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Olalekan Ajayi: The poet is the guardian of the word

Born in Owo, Ondo State, Nigeria, Olalekan Joseph Ajayi is a poet, scriptwriter and has practised as a researcher and journalist.  He discovered his talents as a student at the Edo State University (now Ambrose Alli University), Ekpoma, Nigeria. At various times during his undergraduate days, Ajayi served as President, Poetry Club and Editor of the Enibokun literary journal. His poems and short stories have appeared in publications such as Enibokun journal, Ivie journal, The Nigerian Observer and an anthology of poetry entitled Awakening the Troubadours edited by Taye Anavhe. Based on the evident anger in his works at the time, his colleagues fondly called him Meshuggeneh the Poet. Ajayi holds a Master’s degree in International History and Diplomacy from the University of Benin and is an alumnus of the New York Film Academy, New York, where he studied scriptwriting. As a journalist, he was Senior Reporter and later the News Editor, as well as a columnist with The Nigerian Observer. The author of A Day Shall Come was interviewed on his writing in Abuja, where he works by HENRY AKUBUIRO

In a creative writing class in 1997, one of your lecturers, Dr. Frank Mowah, described writing as a difficult venture. How close is that to reality from your experience as a “reluctant writer”?

About two decades after Frank Uche Mowah taught us the fundamentals of Creative Writing, his observation about writing remains very true. Creative writing is not easy. The art of writing is not like a physical venture where raw strength might make a way for you. Although you get to build words like bricks, writing is not exactly like bricklaying. Writing requires so much mental exercise to come up with a draft manuscript. Experience has taught me that it is one thing to be visited by the Muse and a different matter altogether to structure that idea and give it shape in form of words. There, for me, lies the difficulty in writing. From my personal experience, ideas crisscross my head and voices fight for expression making me lost in my own head, but my reluctance suppresses them. Besides the reluctance, I think I am a bit of a lazy writer, who perhaps prefers doing more of reading than writing for others to read. The demands of life have also played their roles in distracting one from focusing mainly on writing. I have been involved in writing news stories, speeches, scripts and editing materials and, in the process, relegated creative writing to the background. But I think that will change now having been able to break free from the chains of procrastination.

You are indebted to Pablo Neruda for some kind of scribal tutelage. What is it about Neruda’s poetry that excites your curiosity, and how do you appropriate his ideas of poetry in your verses?

When we studied Neruda back then in school, the frankness and explicitness in his poems struck me. Although some critiques assess him as being closer to blood than to ink, in that they view some of his works, the non-sensual ones, that is, as poems of despair proffering no hope, students like us took interest in the aptness of his metaphors, which we saw as being nearer to mankind in that it sought to challenge what it perceived as the political wrongs of his time. Although some have likened writers to creative gods, Neruda never saw the poet as a little god singled out by some divine force ahead of those who practice other crafts. I recall reading some portion of Neruda’s Nobel Prize speech in which he described the best poet as one who does not equate or imagine him or herself to be a god. Neruda saw the poet as a baker who kneads dough, puts it in the oven and presents it, when fully baked, as bread for fellowship. What intrigued me the most was that role he assigned the poet – the role of handing over to mankind the products of truth, wine and dreams.

When we studied the likes of Neruda and the protest poetry of ‘Black’ American poets, the bespectacled Head of State held sway in Nigeria. The works of Niyi Osundare and Olu Oguibe also excited us as youngsters. By the way, my personal favourite of Oguibe’s works is entitled I am Bound to This Land by Blood. In our expressions at the time, we saw ourselves as being duty-bound to tell the truth as raw as it was and to engage humanity in the task of fellowship with his fellow man, nature and the God of creation. Indeed, we saw ourselves as messenger of the voiceless and bearers of truth-tales.

You practised as a literary journalist with The Nigerian Observer, before branching off to other endeavours. How did that experience prepare you as a poet? What was the highpoint of that stint?

I actually practiced firstly as a reporter before I was elevated to become the News Editor of The Nigerian Observer titles in 2000, during which time I ran a weekly column I christened “Point of Observation” and reviewed books for the literary page in The Nigerian Observer titles. However, long before, our teacher, Mowah, taught us how to search for voices in our heads, my Literature-in-English teacher at Command Secondary School, Ibadan, whose name I do not remember, had seduced us with the beauty of the art. That Literature teacher taught us to enjoy reading and picturing what we read. That was when we first encountered African classics such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Wole Soyinka’s Lion and the Jewel, Christopher Okigbo’s “The Passage” and J.P. Clark’s “Streamside Exchange” and “The Casualties”. Several years later, a certain Victor Usumero Bruce, my predecessor as President of Poetry Club, Ekpoma, drilled us in performance poetry. That was the period we were introduced to African poets such as Niyi Osundare, Olu Oguibe, Harry Garuba, Okot p’Bitek and non-African poets such as Claude McKay, Maya Angelo, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.  As part of our “African Night” or “Poetry Night” celebrations, we made efforts to put up stage performances of some poems we had read. Highpoints? I guess every stage of my life has its highpoints as far as literary expressions are concerned. However, my having to interact with every facet of society, as a news man, expanded my access to different subjects just as having to read different poets opened my literary mind’s eyes.

