By Godwin Okondo
THE first memorial in honour of poet and playwright, Prof. John Pepper Clark by the English departments of both University of Ibadan where he trained and the University of Lagos, where he rose to professorial chair until he retired, in collaboration with his family, was held from October 11 – 13, 2021 for the poet who passed on last year. The 3-day celebratory event was held virtually on the Zoom meeting app and simultaneously live streamed on YouTube. It also featured a host of speakers who shared their knowledge about the late poet.
The programme featured acquaintances of the late poet, who shared memories of their relationship with the late poet. These memories were shared by Head of Department of English, University of Ibadan, Prof. Oluwatoyin Jegede, Ag. Head of Department of English, University of Lagos, Dr. Felicia Ohwovoriole, and the President, Government College Ughelli Old Boys Association, Architect Charles Majoroh.
The programme started off with Prof. Femi Osofisan delivering the welcome speech. “It seems like the whole world went into mourning since the pandemic began. Now, a year has passed, and the whole world seems to be waking up again, so it’s just as appropriate that we come to look at the legacy that JP Clark left behind, and we’ve got quite a number of speakers here who will be giving us various aspects of his work,” he said.
The Head of Department of English, University of Ibadan, Prof. Oluwatoyin Jegede gave the opening remarks when she said, “We have come to honor our father, teacher, friend, colleague, mentor, an elder statesman, hero and idol, the late Prof. John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo. We are here because we evidently know and understand the important role he played during his lifetime, as well as the lasting legacy he left behind. I am making this speech as the head of the department, because it’s this department that gave rise to the literary icon we’re celebrating today.
“JP Clark is a playwright, a poet, and is known in many capacities as a successful literary icon. Therefore this gathering today is the right step in the right direction, and I specially thank the organizers for this event. I also appreciate the family members, friends, mentees and well wishers, who are gathered here today to celebrate a man whose love for his fatherland knew no bounds. He is a man of vision, full of courage and utmost dedication to growth and development of his society. He was indeed a worthy role model per excellence, with lasting legacies for many generations to come. I therefore congratulate all of us with all the resounding success of this celebration.”
President of Government College Ughelli Old Boys Association (GCUOBA), Mr. Charles Majoroh, also shared his memories of the late poet. According to him, “This was the school that JP Clark attended from 1948, a school which we are proud to say that plays a great role in forming the character of the person he became later on. This event marks the first anniversary of the passing of JP Clark, and is indeed a fitting celebration of his essence, and through which we still enjoy a commune with him and all his ideas. His plays, poetry and other works have always held a special place for many of us.”
“In the celebration of his scholarship, and the honour he brought to our school, we have instituted a JP Clark Prize for Students at Government College, Ughelli, to keep aloft his essence among our younger ones. We thank you for this honour done to our distinguished and quintessential mariner, JP Clark. God bless you, and may he continue to rest in peace, in Jesus name.”
After these remarks, which was anchored by Prof. Femi Osofisan from the University of Ibadan end of the programme, the intellectual discourse about Prof. Clark works took off at the University of Lagos end, with Prof. Hope Eghagha anchoring proceedings. This segment featured a host of lectures from a wide spectrum of literary scholarship that represents the different aspects of Clark’s successful foray in poetry, drama, folklore aesthetics and as they relate to social milieu he operated before he passed away.
Opening proceedings was JP Clark’s friend, classmate at University College, Ibadan, and fellow poet and dramatist, Nobel laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka. This was followed by Associate Professor of English, University of Alberta, Canada, Nduka Otiono, Prof. Mabel Evwierhoma, Prof. Saint Gbilekaa, Prof. Gordini G. Darah and University of North Caroline at Charlotte, U.S.-based Prof. Tanure Ojaide.
According to Soyinka, “JP, an absence still in denial. I received unique a gift at the hands of our JP, a poet of unlimited surprises. That gift was sheer poetry. Its dimensions will elude most except, of course, his life partner and conspirator, Ebun. The nature of that gift is one that is insufficiency acknowledged, embraced, shared and propagated and underrated request that replenishes my own humanity.
