- * ‘The sheer range of poetic preoccupation so far is stunning’
- * ‘Esiaba Irobi, Ikeogwu Oke both left us rather young; both deaths affected me’
By Anote Ajeluorou
Tade Ipadeola won The Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2013 with his work The Sahara Testament, a work of great lyrical beauty. He would later be prize jury a few years later. In this interview with AnoteArtHub, Ipadeola highlights the serious work this year’s judges have before them in terms of the sheer quality of poetry that has been published in recent years and which would likely be entered for this year’s prize
The Nigeria Prize for Literature this year is for poetry which you won a few years ago. Are you looking forward to reading what’s on offer from fellow poets?
Indeed. I’ve been reading new works in the genre from about early 2020, some published, some still in manuscript form. If those works are submitted, the judges have their work cut out for them. The sheer range of poetic preoccupation in what I’ve seen so far is stunning. This is good for the country and it is good for the craft. So far, I’ve been reading poets who wanted to write poetry and not just win a prize. That is so gratifying. There’s a quirky thing about The Nigeria Prize for Literature when compared with, say, the Pulitzer. Whereas the first thing that comes to mind with the Pulitzer isn’t how much is in the purse. The way The Nigeria Prize for Literature and The Nigeria Prize for Science, sponsored by Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas Limited, are communicated has overemphasized the size of the purse for too long. The prize has come into its own now; let it henceforth emphasize the very fact of the award. It will draw in even more serious readers.
You were the first non-academic to be part of the jury for the poetry prize. This year, there are two non-academics. Does this gladden your heart or would you rather the status quo remained – only academics as judges?
It’s a sea change, for sure. The way I see it, this is a very balanced panel of judges. Poetry is a peculiar genre, as you know. Mastery of the subject is everything. What matters is that those judging it must be able to tell good from bad poetry. Even more important, they must be able to distinguish between good and great poetry. In a sense, it really doesn’t matter whether all the judges are university professors, or whether they are all practicing poets (by the way, these categories are not mutually exclusive) – what matters is that they know their onions and have antecedents that show their standing.
Professor Romanus Egudu, for example, both wrote and critiqued poetry. He wouldn’t be out of place as a jury member for any poetry prize anywhere in the world. The kind of acumen a judge like that possesses is not a democratic function. That’s the ideal. The panel has succeeded only when the award is made for literary excellence and nothing else. The converse is also true. A panel fails if it awards the prize upon any other criterion apart from literary excellence. This is another way of saying that a balanced panel is fantastic and desirable but an award for excellence alone is the holy grail in measuring the worth of a panel.
A Nigerian poet Obari Gomba (PhD) just won the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA) Poetry Prize 2022 out of the five Nigerian poets who were shortlisted. Meaning that Nigerian poets conquered Africa. What does this say about poetry coming out of the country?
In some ways, Nigeria has had almost an outsized impact on the creation, curation and consumption of poetry written in English on the African continent. There are so many poets, as Mabel Segun observed decades ago, and most are working hard right now. Obari Gomba is nearing the peak of poetic productivity, if statistics amongst poets is anything to go by. He is also very focused and inventive. For a poet like that, recognition is almost bound to come sooner than later. This is not to dismiss fantastic work coming out of Zambia, Kenya, South Africa, Ghana and Uganda. Or poetry written in French, Portuguese, Kiswahili or Arabic. Actually, the arduous work is in translating all these. People are moving the centre all the time, or striving to.
So much poetry seems to be coming out of Nigeria even when we lament poor education and lack of reading. So who will read the poetry knowing that it’s a harder and exclusive genre?
How do we account for the increased interest in poetry among young people? It surely can’t be fame or money. Poetry always has its circle. Let me qualify that. It’s more like concentric circles. People are always going to love the lyric. Some of it bleeds into the music from Nigeria which now has the world in its grip. I’m actually surprised that it’s not just the lyric that has Nigerians enthused. I’ve seen a sizeable number of epics and mini epics recently. That’s surprising because we’re ostensibly in this age of attention deficit, of tweet length thinking and reflection. How do you explain the number of medical doctors, engineers, mathematicians, lawyers, actuarial scientists, journalists, sportsmen and sportswomen who not only write poetry in Nigeria but who discuss it intelligently online and in real time? It’s a populous country and the gung-ho poets, like cream, will rise to the top.
A culture critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo recently declared that Nigerian and African literature is dead. How do you react to such assertion?
Have you read The Impossible Death of the African Author by Odia Ofeimun? Well, the death of writing, of authorship, etc, etc, like the ‘death’ of God, is always recurring in the literary firmament. Ofeimun showed in his cerebral essay that it is always mistaken. Oris is thinking Nigerian literature is only English, or only polemical, both of which premises are untrue. Writing is flourishing in our indigenous languages. And in forms we are just discovering! I’m reading a book by (late Prof.) Akinwunmi Isola at the moment. He was doing ultra flash fiction years before it became a thing in English!
Unfortunately, two former poet laureates of this poetry prize passed on soon after they won – Esiaba Irobi won before you and Ikeogwu Oke won after you. What goes through your mind when you remember these poets?
You left out the venerable Gabriel Okara. I choose to celebrate their lives and their works. We’re not here forever and it is still a privilege to be recognized as a laureate in a country that is literally bursting with talent. Mortality means we can’t assume that we have till tomorrow to write or speak or sing or love. No one is promised tomorrow. So, I get nudged to write that poem as I’m a great procrastinator. Esiaba Irobi and Ikeogwu Oke both left us rather young and both deaths affected me because I knew both men. Very different temperaments and styles they both had and who knew what they would have evolved into two decades into the future?
Are our late culture workers being celebrated enough for what they did while they were here with us? What should be the norm?
Not nearly enough. And that is one reason why our society is in such dire straits. We’ve created these vast armies of soldiers of fortune. They think your worth is determined by how much is in your bank account. This wouldn’t happen if we took our time to actually give the gift of recognition to our people who work in these fields. And I hope the great physicists and chemists, the outstanding botanists and virologists, the singular musicologists and dancers among us are properly named and lionized, also. How many, among these children today, know who Sam Akpabot was? Who Yusuf Grillo was? To me, it’s almost a crime not to know who Harry Garuba was. When parents fail to impart into children the fundamental truth that money and beauty aren’t the same things, the culture atrophies by so much more. And we shouldn’t wait until they’re dead. That is like squandering the hoard they’ve built for us. That is like asking those still on the fields why they should labour so hard. We were not always like this.
As recently as the 1980s, young people who wanted to study certain subjects knew where Femi Osofisan taught drama. They knew where Biodun Jeyifo taught. They knew where Olorode taught, they knew who Nwabueze was. I came of age at a time that teenage Nigerians actually lamented that they missed being taught by J.P Clark, by Chinua Achebe, by Wole Soyinka. It didn’t matter whether you were a student at Igbobi or Iyanfọwọrọgi; you knew that Ifẹ had the most beautiful university campus in Africa; you knew that Grace Alele Williams shattered a glass ceiling and you knew that Chike Obi was faster than the computers of his time!