‘… A cross-generational selection of poets… thematic concerns reflect enduring quality of poetry by Nigerians’
By Ozoro Opute
(The longlisted poems and poets as announced by the Chairperson of the prize’s Advisory Board, Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo flanked by her board members – Professors Olu Obafemi and Ahmed Yerima: – Augusta’s Poodle by Ogaga Ifowodo, Coming Undone As Stitches Tighten by Iquo DianaAbasi, dispossessed by James Eze, Ife Testament by Olusegun Adekoya, Memory and the Call of Waters by S. Su’eddie Agema, Nomad by Romeo Oriogun, The Lilt of the Rebel by Obari Gomba, The Love of Canticles by Chijioke Nnadi Amu, Wanderer Cantos by Remi Raji, Yawns and Belchies by Joe Ushie and Your Crib, My Qibla by Saddiq Dzukogi)
THE Network of Book Clubs and Reading Promoters in Nigeria (NBRP) and writers’ bodies have applauded the release of the longlist for The Nigerian Prize for Literature 2022 (poetry category) and commended Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas Limited for keeping faith with the prize process through the years.
In support of the laudable objectives of the initiative (NBRP), also known as the Network, led by Mr. Richard Mammah, is opening up its platforms to support awareness of the longlisted books and writers through encouraging its members countrywide to read and discuss the books in the list, including where scheduled, having the writers themselves in attendance. It made this known in a statement signed by the Network’s Secretary, Mr. Emmanuel Okoro.
“This is an excellent opportunity to get people reading,” Richard Mammah, President of the Network, said, adding that “The Nigeria Prize for Literature longlist has opened an exciting season of reading that will linger on long after the winner has been announced.”
Established in February 2020, NBRP is the umbrella amalgam of all book clubs and reading promoters in the country and only recently carried out a pilot countrywide survey of the state of reading infrastructure (mostly libraries) in Nigeria with a focus on Abia, Lagos, Akwa Ibom, Rivers State and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The second phase of the project will extend the coverage area of the survey to encompass the other states in the country. The organization also holds an annual National Conference and Annual General Meeting (AGM) scheduled for September every year with the 2022 edition billed for Watbridge Hotel, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State.
Also, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) shared similar sentiment with the Network of book clubs. In a reaction by its PRO, Umar Yogiza, ANA said, “The list came not as a surprise to the association. Su’eddie Vershima Agema, Joe Ushie, James Eze, Obari Gomba, Amu Nnadi, Remi Raji, Ogaga Ifowodo, all had been past ANA Poetry Prize winners. Iquo DianaAbasi has been making a statement for a while; Sadiq Dzukogi whose poetry has deepened had been an ANA shortlist and Romeo Oriogun, after winning the Brunel Prize too, ungraded his brand of poetry. It gladdens me, seeing almost all of them, mentors and friends at once. It highlights the clean health of the rigorous breeding space created in ANA.”
Curator of Poets in Nigeria (PIN), Sir Eriata Oribhabor, is also excited about the longlist when he said, “The list, as announced by the judges, is a welcome development that will help in keeping the fire of poetry alive. With names like Iquo DianaAbasi and Obari Gomba who had made the list in the past, it shows the dogged efforts of concerned poets toward creative excellence. It is an endorsement of the efforts of younger poets like Romeo Oriogun and Saddiq Dzukogi. With long standing contributions of others to creative enhancement in our country, one will give it to the judges for other (poets)s like James Eze, Olusegun Adekoya, Su’eddie Agema, Chijioke Amu Nnaji, Remi Raji and Joe Ushie. Whoever eventually wins the award is deserving of it.”
Organiser of Lagos International Poetry Festival (LIPFest), Mr. Efe Paul Azino simply calls the list ‘solid’ and congratulates all the poets, adding, “It’s a solid list indeed and congratulations to all the poets on it. Selecting a longlist of eleven from over 200 entries is a tough task by any measure. So, well done to the judges for whittling down to one of the most competitive longlists we’ve seen in years.”
Azino also commended the cross-generational longlist, noting, “It’s a cross-generational selection of poets spread across a range of thematic concerns that reflect the enduring quality of poetry by Nigerians, and I’m very excited to see the genre still alive and thriving in spite of the structural limitations that have dogged it, particularly in recent times.”
For ANA, “The Nigeria Prize for Literature (poetry category) is always the toughest, simply because we are blessed with a lot of good poets in Nigeria. The list excites me. When you are on the list, when you’ve submitted your work, you’ll be anxious; partly sad and partly happy, waiting, waiting and thinking about the outcome. All the poets on the longlist deserve to be there; going through their works you’ll see patriotism and zeal for the betterment of the society. They’ve all worked so hard day and night to be there.”
Oribhabor similarly expressed excitement at the list, saying, “Yes. I am excited because whomever wins (will) win squarely and deservedly.”
A common feature of the longlist is the recurrence of poets who got to this stage in previous editions in the poetry category, with some even getting to the final three.
