26-year-old performance poet, graphic artist and playwright, Inua Ellams, had a far more interesting childhood than most. He was born in Nigeria but moved to London aged 11. Four years later he upped sticks again and moved to Dublin where he was the only black student at school. Rather than keep a low profile, Inua became the school’s outspoken, unofficial ambassador for black people the world over. Perhaps it was this that instilled in him the desire to create Art that challenges expectation.
Inua’s parents hoped he would follow a well-trodden academic path. Instead, he moved back to London where, as a painter, he entered the financially turbulent world of visual Art. It became a blessing in disguise when sky-high acrylic paint prices forced Inua to explore the more economical world of written and spoken word. To date, he has had four books of poetry published, the first at the tender age of 19. These works go against the grain, influenced by an unlikely group of people: he reveres the literary Romanticism of John Keats, yet Inua also says that the lyrics and flow of Brooklyn born rapper, Mos Def, were instrumental in shaping his own style.
He explores both old and new school styles in his poem Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars: while being awash with beautifully deep and complex metaphor, Inua’s poem successfully shows a very vivid and dark insight into the sad reality of domestic abuse.
Today, poetry tends to be a very literary form. At school we read anthologies of poems, but rarely hear it read out loud. Writer, Flora Devatine explains that the voice is always present in poetry. It is ‘verbalised, screamed and written’. Inua really brings out this vibrant quality of the voice, as it is during performance that Inua’s poems are at their most powerful. He breathes new life into his work that the page doesn’t quite capture.
When performing out loud, Inua wants to take his audience on a powerful multi-sensory journey. It is unsurprising then, that he dislikes performing at pubs, the long considered home of spoken word poetry. He became fed up with performing to audiences who were keener on getting drunk and trying to chat up the opposite sex than listening to him. Thankfully, the breadth of appeal that accompanies his work has seen him perform to attentive audiences at such diverse venues as the Tate Modern, and the Glastonbury and Latitude music festivals.
Perhaps it was for this reason that his recent hour-long dramatic poem The 14th Tale was performed at the National Theatre. The traditional black box space provided the perfect setting for the audience to be carried away by his words. The story, told in free flowing narrative, provides an often funny and always vivid reconstruction of Inua’s coming of age and the colourful characters he encountered. It tells of the complexities faced by a young Nigerian man growing up in a foreign land.
Despite now being associated with the lofty traditionalism of the NT, Inua continues to buck trends by broadcasting his work anywhere that people will listen. Typing his name into Google conjures Myspace and Youtube pages well stocked with beautiful and socially aware spoken word. A Twitter feed providing witty minute-by-minute updates from his Blackberry. Through social media, his poetry is accessible to all. He somehow manages to combine the very separate worlds of Lily Allen and Allen Ginsberg.
His work continues to cross boundaries and forces audiences to rethink what constitutes poetry. Inua, alongside a group of forty young people, combined dance with music and poetry to create, in his own unique operatic style, The Last Genie which was performed at the Royal Opera House. Once more, Ellams showed that poetry is more than ink on the page. In fact, even the ink on the page becomes self-conscious when he merges his words with graphic art in his poetic pamphlet 13 Fairy Negro Tales. By challenging what is established within the world of art his work fights stagnation. It challenges our idea of what the poet does.
I am happy to say that Inua appears to be moving even further from the traditional epithet of poet by avoiding writing altogether. He conceived the idea of the Midnight Run while waiting for the night bus home on a summer’s night. Tired of waiting, he and a friend decided to follow the bus route and found themselves on a six hour meandering adventure though London.
Members of the Situationist movement in the mid 20th Century, reacted to what they saw as the commercialism of Art by wandering city streets on the hunt for ‘real’ experiences. In a similarly activist fashion, Inua wants people to join him on his annual Midnight Run to challenge society’s fear of the city at night time by reclaiming the streets for people to enjoy.
Inua’s genre defining art shows that poetry shouldn’t be left on the bookshelf. Instead, it should form a real experience for people who want to take part: it should become part of ‘the simplicity and intimacy of walking and talking’.