…as NLNG-CORA 2022 Book Party celebrates 11 poets
‘… enlightenment, entertainment, and education are values literature offers reading community’
By Godwin Okondo
THE Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA), as usual continued its fruitful collaboration with Nigeria LNG Limited, sponsors of The Nigeria Prize for Literature, for the yearly Book Party that heralds the crowning of the winner of the biggest prize for a single book on the African continent and elsewhere. The event took place on Sunday, August 7, 2022. The 11 longlisted writers (poets, in this instance) are some of the finest literary geniuses plying their craft in the Nigerian and global cultural spaces.
Held inside the packed Shell hall of MUSON Centre, Onikan, Lagos, the Book Party event was simultaneously livestreamed on YouTube to admirers of literary culture the world over. The prize is rotated among four genres yearly – fiction, poetry, drama and children’s literature, with this year’s prize focusing on poetry. The handsome prize of USD$$100,000 is at stake for the winning poetry work. Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, a professor of Law at Babcock University, won the 2021 prose price for her novel, The Son of the House.
The 11 poetry books and their authors longlisted for this year’s award for whom the Book Party was staged are Augusta’s Poodle by Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo, Coming Undone As Stitches Tighten by Iquo DianaAbasi, dispossessed by James Eze, Memory and the Call of Waters by Su’eddie Agema and The Lilt of The Rebel by Dr. Obari Gomba, The Love Canticles by Chijioke Amu Nnadi, Wanderer Cantos by Prof. Remi Raji, and Yawns and Belches by Prof. Joseph Ushie. Three poets joined the Book Party virtually. They are Romeo Oriogun (Nomad), Prof. Olusegun Adekoya (Ife Testament), and Saddiq Dzukogi (Your Crib, My Qibla). The shortlist of three will be out next month, September while the winner will be announced in October.
While welcoming guests to the afternoon of literary enchantment, CORA board member, CORA Secretary General, Mr. Toyin Akinosho commended the gas company, Nigeria LNG Limited, for its steadfastness in supporting the prize in its 18-year history, saying, “We are here because a profitable Nigerian gas company decided that a way to spend some share of its profit is to enable the Nigerian reading space. I want to congratulate Nigeria LNG Ltd who are currently expanding their factory by 35% for the opportunity that the global market for gas continues to provide them, so that they have the incentive to continue to sponsor the prize.
“This afternoon, we’d be discussing a range of texts in the poetry form, a genre that is more Nigerianised than any of the genres in the literary arts firmament. As you all know, the Nigerian writer is firstly a poet, secondly a prose fiction stylist, thirdly a dramatist and fourthly, sometimes a children’s literature writer.
“Nothing beats a book reading, an event at which an author sits and discusses his work with readers in the room. The Book Party is one of the series of events in our Calendar that preface our annual Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF). The theme this year is: ‘Pathways to the Future.’”
Akinosho remarked that whoever won the prize would be the most literate Nigerian in the year of winning it, adding, “but what writers want, primarily, is to distinguish themselves with magical writing and gain a wide audience in the event. Simply put: the recognition is important. We are going to have an exciting time this afternoon, engaging with this star-studded cast of writers. Let us enjoy the moment.”
CORA chair and culture communicator, Mr. Jahman Anikulapo invited the writers to the stage to engage in a conversation with Nigerian linguist and writer, Kola Tubosun, who asked them about their literary journey, their inspiration and what poetry means for them.
Rather than the usual feature of getting performers to read the poems, the poets were made to read pieces from their own works themselves. This lent its own unique piquancy to the event and made the poets to inhabit the creative cocoons of their works. Although Ushie confessed to not being a good reader of his work, he did well enough to get the audience applauding him. DianaAbasi and Nnadi’s love poems titillated the audience immeasurably while Agema turned the audience to his mass choir which sang a refrain to his hope-filled prayer-poem, as well as Ifowodo, whose poem on child characters imitating the Nigeria Civil War as they marched and sang, was as dramatic as performative war songs go. Indeed, all the poets elevated poetry to a level where it immensely appealled to the audience with their reading and stripped poetry of its usually difficult, nebulous tag.
