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Uzor Maxim Uzoatu rings a bell in Nigerian media and literature. He began life as a journalist with The Guardian before having stints in several others. Better known as a poet in the literary circle, Uzoatu is the author of one poetry collection, God of Poetry, which sounds incredible given the influence he commands. Recently, he presented a play, Doctor of Football, predicated on the myths surrounding the round leather game, which he explains in this interview with Olamide Babatunde in Lagos. If you don’t believe how immediate poetry can impact society, then Uzoatu’s experience makes an interesting read. Years back, he wrote a satirical poem dedicated to IBB entitled “We Shall Vote with Stones”, which was read aloud to his congregation by Pastor Tunde Bakare. Hell was let loose, but Uzoatu didn’t lose a hair.
I know you to be fond of the Irish poet and novelist, Oscar Wilde. What’s your fascination with him and to what extent has he influenced your writings?
Oscar Wilde is, without a shadow of doubt, one of the most fascinating authors in English literature. There is the saying that the best English authors are Irish, and Oscar Wilde fits the bill. I have read Wilde, and I am astonished by his output, but he is not really an infaluence because, for one, I do not believe in his “art for art’s sake” mantra. I am, however, endeared to his wit and grace in the use of language. The Irish wag has, indeed, penned some immortal words such as: “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and it is not being talked about.”
Your first two plays were conceived in 1979. There are other books and essays all to your credit, but your poetry collection is quite a movement. What would be your perception of those poems if someone else other than you had written them?
I have only one published collection of poetry, and many of my friends are really mad at me for not publishing more. I have lost so many poems, especially when fire dealt with my library back in time. I can’t judge my poems, especially when they are published in the shape and size of a book. I can’t borrow the head of others to judge my own poems. If someone else had written the poems attributed to me, I would have applied my critical nous to judge them. Now that the poems do belong to me, I may be very partial like our electoral commission! Seriously though, it is Father Time that can judge the poems within the purview of literature.
How much effort did you put into reworking Doctor of Football and A Play of Ghosts?
There was not really much reworking, just getting the plays up-to-date for production in this new age. The football con artist in Doctor of Football, for instance, becomes situated within the ambit of the present-day reality of Octopus Paul for instance. The use of juju in football is an issue that has not been given much attention, and, having played the game from primary school to my adult years, I know that it cannot be wished away. The play is, therefore, relevant today as when it was written when I was just leaving secondary school.
In A Play of Ghosts, you make a good plot of describing the gap between the haves and the have-nots in brief, witty and poetic acts and scenes. What compelled you to take on the theme of impoverishment?
I have always been on the side of the downtrodden, the wretched of the earth. My heroes in real life have been revolutionaries such as Che Guevara and Dedan Kimathi, among others. There’s always been the drive in me to overthrow the oppressive system that impoverishes the masses. That was why I experimented with rural peasant theatre. My forte of course is not that the rich is bad while the poor is good. It can be seen in A Play of Ghosts that there are dialectical shades and contours in the make-up of the characters of the rich and the poor. The dram is in getting into the nooks and crannies and shades of the diverse beings.
Did you mean to propagate that prostitution and poverty walk hand-in-hand, excusing some of the rich who we know also engage i whoredom?
Rich people happen to be the greatest prostitutes, both as patrons and in prostituting their lives to get to the very top. When poverty drives one to prostitution as we experience in A Play of Ghosts, mankind is confronted with a moral question that challenges the afflatus of the playwright. Prostitution can indeed be a very complex matter. As the great French master playwright of comedy Moliere said, “The maturing process of becoming a writer is like that of a prostitute or harlot. First you do it for love, then for a few friends and finally only for the money.”
What is your assessment on the reception of poetry among Nigerians? Do you think poetry is easily understood without the poet giving some kind of explanation?
Once you have written something and pushed it out to the world the reader is at liberty to interpret your words anyhow he or she deems fit. The poet cannot legislate for his audience. Poetry all over the world has never been an easy matter. Poetry is the most sublime of the arts, an elevated engagement. Little wonder, Christopher Okigbo quipped that he wrote his poems only for his fellow poets. There will always be prosaic critics who scoff at poetry, but deep down, literally, everybody wants to be poet one way or the other. The fine footballer or sprinter or tennis player is almost always described as “poetry in years on end”, but the poems have lives of their own independent of the poet or the author.
