The Twist in the Tale
Amatoritsero Ede: To be sincere with you, I have not really thought of you as a poet in the past. I had seen you as more the writer of stories than of poetry; the journalist, literary administrator, great organiser and anthologist, either of poetry or prose. When did you begin to take poetry serious?
Nduka Otiono: I usually like to view writing—whether of poetry, prose or critical writing—from the prism of an inaugural lecture presented about a decade ago by my mentor, Isidore Okpewho, distinguished professor of English and award-winning novelist. In the lecture entitled A Portrait of the Artist as a Scholar and delivered at the University of Ibadan, before the intellectual haemorrhage in the form of brain drain hit academia in Nigeria, Okpewho convincingly argued for the rotational function of the brain as some artists switch roles from writing to scholarship. Drawing from his personal experience, he wittily noted that whenever he was engaged in creative writing, his scholarly faculty switches off and vice versa. For me, the cerebral oscillation extends to the two genres of creative writing in which I function, prose fiction and poetry. What this means is that you were more familiar with me in my prose fiction lunar seasons. More so, because at the University of Ibadan where we first met as kindred spirits, poetry was king and I was inclined to promoting a minority genre which held, as far as I was concerned, the greater potential for attracting wider readership and establishing writers of our generation locally and internationally. Having said that, I would like to answer your question more directly by saying that I have always been at heart a poet, had been writing poetry for as long as my human consciousness can recall. But my consciousness of writing poetry as a serious art form was cultivated at Ibadan, especially after graduating in 1987. It was during my compulsory National Service in Akwa Ibom State, at which point I had nearly completed the initial draft of my first book, the collection of short stories, The Night Hides with a Knife, that I devoted myself more to writing poetry. And in fact, began working earnestly on my first volume of poems, Voices in the Rainbow. Nevertheless, it is pertinent to note that it was not always easy for me separating prose from poetry, because having researched Oral literature in Africa for both my Honours and Masters degrees dissertation, I had come to appreciate the interlocking process between the two forms. Purity of genre is certainly not one of the concerns of the oral artist. For him/her, a story is a potpourri of sorts, combining narrative, chants, songs, invocations and a medley of ‘modes’ of delivery or performance. This conception of the creative process has shaped my art both in prose fiction and in poetry. It accounts for the title of my first collection of poems, Voices in the Rainbow. Now because I began by publishing fiction, becoming a journalist upon obtaining my Masters degree, some friends and colleagues like you who travelled abroad soon after the turn of the 90s, have associated me more with prose. The misperception was further encouraged by the modest success of that first collection of stories, its jointly winning the maiden ANA Spectrum Prize with the established writer, Adebayo Williams, and provoking an extended controversy in the media in the mid 90s.
A.E.: I note that there is promise in your second collection. In fact, I only just now know that you had a first collection and that it won an ANA prize. There is promise in this second collection. Is there a central impulse in its creation?
N.O.: I’m surprised that in spite of my first collection of poems earning Honourable Mention for the ANA/Cadbury Poetry Prize in 1997, you still didn’t come to terms with my work as a poet. Even at Ibadan, I won Second Position in one of those Christopher Okigbo annual Poetry competitions and I still cherish the two book prizes that were given to me. Beyond saying that my work in the other roles you mentioned—journalist, anthologist, literary administrator and organizer—have overshadowed that of being a poet, your residence abroad appears to have detracted from your grasp of the literary scene at home. Between the two poetry collections, I like to believe that there is a common thread. Love in a Time of Nightmares, the second collection you refer to, and which I hope will be published early next year, advances the essential experimentation I began with Voices in the Rainbow—even in the collection of short stories, The Night. That is, reinventing the bardic voice or the voices of the raconteur within a scribal culture. I have been fascinated by what happens to the oral text as it travels from the spoken form to the written. A more graphic idiom for apprehending the point I am making here is in the following words of the Zimbabwean writer, Chenjarai Hove: “We live in oral world whose daily organization is ruled by the written word.” The challenge for me as an African writer is to seek ways of approximating the complex archaeology of ancient forms with modern civilization. The responses of African writers to this challenge, it seems to me, has generated endless controversy around such themes as the Language for African Literature. My recent relocation to Canada has sharpened the experimental consciousness which you seem to conceive as a central impulse. If I got you right, then you can hold the foregoing explanation as the central impulse. But beyond style, the thematic impulse in Love in a Time of Nightmares may not square off with that of Voices. Besides the issue of difference in time of composition, there is also that of geography. The double forces of time and geography, I believe, have redefined the interface between the two collections. There is a more re-collective, narrative tendency in the second collection arising from a spiritual reconnection with homeland.
