In the upstairs bar of the Abbey Theatre, Inua Ellams sits over a cup of coffee. The room is draped in shadows, and the shadows are outlined by long strips of incandescent light brought in by the morning sun.
The London-based poet is half in silhouette. He is quiet, even when speaking. It isn’t his desire to reveal too much yet about the forthcoming 05Fest, a five-day poetry event, of which he is its founder and curator. The unexpected is too great an ingredient to be spoiled. He wants his audience surprised. He wants to be surprised too.
Ellams has planned out the programme; a night-time walking tour of the city, film screenings, his own one-man show – An Evening with An Immigrant – and a DJ set paired with spoken word performances. He knows what is to come. But when it comes to the particulars, he has consciously excluded himself to the best of his abilities.
He has outsourced the selection of certain poets and artists to others, locals whose instincts he trusts. He has not seen the films due to be screened. The decision to surrender control at specific moments allows him to share in the experience.
“It stops me from being bored by my own art form,” Ellam says after pausing for several moments to consider the rationale behind his decision. “I’m still a fan of the art form. I wanted to be surprised by this. I want to be present. I want to… to live it in real-time with an audience. My joy comes from that.”
Inua Ellams was born in Nigeria in 1984. His mother’s side of the family was Christian, and his father’s side was Muslim. He spent his childhood in the African state’s northern region, before the family was forced to move when his father began to question his faith.
They moved to London in 1996. But, the following year, when his father applied for a visa extension, his lawyers claimed that the Royal Mail lost all the family’s passports and identifying certificates. The UK Home Office encouraged them to return to Nigeria and reapply, an impossibility, given that this would put their lives at risk. So instead, the family relocated to Dublin in 1999.
The Ellams only lived in Dublin for a year, before a series of racial threats forced them to return to London. But it was during their brief time spent in Tallaght that Inua was drawn to poetry.
It was his English teacher, a Mr. Nolan at Firhouse Community College who turned him onto the artform. “I read, obviously, the Leaving Cert poetry book, and I liked the poems in that. But Mr. Nolan taught us what the poets were trying to do, how their words fit together. It was the gorgeous puzzle of it that made this interesting.”
His desire to emulate what he learned in those classes would eventually lead him to make poetry his profession, he says. “And ever since, I’ve tried to find ways of showing the poets mind at work, to show the ways in which we think.”
On a drizzly Friday evening, a crowd of some forty ticketholders assemble in the Abbey Theatre’s downstairs Peacock Stage. They are unsure as to what a ‘Midnight Run’ entails, and as it quickly becomes clear, no explanation is going to be given. They are going to learn as they do it.
Conceived in 2005, Ellams’ idea for the Midnight Run is to guide a crowd of strangers through a city from 6pm until midnight. Over the course of the night, participants are asked to reflect on social history, identity, and urban geography.
Prior to Dublin, the poet staged roughly 45 runs in cities such as Sydney, Paris, Rome and Lisbon. Typically, he is supported by local guests, and in this case, were visual artist Michelle Browne, folk singer Macdara Yeates and sculptor Rhona Byrne.
Ellams leads his audience from Abbey Street to the newly pedestrianised Capel Street, which is animated by the punters drinking and dining outdoors. It is here that Rhona Byrne calls on the audience to contemplate how the street has shifted from being vehicle-centric to person-centric.
She asks participants to remove their shoes. Instead, they will be wearing foam sandals, blue, green or yellow, and irregularly shaped. Each one is part of a larger puzzle, a “moveable pavement”, that is to be created by the audience as they are requested to shuffle the length of the street.
Staff in a local hairdressers step out to ogle the spectacle: forty people awkwardly huddled together, moving slowly past their window. Some men in a pub whip out their phones and begin recording. Its concept is baffling, and is broken down by Byrne through an essay, cut up and reassembled at random with each sentence read aloud by one participant.
“I am an agent of change,” it declares.
Next on to Smithfield, and in the presence of the Cobblestone pub, folk singer Macdara Yeates steps up to perform and present on Dublin’s historic culture of street singing.
He selects ballads amassed through his own research and introduces them to the audience by means of a song circle. Through calls and responses, the crowd engages with the lyrics of Michael J. Moran, also known as Zozimus, a blind 19th Century street rhymer.
They are taken on a tour within a tour, singing back to Yeates the choruses of ballads telling of the Docklands and Liberties, Sheriff Street, Smithfield and Ballyfermot. Knowing that such compositions could be made about local, familiar places, can build a spirt of community, Yeates says. It gives people a sense pride in their homes.
