Inua Ellams: 'I wish I didn't have to be a mouthpiece'
- Gareth K Vile
- 7 August 2021
Soon to be taking the Edinburgh International Festival stage, Inua Ellams talks to us about the power of poetry and his comprehensive Wikipedia page
All the lockdowns and limitations placed on live performance have sadly reduced this year's Edinburgh International Festival theatre programme. But the series of events called A Toast To The People is a splendid example of how the Festival is a platform for an innovative format that integrates solo performance and communal engagement. Featuring an international collection of poets and writers, who perform individual sets before engaging in conversation, it is a lively, multicultural riposte to the challenge of re-establishing the Festival after a year's absence.
In the pairing of Saul Williams and Inua Ellams, A Toast To The People connects two artists who roam across multiple artforms: Williams is a poet who has made music albums while Ellams is perhaps best known as a performance poet and the playwright of Barber Shop Chronicles and An Evening With An Immigrant but who also works in graphic design. Ellams admits, 'I jumped at the chance to work with Saul: I have known him since around 2005 and he inspired me a lot in my early days.'
The combination of Williams and Ellams is a precise fit. As Ellams explains, 'Saul is a poet who flirts with other things that I'm interested in from hip hop to the superman as a concept, religion and how that interacts with the black body, and the way that the west mythologises history.' Indeed, both performers show an enthusiasm for both popular and high culture, assimilating superheroes, hip hop, and fierce intelligence into works that simultaneously challenge assumptions and articulate often marginalised experiences.
Ellams began his career as a poet and the medium's aesthetics still inspire him. 'I embark on my plays with "poetics" as an editing principle. I think of poetry as philosophical: it is about questioning the building blocks of reality, about how we live.' But as well as an interrogation of values, Ellams' belief in poetry is transcendental. Citing Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, Ellams sees the power of poetry to 'snatch out of time the passionate transitory', and acknowledges how his more personal work can offer catharsis and solidarity to the audience.
In particular, An Evening With An Immigrant relates his experiences in such detail that his Wikipedia page now reveals his entire biography: 'one writer went all out', he reflects. Experiencing racism in both England and Ireland, as the child of an interfaith marriage, Ellams honestly tells a story which is both distinctive and represents the complexities of contemporary identity. This combination of the particular and the universal informs his voice, and contributes to the immediacy of his poetry. 'I am glad that I can be a mouthpiece,' he adds. 'But I wish I didn't have to be, because that would mean we are in a better place.'
Yet Ellams has a remarkable ability to find inspiration in the apparently mundane, whether drawing parallels between the X-Men and biblical miracles or enthusing about the creativity of the Edinburgh festivals. 'There is a lot of poetry in everything', he observes, and his performances are demonstrations that the art can still speak of eternal things in an energetic voice.
A Toast To The People: Inua Ellams & Saul Williams, Old College Quad, Tuesday 24 August, 8pm, £14 (£9.80).