“It is also a burden since it boosts the challenges and places upon one’s shoulders an immense responsibility. Nevertheless, it is one from which I still draw till today, albeit, inadequately. Indeed, often, I get that feeling that JP is looking over my shoulder to see if I have already regifted that present in my own way. You would be right to access it, the virtue, the like of which renders society fragile and contentious, an obstacle to the pursuits of its existential harmony.
“Embraced, however, it opens into the richness of interior lives, often hidden behind self-created opacities, obscured by the sheer stress of survival given of existence. I leave others to do their own naming, and even place their value on that gift. I know only that I have partaken fully of its essence, and I remain eternally grateful to JP for being the medium of such a revelation. To be simply prosaic, let’s just simply name it the human capacity, or reconciliation.”
Dr. Otiono, in his paper titled ‘JP Clark and Poetic Expeditions in Mortality,’ stated, “Clark’s early life was marked at the University of Ibadan by his intellectual and cultural activism, which contributed to the Mbari movement, which my friend, poet, scholar and journalist, Obi Nwakama, is currently writing a book on. I can’t begin to go into backgrounds about JP, giving the preliminary remarks that have been made by colleagues.
“Nwakanma, in his 2020 tribute to Clark, published in Vanguard newspaper, draws attention to some highlights on Clark’s Ibadan years. He had a debate with his best friend, Kayode Jibowu at the University College, Ibadan, which I find very interesting. This debate went on and on till so very late at night, and ended when both of them had been exhausted by dispute, broke down weeping from the very intensely aroused emotions. Even the point of the dispute was very amazing — it was about which musical instrument or interpretation of a classical composer by two different performers were better than the other. The point of this is that JP Clark is what Obi Nwakanma calls ‘brash, short fused and eminently choleric.’
“In furtherance of the writer in his youth, Nwakanma highlighted a spectacular incident. The Mbari artists and writers club had been formed in 1961, and Clark was a leading figure of the movement. His poetry collection had been published by the Mbari Press. The tragic play, Song of a Goat’ had been performed to a devastating effect and wide reception at the Mbari courtyard in Ibadan, and Wole Soyinka played the lead role of Zifa. His slaughtering of the scapegoat on the stage had such an electric effect that it set the cultural tongue wagging for weeks among Ibadan’s educated theatre-going crowd. It was shocking, and Clark liked the shock” it generated.
Also, Prof. Mabel Evwierhoma spoke on ‘JP Clark: Towards an Agenda for Femocracy’ which she calls “A multi-systems approach that assesses the roles of government, citizens and other stakeholders in society would take a look at the role of women in politics, be it personal or group, to assess and challenge discriminatory practices against them. Concerning femocracy, governance is pivotal where soft skills by women are displayed, in the manner of political, social, economic and historical enracinement at different levels of governance to ensure an open society. Femocratic women are both public and private in fighting for the ideals that help to generate an African power ethos in play texts. The term femocracy is not, and cannot be ascribed to the works of J. P. Clark alone. Other plays are open to femocratic analysis in that the factors for and against women’s oppression are cogently analysed. Wole Soyinka had campaigned against attributing one concept to a particular playwright.
“One is not certain of Clark’s (un)willingness to create a femocratic space and system. Democracy and the diversity of feminist action or women-centred proclivities for unrest, insurgency and subversion feature in some of his plays like Ozidi and The Wives Revolt. The leader of the unrest does not have to be king or regent like the eponymous heroine Wazobia in The Reign of Wazobia, a play by Tess Onwueme. None of all these women scripted by Clark, like Titi, Koko, Orea, Oreame, Orukorere, Fiobode, Mitovwodo among others had a stool or formal authority except in the home or community. Most of them were local women, who were not muted in their different communities. This means that Clark had the intention to give local women a push against oppression. But some of these women were oppressive! Yet they transformed their lives and others, without stealth, but deliberately. The display of hegemony in plays is not necessary for a show of force, but for positive change to be created. This force for change is translatable to mass revolt, messianic action or third-party force in mystical domination seen in Ozidi through Oreame. Clark’s investment in political power for his women is double-edged: There are weak, or powerful, women, the docile, strong and even fierce, depending on their textual circumstances.
