13th December 2014: Over the weekend—two weekends back, I was handed the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Joint Prize for Poetry 2014 for my book, Home Equals Holes: Tale of an Exile alongside my friend, the poet, Ebi Yeibo (for his book The Fourth Masquerade). It had been a full weekend of literary fun as we had been hosted in the University of Ibadan to a marvelous convention by the President of ANA, Professor Remi Raji and his Executive. Much had happened that would fill the pages of a million books—and I think I would write a summary soon—but the evening of the dinner where the awards were to be announced was great. I had been shortlisted in the Prose category for my collection of short stories, The Bottom of Another Tale (I was second runner-up) and the poetry. At the dinner, I was sitting there with Saddiq Dzukogi (Shortlisted for his book, Sunbeam and Shadows), Remy Binte, and other fascinating poets like Iquo Eke, Servio Gbadamosi, Anselm Ngutsav, Jennifer Emelife, Debbie Iorliam, Ene Odaba, Celina Kile, Damian Jam, the novelist, Pever X, the critic, Terese Uwuave, and just a few paces away, the wonderful man and always writing poet, Chijioke Amu-Nnadi (winner of the ANA Poetry Prize 2013). Of course in the hall were a million others, amazing friends, revered writers and the like. It felt good to be in their midst.
Now, after the Prose category was announced, we all held our breaths… I told Saddiq that if he won, he would give me thirty percent. Iquo—or someone close by—said I would have to pay the same if I won. I refused, using the right of eldership pen-wise, to claim that it did not apply both ways. I whispered that I thought Ebi Yeibo’s book would win. Then the chief judge spoke as the hall went silent: out of over a hundred works entered, they had chosen a few on the shortlist. They had struggled to find a winner but discovered in the end that it had to be a tie. And the winner is ‘Su’eddie Vershima Agema with…’ I shot out of the chair. The joint-winner is Ebi Yeibo. Oh well, long story short, it was cool as we took pictures. I had to do the right thing and pay my percentage to Saddiq who on a good day would have done same if he had won.
Later as we discussed with the journalists and some interviewers, I mentioned that I preferred my first collection, Bring our casket home: Tales one shouldn’t tell to the second. I cited the reason being that the first was more raw with little editing. I was more careful in the second, editing and working on structure, balance amongst others. Maybe that’s why of the first, Hyginus Ekwuazi said that the collection would appeal more to readers who look out more for emotions than meaning. A clever journalist, the secretary of the Abuja Literary Society, Chinelo Chikelu asked if I didn’t defeat the whole essence of poetry in the second collection by losing the spontaneity and others of verse. Oh well, I replied her simply that I did not. All I did in the second collection was to be more careful and do a professional job.
I tried to write something new but thought again, why don’t I sieve through my material to see if I can find my voice in some formerly written article; one that would be innocent of any new pretensions? I did and found my answers to a Saraba interview when I was shortlisted for the Saraba Poetry Prize in 2013. I did some slight editing and it was ready. Thanks to Dami Ajayi and Emmanuel Iduma—for making that possible. This then—what follows—are my thoughts on poetry, and what I think my poetry is made up of. I have in there somewhere an answer to a question on a poem I wrote—‘Tales one shouldn’t tell’. I hope you find the reading worth your time.
Why I write poetry and its fascination…
So, why do I write poetry? Sometimes it is hard to simply say why one does something especially when that thing has become a way of life. It is like asking ‘Why do you breath?’ Several answers come to mind: ‘I write to pass messages’ ‘I write to change society’ ‘I write to … this or that’ I can think of a million reasons why I think I write, but the truth I believe is that I write poetry (scribble what I hope passes for poetry☺) because it is something that has come to be a part of me. Everything else follows–to pass a message, to let my soul speak to someone, to carry a code and all. All these follow but first, I write because it is part of who I have become. True as time goes on, it gets harder to write poetry because you are conscious of each word. When a few people begin to take you serious, more, when you begin to take what you do serious. Every word has its purpose. Is it really saying what you stand for? It becomes a tool … But maybe I am beginning to talk much like those writers with a purpose thing, abi? Hee hee hee. I be Naijaria man original!
