Question-mark seeds away from the mother tree: A Conversation with Chike Nzerue about Architecture of Dust — curated by Tiffany Troy

Chike Nzerue’s poetry and essays have appeared in CHEST-journal of American College of Chest Physicians, American Journal of Kidney Diseases, Henderson, NV Writer’s Block 10 Anthology, and many other venues. He is a graduate of Oxford University, England, and former Professor of Medicine & Dean of Clinical Medicine at Meharry Medical College, Nashville,TN. He was born in Kano, Nigeria and practices Nephrology in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Architecture of Dust is a collection which traverses familial history across the dust of Kano, Nigeria to Lubbock, Texas to explore such universal themes as loss, love, death and American life.

Tiffany Troy: How does your first poem “What Is on the Line?” set up the rest of the collection that follows?

Chike Nzerue: This poem is indeed the proem for the collection. It highlights the power and slippery nature of words and how words come together to tell the story of poetry. It is akin to a plot summary, if this work were a novel.

TT: Can you describe the process of writing this collection?

CN: I usually write when I wake up early before sunrise. As a physician I leave early for work, but during my early meditation, I find the most fertile inspiration for writing. I try to pen a rough draft on my iPad or my phone, and then add to it through the day at moments of inspiration. As an Igbo man, with American kids, I use some of the poetry to connect my kids to African culture. Traditional Igbo poetry, ifo (ballads) and Akuko n’egwu (stories in song) tells stories, and this form has informed my poetry from the start.

Some poems also dwell on universal themes of loss, love, death and American life. I read the poems also to my poetry group and get criticism from them to improve the poems.

TT: How did you organize the poems into four thematic sections?

CN: I did the organization based on similarity or closeness of themes. I wrote a lot of poems during the pandemic about death and dying. Many of these poems were philosophical, and I started with that theme. The second section dealt with poems about dust. After George Floyd died, and the whole Black Lives Matter movement inspired some poems, so racism, described by WEB Dubois as America’s Original sin, caught my attention and the third section deals with racism. I imagined walking America’s streets in 2022 with Langston Hughes and telling him what was going on, and how African Americans in stoicism, still “sing America.” The last section deals with poems looking back at Africa, from the eyes of a native prodigal son.

TT: How does form inform your collection?

CN: The content of the poem informs the form, and vice versa. For example, the poem “Tupac’s spot in Vegas” is an elegy to Tupac. But Tupac was a very complicated character. Many people loved him. I loved Tupac because though he didn’t have a crooner’s voice, like (Luther Vandros or Michael Jackson) yet his songs were incredibly enjoyable. He had raw talent. He loved his mama, yet sang misogynistic lyrics against black women. Many people believe Tupac is still alive in black community, like Elvis. So his elegy was in the form of tercets to highlight his complexity. My realtor actually took me to the spot where he was gunned down in LAs Vegas, which inspired the poem.

TT: Who are your major literary influences and how did they influence your writing of this collection?

CN: My major literary influences are: Langston Hughes, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, Leopold Senghor, Rita Dove, Yusuf Komunyakaa and Jericho Brown. The epigraph salutes Keats and Dickinson and the Stethoscope poem from Keats era holds a conversation with him. The poems about lynching and water pollution in Flint Michigan borrows language from Dove, Komunyakaa , Carlos Williams, himself a Pediatrician and Jericho Brown. The poem saluting a Nigerian river was to engage Gabriel Okara who wrote a famous poem saluting the river Nun, one of the two legs with which the Niger River walks into the Atlantic.

TT: How does the idea of “dust” play out through the course of the collection?

CN: Apart from having a section dedicated to it ( part II), dust is the wire that connects different sections of the poem. From Emily Dickinson’s epigraph to “Trees in the Harmattan,” the idea of dust is ubiquitous throughout the collection. Some of it is a bit autobiographical—I was born in Kano, Nigeria, on the edge of the Sahara desert, where dust was a constant presence and drove changes like rain and drought. When I came to America, the first city I settled was Lubbock TX, where again dust was a fact of everyday life. In fact in the spring in Lubbock we had dust storms, and you could write your name on the kitchen table using dust as ink!! I also used dust as a metaphor for death, as in the biblical: earth to earth, dust to dust. The title of a popular high school poem we read by Kalu Uka.

TT: Do you have closing thoughts you’d like to share with your readers?

CN: My closing thoughts to my readers is to thank them and to remind them that poetry gives us the power to tell stories, and like Keats said in stanza 4 of his “Ode to a Nightingale,” poetry can fly us away to places on the viewless wings of poesy!