Ifeanyi Awachie recently joined the Artspace team to begin a new poetry initiative, under a planning grant from Connecticut Humanities. Ifeanyi is a Nigerian-American writer and curator of contemporary African arts and culture festival AFRICA SALON. A graduate of Yale University, Ifeanyi founded AFRICA SALON while working as a presidential fellow on the Yale Africa Initiative. With a B.A. in English and creative writing, Ifeanyi also works as a spoken word poet and freelance writer for media such as Africa in Words and Okayafrica. She is author of Summer in Igboland, a work of personal nonfiction and documentary photography based on her experience visiting her birth country, Nigeria, for the first time. She won the Tristan Perlroth Prize to support her research on the book and showcased her photographs in multiple exhibits at Yale. Ifeanyi is based in New Haven, Connecticut.
How did you first get involved in Artspace?
I heard about the Summer Apprenticeship Program last year after Aaron Jafferis and Titus Kaphar saw me perform at an event downtown. Titus said I should be involved. I read up on the program and was instantly interested. I was into the idea of working with young writers and being part of the concept of “Arresting Patterns.” But then the program didn’t work with my schedule, and I was bummed and couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I started sneaking out of my office for long “lunch breaks,” which I spent observing Aaron and Dexter Singleton’s work, workshopping students’ poetry and drama writing, and soaking up the atmosphere at Artspace.
If you could work with any artist on a project in New Haven, with no constraints on time or budget, who would it be and why?
I feel like I’m already living the dream in terms of working with New Haven artists I admire, from Titus Kaphar to Jerome Harris, Yale School of Art ’16 and resident graphic designer at Artspace, to the writers I work with through youth spoken word program The Word New Haven and my reading and performance series Literary Happy Hour. When I see a painter or poet or rapper I dig, I go after them, and I’m all about collaborating with and elevating local artists, especially black artists. So I’d probably take that unlimited budget and use it to make wild projects mixing poetry, visual art, performance, music, design, digital media, and more with the artists I’m already in touch with.
How do you see visual artists and poets collaborating and how might their practices intersect?
I’m very interested in the ways poetry can come off the page–that’s part of the reason why I’m a spoken word poet. Poets transform the world around them into vivid, immediate language, and visual artists have the potential to manifest that imagery in the form of paintings, photography, design, sculpture, performance, and more, while producing new fictions themselves. In other words, poetry is already so visual, and visual artists have the power to take the substance of poetry and make it into a tangible thing. As a poet and curator who loves visual art, those collaborative possibilities are super exciting to me.
You have an evening free in New Haven and friends visiting from out of town. What’s at the top of your list to visit and experience?
Not trying to be a one-trick pony here, but because I have friends who are artists/into art, we’re probably going to an exhibit opening at the Art School, or Artspace, or the YUAG, or a poetry performance–probably one I’m hosting–or a concert, or a friend’s show. Then we’ll have Rubamba or sushi or Thai for dinner. Then it’ll be drinks and ice cream or cookies at my place (I’m a dessert person) before dancing at Gotham or Rudy’s. A perfect night includes dancing. Period. Thassit.
Can poetry change lives? Is there a poem that has changed your life?
I balk at statements like that to be honest. For me, poetry works on a very personal level and can change many specific, abstract things, like worldviews and opinions and mental pictures. But can poetry change lives? I don’t know. That’s a grand idea. A poem that changed my life was spit by a bearded, bespectacled, artsy black guy in somebody’s kitchen after a collegiate poetry slam in upstate New York, the first I ever competed in. I think my favorite phrase from the piece was “Corinthian ruins.” His cigarette smoked voice, the atmosphere of the cypher, the generosity and warmth of that space, changed my life.
How many poems do you know by heart?
It depends on the day, ha ha, especially if it’s the day before a gig. I could probably perform one or two of mine on the spot right now. I think I still know the words of my favorite verse from Wordsworth’s “Ode to Innocence,” which is the poem that made me want to write poetry.
If you could choose one artist to appear on a U.S. postage Forever Stamp, who would it be?
Probably one of my style icons, Shingai Shoniwa, Janelle Monáe, Solange, or local artist Aarica West. Who wouldn’t want to see them on a postage stamp? They’d probably motivate me to mail my friends their stuff back when they leave them at my place.
What one item could you not live without?
Orbitz Sweet Mint. People who know me know I’m always chewing (and sharing) gum. I try to stay fresh.