A.E.: I must confess that I also read the hand of the fiction writer in the collection. How far does the mechanics of prose intrude when you write poetry?
N.O.: I am not sure I know the answer to this question beyond the articulation of my creative process which I tried to sketch earlier. You may wish to recall the point about purity of form which I raised in connection with the oral artist. To extend the argument: how would you describe the attitude of such Africanist poets as Okot p’Bitek, Niyi Osundare and Tanure Ojaide who have worked with the traditional form of the song in their poetry? Also, there is Chiedu Ezeanah, our compatriot from Ibadan. Would you say you hear the voice of the singer of tales in their poetry or that you hear the voice of the choirmaster in their poems? I believe that poetry will profit more from being shorn of the taxonomic strictures that obstruct its lyrical potentials. The true poet must be honest to his inspiration first, before the burden of artifice chokes the spirit of composition. It’s like a music composer who concerns himself more with the arrangement of the sounds than jotting down first the sounds he/she hears. Or like a dreamer who bothers first about the interpretation of dreams before fully receiving them. Will he remember the details? Indeed your last question raises many issues around theories of composition and poetic craft that we will need more time, space, to discuss. But may I quickly note that its complexity implicates the argument for or against prose poetry or poetic prose, as well as the interesting debates around how certain practices have been ‘killing’ poetry, typified by Peter Forbes’ interesting essay entitled “How the Century Lost its Poetry,” and other polemical essays that speak to the subject such as Joseph Epstein’s “Who Killed Poetry?,” Donald Hall’s “Death to the Death of Poetry” and Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter?” Therefore, to attempt a short answer to your question, I would rather say that it is left to other poet-critics to determine how what you describe as “the mechanics of prose” may be “intruding” in my poetry, and of course, what constitutes “pure poetry” in contradistinction from Prose.
A.E.: By ‘the mechanics of prose,’ I mean the story-telling imperative of prose. The long poem for example about your grandmother tells a story.
N.O.: I am tempted to answer your question with further questions: What does lyric poetry do if not tell a story! Are all narrative poems written by prose writers? If we go back to the classical tradition to summon up the Greek rhapsodists, and even closer home to the African griot or oral poet, you’ll begin to appreciate the problematic of your modernist attitude to poetry and how it short shrifts the art form. Is Homer any less a poet because of the narrative temper of the Odyssey or Iliad? Is Derek Walcott a prose writer because Omeros tells a story using the tools of fiction and playfully proclaiming that women smell better than books/libraries? What about the dramatic poetry of the Greeks, Shakespeare and others? I can see that you are projecting your knowledge of me into my poetry and poetics, and I am certainly not a fan of psychological or psychoanalytic approach to literature. But if you are keen on that line of inquiry, I may as well assist you by revealing that “Grandma’s Pipe,” the poem you allude to, is quasi-autobiographical. The more daring interviewer may then wish to add: But how true to reality is the narrative poem? At that point, I will simply have a good laugh. Now jokes apart, I love the long, narrative poem and would like to explore the form further. Being in Canada has chiselled my interest in the form because, as some of my Canadian colleagues like to claim, it is the country’s contribution to modern poetry. In spite of whatever quarrels poets or critics trained in the dense metaphoric style of English, even African, poetry may pick with the Canadian form, say with Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” I have enjoyed reading Sharon Thesen’s arguably defining anthology, The New Long Poem Anthology (2001). It’s genealogical antecedents can of course be traced to The Penguin Book of Longer English Poems (I am not very sure of the title any more) which used be to be on the School Certificate syllabus in Literature in English back in West Africa.
