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EZENWA-OHAETO REACHED A HEIGHT OF HONESTY, PASSION AND VULNERABILITY IN ‘I BURN INCENSES BEFORE SLEEP’: A REVIEW OF EOPP 2018 WINNING POEM BY OYINDAMOLA SHOOLA

According to the organizers, the reason for instituting the annual ERIATA ORIBHABOR POETRY PRIZE (EOPP) 2018, of which I was a co-judge, is to “give the much-needed attention to Nigerian poetry and encourage young Nigerian poets to use poetry as a tool for social change.” This is laudable.

I have learned from experience that people who have changed our communities and worldviews are those who are willing to go to those places others shy away from – In thoughts, words, and actions. Change agents are people who are not afraid of offending others while implementing the change they desire for the best of those who are around them and beyond.

This is also applicable in poetry. When I see prompts like the one for EOPP 201 contest – which called for “well-worded poems on the sub-themes of Unity, Truth, Justice, Change and Sustainable Development in society, with focus on Nigeria; her people, cultures, experiences, hopes, and aspirations”, I looked for poetry that isn’t tame: one that is vulnerable and raw, with unique perspective, passion, and influence that impacts everyone, even those who are not poetry lovers.

Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto, winner of the Eriata Oribhabor Poetry Prize (EOPP) 2018

One mistake poets make when submitting for contests with prompts like this is that they easily fall to the familiar ideas, forgetting that many other entrants may propose the same idea and perspective. This was evident as we judged the EOPP 2018.

The winning, ‘I Burn Incenses before Sleep’ by Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto, employed the magic of pronouns using “You” in establishing rapport with the audience.  At first read, you will find that it is distinguishable and with intent. It was unlike many of the entries which fell into the common spell of starting their poems with lyrics from the Nigerian anthem or pledge just because the prompt asks that the entrants focus on Nigeria.

READ THE POEM IN THE EOPP 2018 CHAPBOOK – (FREE DOWNLOAD)

‘I Burn Incenses before Sleep’, like the other poems in the top 3: ‘The Sound of Rainbow and ‘A Patriot’s Requiem or an Immigrant’s Testament’, found ways to make the prompt personal to them and their readers. This is good because, whenever a reader picks a book or any material to read, the subconscious is always trying to find where to connect to in the writer’s work.

While ‘The Sound of Rainbow and ‘A Patriot’s Requiem or an Immigrant’s Testament’ may not have used the pronoun “You,” they have similar effects. Their use of the pronoun “I” personalizes the poem and does two jobs simultaneously. It tells their own story and makes the reader own the story so that, if the poem were to be read aloud, it would be personal and the reader would have a higher level of emotional commitment or connection to the work.

It is important to note here that it is not wrong to write using pronouns and identifiable characters in poems. However, as writers, we need to be conscious of the different effects that our choice of words have on our readers and the target demographic.

Another thing I look for in poems (and contests like this) is how the writer employs the knowledge that the target audience has (or should have). In ‘I Burn Incenses before Sleep’, Ezenwa-Ohaetocreatively references and highlights different stories of Nigerian sufferings and problems that have made headlines such as terrorism, jungle justice, homosexualism and more. Unlike many of the other poems which dwelled on a singular idea or problem to elaborate on, this poem dabbled safely and quickly with these highlights that were excellent representation of many areas that the contest prompts demanded.

Burning Incense (Pexels.com)

In lines 3-9 the poet says;

Hauwa, she grew a garden, and harvested blasted bones. Abiodun, she went to the market 

and her breath faded in the smoke. Onyejeno, he saw a friend off near Okpokwu and 

was burned alive. Sochimma, she held a school of flowers and was pulsed through knives. 

Ehi’zogie, his brother’s body was placed into a lighted tire for kissing a boy. 

Ebuka, Olisa’s friend, drowned with the mangled bodies sprouting at his backyard. 

Onoriode, she admired the moon and was nailed down into a burlap for godheads. 

Odimegwu, he stepped out for a stroll and caught a halo of blood around his neck. 

Another point that I like to rate poems is how the poet utilizes the characters created and makes their voice distinct. The characters in ‘I Burn Incenses before Sleep’ seem to have actual lives and experiences and the author did not just give them names with a swirl of words around them. Each character is purposeful.

