‘…We mustn’t over-valorise the socio-political’
Ogaga Ifowodo journeys back in time to childhood in Augusta’s Poodle to exhume those arresting memories that are peculiar to children and immerse his readers in the rites and rituals of growing up in his picturesque home place. He spoke with ANOTE AJELUOROU about his enchanting childhood and many more
Congratulations for making the longlist of The Nigeria Prize for Literature. How does it feel coming this far out of over 250 poets?
THANK you. As in every such situation, one must be glad. To make the longlist of 11 out of such an avalanche of entries is sure to make anyone feel some sense of satisfaction that the work has proven itself to a certain degree.
You have walked this path before and was among the last three in 2018, narrowly missing out of the big win. How exactly familiar is this path and what are your expectations this time around?
Very familiar! Frankly, every writer who makes it onto a longlist has a reasonable expectation of getting onto the short list and, eventually, clinching the prize. That was my expectation then and now as well!
What’s the thematic concern of your collection, Augusta’s Poodle? It’s rather inward-looking unlike your previous work, which is rather unlike you as a political activist. What informs this temperament?
Quite simply, it is recollection of childhood, a journey into the past to thread into a narrative spool those memories that have managed to survive the fog of forgetfulness. To re-experience the sense of awe, wonder and elation with which the child discovers, and enacts his being, in the world. The idea is that whatever survives forgetfulness, that does not resist recall, is something worth recounting. And the hope is to commemorate the rites and rituals, the faces and places and the flora and fauna that shaped the poet’s earliest consciousness. It is, if you like, a Rilke-an exultation in childhood, a sort of portrait of the poet as a child. It is my pastoral, I suppose; what The Oil Lamp could not be due to its more pointed political awareness. What, in short, Pablo Neruda so poignantly lamented in his poem “A Few Things Explained,” about the Spanish Civil War, worth quoting (it has long been a favourite of mine among many, of course, of Neruda’s work):
“Would you know why his poems
never mention the soil or the leaves,
the gigantic volcanoes of the country that bore him?
Come see the blood in the streets,
the blood in the streets,
come see the blood
in the streets!”
We may well scream, “Come see the blood in the creeks!” I happen to treasure my village boy upbringing which allowed me to connect to my environment in a direct and intimate, yet uncanny, way I wouldn’t exchange for anything even now that I have travelled the world a bit; even lived for a good stretch of my life in Europe and America. Augusta’s Poodle is the irrevocable staking of my plot of earth to renew my undying allegiance to place.
You’re among a strong cast of poets vying for the USD$100,000 The Nigeria Prize for Literature. How does this make you feel about your work? What’s your writing process?
I think there are two questions here but the first one, I believe, I have already answered; unless, of course, your emphasis is on the one-hundred-thousand-dollar-value of the prize! In which case, all I can say is that it is a tidy sum of money, obviously. It would be coveted by writers anywhere in the world. Actually, I don’t know many prizes that award above USD$50,000 (fifty thousand dollars), and even those are among the biggest and most coveted.
Over 250 poetry collections in a span of four years in a country where reading habit is said to be low, with public universities shut for over five months. Who exactly are these poets writing for? How does this poetic effusion help the reading anomaly?
I suspect that the USD$100,000 (one hundred thousand dollars prize) has something to do with it! And in that case, The Nigeria Prize for Literature, sponsored by Nigeria LNG Ltd, is to be congratulated for making so many writers out of Nigerians! It is true, of course, that public education, is in such a deplorable state as to be quite literally producing half-baked—no, unbaked—graduates at every level, but the terrain is not uniformly barren. A good number, either by natural talent needing only very little nurturing or the good fortune of attending private institutions at home or abroad, do come through. I believe that Nigerians read. What they read in the light of the general unavailability, and where available, unaffordability of good books ever since the onset of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) neo-liberal demolition of the economy in the late eighties, is another matter entirely.
But to me, anyone able to transform her thoughts into creative impulses that have a serious enough hold on her as to wish to write and publish them must have read some books at the very least. And there must, by the same token, be an audience, irrespective of size, for her. And if there’s such an audience in these most inauspicious of times, then it can only grow bigger when the proverbial years of fat follow the lean years.
You are among four academics on the longlist. What does this mean for students of English and Literature Studies? How much of the literary works of these lecturers are literature students exposed to compared with older lecturers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, JP Clark? Do you see a gap in terms of relevance to socio-cultural and political realities?
I left academia seven years ago. And even then, I was rather far from the scene here at home, having first made my insurgent entry into academe as a post-graduate student, and then as a lecturer, in the United States. I do not know, therefore, how much of the work of my contemporaries is being taught, though it has now and then filtered into my ears that some attention is definitely being paid to a number of us. Then there are the occasional enquiries and entreaties by final year and post-graduate students regarding this or that of one’s volumes. I also know that more and more academics are devoting critical attention to the work of my generation. How far or extensive these efforts have been or are currently, I can’t tell. As to the last question, no, I don’t see any gap in terms of relevance or engagement with the realities of our time.
You, along with two other poets on the longlist, can be described as veterans having appeared at this stage and beyond before but without winning it. What does your mind tell you at this stage?
I think I have answered this question, but to restate: I have every expectation of winning this time!
What would you say is the state of creative writing in the country? Is it healthy enough? And how has it matched the socio-political space in terms of defining it for the understanding of future generations?