A.E.: Yes. Poetry may tell a story. How the telling is told is the matter here. “The Rhyme of the Ancient mariner”, “Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – even Omeros do tell a story but their successes is in marrying the telling with a highly imagistic, multi-layered language, a blistering lyricism and arresting expressions; the same with Song of Lawino by Okot p’Bitek. There is a huge gulf between the language of Prose and that of poetry is what I am inferring. What is the poetic scene in Edmonton like? Are there any comparisons to the Nigerian scene, say for example, a comparison to the Thursday Group of the University of Ibadan?
N.O.: I wouldn’t like to pontificate on the poetic scene in Edmonton, having been in the city for only FOUR months, during which I spent most of the time in the University of Alberta and environ. But it is instructive that Edmonton has only recently been officially recognized as the Cultural Capital of Canada. That seems to speak to your question and at once provide a basis for the kind of comparison you are instigating. More so, if we call to mind that given Ibadan’s association with the emergence of the first generation of Nigerian intellectuals including Chinua Achebe, Mabel Segun, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, Christopher Okigbo, etc, it had been historically accorded the status of the Cultural capital of Nigeria—at least in terms of literary history. The status may have faded somewhat in the present time, but it still holds pride of place as a cultural centre cannonading with remarkable cultural activities and alumni, amongst them, the Thursday Group you speak about. For the benefit of readers who may not understand the allusion, the Thursday Group comprised some members of the University of Ibadan Poetry Club in the 80s who extended poetry salons to the Students’ Union Building with Harry Garuba as the Patron Saint. Something of a watershed in contemporary Nigerian literary history, the Group which usually had special sessions every Thursday has been the subject of discourse in diverse books including, more recently, the South African-based journal, English in Africa, Vol. 32 No. 1, May 2005 edited by Chris Dunton and Pius Adesanmi. From that point of view, I recognize some kinship between Edmonton and Ibadan, especially with the former framed by the activities of The Olive Group coordinated by my friend David Martin, and Douglas Barbour, amongst others. AP!RG (Alberta Public Interest Research Group), which sponsors the Group also supports a budding group that publishes Bloodink, a poetry chapbook. There are also other activities by the Writers’ Guild of Canada, Alberta branch, and a host of other literary groups outside the university. We can also trace the sense of kinship between Ibadan and Edmonton in the invitation extended to me to feature as the Guest Poet of the Olive Group for its monthly reading for February. The invitation clearly proves that Ibadan or Edmonton, poetry knows no boundaries. I feel at home already with Canadian contemporaries here and look forward to bridging borders with poetry and benefiting from the kind of cross pollination of ideas which marked our Ibadan years.
A.E.: Would you say you are in exile or you are simply in a study holiday away from Nigeria; do you feel alienated where you are right now?
N.O.: I would like to be emphatic here. I’M NOT IN EXILE. I am on a research trip from Nigeria, having been awarded an FS Chia Doctoral Fellowship/ Teaching Assistantship. My family joins me here on New Year’s Day. At the end of the programme, I would consider wider options. Do I feel alienated? Not really, especially considering the fact that I have been well-received by compatriots such as Onookome Okome of the Department of English and Film Studies and Paul Ugor, as well as by some friendly Canadians and other nationals, and that my family will be living with me. I have enjoyed overwhelming goodwill. In addition, God has blessed me with a capacity to mix easily. The recognition by the Olive Group within four months of arriving Edmonton, plus an earlier invitation to feature as a Guest on a CJSR radio programme here in Edmonton, can be seen to confirm this. Nevertheless, being out of one’s comfort zone naturally presents fresh challenges, and I have had a reasonable share of such challenges—from the unusually cold weather to sharp socio-cultural differences. At such times, I felt somewhat alienated, if we may retain that expression for want of a better one right away, but the feeling often varnished.
A.E.: How do you cope with loneliness in a highly individualized west; pub-crawl and drown in it or disappear into the library?