“Furthermore, the femocratic impulse as imaginary as it sounds plays out in contemporary plays especially in revolutionary aesthetics of utopian texts that showcase unattainable dreams seen in many plays, by women and men as well as revolutionary or women-centred plays (Azumurana, Pp1-3; Osakwe, Pp90-1, Olaniyan, P. 146, Methuselah, P. 14). The impulse also highlights the role of memory where women’s power is concerned. That which was traditionally considered as normal, that is the subjugation of women is often challenged and either conceptualized as an aberration and women-centredness seen as the new norm or utopia. Women are more dominant in new texts by male dramatists and to hemline them in most drama is no longer feasible. It was common to make women non-participants in trans-national politics in some of the plays of yore, but the capacity in newer texts by Barclays Ayakoroma, Ben Binebai, Peter Omoko, Boniface Anyanwu, Tosin Tume, and Gloria Ernest Samuel among others show the appearance of femocratic women in circulation within urban and rural spaces in their texts.
“In Femi Osofisan’s J. P. Clark: A Voyage, his autobiography on Clark, the author asks a pertinent question: “So what will happen when the Poet goes”? (p.39). To provide an answer to the query, today’s event is an example of what will happen, as his plays are going to be subjected to newer analyses using contemporary concepts and ideologies like femocracy being used in this paper.”
Femocracy is an agenda for the present and future. It, therefore, seeks the recognition of all women, irrespective of their status that often shuts out the struggles of ordinary women, or people who are excluded from the power equation often. The real fighters for the emancipation of women are the labourers for justice and not the cosmetic agitators who align with oppressors to perpetuate male hegemony with lucre in mind.”
Evwierhoma concluded thus, “Femocracy is an agenda for the present and future. It, therefore, seeks the recognition of all women, irrespective of their status that often shuts out the struggles of ordinary women, or people who are excluded from the power equation often. The real fighters for the emancipation of women are the labourers for justice and not the cosmetic agitators who align with oppressors to perpetuate male hegemony with lucre in mind.”
Prof. Saint Gbilekaa gave an ‘Ecocritical Discourse of JP Clark’s All for Oil and The Wives’ Revolt’ where he said, “Man, as an architect on environmental crisis, is very destructive. He is the most destructive animal on earth and his fanatical passion to conquer nature and make it obey his whims has led to deforestation and degradation of the landscape. In his desire to build cities, roads, factories and search for minerals on the deep bowels of the earth, and such other similar activities, man has created a lot of damage to mother earth. The earth and human race stand on the threshold of extinction due to the activities of man in his search of wealth and resources.
“This hasn’t just left the ecosystem plundered, but left the plundered regions and its inhabitants the wretched of the earth. Man’s adventures and actions sometimes constitute a global catastrophe to planet Earth, and unless we change our attitude and refuse to be a part of the problem, humanity will be endangered seriously.”
Prof. Tanure Olajide spoke on ‘What We Don’t Know Yet about JP Clark’s Writing’, where he said, “It’s assumed that much has been written about JP Clark, but in my opinion there’s much more to be done about him and his works. His works to me have not generated enough curiosity, when I think about the works he has done in poetry, plays, his memoirs and his writing. I see most of the time that JP Clark is lumped up when discussing Niger Delta literature. You can still approach JP Clark among post-colonial writers. He is in the group of post-colonial writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and others.
“I think he’s a poet who has tried to remain so relevant to writing for so many years he has written. I think he deserves to be applauded for his commitment to craft and his artistic nature. I want to lead you into possible insights into his body of work.”
Ojaide does not believe Clark falls neatly into modernist poetic tradition enough, saying Clark’s poetry is assessable as against modernist writing.
Ojaide also looked at the Urhobo influences in his poetry and works generally.
According to him, “If you look at his poems, such as iwie, an Urhobo word which means ‘a call of the helpless’ and also some of his essays, they show how much he researched into oral literature, and you can compare this to what Kofi Anyidoho has done in literature, as well other writers, and my humble self in udje, an Urhobo dance. So, one can look at JP Clark from many angles, and I feel that, looking at what he researched into and what he read, I think they are very relevant to the criticism of his work, whether it’s poetry or plays.”