Once the sun sets, the rain falls and the audience retreats into the Digital Hub, by the Guinness Brewery. In its dry confines, artist Michelle Browne leads a meditative series of exercises, inspired by the writings of cultural theorist Mark Fisher and her experiences with chronic fatigue. Hers is an empathy building session, engaging the audience with one another after the prior stops bonded them to the city’s geography and its culture.
As midnight eventually comes, Ellams wraps up the trek at St. Audeon’s Terrace, a quiet residential street by the church from which its name derives. Now under streetlights, he asks of everyone to create a series of illustrations on post-it notes, pictures of faces, houses and finally, whatever springs to mind.
Each one is attached to a garage door and briefly admired. He christens the spot the St. Audeon’s Temporary Public Gallery, a transient show, emphasising the fleeting beauty and constant evolution of the host city.
As a self-contained experience, the Midnight Run is a means of engaging with an environment, familiar or not. Drawing on Ellams’ own experience as a migrant, it is his means of recognising in a place those characteristics that make it a home.
Simultaneously, in the context of 05Fest, it is a grandiose icebreaker, a loosening of the audience’s inhibitions. The festival is transformed into a communal affair, a shared event rather than a spectacle observed by people together in a theatre, but alone inside themselves.
“As a self-contained experience, the Midnight Run is a means of engaging with an environment, familiar or not. Drawing on Ellams’ own experience as a migrant, it is his means of recognising in a place those characteristics that make it a home.”
“I’m from a long line of troublemakers, of ashy-skin Africans born with clenched fists and a natural thirst for battle, only quenched by breast milk.”
On Sunday evening, Ellams takes to the Peacock Stage dancing. He brandishes a small staff – an Irukere – resembling a horsetail, and he is dressed in a flowing white Agbada robe.
The performance is his one-man show, An Evening with an Immigrant, and the set is stripped back to a bare minimum. One seat. One microphone. One suitcase. “Brexit Britain theatre,” he quips.
It is a representation of his precarious life up until this moment. Though he first moved to London in the mid-90s, it was only two months prior to this performance that he became a British citizen. He is, he says, “still trying to find a home.”
Immigrant is composed of biographical poems woven together by anecdotes, social and political commentary, and a charting of his family’s history, coloured by his dream-like lyricism:
“My great-great grandfather on my mother’s side brought Christianity to the part of Nigeria where she was from. And my great-great grandfather on my father’s side brought Islam to the part where he was from… I like to think that both rivers of faith met in my mother’s womb, and I was this wet spark inside her as they sloshed together.”
Chronicling his childhood, from the family home to private school, Ellams reassembles his memories as a boyish collage of pop culture references. A self-professed “art kid”, he imagines his alter ego as a Spiderman-like figure. Classmates are “disciples of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris.” His “posse” are “Fraggle Rocked Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle geeks.”
Names are listed off with a tinge of glee in his every syllable. The audience laughs and snaps their fingers as intellectual properties are rendered into a cascading melody of syllables. They savour his portrait of innocence, because for all the hope conveyed, his subtly adds shadows, reminders that this will not last.
An Evening oscillates between nostalgia and trauma, with joy and fear constantly at arms, the latter appearing to succeed as Ellams is forced to grow up far too young. The memories are still raw. He recalls the sudden disappearance of his uncle, his seeing a security guard’s dead body, and the nightmare of his family escaping Nigeria. All of it brings him to the verge of tears.
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” he says. “Is there any other creature more diametrically opposed to a human than a shark? Now, consider, a Nigerian shark. That’s what home became when we left it behind.”
As he ventures deeper into that side of his life spent on the move – first London, then Tallaght and then, London again – his poetry and stories darken. He reflects on becoming aware of racial divides. He recalls learning about the history of the slave trade.
In one poem, ‘Private School’, he journeys back to 1641, imagining his ancestors as they first learned that mysterious boats with “moon-coloured men” were appeared on nearby shores. “Everybody’s home to chains,” he reads, almost whispering
“In the heaving darkness of a club, centuries later, I watch the silent island men sway to reggae, their eyes shut tight as if recalling private lessons. They dance with the grace of water and waves. They move with a sorrow only oceans know.”
As was the case with the Midnight Run, Ellams says, he tweaks each performance to place An Evening with an Immigrant within the context of the country where it is performed. For his Irish audience, he draws parallels between his own struggle and that endured by those who are trapped in the system of Direct Provision.
“Migration is our oldest human trait,” he says towards the climax. “And there are 17 million displaced people on Earth right now, more than there was in World War Two. And I know what they’re up against and what they suffer. They all ask themselves, I still ask myself, why me? What have I done to deserve this?”