N.O.: Your question at once reminds me of Clarence Carter’s provocative song, “Loneliness and Temptation.” I just spoke about socio-cultural differences and the cold. These are certainly more than a web to encircle a newcomer (to borrow your discomforting descriptor, in an individualized western society) with loneliness. Have I really been lonely? OK, now I suspect where you’re coming from: the poems in my forthcoming collection. Yes and No is the answer. Yes, in the sense that there have been times when I have felt homesick, and desirous of the warmth and the gregarious, outdoor possibilities of life in Lagos on the one hand, and the cultivated provincialism of life in Ibadan or the country feel of visiting my folk in my hometown, Ogwashi-Uku in Delta State. As you aware, working as an academic, journalist, writer and General Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) immersed me in the depths of life across the country. Having noted that, being in “an individualized west,” to use your disturbing expression again, has not so spoilt my fun to the extent of lamentation or seeking such escape routes as offered by pub-crawling or turning the library into a sanctuary, may I state that I am one inclined to living life in a robust way, as those who know me closely would tell you. So, I have coped well, occasionally going out for a drink or two with colleagues, and sublimating occasional feelings of loneliness (or is lowliness?) with books and poetry. Actually, I have been so busy I’m amazed at the speed at which time flies, and am already becoming agitated about finding enough time for my next book project—a return to prose fiction. Writing has helped me feel and fill up the void, the empty spaces and loneliness that crawl on you sometimes like an errant spider.
A.E.: What was your experience of administering the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, as its General Secretary like; what did you take away from that four-year experience?
N.O.: My experience administering ANA as General Secretary is so memorable and controversial that a friend based in New Jersey, Kole Ade-Odutola, has encouraged me to write a book that could be useful to others running similar organizations like ANA especially in the Third World. But there are more urgent projects to tackle now, although I keep feeling that sooner than later, I’ll take on the book option suggested by Kole. Without it, it seems to me that, that business is unfinished; more so, given the extremely malicious and FALSE accusations that some questionable members of the association have continued to level against me. ANA, I believe, is like most artists organizations where every member, even the most stupid, sees him/herself as a pundit. We have teeming young members who fancy the idea and prestige of being called a “writer,” and so, devote themselves more to the politics of writing than to honing skills. All they need to claim membership is some doggerel, or some wretched short story written in broken English. Once you remember that memorable pithy saying, “The best lack all conviction, the worst is full of passionate intensity,” you defined the pack, including some self-styled parapsychologists amongst them. They hardly pay their membership cum annual dues but are usually the first to arrive at annual conventions expecting their leaders, especially the General Secretary, to give them nothing less than Five Star treatment. Running the Association is a thankless volunteer job that sucks time and personal resources. Within the four years I served as Gen Sec, without administrative staff or a truly functional Secretariat, I found it difficult to write or publish any book. However, since handing over in November 2005 I have nurtured two books, an anthology, Camouflage: Best of Contemporary Writing from Nigeria (2006), and now my second collection of poems, Love in a Time of Nightmares. I have also returned to serious scholarship, and have recently completed two research essays that I like, and will be sending to peer review journals as soon as I finish with revising them early in 2007. In spite of the low sides of the ANA job, I have benefited in innumerable ways from the unique experience of serving such a challenging association as General Secretary. It has taught me a lot about fundraisers, managing difficult people and a poorly financed organization, in addition to coping with the politics of unprovoked human wickedness and campaigns of calumny. It has also given me salient opportunities, which largely emanated from building bridges with other stakeholders, some of whom have become friends and associates. Since handing over, I have been feeling like an overburdened traveller saved from a crushing weight. I feel utterly relieved, occasionally upset by attempts by the poetasters in the organization who enjoy drawing me into the oft-revolving ring of controversy that they like to generate, rather than engage in quality creative writing or discourse.
A.E.: In your opinion, and having worked at core of the literary establishment in Nigeria, do you think Nigerian writing has been properly published at home; how much does vanity publishing disrupt the usual peer-review process or lead to a lowering of standards? Consider this in view of the recent criticisms by the old Guard, for example a Prof. Ben Obumselu; or some at the bridgehead between recent Nigerian writing and the past, like Tanure Ojaide. Why do you think they insist that the new poetry has no innovation (Ojaide) or that nothing outstanding has been produced since Okigbo (Obumselu)?
