By Ozoro Opute
POETRY was first awarded in 2005 for The Nigeria Prize for Literature. Gabriel Okora and Ezenwa Ohaeto were joint winners with their poetry collections – The Dreamers: His Vision and Chants of Minstrel respectively. The next circle for poetry was IN 2009. The prize was not awarded on account of what the jury then described as poor quality of entries. This would spark off bitter criticism of the prize jury process.
The longlist for 2009 poetry prize are Omo Uwaifo (Litany), Ahmed Maiwada (Fossils), Lindsay Barrett (A Memory of Rivers), Odoh Diego Okenyodo (From a Poem to its Creator), and Hyginus Ekwuazi (Love Apart). Others are Musa Idris Okpanachi (The Eaters of the Living), Ademola Dasylva (Songs of Odamolugbe), Nengi Josef Ilagha (January Gestures), and G’ebinyo Ogbowei for Song of a Dying River. None of these collections was adjudged good enough for the prize, and was consequently not awarded.
In 2013, there was palpable fear about a possible repeat of no-winner verdict, but Tade Ipadeola won with The Sahara Testament, shaking off keen contest from Chijioke Nnadi Amu (Through the Windows of a Sandcastle) and Ogochukwu Promise (Wild Letters). Other poets on the longlist for 2013 were Afam Ake (Letter Home and Biafran Nights), Obi Nwakanma (Birthcry), Remi Raji (Sea of My Mind), Obari Gomba (Length of Eyes), Ede Amatoritsero (Globetrotter and Hitler’s Children), Iquo DianaAbasi (Symphony of Becoming), Okinba Launko – pen name for Femi Osofisan (Seven Stations of the Stairways), and Egbewo G’ebinyo (Marsh Boy and Other Poems).
Four years later in 2017, the following poets and their collections made the longlist. Peter Akinlabi (Iconography), Hyginus Ekwuazi (One Day I’ll Dare to Raise My Middle Finger at the Stork and the Reaper), Obari Gomba (For Every Homeland), Ogaga Ifowodo (A Good Mourning), Seun Lari-Williams (Garri for Breakfast), Humphrey Ogu (Echoes of Neglect), and Tanure Ojaide (Songs of Myself: Quartet). Others are Ikeogu Oke (The Heresiad), Abubakar Othman (Blood Streams in the Desert), Jumoke Verissimo (The Birth of Illusion), and Ebi Yeibo (Of Waters and the Wild).
A shortlist of three that eventually came out included Ifowodo’s A Good Mourning, Oke’s The Heresiad and Ojaide’s Songs of Myself: Quartet, with Oke’s The Heresiad winning the coveted prize in 2017. The sad news of Oke’s passing would shake the literary world only a few months into 2018. He would be the fourth winner of the prize to pass away. Others are Ezenwa Ohaeto, Gabriel Okara and Esiaba Irobi who won posthumously with his drama piece Cemetery Road in 2010.
This year (2022) offers yet another opportunity for some poets who came close to winning it in the past to perhaps lay their hands on the coveted but elusive prize worth USD$100,000!
Remi Raji, Obari Gomba, Chijioke Nnadi Amu, Ogaga Ifowodo and Iquo DianaAbasi have had more than one appearance. Ifowodo came close in 2017 when Oke clinched it. Amu, Gomba and DianaAbasi have only stopped at the longlist stage in their past quests. Gomba was also on the longlist in 2018 (drama category) with his revolutionary play Gorilla Post.
The five veteran poets of the prize who are in the race this year are Ifowodo (Augusta’s Poodle), DianaAbasi (Coming Undone As Stitches Tighten), Gomba who recently won Pan-African Writers’ Association (PAWA) Poetry Prize 2022 with the title in contention (The Lilt of the Rebel), Amu (The Love of Canticles), and Raji (Wanderer Cantos).
The six newbie poets on the block include James Eze (dispossessed), Olusegun Adekoya (Ife Testament), S. Su’eddie Agema (Memory and the Call of Waters), Romeo Oriogun who also won the Brunel International Poetry Prize in 2017 (Nomad), Joe Ushie (Yawns and Belchies) and Saddiq Dzukogi (Your Crib, My Qibla).
It was the PRO of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Mr. Umar Yogiza who put to rest the issue of the veteran and the newbie poets in perspective when he said, “You have to work extra hard to outshine (the) 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 Chijioke Nnadi Amu, Obari Gomba, Remi Raji, Ogaga 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 (down) to the judges’ taste.”
And so, to which set of poets will the prize pendulum swing in 2022? That’s the question on many people’s minds as they set out to read and catch a glimpse of what these remarkable poets have crafted that also got picked the interest of the three-man jury – Prof. Emmanuel Egya Sule (jury chair), Toyin Adewale-Gabriel and Dike Chukwumerije. It’s indeed a remarkable time and year for Nigerian poetry. Gomba’s The Lilt of the Rebel made the country proud when it clinched the Pan-African Writers’ Association (PAWA) Poetry Prize worth USD$2,000 in March. Also, in faraway Canada, Nigerian-Canadian poet Tolu Oloruntoba recently won the Griffin Poetry Prize worth USD$65,000! And as they say, let the best poet win.