Today, I bring you a special feature; a conversation with my writing peer, Vivian Zems. This poet says, she first picked up her pen in September 2016 and hasn’t been able to put it down since. Without any delay, let’s hear what more she has to say.
Vivian is a mum, author, poet, dentist and songwriter living in North London with her four children and Zeus, the family German Shepherd. Her poetry collections: Waxing Lyrical, Lift Off! and Verses of April are available on Amazon.
In this conversation, Vivian talks about her Amazon Bestseller Poetry Anthology, Lift Off!, a poem, Between Thoughts, and more.
Khaya Ronkainen: How did you end up the pilgrim poet? Is this how you or others describe you? And what does this actually mean?
Vivian Zems: I named myself the pilgrim poet because poetry is relatively new to me. I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface, when it comes to poetry. I sometimes joke about living in ‘Poetry School’. So, I am a pilgrim on a journey to find out where all these words I use come from.
KR: Oh yes, I can relate. It’s something of an intrigue where these words come from, and where they take us to. I guess we are all on journey of some sort.
Coming to your book in question, Lift Off!, the title and the poem of the same title convey a bold message about overcoming. Is this a correct assessment? And if so, what kind of a reader did you envision when putting this book together? Why?
VZ: Yes, Lift Off! is definitely about overcoming in both the title and the poem at the back. The sort of reader that would enjoy this book is anyone, who needs a shot of hope and reassurance that the light at the end of the tunnel is a certainty.
KR: Anyone who needs a shot of hope, I like that. I also find the description “poems designed to lift your head, see the sky, dare to dream and test your wings” very encouraging. Sometimes as adults, and as we navigate life, we lose sight of our dreams or goals.
What do you believe happens, when we stop dreaming? In your opinion, how can we get back on track and start dreaming again?
VZ: To stop dreaming is like a living death. I’ve been there before, you cannot dream if you’re busy trying to survive. I can only give an example of how I began dreaming again. I hit a wall, and my life was not really a life but more of an existence. That’s when I decided life is far too short to waste it on dead ends. I encouraged and challenged myself to fulfill my dreams. That’s when I picked up my pen.
KR: Picking up the pen is a courageous act. I salute you for taking action in order to fulfill your dreams.
I also find your book inspirational and upbeat, almost a song. But fear features often in this collection. What is the speaker’s worst fear?
VZ: Fear has always stalked me. So, you’ll see it pop up from time to time in my writing. As an adult, its presence has loomed even larger but I’ve learned how to navigate my way around it and live, regardless.
KR: Well, everybody is afraid of something. I guess the key thing is to have strategies in place in order to navigate or conquer those fears.
Now to the poem in question, Between Thoughts. Let’s look at this brief excerpt:
I go to that place between
where clouds heavy-laden
with dreams wait for me
It is in this place
that God draws near
I don’t often think much about this space between thoughts, the Gap as it’s often called. The speaker in the poem though is able to go to this place. How do you as a poet recognise this space, because it happens very sporadically?
VZ: For me, there are two spaces; the one I refer to in ‘Between Thoughts’ is a personal sanctuary. But there is this ‘other’ space that’s open to interpretation. It’s a space or place you first recognise only when you’ve left it. Or perhaps, we could just call it our ‘niche’.
KR: I hear you. That space is often elusive and can be difficult to explain. I’ve also been pondering, we live in a technological era where we are all talking at once and hardly listening to one another. Do you think there is a way one can create this space in their daily lives? How?
VZ: The only way I know how to create this space is to constantly talk about poetry. Luckily, you’ll tend to find that poets refer to poetry in one form or another during the course of a day. I see and hear poetry everywhere (laughs). That sounds ominous but it’s true!
Many a time, I’ve found a line of poetry in a conversation in person or a radio chat show. I also quote poetry to most of my patients and get mixed reactions. Some will point me in the direction of a poet that inspired them. And on more than one occasion, I’ve had to lay down my instruments for a full spoken-word show! At other times I get a raised eyebrow but that doesn’t faze me.
Incidentally, that’s how I was introduced to Pam Ayres and her famously hilarious poem, I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth, by my patient who before leaving recited the entire poem!
KR: Oh, brilliant! I just love the injection of poetry into everyday life. It’s not only fun but makes it more accessible, I think. How lucky are your patients to be treated to a spoken-word show! I think I might just ask my dentist on my next visit, if they could help calm me down by reciting a poem. I’ll probably be the one who gets a raised eyebrow. And Pam Ayres, she is hilarious! I like that poem, thank you for sharing.
Now, at the beginning of your poem, the world is in chaos. Is this the speaker’s world or the world in general? What are the speaker’s preoccupations about this world?
VZ: This is quite easy to answer. I’m prone to bouts of crippling fear (perhaps they’re panic attacks) and over the years I’ve learned to retreat to my ‘happy place’ or that space between my thoughts. I described it the only way I knew how:
When all the world burns in chaos
and the claws of panic sink deep
When emotions take flight
like untamed horses derailing
chariots of hope
KR: I can only imagine what it’s like to go through bouts of crippling fear. But I’m pleased to learn you use that ‘happy place’ to retreat. I believe it’s also a space that allows you to eloquently capture emotions, as in the verse above. And the reader is invited to witness this chaotic world.
At the end of the poem, “It is in this place / that God draws near / to whisper in my ear”, the speaker seems to have attained peace or closure. What has the speaker learned through this journey, and as they reclaim this sacred place?
VZ: This is the place of peace for me. It’s a familiar place dusted and always ready for my return. It’s in this space that I would quote a psalm, say a small prayer or simply hum a tune. It works. It keeps me going.