N.O.: Considering that I have offered an extended intervention in this controversy in my Introduction to Camouflage, I wish you would spare me the monotony of revisiting this question. Suffice it to cite again, what I consider the greatest headache of this generation with respect to the exaggerated denial of her modest achievements by the older generation. It is the dearth of critical work on the writings of the new generation. As I said elsewhere, all the anxiety and emotions over such negative criticisms should be channelled into this purpose. After all, as Edward Gibbon notes in his astonishing study, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, we are all familiar with “the propensity of mankind to exalt the past and to depreciate the present.” But the question arises as to whether we have younger intellectuals capable of the kind rigorous critical appreciation required at this time. Baring a negligible few, I am not sure that we do, and here-in is the tragedy of the institutional decay occasioned by mindless dictatorships that have crippled the ivory tower in Nigeria. Besides the regrettable massive brain drain, generational list serves like Krazitivity have been doing a great disservice to new Nigerian literature. Rather than discuss literary developments and conduct lively debates in journals and public spaces such as the print media, and thus benefit the greatest number, members of the already marginalized generation indulge in intellectual masturbation in closed, cult-like list serves as if afraid to air their views. In fact, when some journalists who are members of the list serves publish views they consider germane to literary development, house rules that prohibit such are invoked to upbraid them. This has robbed erstwhile vibrant literary pages (of the few newspapers with literary commitment) of lively literary discourses, and consequently, short change new writers. As in every other generation, ours has its lamentable share of an army of pretenders to the literary vocation. So also does it have a few outstanding writers, whose profiles at home have suffered due to a comatose publishing industry. Now, is it not a shame that the few who have won recognition amongst the new generation have only done so by winning international prizes? Cases of prophets not being recognized or honoured at home? Where were all those local forebears when the west validated the quality of the new writing, only for the former to tag along afterwards? Clearly, the point you make about vanity publishing is noteworthy. However, do spare a moment to ponder if a Helon Habila would have emerged as one of the most important new African voices—winning the prestigious Caine Prize—if he had not resorted to this “alter-native publishing?” As condemnable as the worst examples of this desperate solution to the publishing drought may be—and they are many—the best examples are there to justify the alternative. I like to cite the incontrovertible statistics that most of the literary prizes in the country today have been won by self-published, or subsidy books, or better still, books from small presses. What does it tell you? Rather than put down the resilient spirit which the new writers have displayed, because the end hasn’t quite justified the means, I would encourage greater self help initiatives. If anything, I sometimes see our generation as almost failing the country. It is so disheartening to see a generation so buffeted to submission by primordial socio-political cum economic forces and unable to effect a change in the status quo in postcolonial Nigeria. If you consider the strides of the preceding generations of educated Nigerians such as the anti-colonial fighters like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Anthony Enaharo, Fumilayo Ransome-Kuti, Obafemi Awolowo, etc, or the succeeding generation of intellectuals like Christopher Okigbo, Achebe, Soyinka, Saro-Wiwa, etc, you may begin to despair and share the sentiments of the worst critics of our generation. That is not however to deny the efforts of a martyr like Chima Ubani! I am speaking here of a critical number. Incidentally, the narrative of the socio-political castration of our generation is being re-written by the struggles of daring Niger Delta youths, who can be said to have wrest concession in the form of the recent nomination of Bayelsa State Gov, Jonathan Goodluck, as Vice Presidential candidate of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, PDP. But whether that constitutes a solution to the problem remains moot point.
A.E.: Are you going to publish your new collection in Canada or Nigeria; do you have contact to the Canadian publishing world or its reading audience; relate this to the whole idea of exile or alienation discussed earlier?