For ANA, “It’s good and healthy; it breeds talents and geniuses. You have to work extra hard to outshine living legends, who have so many classic collections. I think the reoccurring poets keep on working hard on their craft. When you see poets like Agema, Nnadi, Gomba, Raji, Ifowodo, etc working hard day and night to improve their craft, you don’t need a prophet to tell you (to) improve your work. At last, it all comes to the judge’s taste.”
For Oribhabor also, “There is nothing bad in this recurrence because it tells (you) how tasking it is to be up there poetically while challenging others to step up their crafting game.”
Azino expresses ambivalence about the recurrence of poets on the list, noting, “I’m somewhat ambivalent about this. I think the list bears some exciting and relatively new or younger talent, from Romeo Oriogun to Saddiq Dzukogi and Su’eddie Agema, which is a clear departure from previous years and perhaps the result of the injection of newer sets of eyes like Dike Chukwumerije and Toyin Adewale-Gabriel. But it’s also a good thing to see stalwarts like Remi Raji, Amu Nnadi and Obari Gomba still holding forth prodigiously, showing that time and age do not diminish talent.”
With this apparent diversity of talents, how hard pressed could the work of the judges be to come up with the last three and possible winner?
“It’s a hard choice before the jury,” ANA spokesman Yogiza said, “we have 11 great books at hand! Being a judge or jury for The Nigeria Prize for Literature (poetry category), I think, is one of the hardest tasks for a writer. You’ll have to battle your conscience to the very end keeping people’s opinion about your decision within you. We have to commend the judges. It’s not easy within this short time to select best eleven books from over 250 poetry books. What might be the jury’s enemy is time and space to accommodate other beautiful collections.”
“I give it to members of the jury for their yeoman’s efforts,” Oribhabor couldn’t agree less, just as Azino is awed, noting, “Oh, to be a fly on the wall. An exciting and unenviable task, no doubt.”
With over 250 poets entering their works for the poetry prize this year, what does this say about poetry production in the country where reading is at its lowest ebb? For ANA, the high number is because of the huge prize money at stake – USD$100,000. But PIN curator thinks differently, anchoring it on a strong poetic consciousness in the country. Azino adds a completely different factor, noting that historical accounting is at work while hoping that readership should strive to catch up with the volume of production some day soon.
“You see these high numbers of entries, simply because it’s NLNG prize, because of the money in it,” ANA PRO, Yogiza, said. “Some poets are only after the money, not reading nor (embarking on) book promotion. How many of these over 250 books are there in the market presently that should attract people’s attention? Reading culture in the country is low, because we are not doing enough of sacrifices as writers and promoters. We have to write books that people want to read or create a conducive atmosphere that stir interest in what we are writing.
“We are not reading, for example, and we are expecting our children, younger ones and the public to read. Look at the hyping and promotions in the movie and music industry? We don’t have that in the book industry. We have more and more writers than critics, promoters, and reviewers. Writers have to create content that can entice the reader; some good contents sell themselves without much advert.”
However, for Oribhabor, “The huge number of entries is a show of how much poetry is being embraced by our people. Secondly, the more people are engaged in writing poetry, the more likely will there be readers of poetry, because each writer has a community of followers who may be poets or otherwise.”
But Azino takes the historical accounting route, saying, “It’s important that the rumoured state of the country’s reading culture does not affect or dictate production and supply. Let as many as can continue to bear witness, and perhaps, the reading (culture) will catch up. And even of it does not, then history will account for the many voices that continued to ring out regardless.”
Just as it was in the Pan-African Writers Association’s (PAWA) Poetry Prize 2022 in March where Obari Gomba won, which forced the female lead jury Maureen Isaacson to remark about the absence of female poets, only one female poet, Iquo DianaAbasi, made this year’s longlist of, as she was also in 2013. What future for Nigerian female poets?
“When it comes to art prizes, there is no gender or faith bias,” ANA’s Yogiza submitted, “your good work sells you. I know many female poets that submitted their works, but it’s The Nigeria Prize for Literature: only the money brings out the poets in some people. We have so many great poets: mentors, teachers and role models that are not on that longlist; it’s not about female. Literary contest is never about gender, or faith or location; it’s about merit and this is a message to other poets. You need to work extra hard and perfect your craft. The familiar faces are not going anywhere anytime soon. You can only defeat or outshine them with the quality of your work.”
“I am excited about the only female that made the list,” Oribhabor gushed. “Apart from the fact that she had previously made the list, she is one who has consistently offered her efforts at positioning the craft. Moreso, her poetry speaks a lot for society in lucid freshness. It is also saying that gender isn’t a criterion but merit.”
Azino is concerned at this paucity and sued for a wider coverage, noting, “A bit curious to be honest, because I think the last couple of years have seen a flowering of incredibly talented female poets, and that the prize does not reflect this might be a signal that it needs to cast a wider net beyond the shrinking circle of the literati.”