Award-winning poet Inua Ellams began his career as a graphic designer in London, delving into the world of poetry and playwriting in 2002. Back then, work was scarce and he could no longer even afford to buy paint to express his creativity. But now he’s truly being recognised for his successes, following momentous performances at the Royal Opera House and embarking on international tours, this month seeing him headline his own show at Brighton Dome.
The show, An Evening with an Immigrant, explores Ellams’ personal patchwork of experiences as a Nigerian immigrant – just one out of hundreds of thousands in the UK. Describing his upcoming show, easy-going and softly spoken Ellams reflects, “I read poems, I tell stories. It’s very funny, in some places ridiculous, but also kind of heart-breaking in other places. It’s quite a weird thing for me to say because it’s just my life; it’s just what happens. So it didn’t feel like that at the time, it just felt like difficult and ridiculous things that I went through. So the story is a mixture of that.”
He’s a man of many talents. His creative outlet of design eventually transformed as he went on to embrace poetry, playwriting and performance – something he says just “didn’t exist” growing up in Nigeria. In fact, it was only by growing up and moving to London at the age of 12 that he really began to discover the concept of expressing his identity at all. Born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother, Ellams soon learned he had a lot more to communicate than he knew.
Mixing old with new, he uses the same method of blending ideas as his previous career – elements of African traditional storytelling meet with questions concerning western culture. Ellams encompasses the pairing between these cultures in his writing, and the many philosophical questions involved, weaving his recurring themes of identity, displacement and destiny throughout. Describing his writing process, Ellams says, “I’m led a lot by images that strike me, by colour, by texture, by the idea of spirituality, faith and government structure. Those are various sticks that I rub together, and then wait for an idea to be sparked onto the page. I just explore and explore.” His work, though sometimes playful and amusing, is also bursting with the juxtaposition of hip-hop and romantic influence. This marrying of different genres has even had him described as ‘the love child of Mos Def and John Keats’. With a modest laugh he says, “There are definitely similarities in the creative processes. They’re both artists, writers. Both wrote with everything they had. There are loads of things that I respect about those two guys. They were both sort of avant-garde and rebels in the ways that they approach creativity. I’m not an experimental poet but I think I do things with language that taps into various cultures, and I’m remixing them.”
Most of the time, however, he says he is simply inspired by images, narratives and stories, trapping them in words so they remain personal, yet always universal. Aiming to allow space for lyricism and internal rhyme, Ellams encourages reader interpretation within his words so the can be enjoyed by those of any age and any background. Naturally, Ellams is also heavily influenced by other poets, past and present, and is currently focusing on a book full of response poetry set for release next year to add to an already impressive catalogue of literature. An Evening with an Immigrant is not a show meant to make a statement or go into too much depth, and this is something Ellams stresses. The show aims to be a gentle reminder, full of words, stories and anecdotes to make you laugh, to really make you think, and to encourage a deeper understanding of the world and the people around you.
Ellams confirms the vital message he is so eager to portray in his performances. “It’s a poetry show in that it is innately subjective, so there’s only a certain amount I can expect the audiences to take from it. All I could hope is that when they see a story of immigrants in a newspaper, they think a little bit deeper about what it means. I hope they see a person, rather than political problems or financial setbacks, or Nigel Farage waving a flag. Think human and think fellow earthlings first.”
Inua Ellams’ An Evening with an Immigrant comes to Brighton Dome on Sat 28 – Sun 29 Jan.