N.O.: I would like to have my new collection published in Canada, as I have earned modest recognition at home, which is yet to translate into the desirable international scene. The absence of a proper book chain in Nigeria has not helped matters. Books published in Ibadan are hardly available in Lagos (a distance of less than 150 kilometers away), and tend to circulate only among fellow writers. How can any nation’s literature grow like that? Therefore, for now, I am keeping an open mind, determined to extend the frontiers of my writing and readership. Reading in forums like the Olive Group, and publishing on the Internet are some of the ways of achieving these objectives. More so, when you realize that there is a particularly unsettling Canadian angle to publishing in this country: there are presses that are government-supported and are more interested in publishing Canadians than writers from elsewhere. On the possible relationship between the idea of exile and the limited opportunity available to a foreigner in a literary clime as Canada’s that privileges her citizens, I am yet to think through it. But I am encouraged by examples of foreigners or immigrants who have also distinguished themselves in this country in various spheres of human endeavour, including Nigerians. In fact, one of the nominees for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize in 2005 was a hitherto obscure Lebanese writer, Rawi Hage, 42, who was published by a small press! It was during your tenure as General Secretary of ANA that the new Nigerian Literary prize, the NLNG Prize for Literature was inaugurated. There was some uproar about its limiting writers outside Nigerian from participating. Would you say that was literary apartheid or just the rules of the game? Does it take from the weight of the prize? I wish you do not have to take me back to that controversy upon which tones of newsprint were expended in Nigerian. Yes, I was privy to that decision as a founding member of the Board of the Nigeria Prize for Literature sponsored by the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Company, NLNG. I have tried to defend why we reached that decision but many who felt marginalized by the exclusionary clause would not hear of it. And some of them have indeed adduced cogent reasons to question our logic. For sure, I do not see it as any literary apartheid. Having devoted a reasonable amount of time and personal resources over the years as a literary journalist, university teacher, General Secretary of ANA, to promoting Nigerian literature, I could never be part of any project that would diminish it or its purveyors in any way. The truth is that we were encouraged by the need to create some hope for home-based writers, to set out a princely $20,000 Prize that they could aspire to win, and so apply themselves more to excellence in spite of the debilitating conditions, and the suffocating self-publishing option.. We were mindful of the fact they do not have the kind of opportunities available to their foreign-based cotemporaries some of whom—let’s face it—hold dual citizenship, affirming their Nigerianness when it matters, and claiming their hyphenated citizenship of the advanced countries where they reside, when it is expedient. That was the mindset that inspired the exclusionary clause, which required that to qualify you must have lived in Nigeria for at least three years leading to the year of entry. Now, many of our attackers forgot that every prize sets its own rules, and that there are no universal guidelines for establishing prizes except the pursuit of excellence. Even then, could one not say that a prize that rewards the most voracious eater promotes gluttony and therefore reprehensible? Besides, as I argued then, the guidelines were open to future review as the administrative Panel finds necessary, and other prizes with differing guidelines could be established. Interestingly, as you and I speak, there is an Olaudah Equiano Prize for Fiction reserved for only Africans in the Diaspora. There has not been a whimper of criticism against the Prize administered by U.S-based Iroko Productions. Perhaps the excitement over the NLNG Prize was partly because of its relatively handsome and unprecedented cash value for a literary prize in Nigeria. I am glad that since other prizes with comparable cash value have been announced, and open to writers in the Diasporas, the criticisms have subsided. And I hear that the new NLNG board is considering reviewing that exclusionary clause.
A.E.: And finally, do you think international prizes from outside Nigeria or Africa, define the Nigerian or African canon?
N.O.: Yes. I had noted this above, already. And it is regrettable because it is an extension of colonial mentality, a manifestation of the worst kind of inferiority complex. It is so bad that all many of the younger writers of the new generation need to do to command the respect of their critical forebears and colleagues, is to win one respectable international prize, as Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila, Chris Abani, Icarius girl Helen Oyeyemi, Segun Afolabi and Uzodinma Iweala, amongst others, have done. There is even a popular saying among the Nigerian literati that the essential new Nigerian writing is in exile. Hence, for other brilliant ‘homespun’ writers – like Promise Okekwe, Maik Nwosu, etc. – who have not been lucky enough to win international prizes, recognition is suspended for now. It’s a crying shame, with far reaching implications for pandering to western exotic literary palates.
A.E.: Thank you for your precious time and good luck with your doctoral research in Alberta.
N.O.: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you too, for the challenging questions, and keep up the great work with Sentinel Poetry magazine. We need more of such independent initiatives.
Sentinel Poetry (Online) #50. January 2007 ISSN 1479-425X
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF POETRY & GRAPHICS...since December 2002
Editor-in-Chief: Amatoritsero Ede