Michael Jimoh

“Idon’t think the Nigeria Prize for Literature is a climb down for me as a poet. Because of the prestige of the prize, it should go to an established poet. So, the point of climb down for me is not tenable.”

So did one of the three shortlist for this year’s LNG’s prize for poetry confess to two journalists who met and spoke with him late last month in the pristine and loudly silent ambience of Opal Suite at Eko Hotel & Suites in Victoria Island, Lagos.

I was with Evelyn Osagie of The Nation, one of the shortlisted poets sitting between us, a staff of Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas, Elkanah Chanwai, sitting opposite and fiddling with his phone and possibly listening or not.

NLNG had invited journalists to meet the trio of Ogaga Ifowodo, Tanure Ojaide and Ikeogu Oke, the last three poets standing out of more than 180 that entered for the poetry competition this year. That would be the first time in the history of a prize established since 2004 that journalists would be invited to meet the potential winners of the gas company’s award for literary excellence.
Usually, after the announcement of the initial long list of 11, the Committee for Relevant Arts, CORA, for short, would liaise with the company and host a public event to bring the authors face to face with the public. The long list would be shortened to three and then a winner would be announced a month or so after. This time, the understanding among the discerning was that the judges had deadlocked on the three shortlists, Ifowodo’s A Good Mourning, Ojaide’s Song of Myself: Quartet and Oke’s The Heresiad: Operatic Poetry.

So, why not hear from them individually and then judge the merits or demerits of their work by the public through the press? That was the assumption. Unfortunately, many of the journalists who interviewed them had not read their entries, except for a few. As it is, the ball is still in the court of the judges to crown Nigeria’s poet laureate for 2017.

In the judges’ estimation, they have all written well, for as John Sheffield, a seventeenth century English writer and critic once observed, “Of all those arts in which the wise excel, nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well.”

And now, like the biblical three wise men on the trail of the new-born Jesus, the Nigerian poets are on their own private odyssey to become a laureate among an already crowded constellation of Nigeria’s literary stars.

After a hefty three-course lunch that should otherwise send an incautious reporter to sleep, Oke got us on the edge of the sit. He arrived dressed as a Zulu warrior, complete with an Ogbuefi cap, without Shaka’s short fighting sword though, but with a spotless flywhisk nonetheless. His was one sartorial expression that caught you off guard.

The Heresiad has similarly taken the literary establishment in Nigeria by storm. Nearly 550 lines in heroic couplet, it is Miltonian in scope and has taken the poet 27 years to write. “I started writing it in 1989 in Calabar,” Oke told me. At the time, he didn’t have the award in mind. Of course, the Nigeria Prize for literature was still years away. With each passing day, week, month, year, Oke wrote lines upon lines, like a bricklayer adding a few more blocks until the building is completed.

Like Lucifer after his fall in Milton’s Paradise Lost and his cohorts making a case for the dethronement of man, the characters in The Heresiad also argue for and against the death of an author who has transgressed a ruler. It is impossible not to think of Salman Rushdie as a model for Zumba, Oke’s embattled protagonist.

Hear Zumba in one of his moments of distress: “The contours of his worries thus surveyed,/ Our author, Zumba, bent his knees and prayed:/ ‘Gracious monarch, please don’t take my life -/ Spare a thought for Mercy – that’s my wife -/ And our children who, without a crime,/ May lose their father long before their prime.”

On and on it goes, nearly six hundred lines of rhymes going back and forth on whether to kill or spare a writer. In the end, Zumba is saved. It is impossible for any reader not to marvel at Oke’s hard work in The Heresiad, especially the rhyme scheme so effectively deployed. Oke himself acknowledged the influence of Alexander Pope, 18th century English poet who famously invented heroic couplet. “Pope is a poet I read and admire so much,” Oke insists.

That style is precisely the problem some critics see in The Heresiad. No contemporary poem should be written the way Oke has done. It is like taking writing, poetry this time, several centuries back, to the time of Pope.

