Writer, Editor

The Self-centric, Subversive Poetry of J. K. Anowe

It is a poignant joy to discover yet another young writer living on the continent with the talent and potential to measure with the established. The first time I read J. K. Anowe, one morning almost two years ago, we were in a small room, in a mutual friend’s apartment, and I had just met him. The friend had given me an unpublished poem of his to read. This was 2016, a time when I had only just re-found my interest in poetry. So I read it. There was something about his sensibility, like something rolling inside an egg, able to but reluctant to burst the shell. I didn’t say so then, partly because I didn’t grasp what it was entirely, not enough to comment on it. Months later, I was sitting before my laptop, working or pondering, when I settled on another of his poems. Six or seven phrases in, I felt a caving in me.

the gun speaks to its bullet—

go into the world          & be the storm

be exit signs             etched into Jesus

(from “Etc.”)

My mood deserted me. Was it the tone? Was it the abruptness? This young man was writing about something different. He was writing about our psyches, our mental illnesses and suicidal pulls, about our bodily indulgences, about masturbation, and in a language different from the lyrical-realism wording popularized by Warsan Shire.

it wasn’t a metaphor when I said i’d give you the world to look at…

i’m sorry i jerked off before we made it to the bed sorrier this poem of a future long past still is a knife stuck in my windpipe i’m only a man because god wore damaged boys inside-out so well

(from “You Sing of a Leaving”)

J. K. Anowe’s poetry is an interrogation of mental make-up, delivered in a voice grounded in vulnerability and deep existential pain. He has taken subjects usually overlooked and turned them into a statement on the fragility of humanity, so accurately that his work has become an entry point to an emerging sub-tradition in the poetry of Nigeria’s new generation. It is a sub-tradition preoccupied with the visceral, the personal, and the psychological—with digging into the oneself. Pegged in the psyche, its introspection—the focus on speaking into oneself rather than speaking out to the world—is an outlet for a confessional generation not afraid to voice its internal struggles and flaws, to make art of it. Given the emotional and psychological state of its voice, the wording of his work, the abrupt clarity of it, demonstrates psychological acuity.

it gets uglier    but please don’t let me be lonely   i’ve danced  & day

dreamt these moments     our moments—   coffee burning grace into


(from “In Stray Conversation with Laura”)

He first came to notice in 2016, through Praxis Magazine’s poetry chapbook series, the series that would afterwards gift us Romeo Oriogun’s groundbreaking Burnt Men. His own chapbook, The Ikemefuna Tributaries, received attention from young Nigerian poets who enthusiastically responded, on Praxis’ invitation, in another chapbook. When we launched the inaugural Brittle Paper Awards in August, 2017, our editors chose J.K. Anowe, from a pool of other excitingly talented poets, as the winner of the Brittle Paper Award for Poetry, for his Expound poem “Credo to Leave.” In the midst of some of the finest poets working on the continent, his work is, simply put, different.

Do not believe what you see on TV

        I’m so afraid of being happy   it is the closest thing to shame

                 I will lie & I will disguise

                         Turn off the lights     & fall abysmal

I feel nothing       but beautiful

Gorgeous god          I want to love without changing myself

(from “Credo to Leave”)

“Subversive” is an often misapplied term in art, lifted and landed on work that is in fact conventional in many ways but one. It is a word I use with caution. J. K. Anowe’s poetry is subversive because, before him, it was unusual to dramatize mental illness in Nigerian poetry in a way that resonates without ceding artistic merit, in a way that thoroughly usurps the primacy of traditionally grand subjects: politics, culture, identity, love. Because now that he is doing it and doing it this well, a host of his contemporaries, some influenced by his work, have opened theirs to directly engaging realities hitherto deemed unworthy of attention—and of course this confessionality is a generational trait.

Mow into the void / into the harvesting / of the wounded / the almost

dead / break into their longings / nectared with retch / not so

much / as to denounce / your loneliness

but to keep it / a warning pause / of red—an infection / in the wound

you’d let / this fracturing run hyphened / through your veins / begin here

in reverse / afterall / how old could / one’s self-destruct game / really


(from “Hundred Carats of Pained”)

He tells me he has finished his first full-length collection, titled Colour between a Wine Stain and a Bruise. In the poems within, he speaks for us.

Today begins as the last day alive—god lemme not live to see the day i die    you said what

Ever we let fly out of ark       whatever we put out there in search of love & land will come

Back       but we live unfastened inseparable lives           like a bracket in a bracket—

(from “Pseudonym as Escape Mechanism”)

His poetry is a revolt. One refreshingly beautiful.

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5 thoughts on “The Self-centric, Subversive Poetry of J. K. Anowe”

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