Ifowodo, who has made a foray into Nigeria’s testy politics, decided to journey back in time to a recollection of the magical moments of his childhood in his collection, told the audience, “My aim here is to recapture memories that have to do with an unusual childhood. I was born in one place and I opened my eyes to another. My father died when I was 11 months old, so my mother left my father’s hometown to her hometown. Sharing my time between the village and the city made me see life in a different way. I decided to capture those childhood memories, thereby commemorating and representing, thereby affirming my identity and place.”
Like most people, Ifowodo’s foray into poetry was also unusual, as he told the audience: “In my secondary school, Federal Government College, Warri, we had an annual Festival of Arts and Culture and one of the events was poetry among the four houses. In my fourth form, one evening, a lower sixth former turned to me and suggested I wrote a poem for our house, and I had never put words into writing before in that direction. So, I wrote a poem which won the first prize for my house.
“Poetry was my first act of expressing myself creatively, and later, I found out that poetry gave me the ability to be both spontaneous and be circumspect and to also go for language in figures, which is the language that lingers most and tend to endure. Without a metaphor, language tends to be wooden, and poetry gives me that expressiveness to be abstract and voluble as I can be.
“And for my inspiration, that’s very difficult question for so many writers because you (would) have swum with so many writers and stood on so many shoulders and it’s hard to choose one, but if I must choose, it will have to be (the Caribbean poet and playwright) Derek Walcott.”
On his journey into poetry, Eze, whose maiden poetry collection has also sparked a lyrical, musical temper in him, said, “My parents were victims of the Biafran war, and they were dispossessed of all they had. I lived with the memories of the stories they told me, and I still feel dispossessed of the things I should have, as a Nigerian citizen, and Nigeria has not treated me any better than my parents were treated. Our environment had made it difficult for us to heal from our wounds. It won’t be just me if my first poetry book, which dispossessed is, did not address the situation of people who seem to be dispossessed, not because they are lacking in ability, quality and any other thing. There are so many voices of tension rising in the country. We are all dispossessed in one way or another, and that is what my book addresses.”
Of his relationship with poetry, Eze said, “Poetry is a very intense and private moment when I find it easy to shed silent tears without being afraid of my expression. It’s a look to encounter, and then, looking upwards, I have a new binoculars to engage my environment. I’m inspired by the emotions around me, my sense of history and justice and sense of self worth impel me to express myself in verses.”
For Nnadi, whose poetry is unburdening of a love-sodden heart, “I have a long-running engagement with poetry, especially poetry of love and beyond. I’m concerned about the things of earth. The Love Canticles is part of my journey, part of an unashamed stripping of self so that I tell my story as simply and as nakedly as I like.”
Not having studied English, Nnadi was challenged to become a poet, and he became one in the most unusual circumstance that also influences why love poems are easily his forte: “During my school days in Nsukka,” he said, “I went to the female hostel with a friend, and he was using poetry to intimidate us, and I got upset and told asked him to stop. And then he said to me that I was dead without poetry, that I was inelegant and unsophisticated and I thought to myself that this won’t happen again. So, the following week, I went to the bookstore buy poetry books, and I said to the attendant that I wanted to be a poet. For me, a poet sees what doesn’t exist and writes it into being.”
“The poems in this collection were not written for a particular purpose, but however, when I decided to compile this, I sat with my editor and publisher and we decided that the poems have a cohesion to them, because they document and pay homage to the situation that is Nigeria for the last seven years,” DianaAbasi, the performance poet and only female writer among the 11 poets, told her audience. “The poems speak to the present situation we have in Nigeria.”
Also for DianaAbasi, poetry is a means of catharsis, of escape and voice, saying, “Poetry helps me escape the madness in the world. It is a way to give freedom, give voice to those who aren’t heard. It’s a way of me breaking free from all the things that have shackled me. This is a means by which I interrogate myself, using everything around me and things happening to people in the country and in the world, and it’s how I discover who I really am and I help give a voice to others through that discovery.”