Odia Ofeimun, himself an accomplished poet, admits that Oke has done enormous work with The Heresiad. “Ikeogu is one of our most enterprising poets and The Heresiad is a particularly ambitious work,” he told me. “It comes at you as a laboured text in pursuit of the kind of eighteenth century poetic diction that Henry Wardsworth Longfellow damned in his Introduction to the Lyrical Ballads. He has turned his back on the poetry of everyday speech to rummage in what he calls, but I would not accept as, heroic couplets. What he has done yields a stylistic dead end that I would not recommend as a model for Nigerian or African poetry in 2017.”

Asked about that, Oke rose stoutly to his own defense, insisting that “poets should exercise faith in themselves, in their creativity. I don’t think that artists should work according to the prescription of other people. Do your work and have the boldness to produce it and put it out there for people to judge.” Oke feels it an honour to be shortlisted with Ifowodo and Ojaide, poets he is quite familiar with their works and who he admires. He also says that if he wins, all well and good. But if he doesn’t, life will go on.

Life will also go on for Ifowodo and Ojaide if they win or not. When we met Ojaide at the same venue, life seemed to be going swimmingly. Like his contenders, he has been chaperoned all week by staff of LNG at the swank hotel overlooking the ocean, very much like cosseted progenies, making sure everything went well, making sure they lacked nothing. Ojaide had just had lunch and was modestly dressed in light green brocade, his voice even more modest, avuncular and clearly the oldest of the three candidates hoping to become Nigeria’s poet laureate early next week.

Indeed, it was Ojaide who told Evelyn and I he is not above the Nigeria Prize for Literature as mentioned in the opening quote of this piece. The reason is not hard to see. He has won every possible literary prize you can think of, home and away, starting from 1987 when he won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Africa Region. Others have followed closely: All-Africa Okigbo Prize for Poetry in 1988, 1997, BBC Arts and Africa Poetry Award in 1988, the Association of Nigerian Authors Poetry Award in 1988, 1994, 2003 and 2011.

If awards can trace the trajectory of an author’s career, Ojaide’s has been very successful. He is also a good poet, a damn good one. This nomination as one of the last three poets standing, and a likely winner at that, is confirmation of his artistry and craftsmanship. Song of Myself: Quartet is a lively collection of more than 90 poems ranging from his native Niger Delta to far flung places such as Lampedusa in Italy and Kilifi in Kenya. The themes are as varied, sometimes taking digs at distrustful traditional rulers in the Niger Delta who make frequent trips to Abuja to collude with government at the expense of the masses in the Niger Delta, sometimes taking gentle jibes at poets like him in “Wayo Man.”

In it, Ojaide writes, “Once you hail me a minstrel, a poet of a kind,/ I won’t fault you for calling me wayo man./ Do I not fabricate tall tales, call them lies,/ to be applauded by large theatre audiences/ do I not turn facts to fiction, don’t call them faction,/ for readers to argue about them as one or the other/ do I not swear by the pen that fiction is fact/ factoring in gullibility of intelligent readers?”

In “Exile Island,” for instance, Ojaide imagines the environmental despoliation that would still be part of an already polluted community in the Niger Delta: “And here in Amassoma, hundreds of years later,/ I come for inspiration for songs not yet sung/ to the town whose name excoriates my people’s/ conscience; I come to research trunks of stumps./ To Amassoma, exile island of helpless forebears,/ I come a lugubrious heart for rites of atonement.”

Hearing Ojaide talk and browsing his Song, you get the impression of a truly informed mind, just about anything. There is a reference to Guernica (pronounced Genica) one of Picasso’s most famous paintings depicting the destruction of a town in the north of Spain during the Spanish civil war. The poem itself concerns Gbaramatu, a kingdom by the Warri River after its destruction by the Nigerian military when they flattened the community in their search for Tompolo, a militant in the Niger Delta. Of course, Tomoplo was not anywhere nearby. But Ojaide was there. The wailing of the women of Gbaramatu was unforgettable to him, wailing, he now remembers “that is comparable to the wailing of those in Guernica.”