Ojaide also noted that Clark can be read from prism of minority writing discourse, which puts him in the league of national writers.
“JP Clark is also known as a national writer. His works can also be seen in the direction of belonging to minority discourse,” he submitted. “I’m saying that most of the works, everything is centered around the Niger Delta, which is a minority region. In a way, his works will also be critical, interrogating these poems and plays, and also examine whether his works fit into minority discourse or not.”
“I have not seen much of JP Clark’s works discussed as world literature, and I feel that his deep understanding of human nature, as in Song of a Goat and Ozidi put him in the category of writers whose discussion of human experiences cut across cultures and deserves a place in world literature. What happens in Song of a Goat cuts across cultures, even Ozidi, the epic struggle there deserves to be. I think it will also be pertinent to look at his works as part of world literature, in the same manner like Things Fall Apart or Death and the King’s Horseman all fit into world literature.”
Ojaide also took critics to task for overlooking Clark’s memoir after his aborted fellowship trip to America, saying, “One of the seminal works of JP Clark which I think is not adequately addressed is America Their America. I think it should be studied more. It reveals an irrepressible aspect of Clark that people and colleagues talk about, but it’s not much to discuss when it comes to criticism. It’s abruptly abandoning his fellowship in the United States, and his refusal to be cajoled by its officials; it shows something in him which needs to be seen. Of course, some might think, ‘does that influence his reputation as a writer in the West or in the United States, or just anything?’ What is important is that the work needs to be read together with his other works, to unravel how that personality shows in his poetry, his drama, and other writings he has done.”
He also took the audience through a further enquiry into Clark’s evolution as a writer and situate him within his social milieu, how his knowledge of his Urhobo maternal side informed his sensitivity to women’s issues.
According to Ojaide, “I also believe we can read JP Clark through a historicist approach. What we learn about his periods from his works; it’s not just to look at The Casualties as just a war poems. What does it show about the state of his works? If you look at ‘State of the Union,’ and also a later play like The Wives’ Revolt, what do those plays show about how people have evolved in their thinking? Take note that people evolve over ages, even in areas where feminism is so high. These were areas where women weren’t allowed to vote. How has Nigeria changed in the highly patriarchal society to accept that women are as good as men and they can contribute, whether they belong to the royal family or ordinary people? The point is, how does Clark show the intellectual climate of his time? How things have moved from the time when people didn’t take note of women till the time he wrote The Wives’ Revolt. I think we should draw attention to how things have changed over the period he has been writing.”
Ojaide also recommended Clark’s background for researchers to dig into to learn more about what inspired his writing.
“One should also read about his background to foreground his creative works,” he said. “I think there is a lot to be known about JP Clark. I think there is more to give us a deeper meaning to his attitude to women, and so on. His relationship with his mother and women generally, The Wives’ Revolt in the place of feminism and the place of women in the society. I remember one time, G. G. Darah and myself visited him in Ikeja. I was working on udje, and he asked me to visit Eruware, because he said I couldn’t be doing something on udje and not visit Eruware, and of course, I went. Most of the new generation had forgotten the udje songs, but I gained something there, which other people confirmed. What was the origin of Eruware? The place wqas like a refuge, and they called it the town of divorcees, who originally formed the place. I think it’s important to know the historical and mythical context of that Eruware town, to know and understand JP Clark’s attitude to women. His plays give refuge to women to push their agenda, which I think is very important in the interpretation of that story, The Wives’ Revolt.
“I have dealt more on JP Clark’s poetry than his plays, and I think he makes a remarkable contribution to African tragedy, especially in Ozidi. These are things people might have written about, but what interests me is that he has the Ozidi saga which he records, and he has the Ozidi drama which he wrote.