One’s fascination with poetry comes in myriad reasons and when one is limited in words, you have to only pick a few and wonder if it suffices to show the extent of its beauty. Poetry is one genre that gives you the opportunity to tell a lot in so little. It brings the entirety of the vast lines of prose into a few tight lines that leave you as fulfilled as if you had read a whole work of prose. Imagine Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ as a poem. I dare say that many more people would have read the book to the end and enjoyed the profoundness. Imagine Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ as prose… Poetry weaves a lot into smaller fragments of such beautiful conciseness that leaves one marveling. Yes, it carries the action of plays too in that same conciseness. More than that, if you consider poetry to be the air out there, the breathtaking wonder of life, the stillness of nothing, the spirit of the moment; everything and nothing—then you see that poetry is indeed so much more than can be contained in words. It is the glue that brings it all together in beauty and just leaves you marveled with that ‘Wow’ feeling. Poetry. I can almost taste it now.
Is poetry important?
Who knows? Maybe. Maybe not. Okay, I am just being naughty. Poetry is important. It holds much together. While not too many people can grasp it singularly in its form in lines and stanzas, you can’t help but notice them bow when it comes out in other forms. Imagine the words as someone tries to woo another. Imagine the words as pearls of infinite wisdom pour out, for instance, in that form of our civilization that came from years on years till we can now contain in a few scripts. Think more now of apt descriptions in such imagery that leaves you marveled. Whether you find it in its strictest sense (of lines and stanzas that most people take as some form of Mathematics) or in its various other forms – as prose descriptions (as used by Toni Morrison, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Carlos Ruiz Zafôn, Unoma Azuah, Maik Ortserga, Pever X, Ada Agada, Toni Kan, Habila, Iduma e.t.c); those lines in a play (as perfected by the likes of Soyinka, Shakespeare, Hyginus Ekwuazi, Femi Osofisan, Jude Idada, Joshua Agbo and numerous others), then you would understand.
For the beauty of the other forms, there is reason to have poetry go on and on. Little wonder then that Chimamanda Adichie says she reads a lot of poetry before writing any work. NOTE that she stresses that she doesn’t write poetry… Read her work again and find out if you wouldn’t find it there.
So, in every way, yes, poetry is important as glue holding all together and on its own, as a distinct form that unites so much in so little bringing a beauty that only the most perfect of paintings or music can compete with.
What I aim for in my ‘poetic practice’, especially in relation to my poem, ‘Tales one shouldn’t tell’ (from Bring our casket home: Tales one shouldn’t tell)…
Saying what I aim for in ‘my practice’–I like the sound of that, practice, much like the lawyer stuff ☺–is really subjective to time, and specific experiences. It is always a response to something–a feeling, a movie watched; a poem or other literary work read; to a call for submission or a competition (kidding)…
There was once when I had to beg a sweetheart when we had an issue. ‘Mea Culpa’ (a poem I wrote) was born. At another time, I had to just bury some thoughts that wouldn’t leave except if I let them out. I spoke them much but thwey remained. I wrote, they remained but without the former burden they had carried.
It is the way my first published collection, Bring our casket home: tales one shouldn’t tell was born. An answer to many situations. In the poem, ‘Tales one shouldn’t tell often’, I was playing with the origin of man and sex. You know, both are so intertwined. If we can find an answer to the quarrel that has us at ends to choose between our ‘rod’ and the ‘Lord’, we might find some peace and ease to conscience and yes, loins (perhaps). That’s on the surface. Deeper levels? We can go on forever.
So, there you go: My poetry is a response to situations in the hope of a message passed that would touch someone somewhere and cause some change–whether it be a laugh, a hope or some transformation. Do I dare hope for so much?