According to Agema said, “The reason I wrote mine is because all through life, I’ve been bothered by water, either the River Benue or any other. So what I did is to create some reflections that recollect on these bodies of water and they ended up coming together in their own way.”
People, Nigeria and colleagues in the writerly business provide source of inspiration for Agema who said, “I’m inspired largely by my contemporaries. I know more than half the people on this (long) list and they keep on inspiring me and I’ve done collaborations. These are people I call on anytime and we begin to think. It’s frustrating being a Nigerian sometimes, and we always find ways to let off steam, and sometimes, prose helps, but I feel emotions go more into poetry. All these people in their various ways, the country, the very fine people and contemporaries are the ones that inspire me.”
“I wrote the poems because I had loved to see myself as a poet,” Gomba, the University of Port Harcourt professor of English, informed the audience. “There are 108 poems in the collection done over a long time, so you can believe there was an impulse. When doing this collection, I decided to select non-political poems, I wanted to do something that has nothing to do with politics. Towards the end of the collection, I started getting angry about a number of things, so I decided to add two new sections. One on my reflection on the Nigerian situation, and one on the global import of resistance. The book has eight sections; they are poems on art and creativity, poems on faith and divinity, poems on mortality — they are all diverse and lyrical poems and I intended to actually seduce my readers with these poems. I was very deliberate in my choice of words; they are simple, accessible, almost chatty, and I hope it will be a collection that will draw people to poetry.”
Gomba advanced why he chose to write in poetic forms rather than the other genres of writing available to him thus, “If you have passion for poetry, it becomes your goal to creative effort. Sometimes, the subject matter determines the form you adopt. There are certain topics that come to you, and you just know you have to shape them as an essay. The subject matter I’ve treated in this book came to me as poems, and what I did was take those subject matters and infuse aesthetics into them, because the subject matter alone doesn’t make art, but the creative ability to infuse aesthetics and create something from it, and that is what I’ve done in this collection.”
“My sixth collection was published in 2013,” said the University of Ibadan professor of English, Raji. “So, between then and the time I did the seventh one, there has been a lot of wondering on my part, and I constantly engage in dialogue with my land, because I believe I put it in one of my poems, that a poet’s first duty is to make love to language, to land and liberty, and this has been my mantra overtime since I published my first collection in 1997. So I took time, close to a decade, to come up with my collection. They are new experiences and encounters, journeys and meeting new people, and there’s always that engagement with the land in a sense that I find myself and so many other poets as unacknowledged legislators of my land, someone who tries to speak for those who are incapable of speaking, and that is why I bring in the language of the streets to poetry to popularize the language.”
For Raji also, poetry the legislative role a writer plays is for the voiceless in society: “Poetry is about capability, to be able to represent others, playing a role, helping people and it’s a proverbial golden knife that can punch holes in the conscience of people. Poetry is advanced speech, so to say.”
University of Uyo professor of English, Ushie, said he writes about the dichotomy not usually captured by the regular philosophical ‘isms’ of left or right of politics: “I have said that my attitude about writing has been very consistent, in terms of the lot of the human condition. When we say we are human it means that collectively there is that thing that ties us together, but in reality, we are divided into two, in terms of those who are belching because they have eaten to their fill, and those who are yawning because they have nothing to eat. That is what runs through the poems, and it applies to so many situations. Even when you talk of gender, in many cases, where the wife oppresses the husband and vice versa — one is eating while the other is yawning. The Nigerian society is divided between those who are eating and those who are yawning.”
On what his poetic manifesto is, Ushie said, “Poetry is as close to me as my mother tongue. I look at poetry as the choice of the elders; people who have mastered language are the ones that go into poetry and there is so much that can be said in very few words, and it’s like kola nut — when you eat it, it’s bitter, but you enjoy the after-effect, after-tsate, and that’s why we still enjoy Shakespeare’s poetry, and we keep enjoying it because fresh meanings keep coming out and it’s the best in the three genres. My inspiration is a way of emptying bottled-up emotions, which could cause an explosion or implosion, and the best way is to make an available page a victim to ease the burden.”
