On October 9, 2017, one of these three poets –Professor Tanure Ojaide, Ikeogu Oke and Ogaga Ifowodo –will be announced as the winner of the 2017 $100,000 NLNG Prize for Literature. The Sun Literary Review engages each of them in a chat on bent of their shortlisted entries and how the coveted prize money could be used if they eventually win.
I interrogate the banality of life
OGAGA IFOWODO, author of A Good Mourning
What was on your mind when you made the shortlist of the NLNG Prize?
I was a little more delighted than I was when I heard it was initially on the longlist. But I must say, to be on any list –whether longlist or shortlist –is a delight, simply because a writer toils away in the loneliness of his or her own, having his or her private duels with a vision and the muse. To, then, finally put out what moved him to express himself or herself and to have the book on the list is to get some kind of validation, a feedback from the reading public to say, yes, the labour of lonely nights have struck a chord with a section of the reading public. Secondly, I don’t want to be blasé about it –the prize has drawn deservedly very good attention not only at home in Nigeria but on the continent; so, it is a very good reward and every writer will feel justly rewarded if he or she wins it. The ancestors have told me I am going to win it, so I feel more delighted now (laughs).
I am intrigued by the oxymoronic title of your latest poetry collection, A Good Mourning. Can you disambiguate the nuances?
I have noticed that has actually caught the attention of many, including two people who wrote blurb for the book –Professor Femi Osofisan and Professor Kathleen Peirce of the United States. “A Good Mourning” is also a title poem. The primary thing is that it is my reflection on the calamities that was visited upon us gratuitously by General Ibrahim Babangida, a military dictator who styled himself a president, who, after many years of toying with the Nigerian people, we eventually got to June 12 1993 where we were going to have an election and say goodbye to the military rubbish. So, we were poised to say “good morning” as in welcoming a new dawn to a new Nigeria, but it wasn’t to be because dictator Babangida decided that he had one final trick up his sleeve of toying with the Nigerian people by annulling the election. So, what should have been a good morning, welcoming a new day, became a good long mourning.
I also chose that title –not that a point I was very conscious of it –but I see that event as marking a social death for Nigeria, something important as innate dignity as a people’s rights, our legitimate sovereign rights to self-determination to decide our destiny and our future, was killed on that day. And every death requires a period of terms to come to terms with it. Even though we all know that the ultimate end of life is death, nobody wants to die. So socialist speaking, taking the country as a social organism –seeing June 12 as a political death, a good mourning as a way of coming to terms with the trauma of that social death.
This book interrogates the past in a way and its relevance to contemporary times. By taking a backward glance at history, what are you trying to do?
I have extended that motif, that way of seeing, to the African continent and, by implication, the way of Auschwitz, which I tried to bring up the two holocaust of Nazism represented by the most famous Nazi consecration camp of Auschwitz in conversation or in the same prism with slavery –the African holocaust. So, in a way I am looking at the intimacy of evil wherever manifests itself, whether in Africa or in the Middle East or Europe, how intimate evil seems to be. The German philosopher, Hannah Aret, wrote a book where he gave that term to the world: “the banality of evil”. It seems to be commonplace. So, when, for instance I look at, starting with June 12, Abiola and Babangida used to be bosom friends (we even heard stories how Abiola would make agbadas and babarigas for his bosom friend Babangida). But thewhole idea is that he wasn’t going to install his friend to replace him. It was a friend who betrayed his friend and visited that calamity on the country. Then, if you look at Rwanda, where I am looking at two friends, both of them teachers, grew up together and were neighbours; even the night before, they were talking about the great pestilence; but the next day, he was the one burying his friend. So, what is that makes us great friends and the next day sworn enemies? Why is evil so close and intimate? Does it mean that all of us are going to be on guard against that thing that can be roused any minute in us? The main preoccupation is that it can be so easy for us to get along as good friends and neighbours, and somehow we become each other’s worst nightmare. So, that is the theme I am visiting, trying to use it to look at specific moments on Nigerian, African and world experiences as my own private reflection –private reflections are drawn from threads of history.
How would you do with $100,000 if you win the prize?
You are beginning to sound as if $100,000 is inexhaustible. It is not inexhaustible fortune. Seriously, in a country where the average person survives in less than $1 per day, $100,000 can look inexhaustible fortune, but it is not. But, that said, it is still a tidy sum of money for anyone to have at any point in time. I can assure you, there is no shortage of worthy causes to which the money could be applied. I understand that some people on the internet have actually put up a list of things they think anyone who wins this prize must do like sponsoring poetry. A writer’s prize is not a council charity; if you are going to set up a charitable organisation, it will even be gone before you know it. At the same time, one must give back to one’s constituency. Over the years, I have had some pet ideas, for instance, establishing a prize for poetry in secondary schools, for I was a beneficiary during his secondary school. Secondly, I am thinking of a writing workshop in Warri for twenty students drawn from Warri and its environs – one was sponsored by the Ford Foundation four years ago. I would like to do more of these workshops. I may also need sponsors for the amount of money required to organize these workshops can even wipe out this prize money.