“There are 17 million displaced people on Earth right now, more than there was in World War Two. And I know what they’re up against and what they suffer. They all ask themselves, I still ask myself, why me? What have I done to deserve this?”
An Evening with an Immigrant concludes on a poignant observation. “I started writing because I used to think people were fundamentally the same. “I’m not so sure anymore.”
That doubt, the festival would stew on over the course of nights three and four as the shift turned towards cinema and how it intersects with poetry.
On the Tuesday night, the Irish Film Institute is the stage for an event titled Film/Hack. Five poets are to write verses in response to a specific film, only to read them aloud once the credits roll.
The film in question is the 1997 Neil Jordan-directed adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s Novel, The Butcher Boy. Falling on the bleaker side of black comedy, it tells the story of Francie Brady, an endearingly obstreperous schoolboy who grows up in Monaghan during the early ’60s.
Brady is the son of an alcoholic father and suicidal mother. His coping mechanism for this lot in life is to retreat into a fantasy world constructed from American cultural exports. In his mind, he is a cowboy, a Communist-squashing soldier. In reality, he is self-destructive and reckless.
His ultimate aspiration is to be good, but as he is belittled and abused by adults, whether his father, the neighbours or clerics, eventually it dawns that this is an impossibility. Society never gave him a chance to be decent, and in response, he snaps. Violently.
The Butcher Boy is one of those oddly nostalgic cultural artefacts from the late-’90s, having been broadcast on RTE several times in the years following its release. As such, it was exposed to a much wider audience than would likely have consumed it were it released today, and that diversity of responses becomes the starting point for Film/Hack.
Over a thirty-minute period, contrasting poems are delivered by poets Jessica Traynor, Elaine Feeney, Scott McKendry, Simon Costello and Tom French. They fixate on different stills from the film. They ponder the symbolism of casting Sinead O’Connor as the Virgin Mary. They ruminate on the feverish visions of nuclear holocaust.
Feeney processes the film through a feminist lens. She questions the overbearing influence of American culture on our day-to-day lives. McKendry utilises it as a background detail, a film on the TV in Northern Ireland during the Good Friday talks. Combined, the poets create a patchwork quilt of interpretation. No two pairs of eyes see something the same. No two people are alike. But that prospect, by the end, seems not so tragic as when the thought was first put into the minds of Ellams’ audience.
The penultimate event, Reel Mix, runs with this thought some more the next day, while inverting the format as to not oversell the point.
Reel Mix echoes Danish director Lars von Trier’s documentary, The Five Obstructions, in which he challenges fellow filmmaker Jørgen Leth to remake a short film five times under various restrictions.
Here, Ellams tasks five filmmakers to all adapt a short from the same script. It is an extract from a play he penned, and his idea is to give each contributor free reign over all details, bar a monologue.
In said monologue, a protagonist is confessing from a place wherein they have exiled themselves. They had fallen in love with a perfect person, but in an act of sabotage, ended the relationship by cheating with a total stranger. Alone and apart from everyone they know, they cling on to one unknown thing that keeps them going through it all.
The directors tasked with inserting nouns and injecting their own visual styles were John Connors, Róisín El Cherif, Esosa Ighodaro, James Riordan and Colm Summers. And from each one, the same story mutated, hopping between genres on polar-opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum.
Connors imagined the script as an ominous drug-fuelled waking-nightmare. Riordan based it around a hotel cleaner seeking solace in an iPod. El Cherif created a frenetic Wong Kar Wai-esque prayer. Ighodaro imagined a comedic purgatory on a near-endless staircase, and Summers used the script purely as the set-up for a lengthy and hypnotic dance sequence.
“I started writing because I used to think people were fundamentally the same,” Ellams had said. “I’m not so sure anymore.” But whereas that note of doubt rang on a more disillusioned note when iterated on the Peacock Stage only days before, here it resurfaced in a new, more hopeful key.
On the Friday night, 05Fest wound down with a ‘Rap Party’, blending a DJ set from Sally Cinnamon with live poetry readings from writers such as Adam Mohammed, Temper-Mental MissElayneous and Roxanna Nic Liam, alongside Ellams himself.
Loosely, it was billed as a tribute to the formative influence of hip-hop on each performer’s craft. But in actuality, it was one final affirmation of Ellams’ ambition, a demonstration that this artform is limitless and accessible, whether on a street, in a theatre or indeed, a nightclub.
“I’ve tried to demystify poetry as much as possible,” he said, prior to the festival’s start. “I want to create democratic spaces where words are the currency, and you are able to share your literary wealth.”
Words: Michael Lanigan
Photos: Ste Murray