Oriogun, who joined the Book Party virtually, said, “A lot of the poems interrogate history and how we see history, especially those of us who are very young. For me, I have no idea of a lot of things that happened in the past, but I think with poetry the language has to be present in our own lives and how we understand it. This book is just an attempt to do that.”
According to Dzukogi (who joined virtually as well), “I wasn’t trying to make a gesture towards art. I was just a father who had lost his child and poetry for me was just a way to interrogate myself and the world and understand some of the intricate relationships that I had. When I lost my child, I started reflecting every single day on a piece of paper, and after seven months of doing that, I read a piece to a friend and he said this will be a nice way to immortalize this child. It’s just a physical manifestation of my daughter that I had lost and I was a father trying to understand the grief of child loss.”
Adekoya (virtual attendee as well) gave what his poetry manifesto is when he said, “Poetry is a kind of music. As they say, poets are failed musicians, and what we try to do with poetry is to make language attain the beauty of expression found in music. We have the poetry of words and life, and unfortunately, people are yet to understand the latter, the beauty around us which we do not appreciate, and I think romance novels have said a lot about that. What we do is basically use language to create rhythm and beauty.”
CORA Board of Trustee chairman Chief. Kayode Aderinokun summed up the afternoon’s poetic proceedings when he said, “This confers and confirms the kind of collaboration that Nigeria LNG Ltd and CORA have had over a period of 20 years. I said to the General Manager: ‘You aren’t as exposed as NNPC, and even if you don’t do anything, no one will know, yet you have this unique corporate social responsibility that you have been using to intervene in so many critical areas of the Nigerian life. I think they deserve applause for that.
“It’s a most beautiful collaboration and we are very excited about the number of people who have been responding to this event over so many years, because a book event isn’t like a normal party, but the turnout is huge. I want to recognize the writers who are being celebrated. I happen to be a writer myself, and I know the kind of rigor required to put words together, and more recently, what really inspires us at CORA is that it’s not only in the aspect of literature you find exceptional talent; you also find it in music.
“If you try to interrogate the language of modern songs, you see so much of poetry, rhythm and rhyme in them, and you wonder where this kind of talent is coming from. The kind of talent captured here shows that there is hope for Nigeria. If we can calibrate from the knowledge in this room alone, you wonder why Nigeria still has these problems we’re having.
“If you can reconcile all of this, get together and think through our problems, we can get the solutions. We are reminded tonight that Nigeria is full of thinkers, looking at the collection of people present. Among the 11, we can find our solution, but notwithstanding, we all have a responsibility towards rescuing Nigeria…
“There were so many brilliant questions answered here tonight. What is your take on your description of poetry? For me, it’s that beautiful expression of human emotions, very elevated language; that is what poetry is for me. Poetry is one of the solutions to the problems we have in Nigeria today.”
In her closing remarks, the Acting Manager, Corporate Communication and Public Affairs, Nigeria LNG Limited, Anne-Marie Palmer-Ikuku, said, “Our interaction tonight brought to life the value of literature to our reading community – enlightenment, entertainment, and education. Listening to the respective authors of the shortlist of 11, one can tell that these fresh poetic styles and narratives are capable of eliciting scholars and readers’ interest in the books. As we wind down this party, I implore us all to make time to read each of these books and to savour the excellent writings.
“At this juncture, I must commend Nigerian writers for continuously and ambitiously raising the bar towards winning the $100,000 prize money which The Nigeria Prize for Literature offers and other reputable international prizes as well. I gather two of the shortlists are indeed on the running for other international prizes and I wish them well. This Book Party, sponsored by Nigeria LNG in partnership with the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), demonstrates how seriously we take writing and literature and how much we value your submissions. Coming this far in the competition also attests to your excellent writing skills. Thank you for keeping faith with The Nigeria Prize for Literature by submitting your entries for the competition. We at Nigeria LNG are proud of you and we celebrate your prowess in the industry…”