It is, to use your word, effusive! And that can only be healthy. The thematic range of just 11 out of the 237 entries for the prize already testifies to their engagement with the concerns and preoccupations that every human space will have. We mustn’t over-valorise the socio-political. No matter how oppressive the political climate, we have private lives, which to a large extent inform our responses to governance and social calamities, to even natural disasters! So, in grappling with reality, the feelings and emotions they stir in us, complexity ineradicably attends our thoughts and actions. I think that in this respect, we ought always to remind ourselves of the feminist axiom that the personal is political. As long as the writing is honest, true to its seminal experience or intuition, it is bound to have some reference to its social milieu. If it manages to fail completely to do so, then it will be hard put finding an audience but such works are most likely to be in the minority and unlikely to survive their time, never mind being relevant to future generations, except perhaps as mere artefact.
You’re a member of the ruling party in a year you decide to look inward in your poetry and away from the current leadership failure. Your co-travellers in activism might see you as a sell-out for not engaging the failures of leadership that your party exemplifies at the moment. How do you respond to such criticism?
My answer to the previous question will do as well here but I will add only that our lives are far fuller than the politics of the moment. Is it implied that because of bad governance, corruption, greed, war, violent crimes and conflicts, betrayal — name any social malaise — all of which have plagued humanity since the very beginnings of coming into society, poets are not to write about any of the other attributes and aspects of life, of what is often referred to as the human condition? Is love dead because of politics? And marriage, the birthing and raising of children? Does thunder no longer rumble in the sky? Has nature ceased to be enchanting, calming and awe-inspiring?
Well, my last book, A Good Mourning, cannot be said to be anything but a reflection on the socio-political, with the tragedy of the June 12, 1993 debacle as the pivot. My first three collections are for the most part also politically engaged. Would any such putative critic insist that I write about nothing else? Come to think of it, isn’t a pastoral, such as Augusta’s Poodle, actually a deep sigh and longing all at once for that which is desired even now, and so to that extent commentary on the present? Indeed, isn’t the clear and present danger posed by climate change as a result of the reckless, mind-boggling devastation of earth arguably a more urgent justification for pastorals? I doubt that any self-respecting critic would want a poet to plough the lone furrow of the so-called socio-political, narrowly defined, I must say. Poetry and the world would be poorer for that! I don’t know of any serious writer who has accepted such limitation of vision, of how far he or she may range with the muse.
Take the immortal Shakespeare. The author of King Lear, Macbeth and the other great tragedies, is also the author of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and other comedies, as well as the love sonnets. And in the 20th century, you can also take Pablo Neruda, a political activist whose career was almost equally devoted to the socio-political on the one hand, and love and nature poetry, on the other.
You have followed the prize activities for some time now in its 18 years of existence. How would you rate it? What areas of improvement do you wish to see?
I did have an opinion at the beginning when the prize was first announced, in particular on the controversial decision to limit it to home-based writers. I felt that a prize as ambitious as it set out to be, which even at $20,000 initially was already a big prize, and calling itself the Nigerian literature prize, should have every living Nigerian writer eligible for it, no matter where he or she resided. But that was happily reversed and the prize has since grown in stature to become the most coveted one on the continent and one of the biggest ever anywhere. If there is any area in which I think it might improve, it would have to be the judging process. As with any literary prize, its integrity depends on ensuring that the most deserving work wins. And that, it goes without saying, starts with the judges who must command the respect of the reading public, in each of the genres for which it is awarded, and that the process, from submission of entries to the announcement of the winner, is not in any way compromised.
Only one female writer made the longlist, the second in the prize’s history. As a (former) teacher, is that a poor testimonial about female writers in the poetry genre?
No, it certainly isn’t. It has more to do, I think, with the transgenerational male privilege that leads to boys, statistically, ending up dominating the various professional fields but that is fast fading, and we will be seeing more women in the running not too long from now. At least, I hope so.
There are four poets from the Niger Delta alone vying for the prize out of eleven. That seems significant. What would you say accounts for this seeming dominance?
I wouldn’t call it dominance, unless of course that is backed by an analysis of the long lists since the prize was founded; not just from one year’s competition or in one genre. The showing of the Niger Delta writers this year, I suspect, is just a coincidence. That said, the region presents some of the most vexing socio-political issues hounding the country from birth, was even a critical factor in the (Nigeria) Civil War, which is why the Niger Delta is commonly described as a microcosm of the Nigerian problem of structure, form and goal of our government. Naturally, the writers of this region have all the inspiration they need!
However, in spite of this dominance, none of the works on the longlist addresses the problems of the Niger Delta as was the case in previous years. Is there a fatigue in writing about the perennial issues, since such writing has gone largely unheeded by government over the years to effect remediation?
Again, I will attribute this to coincidence. Literature’s province is all of life, all that pertains to the condition of being human. Yet a book of poems, however directly engaged with social issues, however (auto)biographical it might even purport to be, cannot ever be a substitute for historical, journalistic or even scholarly treatments of the same subjects. As you know, I had a whole volume, my third, The Oil Lamp, devoted solely to the ecological and human cost of the shameful pillaging of the Niger Delta. Moreover, Niger Delta writers do not write for only their fellow denizens of the discontented creeks but for the whole of Nigeria, primarily, and the literary world in general. You have acknowledged that Niger Delta writers have been indefatigably engaged with the realities of the region, so it is not the case that they simply tired of engaging. For all we know, the poetry that was specifically centred on the anguish of Niger Delta in the past four years just did not make it out of the two hundred and more entries. I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions on the basis of the books on the longlist.
How can budding writers in the Niger Delta be engaged more critically about environmental degradation in the to continue from where writers like you have carried the crusade?
By listening to the inner biddings of their muse and writing as their inspiration moves them. This is one sphere of the writer’s work that certainly does not permit prescriptions. As long as they remain alive, sensitive to the realities of their time, they will invariably be engaged with those realities. And they will give expression to the impulses those realities awaken in them in any number of ways as dictated by their creative consciousness. I wouldn’t presume to tell any writer how she can engage or even disengage.
* Ifowodo’s Augusta’s Poodle is among the 11 poetry collection vying for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022.