KR: I read from your blog that you are Nigerian by heritage, Ghanaian by birth and British by nationality. Which world as a poet do you depict most in your writing? And do these facets of yourself hinder or enrich your writing? How so?
VZ: I’d like to think I’m influenced by all three countries. However, because I grew up in Ethiopia, I’ve got that to contend with as well. Overall, it’s an enriching experience but on occasion it can be frustrating because I want to write poetry that reflects Africa, only to find that I haven’t got enough content in my soul. But I know it’s buried in there somewhere, perhaps not as a reflection of my environment but culturally. For example, my parents ensured we (kids) greeted our elders in the appropriate manner at all times, and referred to said elders as “Aunty” and “Uncle”, whether blood relatives or not.
KR: So many influences to contend with, indeed. I often refer to this as both a blessing and a curse. And as you put it, these difference influences are enriching but can also be frustrating, more so when the aim is to reflect Africa. Because there’s also a question of who is “qualified” to write about Africa or African experiences. But we won’t even go there, it’s a conflicted argument.
And yes, culture plays a huge role in all this. I so relate to the upbringing and the appropriate manners; not addressing elders by their first names, for example.
But returning to this ‘chaotic world’, there are so many injustices facing us today. Do you think poets should always be advocating for something? Why or why not?
VZ: It’s so important that poets never stop speaking. Poetry expresses emotions that can’t be expressed by way of speeches or newspaper snippets. It’s exactly like music. Without both, I believe the world would disintegrate!
KR: Great point! We need to speak up against injustices, whether it’s through poetry or other artistic forms.
Now tell us, what did you learn from writing your first book of poetry? Is there anything you wish you could have done differently?
VZ: My first book of poetry, Waxing Lyrical, is more like a stream of consciousness. I enjoyed it thoroughly and if anything, it feels more like a personal journal. My writing has improved, and my other poetry books since then have been themed, and not a random mix of thoughts. Though not perfect, I wouldn’t change a thing because I realise that it’s my failures and mistakes that mould me and I’m quite happy being a student.
KR: I love your response. Because we, writers, can be hard on ourselves and often riddled with self-doubt.
You are also a songwriter, how does writing poetry overlap with songwriting? That is, how do you get into a mental space to write a poem instead of a song?
VZ: I’ll let you in on a secret, I can’t tell the difference between a poem and a song! The songs I’ve written have originally been poems, albeit with a little twist, pause or refrain here and there. I’ve written micro-fiction as well as non-fiction in the past but poetry always seems to take first place, and songwriting is making a tune of your words, isn’t it? [laughs] It’s just as well I don’t take it too seriously, because my only thought is: I’ll make a tune out of this one!
KR: Oh, classic! The secret is now out. But I like that you can laugh about it, and don’t take yourself seriously. It would a different case, I suppose, if you were pursuing music as a career. Because you know there are snobs on both ends, who believe poetry should be this and music that.
Speaking of snobbery, especially in poetry, how do you measure success as a poet?
VZ: Success for me is that sense of accomplishment in an endeavour fuelled by raw passion. There’s no other feeling like it. Add to that, validation from the public and then you’re more or less sure you haven’t written rubbish.
I was excited when Lift Off! hit #1 New Release on Amazon, and stayed at #1 for a few weeks. Verses of April, another book of poetry, joined it and for a moment in time it was #1 while Lift Off! was #2. I tell you! My friends, family, co-workers and patients suffered horribly during those few weeks. I squealed and whooped and pointed and laughed and cried! More importantly, I was proud that I’ve been productive despite that awful constant fear.
KR: Oh yes, I heard you squeal with joy across social media platforms as Lift Off! hit the first place. And when Verses of April followed suit, I thought this girl is on fire…and about time, too! Congratulations once again for such an accomplishment. You’ve proved that we can face our fears and move you forward, instead of staying stuck paralyzed. That’s really inspiring.
Do you plan for each poetry book to stand alone, or are you building a body of work with a theme that connects these books?
VZ: If you’d asked me this a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have had an answer. But now, I’m beginning to see a pattern of healing running through my collections. I realised belatedly that I’d labelled Verses of April Volume 1, so now I’m committed to volume 2, 3 and so on. It’ll be a challenge to keep up with National Poetry Month’s theme every year but I’m looking forward to it.
I wish I could say I’m “building a body of work” but nah…I’m not that sophisticated. I’m just going with the flow and enjoying the process.
KR: Any book (poetry or in another genre) you’re working on right now?
VZ: Actually, I’ve been working on another poetry chapbook called Smiles Under Pillows, and it’s coming out on August 29th. It’s a collection of poems that elicit/elicited/could elicit different smiles, from sweet to bitter. The title was inspired by the fact that a smile is most certainly an inevitable event. Smiles may be happy, sad, painful, rueful, malicious, perplexed, smug, fake, victorious, or even Sisyphean. They can also be disarming or protective. There’s always a hidden meaning buried under a smile.
KR: Fantastic news! That’s certainly something to smile about; another poetry book to delight in. Readers do check it out!
In closing, poetry books don’t often get much publicity. Do you have any poetry book you’ve read recently to recommend?
VZ: You’re right. Poetry in but a few cases will generate publicity and revenue. Most of us read and write poetry for the sheer love of it. My favourite is Kalakuta Republic by Chris Abani; a Nigerian poet. The book is about a political prisoner’s experience in a late 1980’s Nigeria, I recommend it for it’s visceral quality and excellent writing.
Thank you, Vivian.
p.s. All excerpts and images used with author’s permission.
Over to you, poetry lovers. If you have a remark or question for the poet, feel free to continue the conversation in the comments section. Thank you for reading!
To read more about how these kind of features work, see details conversations with poets on my contact page.