You celebrate the poet as a guardian of the word and creator. At what point, did you surrender to the Muse? How does a poetic idea come to you?

The poet is truly the guardian of the word; the one who ensures that the word is not diluted with untruths. As a creator, the poet is not a god! What the poet does is to chisel language to suit the audience that he or she writes for. As for the Muse, what can one really say about the poet’s muse? Poetic ideas are all around us. We see them, we hear them, we smell them, we feel them and we taste them.  I have heard about writers (mainly poets) who get their inspiration by sitting close to the riverside. Some others like to write at night. Generally, writers enjoy their private and isolated spaces in eking out words from their heads. For me, the poetic idea comes at any time – at work or play. What I often do is to scribble any idea I have down on paper and at night, when all in my clan are asleep, I submit myself to be freely seduced by the Muse, hoping to birth some form of literary piece, however short, before I sleep. I must confess that this is not a daily ritual as I could go for days without putting down a single line due largely to the fatigue of work and the vocation of parenting. 

In the Angst section of A Day Shall Come, I came across the poem “August 19, 1994”, a historical poem telling the tale of woe at a point in time in Nigeria. How touched was the bard in you in that encounter that it lent itself to poetic exploration?

August 19, 1994 will remain like a palm line. It was a bitter experience. The height of military rule in Nigeria. Some of our comrades at the Edo State University, Ekpoma, as it was then known, were felled by barrel-wielding men when the young protesters attempted to march on the residence of a former number two in Nigeria to register their displeasure with the military regime. Anyone who witnessed it or heard tales of how young men were cut down was touched profoundly. The only weapon we had was the pen, and write we did.

Redemption is as important as love is to you in the collection. You profess love to your art the same way you profess love to the opposite sex. Interestingly, the poems in the Love Theme section capture Eros with little consideration for philia love. Why is it that the former is of particular interest to the poet?

The poet does not place particular interest in one type of love over the other. The voices in some of those poems are not exactly the poet’s. All the poet did was to serve as the tongue for delivering the message. While it is not my place to analyse the poems you refer to, I could say that the voices in the poems are those of individuals of both sexes who either felt betrayed or spurned by their lovers.

I belong to the school of thought that believes that true love can never lie. Even when betrayed, it comes out to tell the truth. All through history, philosophers and lovers alike have chosen Eros over other types, with the exception of Agape love, as perhaps the strongest form of expressing or seeking truth.

In the titular poem “A Day Shall Come”, the poet-speaker is caught up in remonstrance against the backdrop of the exploitation and exploitation of oil in Niger Delta. Do we see this poem as an apologia for the deprived owners of the black oil?

I actually spent over a year as a corps member in a community in the Niger-Delta region. I lived with them and saw all that happened there. Having seen all that, I felt duty-bound to speak about it in the simplest form possible.

In “Sacrifices”, the sacrifice at the intersection is left unaccepted by the gods. What triggered this poetic response?

“Sacrifices” was written at a time in our country’s political history where nothing seemed to work. The concern of the poet was such that the tragic cyclical journey the country was on at the time was as a result of the various gods of the land refusing to accept the sacrifices offered; sacrifices that the “madman” even chased dogs away from.

In a tribute to Benin, where you once domiciled, her ancient red soil clings to your feet and her white chalk caresses your lips. Tell us in details the charms of the city that ensnared your imagination.

Benin is dear to my heart. My Mother is Benin, a grand-daughter of the Great Chief Oshodin of Benin Kingdom and my wife is also from Benin. I grew up in that great ancient land. Benin is the land of the brave. Her history is very rich and her culture very alluring.

The beauties of its arts and culture have been widely acclaimed all through the ages. Its monarchy is revered the world over and its moats tells of legends of heroes past. The streets of Benin have their lessons to the discerning.

I believe once you can survive on the streets of Benin, you can survive anywhere in Nigeria and indeed anywhere in the world. Benin chiseled me and gave me wisdom.

Having overcome your publication lull, are we expecting another work any time soon?

Very soon I hope. Having broken the chain of procrastination, I am hopeful that this new offering will expand my constituency, as it were, and inspire me to write more and make deliberate efforts to get published.

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