June 14, 2024

When 9 poets ‘Engaged the Quintessential Poet @90’ on World Poetry Day 2024

  • March 22, 2024
  • 8 min read
When 9 poets ‘Engaged the Quintessential Poet @90’ on World Poetry Day 2024

By Anote Ajeluorou

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MARCH 21 is globally celebrated as World Poetry Day as declared by UNESCO in 1999 to “promote the reading, writing, publishing, and teaching of poetry throughout the world,” and to “give fresh recognition and impetus to national, regional, and international poetry movements.” And on March 21, 2024, as has been celebrated in the past four years, a national poetry movement of sorts may well have been firmly established with ‘ProvidusBank World Poetry Day Café: An Evening with Wole Soyinka’ that held for the fifth year and is steadily inserting itself into Nigeria’s literary consciousness, where poets and its lovers gather to enjoy poetry undiluted. This year was no exception as six local and three international poetry acts converged on the Banquet Hall of Eko Hotel and Suites to thrill poetry lovers, with the Managing Director and CEO of ProvidusBank Plc, Mr. Walter Akpani playing host to Prof. Wole Soyinka, among other dignitaries who attended.

Titled ‘Engaging the Quintessential Poet @90’, the celebration was woven around the person of Africa’s first black Nobel laureate in Literature, Soyinka, who will turn 90 on July 13, 2024. Masterfully curated by the Executive Director of Culture Advocates Caucus (CAC), Mr. Jahman Anikulapo, the nine poets took turns to serenade the audience both with pieces from Soyinka’s latest poetry collection, Selected Poems (1965 – 2022): A Retrospective 2023 and their personal poems that addressed varied experiences that speak to the human condition. An art exhibition on Soyinka was also on display and flanked both sides of the entrance to the hall, from his childhood to the present. But this was after the bank’s MD/CEO, Mr. Akpani, had welcomed his special guest and the audience.

Akpani expressed pleasure for the privilege “to have the leadership and mentorship of Prof. Wole Soyinka. The minute we shared our desire for him to be the patron poet and mentor of this event, he graciously gave his nod and has since then participated quite passionately in all the editions to give guidance on the direction of every event. In fact, it has become a permanent calendar for him.

“Every year sine 2019 when we hosted the first edition in our cramped banking hall at the ProvidusBank Head Office on Adetokunbo Ademola Street, we have invited poets, both young and old, to give poetic interpretations to different issues that affect our world. We only missed 2020, when we cancelled just a day before the event, due to the lockdown imposed because of the global Covid-19 pandemic. We have not missed a year since then.”

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Owoicho Oko (left); Evelyn Osagie; Prof. Wole Soyinka admiring a framed ‘Ori Agbe’ poem by Akeem Lasisi; Uche Uwadinachi; Lasisi and Managing Director/CEO of ProvidusBank Plc, Mr. Walter Akpani also admiring the framed poem in Soyinka’s honour

The bank chief said he was happy that this year’s celebration was two-pronged, as “his bank supports literature,” adding, “This year’s evet is special for two reasons. The first is that this will be the fifth year of this celebration of ProvidusBank’s support for literature via the World Poetry Day. The second reason is that this year, Prof. Wole Soyinka turns 90. We are delighted to kick-start what I know will be an elaborate plan to mark the milestone for someone who is a mentor to many, an icon, global citizen and a humanist. Thank you for the legacy that you have created for this and future generations.

“This edition of the ProvidusBank World Poetry Day celebration is parked with talents. We have some returnee poets. By that I mean those who have graced the event before. We also have in our midst notable poets from Kenya, Abu Dhabi, United Kingdom and the United States of America. I welcome all of you to our warm and hospitable country and we look forward to seeing you on stage as we engage the quintessential poet at 90. I must also thank those who have always honoured our invitation every year. At this point, I think it is important to go to straight to why we are here today – the feast of words. Please enjoy the performances.”

