Q&A with Brian Obiri-Asare

A headshot of Brian Obiri-Asare is set against an orange-hued photograph of steel tea kettles sitting on a fire. Brian’s headshot is in black and white, and he is pictured front on. He has short hair and facial stubble, is smiling and has on an opened collared shirt. Text below the headshot reads ‘An interview with Brian Obiri-Asare’

Brian Obiri-Asare is a writer and arts worker. He was the recipient of the 2021 Northern Territory Literary Award for Poetry and was shortlisted for the 2020 Judith Wright Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in Meanjin, Cordite, Rabbit Poetry, Overland, and other spaces.

Our Associate Editor Sarah Stivens talks to Brian about his poem, ‘unfinished conversation’, published in #30: SPICE.

‘Unfinished Conversation’ is such a striking piece—the breathless quality of the line breaks, and stark ‘dust and sizzle’ imagery all enhance the tension between the two worlds of the poem. Where did the inspiration for this piece come from?

Serious, you’re being far too kind! But that said, thank you—and I mean it. Really. Cause I’ve long been bedazzled by poems, by how they sit in a curious space, caught between a reader and a crafter. To share this magic with someone (and a responsive and attentive someone at that!) is hella gratifying. I guess that’s cause both readers and crafters, in a weird and wonderfully co-dependent way, need each other…

But I’m digressing here. Your question’s a good one. And an almost impossible one to answer. In part cause there’s only so much you can be conscious of, and even then, there’s only so much you can pour into the shape of words. But I’ll give it a good shot.

Zooming out, I’ve always found a tonne of inspiration in other poems and poets. And of late, I’ve been digging in and around Ed Roberson’s work. His poems are sharp. They cut to the bone. Yet they are inviting, like prayers, like fragments of long-lost clarity. When they dissolve in my head, they leave a pleasant fuzziness. He’s someone whose craft I try to lean towards. I also respect and admire his game. Cause it’s a game I can relate to. There’s something liberating when you turn your back on the dislocation of a daily news feed, pay attention to the tangible world, the earth, the moon, the stars, the rocks, the wind, the birds, the insects, and the worlds within these worlds, and subsequently give yourself the space to cut loose with words. When I see other poets do funky shit with this freedom, it lights a fire inside.

Context is also important here. Although Ed Roberson got me putting pen on paper, it was a stretch of years spent living in the NT that got me itching to articulate an experience. There I was black but not blak. Zooming in, I’m still trying to figure out how I sit in relation to that tangle of bla(c)kness. ‘unfinished conversation’ is an attempt in that direction. It was birthed in exploration, in the attempt at giving voice to a little slice of Australian political and cultural life that can only make sense when you include the psychic element, the aspect of an individual consciousness.

The poem is built on a foundation of unsaid things. In your recent play Speak of the Devil, the synopsis reads: ‘a racial psychodrama where something whispered is finally screamed’. How do you decide which parts of a piece will be whispered, and which need to be louder?

Another good question. And I’ll try my best to not twist myself in knots in answering it.

First things first, I write to be read. I’m not too, too much of an experimentalist. Rather, I lean into form, into stylistic and compositional choices. This inevitably means that my writing is not to everyone’s taste. And that’s cool. My impulse has never been towards a kind of journalistic, PR inflected plainspokenness. I’m too enamoured with aesthetic ambiguity for that.

I also happen to write a lot about black subjects. And for some reason I’ve taken it upon myself to try to write about them with the seriousness that they deserve. In doing so, there’s a danger. I’m well aware of it. I live in a time where there’s a proliferation of people peddling marginalised identities. There are trends to ride, agendas to push, opportunities to take advantage of. I try not to let my writing tune into those kinds of motivations.

As a result of all this, of what I guess are choices, when I write, there are things that must be whispered, things that need to be louder. It’s kind of intuitive. And the work leads the way.

To help flesh out how this works in practice, two examples are in order. With ‘unfinished conversation’ I struggled with the lines ‘and the wailing’s been getting under/ my black skin’. I thought the ‘black skin’ part was too crude, too obvious. So I changed it. But then the poem lost some of its fizz. It became too cryptic. So after sitting with the change, I changed it back. Insisting on ‘black skin’ was necessary. Sometimes in life you must be forceful.

And other times, a different way of operating is in order. With ‘Speak of the Devil’ I’m still trying to strike the right balance between what is said and what is hinted at. It’s a play that concerns itself with the difficulty of talking race in an intimate setting. I want to bring an audience along on a journey that keeps this difficulty throbbing front and centre. What is said and what is hinted at it is therefore crucial to the dynamics of the play. I don’t want audiences not to get what I’m aiming at. The play needs a little more rewriting but slowly the words are getting to where they need to be.

Aside from writing and publishing poetry, you’re also a playwright and board member of a beautiful gallery on Gadigal land. How do these other elements of your creative practice influence your writing?

Writing’s the focus and everything else flows from there. Sure, I take a keen interest in other art forms. But when this interest takes away from the writing, I have to make what are often difficult decisions. I had to step away from being a co-director of a beautiful gallery on Gadigal land recently because of all the writing time it ate.

I don’t really know how to answer how other elements of my creative practice influence my writing. What I can say, with some confidence, is that there are no prescribed influences when it comes to writing. Anything goes. So I look far and wide. I also never really look to art to reconfirm my personal predilections. I like things that are outside my orbit, that make me consider ways of being in the world markedly different from my own. I find these influences the best kind. For example, I like gardening. I see it as a creative practice. But how it influences my writing, I couldn’t say. But it definitely does influence it.