Zoe Korte

A Conversation with Abduljalal Musa Aliyu

ZK: In the poem “God Descends to the Lowest Heaven,” you write, “My friends do not recognize my poems/any longer.” Where do you see Encyclopedia of Dolour fitting into your work overall? Does this feel like a natural transition from your previous work or is this completely new ground for you?

AMA: This is utterly new ground for me. I mean, have you read my previous poems? Scandal—apologies to Myz—I wrote remarkable erotica. Even yesterday, a friend said: you, all you do is write erotica and submit them to magazines. I couldn’t open my mouth and say: bro, have you read my new poems? I write something entirely different now. Erotica used to be my trademark. 

ZK: How long did this chapbook take to write? Did any poem feel particularly easy or difficult to write?

AMA: Well, I never really set out to write a chapbook. I was simply writing my poems—one poem at a time. And then I saw CR’s call for chapbook submissions and I was like: yeah, I should try this. So, I don’t know how long it took me to write the individual poems. For the chapbook, I just woke up one day, put the poems together, and submitted them. 

Writing the first poem in the chapbook—“A Shared Language”—was spectacularly easy. This would read like a myth, but I promise it happened: I woke up from sleep with the exact poem in my head, devoid of the small editing by the editors of course, bless them—and I just wrote it; right there, right then, in a matter of a minute or so. 

But then, writing “Falmata” was hard. The woman in the poem was stiff to deal with. She was too traumatized, so talking to her was like walking through a museum of grief. I couldn’t finish the poem. Maria, while editing the chapbook, asked if I was sure that was the end of the poem. I literally just told her to move on because I didn’t know how to end the poem. 

ZK: How has writing this chapbook helped you unearth new insights into grief, love, and faith? How do you hope it will impact readers?

AMA: I am someone who is on a quest for himself. So, writing this chapbook was a journey into myself. But because a man can’t live alone, this odyssey involved other people, this is why there are a lot of speakers in the chapbook. 

So, through this journey, with myself and others, I was able to dig into anything and everything that is important to me. Which includes faith, love, grief, etcetera. 

All the poems in the chapbook appeared in a way that the speakers were talking to another person. So, I want my readers to simply listen to those speakers, and bask in whatever story the speakers try to tell—or perhaps, escape from those stories—because, sometimes, even I write these poems as an escape. 

ZK: Some of the poems in Encyclopedia of Dolour are written in couplets, others in a single long stanza, and yet others in numbered sections. Most, if not all, of these poems have relatively short lines, but several have lengthy titles. How are these choices related to the chapbook’s content and themes?

AMA: When I write narrative poems, I love having them as couplets. That way, I don’t see how long they get. I just keep moving till I finish telling the story. I write single, long stanza poems when I hold tight to one idea and I don’t want it to run away. But numbered poems? Call them the chaos in my head; whenever ideas are juggling in the mind of my muse and they refuse to be independent, I number them on pages. I write short lines because I hate when my poems get published and their form gets altered. And for lengthy titles, it’s just an obsession I’ve with metaphors. Sometimes I form the titles before the poems, other times, I pick the titles from the poems. I am sure you understand the relationship between the content and the themes with all these choices I made. The poems in this chapbook are concerned with Boko Haram, banditry, faith, love, and so many other loosely interconnected themes. It’s like a collection of short stories with the same setting. 

ZK: The word ‘encyclopedia’ appears once in the text, in the poem title “Here, I Introduced Kotus to the Encyclopedia of My Grief,” but the word ‘dolour’ is only featured in the chapbook title. How did you choose the name Encyclopedia of Dolour to encapsulate this work?

AMA: The title came after I’d put the poems together. I wanted something different. I didn’t want my title to be too poetic, I also didn’t want it to sound like a prose work’s title. I read the whole chapbook one morning and I felt there was too much darkness in the poems. But I was also happy I wrote them. My people were going through a lot then. You read the front page of a newspaper and you struggle to find even one happy news. It was that bad. So, I told myself I was documenting all that; that is exactly where the word ‘encyclopedia’ came from; and dolour simply tried to capture the themes of the poems. 

ZK: The chapbook opens with an epigraph from Mahmoud Darwish, and at one point quotes Rumi. How has their work, and that of other poets, informed Encyclopedia of Dolour?

AMA: Darwish is a Palestinian poet. I am sure you understand why I keep him close; our themes are related. But that epigraph? I was talking to my mentor, Nasiba Babale. I told her I wanted an epigraph for my chapbook—she has read and given insight on every single poem in that chapbook—and within a split second, she coughed out that epigraph and I was like: how perfect. Rumi is regarded as the greatest mystical poet of Islam—even though that could be argued. But there is a high place for faith in my poems. Therefore, I read his work a lot—it’s mostly about relatability.

Abduljalal Musa Aliyu is a school teacher and poet. He writes from Zaria, Nigeria. He is the author of Encyclopedia of Dolour (Chestnut Review, 2024). His work appears or is forthcoming in Chestnut Review, Vast Chasm Magazine, Brittle Paper, adda, Efiko, 3 of Cups anthology and elsewhere. He was a co-winner of the Sevhage-Agema Founder’s Prize for Poetry and the third prize winner of the inaugural Writing Ukraine Prize. He rants on Twitter @AbduljalaalMusa.

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