‘…What rankles is the anomaly of using English to articulate one’s being’
For Segun Adekoya, Literature generally is yet to come into its own in our country because Nigerians are overburdened by the concerns of finding bread and butter. Also, the university teacher told ANOTE AJELUOROU that a lack of critical component to the country’s literary productivity should be a source of concern to everyone in the literary value chain
Congratulations for making the longlist of The Nigeria Prize for Literature. How does it feel coming this far out of over 250 poets?
THANKS for the goodwill and the questions. It is gratifying to be on the longlist.
It seems this is your first time entering for the prize. What are your expectations?
It is the second time. My expectations are fair. Life has taught one to work hard in order to leave an imperishable legacy. However, one should not expect too much of it in order not to be disappointed.
What’s the thematic concern of your collection, Ife Testament? What’s the unique thing about it?
There are themes of love, death, sociopolitical phenomena, nature and religion. What is unique is that many of the short poems in the collection are fragments of dreams.
Your title echoes Tade Ipadeola’s 2013 winning poetry book, The Sahara Testaments. Is this deliberate or just coincident? What are your influences as a writer?
No, the title was not inspired by Tade Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments. It was rather inspired by Derek Walcott’s Arkansas Testament, which engages the subject of racism in the U.S. Although the two poetry books treat different themes, they bear witness to what the authors consider as important and worth exploring. I have been influenced by virtually all writers whose works I have read and taught. P. B. Shelley says that all poets sing one song, which he likens to a mighty stream with a multitude of tributaries. The question of influence ultimately translates into one of preference. My favorite writers include Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, Toni Morrison, John Milton, William Wordsworth, Alexander Pope, and T. S. Eliot and Maxim Gorky.
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 bridging the reading anomaly?
I cannot answer for the poets who submitted entries for The Nigeria Prize for Literature. I write for three categories of people. Nigerians constitute my primary audience. The secondary audience comprises citizens of the English-speaking world. Specialists who consist of teachers and learners of poetry make up the third group.
Literature generally is yet to come into its own in our country because people are still preoccupied with bread and butter issues and hardly have time for nourishing the mind through reading, except in order to pass examination. Of all the three principal literary genres, poetry is deemed to be the most difficult. Even if you give some educated folks poetry books free of charge, they will not read them! The poor reading culture will not go away until we solve problems of basic material needs and lift standards of living to the level at which people will not be satisfied with only food for the stomach but will also desire intellectual nourishment.
You are among three senior university teachers 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?
All it means for students of English and Literary Studies is that their lecturers engage in literary creativity and try to put into practice some of the literary theories and principles that they teach. A great percentage of literature students do not go outside of the list of prescribed texts. Only very few who are enthusiastic about writing or members of the Association of Nigerian Authors are exposed to imaginative writing of their lecturers. I don’t see any gap. The connection between the literature of any age and its socio-cultural and political realities may be direct or convoluted, discernible or imperceptible, but it is indissoluble. In any case, the thematic character of Nigerian literature has not changed in any fundamental way. It continues to be lachrymal, be it under military or civilian rule, and problems of under-development persist.
Three other poets on the longlist can be described as veterans having appeared at this stage and beyond before but haven’t won it. Do you feel intimidated by such records?
No, I am not intimidated.
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?
Creative writing is thriving in the country, even though many of the authors live and work abroad. The complaint has been that the rate of critical response does not match that of creative productivity. Nigerian literature delineates and matches perfectly the reality of the Nigerian polity. They are Siamese twins. Inextricable, without extreme violence.
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?
The prize activities are increasingly engaging and visible. I would like the prize for criticism to be hiked and extended to published books.
You are a specialist in oral literature. How much of this specialised knowledge or skill can be found in your collection?
Not much in terms of direct translation and appropriation at all language levels. The one great element that I borrowed from indigenous oral Yoruba poetic tradition is play on words. What rankles is the anomaly of using English, the language of British colonialists, to articulate one’s being. It is a monumental challenge, an intractable problem that is highly agonizing. However, when one considers the fact that Nigeria is a multilingual country that has not been able to forge a national language out of more than two hundred and fifty indigenous languages that it has, one’s sense of alienation abates, but the spiritual disquiet never leaves.
* Ife Testament is Segun Adekoya’s poetry collection vying for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022