My poetry is not just literary but musical
IKEOGU OKE, author of The Heresiad
Your work, Heresiad, took you 27 years to produce. Why did it take you so long?
It wasn’t as if I was writing the book for 27 years. The first time the first poem came to me and became part of this book theoretically was in 1989 or thereabout. After I had sent it for publication, I can recall I was going to Lagos, and, in the middle of traffic, some fresh lines came to me, and I wrote them down. I realised that the lines were meant for the poem. So, I called the publisher and upgraded the manuscript. So, between the time the six lines and the last lines came to me, it took 27 years. In essence, I was still working on it. However, I had considered the major writing finished in four years, but since it wasn’t published, I kept on revising and rewriting. Sometimes what I had to do in a whole year was to change a line. Sometimes I had to take out some words without altering the meaning of the particular line. Some words are smoother and more important to convey a meaning or add to the aesthetics. Within the 27 years, I wrote other collections as you probably know; I got two university degrees, raised a family, and held several jobs. I did so many other things.
The title of your book pays witness to linguistic defamiliarisation. How did you come about this?
Yes, Heresiad is actually a coinage. There is a trend in the conception and titles of epic poems. Illiad is actually culled from Illium; Ordesy from Ordesius; Iled from Ilnes; Dunsiad from Dunce. In this case, Heresiad is coined from Heresy, because the offence for which the author who was condemned to death, which triggered this poem was heresy. So, this is, in a sense, a poem inspired by the need to reconcile people to the need not to punish heresy but to respond to it in ways that are reflective of the fact that people have the right to disagree and not get hurt from doing so. Somewhere in the poem, I talked about every religion being the product of heresy. Most people don’t seem to understand this. At a time, Islam was a heresy; Christianity was a heresy against Judaism. So, when heresy succeeds and becomes established, you now don’t want the other person’s heresy to survive. I said to them, if your heresy was tolerated or become triumphant, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t still a heresy’ you don’t have to kill people because they committed heresy. So, you find a way and deal it without turning religion into the instrument of murder.
What’s the meeting point between your poetry and music in the light of the lyrical abundance in the cantos?
I think what poetry and music are quite related. But, of course, not all poetry is musical and all music is not poetic. But there is a meeting point, and it is quite possible to transform the best poetry into music. If you are familiar with the poetry of the Scottish poet, John Dunes, he wrote one of the most lyrical poems: O my love is like a red, red rose newly sprung in June…. These are things poetry can accomplish in the hands of a gifted poet, bridging entirely the gap between lyricism and musicality. This is something I have sometimes accomplished in my poetry. I think I consider myself fortunate that I could do this. I have written some children poems that have been produced into music. But I didn’t think I could accomplish the same thing in a long poem like The Heresiad. What we have in The Heresiad isn’t just a literary work but a musical work. I am looking forward to the day a song composer will pick it up and compose the opera that I envisioned.
Heresiad revolves around operatic poetry, which fuses music and drama. Why the resort this style?
Basically, what I set out to do was to write an epic, and these are, of course, are elements of epic, a story told in dramatic form with a theme and characters that are grand in a sense super humans. Of course, an epic tells a story. I set out to compose a work that will be compliant with the characteristics of epic. What I would say I did differently from the other epic poems was to also make that work unrestrained musical. While Homer referred to epic as a song, even though he didn’t intend to be seen literarily as a song; and Virgil would say a similar thing, even though you don’t expect a lasting song; and Okot p’Bitek would refer to his poem as song of Lawino, even though he didn’t intend to make it a song. Ikeogu is saying his own is the song of reason and he intends it to be sung. I can sing any line of the poem. In terms of craft, that is what the Heresiad does.
The Heresiad centres on moral heroism. I am wondering whether you were trying to go back to traditional poetry where heroes are valorised?
I don’t think that’s intentional. Heroes shouldn’t be valorised because they are heroes; they should because of what they do. I think literature should, as much as possible, be virtuous without being preachy. When I write, I saw the balance between aesthetics and purpose. In this book, I put a character at the risk of life. Even though that character has genuinely offended those who are after him, I was trying to say the kind of recklessness that got him into trouble shouldn’t be recommended. But I also have to save his life. Invariably, nobody is valorised. It’s about trying to create a more harmonious world. So, if anything is valorised it such values as forgiveness as sacrifice, repentance. Reason is, in a sense, valorised, because of how he intervened not by force of power now-because if you look at Homer, for instance, his heroes are given to martial violence. He valorized strong men, but I think Virgil was a gentler soul. In this case, what is valorised are humane values.
How would you spend the prize money if you win?
There is a number of things I need to do. Poetry is a dying art, and it needs help. I will find some way of encouraging the growth of poetry, genuine poetry and poets; not just anybody who calls himself a poet. I will be happy to be able to contribute to not just the growth of poetry but other genres of literature. I would also like encourage the development of African folktales. Something needs to be done if we want to save one of our greatest cultural and literary heritage.