“Despite his understanding many years later, knowing what we studied in the Department of English, I know he should have learnt a lot about Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, but he is not Shakespearean, and I would feel he Christianized the notion of the African tragedy, even though he might have started with Song of a Goat with great influences. He has a lot of contribution to the notion of African tragedy, that while he might have been aware of other tragedies, what he tries to do is to write Ozidi out of the Ozidi saga, to show that it’s something unique.”
Also lending his intellectual weight to the Clark discourse was Prof. Gordini G. Darah, who spoke about ‘JP Clark: A Voyager of Our Folkways.’
According to him, “I think we still have a lot to learn from him. If we take a look at the African culture and experience, the Ijaw and Urhobo people, who are the main characters in his works, in an environment characterized by water, tropical environments, rainforests, and all that makes our area (the Niger Delta) a different part of the world, and what made JP Clark give all of this a global attention, and he did it so well that we will continue to learn from him from time to time.
“I’m trying to look at how JP’s works, creativity, scholarship, and theoretical statements help redefine indigenous cultures of the Ijaw and Urhobo people, and other minorities in the Niger Delta.”
ON the second day was a cancer outreach programme, which was anchored by Ema Clark. The segment featured two medical experts in the field of cancer medicine. They were Dr. Kenechukwu Chudy-Onwugaje and Dr. Olatunbosun Ayokunle Oke, who discussed at length the dangers of colon cancer and how the menace can be avoided and or managed when it happens.
While introducing the segment, Ema Clark said, “With the month of October being dedicated to cancer awareness, we are marking this day with a cancer outreach programme. This is an opportunity to create awareness about colon cancer, and we hope to create awareness about this terrible disease so people can live long and successful.”
Revealing some of the causes of Colorectal cancer, Chudy-Onwugaje said, “There are hereditary factors in having colorectal cancer — there could be someone within the family with a history of colorectal cancer which increases the risk of another family member having it. Also, smoking, processed meat, red meat, heavy drinking, obesity, and not eating enough vegetables and fruits can increase the risks.
“Most people develop symptoms at advanced stages. There could be rectal bleeding, change in bowel habits, weight loss, and abdominal pain. The best diagnosis to do is a colonoscopy, which will help find and remove the polyps formed by the cancer cells in the large intestine.”
Dr. Oke also gave his diagnosis on colorectal cancer, when he said, “The cancer cells develop from the inner lining of the large intestine and spreads through the layers of the wall, and spreads round the body, affecting basic body functions.
“Colon cancer is the third most common cancer globally, and the second most common cause of cancer death. It is more common in developed countries, and increasing in developing countries, according to statistics. This is supposed to be for advanced age but it affects more of younger people in Africa.”
THEN followed the poetry reading session that featured Eghagha, Aj. Dagga Tolar, Dr. Bosede Afolayan, Tanko Okoduwa, Folu Agoi, Mr. Olatunbosun Taofeek and many others, who read poems JP Clark and other poets wrote. Some of the poems read are ‘Abiku,’ ‘My Last Testament,’ ‘Casualties,’ ‘Memo to My Daughter,’ ‘Quest of a Fool,’ ‘Where Do They All Go,’ and ‘An Epidemic Without A Name.’
The last lap of the programme was the staging of Clark’s play The Wives’ Revolts, which was also streamed live on Zoom.
Delivering the vote of thanks was the wife of the late poet, Prof. Ebunoluwa Clark, who thanked everyone for the programme, saying, “I’m happy to see the giants of the literary world here. I want to thank the local organizing committee, the Universities of Lagos and Ibadan for preserving the legacy of JP Clark. Thanks to the audience also, and the members of the academic community for being present.”
Dr. Hephzibah Egede (nee Clark) also expressed gratitude for the honour done her father when she said, “I wish to extend my thanks to everyone on behalf of JP Clark family. Thanks to the speakers and your wonderful presentations despite your busy schedule. Thanks to the local committee, Prof. Eghagha, and everyone who has been with us since my father’s death.”
However, the JP Clark memorial was all-academic affair. Not even one speaker from the non-academic community, say an ordinary reader and lover of Clark’s poetry and drama, made the programme line up and contributed. Perhaps, the organizers would do well to make the ownership of Clark as wide-ranging as possible in next outing.