Tolu Akinyemi once told me (when I was struggling with switching from poetry writing to short story writing) that it might be helpful to see poetry as a summarized version of a short story and a short story as an elaborated version of a poem. Ezenwa-Ohaetoproved this, as a reader could almost imaginatively create the life and existence of his poem’s characters.

Beyond the common themes and values that prompts insight, I always look for things the prompt didn’t directly ask for but the poet uses excellently. The EOPP 2018 winning poem does this by pinching subtopics such as hypocrisy in Nigeria, something we can all can relate to.

Especially, through the eyes of religion, we have been cajoled into believing that human-made problems are somewhat beyond human-made fixing; therefore, God should come down from heaven to get them sorted. Ezenwa-Ohaetowrote: “they hold elections with armed forces and fight terrorism with prayers.” This line says a lot aside from underlining the contrasts in our human actions and demands. It was a home run form me.

READ THE POEM IN THE EOPP 2018 CHAPBOOK – (FREE DOWNLOAD)

Finally, the last stanza of ‘I Burn Incenses before Sleep’, reminds me of a saying by one of my favorite authors, Mitchell Jackson, the author of The Residue Years and Survival Math. When I meet him, I asked: “how do you know that you are at the ending of your work?” His response, something that I’ll never forget, was: “You know that you are at the end when it takes you back to the beginning.” Ezenwa-Ohaeto’s poem does that. It didn’t leave the reader hanging as many poets do. It gave closure by returning to the beginning. It also gave the reader an action to take from its lessons.

The last stanza read:

Yet, every night I burn incenses before sleep,

hoping that each dawn will someday

bring a new smile here: where people will grow to age; 

where people can stay and fit in; where love will flower and bloom 

and where peace and unity will grow for people in here to stay as one.

In ‘I Burn Incenses before Sleep’, you will find back to back ‘aha moments’ that Ezenwa-Ohaeto forged from ideas and perspectives many of us must have pondered but discarded, probably out of the fear of offending our social relations, and popular religious opinions – questioning but refusing to express.

With respect to the poet’s style in ‘I Burn Incenses before Sleep’, I particularly like the unconventional line breaks and intriguing word-coinage and simply to understand by intriguing imagery. I also loved the poem’s overall message about lives that have been lost, cut short by the misfortunes that Nigeria bears.

At this point, I will like to point out one thing that many developing poets fail to realize in poetry writing: THE TITLE SERVES THE PURPOSE OF INVITING YOUR READER. So, if it isn’t appealing enough, it can chase a reader away. The title is what the poem explores, which is why one may read poems and ask: “so, how does this relate to the title?”. Therefore, titles should be there with intention and not just for decoration. Ezenwa-Ohaeto’s title sold the poem to me at first read.

READ THE POEM IN THE EOPP 2018 CHAPBOOK – (FREE DOWNLOAD)

For me, in ‘I Burn Incenses before Sleep’, Ezenwa-Ohaeto reached a height of honesty, passion and vulnerability, one that flawlessly implements its didactics and has the power to affect people, things and systems that we hold on to religiously.

He is the type of writer who bears the spirits of great Nigerian poets and lyricists such as Wole Soyinka, Odia Ofeimun, Femi Osafisan, Fela Kuti Anikulapo; writers who refused to be cowards, facing Nigeria’s many problems with positive anger.


The ERIATA ORIBHABOR POETRY PRIZE (EOPP) is an annual literary prize instituted in November 2012 to give the much-needed attention Nigerian poetry deserves and encourage young Nigerian poets to use poetry as a tool for social change. The Prize finds its purpose in the belief that poetry and the arts are agents of social change that must routinely encouraged.

Author: Oyindamola Shoola

SHOOLA OYINDAMOLA was born and raised in Ibadan, Nigeria. She is a published poet, a feminist, a mentor, a blogger and Co-founder and Resource manager of Sprinng Literary Movement. She loves to writes poems, essays and her non-classifiable opinions. She uses her writing skills with her feminist drive to discuss the gender injustices that need to be fixed. Her first collection of poems is titled “Heartbeat”. Her second, To Bee A Honey, was published in 2017.

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