Ojaide’s colleagues old and young hail him for his tenacity and sheer dedication to poetry. Ofeimun is one and had this to say about him: “Ojade is already very much part of the Nigerian canon,” he says by way of general assessment. “His Songs of Myself is a bold restatement of his much admired poetry. But that is the rub, as Shakespeare lovers would say. The elevation of language capsizes in this collection to the point of banality. It is not just a case of “if you have read one, you have read all.” It is a case of the master using himself as his own model.”

Ojaide himself has been voluble about the poetry or creative writing of younger Nigerian writers. On the day we met him, he wondered, rhetorically, how young writers now can write “poetry without having a proper understanding of English?” Besides that, to be able to write well, you have to read extensively and be familiar with works by senior and accomplished authors, the masters such as the Achebes, Clarks, Soyinkas, Okpewhors, etc. “I read them long before I started writing.”
Ifowodo is one writer who lays a good claim to having read the masters. Indeed, on the day I interviewed him, I went with a guest, Tosin Otitoju, a blogger and poet who also entered the poetry competition. She was courageous and humble enough to admit it. Straight away, without any cue, she asked Ifowodo when he became conscious of poetry. Straight away, Ifowodo started reciting Pablo Neruda’s “Body of a Woman,” all of it, in a stentorian voice as if he just read it yesterday. We were mesmerized.

So have the judges been bowled over by his collection, A Good Mourning, a book that is no more than 80 pages but has a thing or two to mule over anywhere in the world and on just about any topic that is fodder for his poetic cannon.

The opening poem, “History Lessons,” is a remembrance of his days in secondary school, the same time he came across Neruda’s poem. Ifowodo did not start out as a poet. He read law at the University of Benin but poetry has become part of him as the creeks are an environmental reality in the Niger Delta where he comes from. Such is the worth of his poems that some have been published in Times Literary Supplement and one collection, Migrations, an African Italian anthology, recommended years back by Kongi himself for the Lagos Book Heritage Festival.

What is remarkable about Ifowodo’s poetry, in A Good Mourning, according to Professor Harry Garuba, author of Shadow and Dreams and teacher at the University of Witwatersrand, Cape Town is “the calm, controlled lyricism.” For Garuba, it is “testament to the power of the aesthetic to raise a soulful song, a cry for social justice.”

The poem from which the book derives its title, “A Good Mourning,” is a lyrical paean for justice. It is dedicated to MKO Abiola and traces the businessman’s rustic upbringing, Nigeria’s near collapse after the June 12 election. “Had he kept to gathering/ firewood, scouring the forests/ of Abeokuta for dead branches/ to keep the pot boiling/ in an old woman’s kitchen/ he might be alive today.” It is by far the longest poem in the collection but captures and compresses a brief history of Nigeria into a veritable tale of “soulful song.”

Most of the poems follow this trend, not mindful of the title, oxymoronic as it is. Can anyone imagine what good can come from mourning? Such is Ifowodo’s juxtaposition of sorrowful moments in time with celebration of life. “To name a hero” is dedicated to Festus Iyayi, a writer, university don and activist, who died under very questionable circumstances years ago. Another is dedicated to Bola Ige, whose assassination has befuddled Nigerians till today.

In the “Forbidden Tree,” the title poem for Ige, Ifowodo writes: “Death strolled into your bedroom like a bosom friend/ for whose coming and going you had kept the doors ajar,/ Death borne by the steady hands of paid hoodlums/ felt well enough at home to need just one bullet.”
On his new collection, Ofeimun admits that Ifowodo’s A Good Mourning “stands out because it draws attention to the techniques of its high quality, by the freshness of truly new poetry, one that holds a key for the present into the future.”

In no distant time, Ifowodo, Ojaide or Oke would be the last poet standing in LNG’s highly regarded and prestigious award for literature. That person, alone, would become the new face of Nigerian, nay, African poetry. Meanwhile, the entire literary establishment in Nigeria, and the contenders themselves are waiting with febrile anticipation, waiting for one of the judges to announce on Monday October 9 that the winner is…
––Jimoh writes from Lagos