Nigerians are no slackers when it comes to football, and they certainly know their players. To what extent did you feel the need to add new names in Doctor of Football?
Football is a tradition that intervolves the young and the old as spectators and even as players. Myths about football have grown over the ages. It was crucial for me in Doctor of Football to mix the old with the contemporary.
As a uniting force, does football still hold true for Nigerians the way it is recorded in your play, particularly the National Team?
I can say it with all the emphasis at my disposal that the only time all Nigerians are united is when the national team, the Super Eagles, is playing a match. The binding spell of football cannot be overemphasized in Nigeria. The politicians do all they can to divide us, but football indeed unites the country. Let me reveal to you now that I hope to reach out to some understanding personages in the polity so that Doctor of Football can be produced all over the country with the national football supporters club making the music of the football songs!
If you had the opportunity to do something different, what would you do?
It would be a revolutionary, in the bush. Wealth, position, class, office, career, title, gluttony, fashion, power, property, celebrity etc., do not mean anything to me. Are you, in any way, indebted to the society such that you are giving back to it to make it better?
To change the wicked system is a debt that must be paid! Do you think at some point your poetry may become overtaken in the distant future, and how would you regard this?
I write and move on. Whatever happens in the future must, perforce, remain in the womb of time. I am definitely unconcerned about owning the earth. In my little portion, I am only relevant to my art. It is incumbent on the future ones to take on the baton. The surprise though is that I once wrote a poem, “We Shall Vote With Stones (dedicated to Babangida), only to learn that Pastor Tunde Bakare read it in his church. All hell was let loose. My phone never stopped ringing, with threats coming from here and there. Don’t ever believe anybody who tells you that poetry makes nothing happen!
Is there any issue that strikes you as important as a writer at the moment?
People have never been this hungry in the history of this country and many are committing suicide more than ever, yet some people want us to believe that our oppressors are doing well on our behalf. I guess I should get into my redoubt of poems that shoot guns, and theatre that strikes the emperor naked.
Give us one of your Oscar Wilde quotes which is significant to your living?
I can give you three quotes of the inimitable Oscar Wilde. The first one is: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” The second: “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.” The final one: “I can resist everything except temptation.” Nobody makes wit like Oscar Wilde these days. For instance, when he was travelling to the United States and the American Customs asked him if he had anything to declare, he quipped: “I have nothing to declare but my genius!”
What is cooking in the poet’s pot?
I feel guilty somewhat that I did not deliver the manuscript to my literary agents in London, Radala & Associates, and now the agency’s kaput. I have been somewhat ambivalent over the years about going full blast with the literary life. There have been distractions, but I feel the time is nigh to gather my manuscripts scattered all over the place to make a way on the circuit. The plan on the local front is to establish a series of young adult fiction to aid the reading culture with a title I wrote much earlier in life.
Lagos recently clocked 50. Can you share with us your remarkable Lagos story?
When my initial plans on revolution and theatre came unstuck, I fled from my rural haunts with nothing in my pocket and landed in Lagos to look for work in journalism. Sonala Olumhense, for whom I had written articles in The Guardian OP-ED pages, took me to Editor-in-Chief Andy Akporugo and Editor Ted Iwere, who were about to begin the production of The African Guardian magazine. I was asked to do a test, to write a story. I was very surprised that the test I wrote was published in the maiden edition of the magazine.
I, thus, began life as a journalist in Lagos and rented an apartment in the Ikate area of Surulere where many relatives and friends lived and made successes of their lives. People consulted with me back then as the “Obi of Ikate”, and I do remember one swashbuckling guy who took me to Guaranty Trust Bank in Victoria Island to give me the seed money with which I did the dummy run of a newspaper that today employs thousands and earns billions. Lagos made me a ragged trousered philanthropist, to borrow the title of the proletarian novel of Robert Tressell.