't have time to build up the precepts, I just have to go, "Boom," this is how it interacts in the real world. And I've learned that's hard on readers. I've had feedback like, after I explain it, "That's powerful, but I never would have known it because I didn't know that scientific fact." It's actually been difficult for me, but I've gotten a good response from people who do have a scientific background, and they often don't want to learn about poetry at all. And as I've gained a reputation, people spend a bit more time reading my work, and then they get it better. They try a little bit harder. Keep reading for another poem from Uche Ogbuji. Air Shot (a poem about snowboarding printed in Colorado Life, November/December 2012)
Measured gaze at white, jutting hard-pack Iceberg one-ninth framed in the horizon; Eight parts dim mass bowed to angle of attack; Shot of hot red blood thaws will from cold Call "drop" and wend down the funneling track.
Your edge slices the pin-striped surface, quick Toe to heel hops keep speed, push practiced calm Into the legs, rhythm tightens to the kick; Shot of hot red blood draws still from cold Torque back to pop the lip, and launch the trick.
Your body folds through rush of eddied air, The sharp mount and halt bottoms out the gut; Trailing arm tends down, leading up, for flair; Shot of hot red blood thaws thrill from cold Grab for quiet, relax your thighs, focus, prepare.
The tabletop sweeps by, the drop gains pace Eyes fixed beyond the knuckle--landing zone; Arms push parallel, legs stretch to brace; Shot of hot red blood claws skill from cold Plant bolts, conform your body to the face.
Airborne shot of bomb blaze through harp string vein Upon cold compact of piste terrain.
Is it fairly easy to decide which concepts work and which ones don't?
Personally, in my reading, I don't like obscurity for the sake of obscurity, and there have been people who have done that. My test for myself, and what I constantly strive to work on, is I've got to give the reader something that makes it worth delving into. So it's not just that, "There's this poem and I don't understand it," I've got to give them something that they enjoy when they don't fully understand it, but often that comes with the rhythm or the flow. It's a two-way street. If I'm expecting a reader to bring science to the table, I have to give them an incentive and show them that there is a payoff if you stick with this difficult passage.
One of the things I've been doing more and more is starting to recite my poems because I've noticed, I get the comment a lot, that somebody will say, "I heard you recite that poem, I didn't really understand it but found it wonderful and went and looked up some of the ideas." People really respond to that. I think if they hear it, then they realize there's a beat and a rhythm to it, and then it makes it worthwhile to figure out what are these tricky concepts.
Can you talk about how traveling and your experience of the world have influenced your poetry?
It's so much a part of my poetry, travel and different cultures. Having been dragged all over the world by my parents, I have the bug. It's amazing that I've been in Colorado as long as I have -- I never lived anywhere more than three years. But I still love to travel. And in all the time I was traveling, poetry was a constant companion. I would be walking the streets of Prague and Singapore and enjoying the sights but also having bits of poetry come to my head that amplified what I was seeing. Maybe that's just how my brain works, but sometimes I appreciated the work I put into poetry the most when I was farthest from home. That's also when I would write the most, with these new people and experiences and culture.
I love language, I was born in southeast Nigeria where there's a whole collage of languages. On my mother's side they're known as being polyglots, they speak four or five Nigerian languages plus English. I was brought up the same way, and then moved to Egypt where Arabic was the dominant language. I think I've always been lucky to pick up languages pretty readily and I've always loved the differences in language and grammars. It's always been part of the poetry.
I do a lot of translations. If I'm lacking inspiration, I can pick up one of my favorite French or Spanish or etc. languages and translate it into English and capture some of what the author had intended, and I do that a lot. I haven't written in a lot of European languages but I have been incorporating more Igbo into my poetry -- not pure Igbo, but English poems with a lot of Igbo in them. I think I owe it to my patrilineal native tongue to help it grow as much as it can, and poetry is one way of doing it, and also it speaks to a large part of my experience. I was living in Igbo Nigeria through high school and most of college. I throw in bits of foreign language, sometimes in a way that can be explained and sometimes not, but there are always elements of different languages and cultures in there. Keep reading for another poem from Uche Ogbuji.
Laws of Physics (unpublished)
Stuff in space trembles -- An infectious sort of shake We call temperature. Environs, awareness, sense, Are but compared vibration.
Thermodynamics (three) AKA Arrow of Time
Entropy marches From cosmic zero whose spray Spends all into heat: Permanence of consequence, Fleshly creep of ticking cells.
Change of position Lies in the thingness of what; Motive springs matter Which reacts against other -- Thus the crown concept of change.
Energies keep count, Tally constant despite kind, Even (surprise!) mass, Which is but great energy -- Endless nuclear fuel for life.
Spin of smallest things Is energy through sheer space -- Engine room of quid. Cloned magnet and moving charge -- Magic is spark and lodestone.
Speed of Light
What is existence? Asymptote of meaning at Utter space-time bound. The cosmos caps our ken but Not breadth of our enquiry.
-- Uche Ogbuji
Anything else you want to add?
The important biographical stuff is I'm married to a devoted wife who's been long-suffering as I've devoted so much time to something that doesn't bring in a lot of income; I write a lot about the family and certainly the kids. I don't push them into poetry or into any particular thing but, for instance, while they were younger I always recited to them a poem so that they got used to the rhythms and everything else like that. They're all proper Coloradans.
And I just think readers should know that there's so much diversity of poetry in the state. There's something special happening in Colorado. I don't know what it is. There's a bit of slam poetry, there's nature and land and territory-oriented poetry, political poetry. Scattered throughout the state there are pockets of some really compelling stuff, so I do encourage readers to look around.
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