TANURE OJAIDE: Songs of Myself based on oral tradition
How do you feel when Songs for Myself: Quartet made the shortlist, considering that this is about the only literary prize you haven’t won yet in Africa?
You must feel elated that the work was acknowledge among the best poetry books published in the past four years. So, I was happy.
Songs of Myself: Quartet explores paradoxes in contemporary times. How did the socio-political trajectory in Nigeria influence this volume?
First of all, I have to explain that the idea of Songs of Myself is based on the oral tradition in which the singer or minstrel sings about himself or criticises himself before criticising the rest of the society. And that’s what I set out to do here. So, really, that sometimes we tend to put all the blames in our lives on our leaders, but we ourselves are also responsible. So, I created a persona, which is marginally myself, not fully myself. But myself is like everybody and then I went to criticise the society and the humanity. In fact, part of it is Niger Delta itself. We often criticise the multinational oil companies, the federal government, but we are partly responsible for the environmental degradation. Also, the money we get from the oil, the 13 percent, what have we done with it. So, this is a little different from some of my earlier works.
I was about to come to that, because your earlier works were more of a mytho-poetic orientation. So, how different is this from your previous works?
This is different in many ways –you know I have been evolving over the years. There was a time I was interested in socio-political issues –the fate of vulture type of poetry. But, as you get older, you begin to look at humanity and life. So, much as I talk about myself in this volume, I am talking about humanity in general. I talk about the Niger Delta society and Nigerian politics; I also talk about human nature. So, it’s different. This is not just about environmental degradation or socio-political issues in Nigeria; but this is about human nature, so to say. But the fact that sometimes before we criticise others, we have to also purge ourselves of our own weaknesses. We can’t just be blaming others for our own weaknesses when sometimes we are part of the problem.
You seem to have de-emphasised the Udje poetic tradition, which have become your trademark, in this volume…
The model I am looking at is Udje in a way, even though the poems are not Udje-like. The formula is this idea that before you criticise others, first criticise or ridicule yourself. It is still part of Udje, and it is part of self-exultation which I talk about myself and so forth. But, basically, anything which has to do with satire, the exploration of human nature can be tied to Udje in a way, this is a modern way, unlike in the traditional sense of it.
I noticed the poems are rendered in couplets, but you subtitled your book as quartet. Can you explain more on this?
I used quartet here to qualify the four sections of the book. The book is written in rhyming couplets. The four major are “Pulling the Threads of the Loom” (in which I created the persona of a sage, where an old person is talking), “Songs of Myself” (in which I created a persona to laugh at myself) and “Songs of the Homeland Warrior” (where I am question myself; you know I have been defending the Niger Delta) and “Secret Love and Other Poems”. In style, the poems are really written in couplets. There is a sense of unity, so to say, because everything is written in couplets.
The minstrel features once again in this poetry volume. What is it about the minstrel that lends itself to extravagance in your bardic projects?
The minstrel is the persona of the poet. So, when I use minstrel, I mean everybody. I am the writer. When I use “I”, it doesn’t necessarily mean me. That’s why I created the persona of the minstrel, because there are certain things I will say and people will ascribe them to me. So, I could take the character of as drunkard and different types of characters prevalent in the society. I am trying to reveal something about the society by criticising these people, so the minstrel is a useful persona to embody myself and everybody in the society, so to say.
I noticed the melding of Pidgin English with English language in some of the poems. Aren’t you afraid it might not get across well to a typical foreign audience because a work travels?
You will be surprised that PhD works have been done on my poetry of all places like Baghdad, Iraq; Cairo, Egypt; Italy, even from Argentina, and of, course, the US. I don’t think the pidgin obstructs comprehension at all. In fact, when I read Derek Walcott, I come across patois poems, but you don’t need to understand fully –the meaning comes up. For instance, you will know the idea in We dey chop akara dey go if moimoi no dey// Shell dey build boreholes… By the way, poems like this have worked well when I read in Nigerian and abroad. For some reasons, they understand it. So, I don’t think pidgin constitutes a problem. And I use pidgin sparingly. By the way, the word “pickin” originates from the Caribbean. If you read Caribbean literature, you will that “pickin” also means “child”. Also, Brazilians, Cubans and Jamaicans also know akara.
What are your plans if you win the $100,000 prize money?
I will continue to live my simple life. Besides, I am always thinking of two things. One could have a small foundation, and one of the objectives will be to promote arts. As a more elderly writer, I know what younger writers are going through now –we didn’t go through those things during our time. So, we could do more to make them know more the value of paying attention to their works considering the distractions of social media. I am mentoring so many already from Nigeria to Ghana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. We can make that more formal with a small foundation. What I can do more effectively is to assist brilliant, indigent undergraduates, irrespective of where they come.