Journalist and performer, Evelyn Osagie, kicked off proceedings with the performance of Soyinka’s ‘A Humanist Ode for Chibok, Leah’ by reenacting the travail of a besieged community, some of its unlucky families like Leah Sharibu and all those who lost their daughters to the lust-crazed and mentally deranged insurgents who abduct young girls to satisfy their mental disorientation. Leah and her co-travellers fell into the hands of the insurgents, and their fate has since become the symbol of all stolen humanities that must be brought back safely to their families and loved ones. The performance careened to a moment the insurgents are vanquished for the safe return of all stolen girls and women to the collective joy of humanity. Osagie also modelled her ‘Death at Dusk’ after Soyinka’s poem of similar title ‘Death in the Dawn’.

Then followed Owo Icho Oko, who, like Osagie, also first paid homage to the master by performing Soyinka’s ‘Twelve Canticles for the Zealot’, which is very much in keeping with Soyinka’s view of faiths that attempt to compel others to join their fold instead of leaving others be. Oko also performed ‘Ujamma’. In the two performances, Oko held aloft two parts of a calabash as one on a mission of atonement to whatever implacable powers that oppress humanity for their whimsical fantasy.

And then Kenya’s Mgwatilo Mawiyoo stepped up to perform ‘Ujaama’, and showed her vocal prowess that carried clear, and displaying maximum use of body movement to pass and amplify her message. Her second performance titled ‘The Child Before the Mirror of Strangers’ was another of Soyinka’s pieces, just as Uche Uwadinachi went on the lyrical love lane with ‘Her joy is Wild’ and ‘Night’ and had a female human prop on stage to whom he performed his love pieces. Salamati Sule did ‘In the Small Hours’ and ‘Procession Hanging Day I’, and took time to give background review of the pieces.

British Malika Booker looked inward as a woman and performed ‘To One in Labour’, ‘I Anoint My Flesh’ and ‘An Anthem to Humanism’. She also spoke about the power of language in shaping poetic thought. And then Ruth Mahogany took the floor. If there was a poetic contest on the night, Mahogany would perhaps have taken it judging by the sheer exuberance of cheers that greeted her performance of ‘A Child Before a Mirror of Strangers’, ‘You Look at Me’ and ‘Civilian and Soldier’. She performed with the accompaniment of background, sombre music. She was indeed a breath of natural poetic freshness that helped to brighten the night.

Then came the master of Yoruba folk performance Akeem Lasisi, who then also raised the bar when he entered with a chant, as is his custom. His contemplative poetry that reflects on man’s condition, as it summons nature imageries to amplify it, was all too resonant on the night. Lasisi also had the talking drum for his accompaniment and made it seem like a gathering of communal bards calling everyone to a feast of words at the village square. From ‘In the Spirit of Bringer of Peace’, to ‘A Humanist Ode for Chibok, Leah’ and ‘The Savages Are Back in the Sacred Zone,’ Lasisi plumbed the depth of joys and travails with an affirmation of the indomitable human spirit that would eventually prevailing.

America’s Nathaniel Handal read from Soyinka’s Selected Poems (1965 – 2022): A Retrospective in the classical fashion devoid of the spoken word fad, but which gave the poems the rhythmic timbre that carried clearly their intended meaning and nuances. It was a joy to listen to her read and amplify the voice and spirit of the writer.

And to wrap up proceedings, Lasisi and his collaborator Edaoto did ‘Ori Agbe for Soyinka’ piece with three dancers in the classic Yoruba praise chant, of the worthiness of the Quintessential Poet who will be 90 years old on July 13, 2024. It was a moving praise-poem that got Soyinka to his feet and to the podium, where he humorously chided everyone to wait for his actual birthday date before celebrating, or as he rhetorically asked: ‘Is it your birthday?’ which elicited laughter, and he promptly went on to wish everyone a happy birthday!

Other poetry lovers who attended the World Poetry Day celebration included Dr. Newton Jibunoh, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Chief Erelu Dosumu, Dr. Patrick Oloko and Dr. Tunji Sotimiri of University of Lagos, Mr. Segun Adefila, Mr. Eriata Oribhabor, Dr. Sam Dede. Others were Ndidi Dike, Lady Ejiro Umukoro, Olatoun Gab-Williams and Stephanie Newell from Yale University, US.

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