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Folu Agoi: Writers move with time

Folu Agoi is a poet, academic, literary activist and publisher. A former Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Lagos Chapter, he is currently the President of PEN Nigeria. He has won a number of awards, including BBC Poetry Competition (2001), Wole Soyinka Award for Literature (2007) and Mother Drum Golden Award for Excellence. His creative works include Candid Lyrics (2000), More Candid Lyrics (2001), An Offering of Olive (2004), Service to Fatherland (2013), and the latest, I know the Smell of My Lover’s Skin (2016). The poet was interviewed by Henry Akubuiro on his plans for Nigerian writers as the new president of PEN Nigeria, as well as the bent of his latest poetic offering.

You are the new President of PEN Nigerian Centre. What are your plans to impact on the Nigerian literary community, especially the promotion of free expression and literary culture?

As the new President of the Nigerian Centre of PEN International (International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists), aka PEN Nigeria, I plan to reactivate the organisation. I plan to stimulate it to redouble its efforts to project and protect the principles and interests of PEN International, an organisation known to play a leading role in promoting literature as a force of global culture and defending freedom of expression across the globe. We will reach out to writers all across Nigeria’s literary landscape. And the term “writer” is used by PEN International as an all-inclusive term for anyone involved with the word – written or spoken, who could be a poet, playwright, editor, essayist, novelist, academic, journalist, blogger, translator, biographer, publisher et cetera. We intend to organise writers in Nigeria, and, capitalising on the nation’s solid literary tradition, set the agenda for critical intellectual engagements. We will coordinate campaigns, projects, programmes and events around freedom of expression and linguistic rights without which there can be no robust literary culture. These projects and programmes will be unveiled very soon.

PEN International is involved in seeking the release of detained writers all over the world. Granted that, since the end of military dictatorship, Nigerian writers are hardly confrontational, does that make your work easier? Can we say today’s writers are cowards in this clime, or are they not challenged enough to be confrontational of the system?

I wouldn’t say today’s writers are cowards. Real writers are hardly known to be cowards, creative writers in particular, generally speaking. Courage is one essential attribute of a writer – the courage to tell the truth even in the face of death, to be the voice and conscience of society. Insanity is sometimes defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. In other words, you can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. Writers move with the times, naturally. You don’t expect the tactics deployed to confront the system during a military dictatorship to be applied in a democratic dispensation.

Between Candid Lyrics and I know the Smell of My Lover’s Skin, what has the transition been like in your poetry?

The substance of my poetry – from Candid Lyrics to I know the Smell of My Lover’s Skin – is constant. My poetry is my response to my environment, a product of my constant observation and evaluation of the nature of man against the framework of his political, economic and socio-cultural circumstances. But there has been a considerable shift – attitudinal and, particularly, stylistic – in my poetry since Candid Lyrics. I Know the Smell of My Lover’s Skin doesn’t bear the temper of Candid Lyrics (2000), More Candid Lyrics (2001) and, particularly, Service to Fatherland (2013), which feature fiery verses fired by raw anger. My poetry could be said to have grown to maturity.

On a cursory look, a reader might categorise your poetry as romantic poetry. Is that what you set out to achieve?

As I wrote in the preface to I Know the Smell of My Lover’s Skin, love lies at the heart of my art, a reality dramatised by many of my poems. But not many of those who have read my previous collections, especially Service to Fatherland, would call me a romantic poet. Most of the poems in those volumes are overtly political. I Know the Smell of My Lover’s Skin is a special offering to the god of love, though covertly political.

The titles of some of the sections in the collection include “In the Other Room” and “One Chance”, and the lingo and context are characteristically Nigerian. How do poems under this section key into these themes or concepts?

The romantic perspective of the entire collection is actually more metaphorical than literal. The subjects and/or objects of the romantic – and sometimes, erotic – experience depicted in the verses are not just individuals, but social units or entities. Yes, the volume overtly celebrates the stuff between lovers – including the activity associated with “the other room”. But that is essentially metaphorical. The collection is a metaphorical depiction of the umbilical cord tying the masses to the political class, for instance, or the relationship between man and his environment, between the government and the people, between the shepherd and the flock.

Interestingly, some of the poems in this collection, including “Macabre Dialogue”, “Song of a Muzzled Minstrel” and “Songbird in Lion’s Den” have been translated into German. What was the fascination for Christa Shuenke in selecting these poems?

The translation of the poems was actually facilitated by Regula Vensky, General Secretary of German PEN, who asked me to contribute one or two poems to a special anthology which the German PEN was working on. The three poems I sent in were accepted for publication. Regula later sent me the original and translated versions of the poems, which I decided to add to my collection.

What’s your relation with God? I notice so many references to Him in your poems?

I would describe my relations with God as very healthy. I recognise God as the author of knowledge, the source of all existence, without whom man is nothing. He is the force propelling me through life.

Some of the poems read like songs. What does lyricism mean to your poetry?

Lyricism is an elemental aspect of my writing, besides humour and sarcasm; for one thing, it helps to water down the subjects of my poems. It’s perhaps a reflection of my addiction to music, good music – all types or genres of music. Music flows naturally in my writing.

In the title poem itself “I know the Smell of My Lover’s Skin”, referents like “Billy goat”, “nanny goat”, “classic cactus”, “royal rose”, to mention a few, are deployed. Do you consider your audience when you create imagery?

Besides contextualising my subjects, and striving to avoid incongruous imagery, I hardly think of my audience when creating imagery. I choose my images and symbols to suit my subjects. For instance, “Billy goat” and “nanny goat” are deployed in the title poem to accentuate the bond between the poet’s persona and his lover, with the Billy goat’s distinctive smell serving as a catalyst in the process. Same goes for “classic cactus” and “royal rose” which are also contiguous images.

In poems like “Power of Patience or Pressure…”, “You Needn’t Be a Hunter…”, among others, your language is cryptic. Are there some advantages that come with using fewer words in poetry?

Content dictates form. I’m an ardent advocate of simplicity of style. But I sometimes feel obligated to deploy cryptic language to fence in some of my subjects, restricting them to fellow poets, especially when treating subjects which, in my opinion, call for encryption. Economy of words serves to facilitate encryption of meaning without necessarily detracting from the work’s aesthetic quality.

Some poems towards the end of the collection are written in German. Don’t you think this is odd for a collection written chiefly in English?

Those are the poems I crafted for German PEN, translated by Christa Shuenke. I meant to include some Yoruba poems as well in the collection, but I changed my mind as I wasn’t sure they were in a perfect state. I don’t think it’s odd to have a couple of German or Yoruba poems in a publication presented mainly in English, provided the translated versions of the poems are offered in the volume.

Nature poems recur in this collection. Are you a proponent of art for art’s sake?

I believe a work of art should be appreciated and enjoyed for its artistry or artistic merit. The issue of social function should not be allowed to tamper with our appreciation of fine art.

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