Sentinel Poetry #49     December 2006    ISSN 1479-425X


Guest Editor: Nnorom Azuonye

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The Music of Dignity: Interview with Ogaga Ifowodo

by Nnorom Azuonye


Nnorom Azuonye (NA): Most press about you still  tend to refer to you as a Human Rights Activist. Many years away from your days as a Human Rights lawyer with the Civil Liberties Organisation in Nigeria, how much of an activist are you now?


Ogaga Ifowodo (OI): I thought we would start on a literary note!


NA: I like to walk in the areas I am not expected. It keeps me safe.


(OI): First, and on a lighter note, I should say that I do not carry an activism meter for measuring the quantum of my or any other individual’s activism! So I wouldn’t be able to tell “how much of an activist” I am now! If, however, there is a known point on that putative meter where one ceases to be an activist, I sincerely hope the needle does not point to it when I’m measured. More seriously, though, I have to say that I consider activism as much a matter of personal commitment as of public action. And that being an activist does not rest solely with membership of a human rights organization. There are, indeed, members of rights organizations that do not deserve to be called activists, in the good sense (there are activists of causes that degrade our humanity too),  on the mere strength of affiliation, and some whose personal conduct, not to speak of their activities, actually constitute a setback to the cause of democracy and human rights. At any rate, I consider myself already an activist before ever joining the CLO in 1992. In other words, I believe I am active – to go to the root of the word, activism – on other fronts. I do not subscribe to a certain understanding of the Nigerian “activist,” which seems to conjure the image of a special being born and bred for the sole purpose of being the champion of otherwise passive Nigerians, themselves born to a humbler destiny; an image I fear the press’s use of the word as well as the attitudes of some activists, has helped to create. It is why fellow Nigerians often find it a good question to ask an “activist” who has not been heard from in the usual way lately whether he has “abandoned the struggle”! Obviously, being abroad, I am at present not at the frontlines – where are the frontlines these days, anyway? – but I do try to make my contributions in other, less dramatic and visible ways, aimed at achieving the same goal: a better, more livable country where our dignity and so  the quality of our citizenship, and membership of the human community, can be our pride. But I don’t particularly care how the press describes me, so long as they acknowledge that I am a human being and a fellow citizen!


NA: I presume the 'less dramatic' way you fight for human dignity is your writing. As far as I know, if I am wrong please educate me, you write mostly poetry. Do you reckon that Olusegun Obasanjo and his goons read poetry?


OI: Yes, I’m primarily a poet. It is the genre in which I first tested my voice as a writer, and the one in which I first grapple with an idea or experience I wish to give a literary representation. But while it is true that General Obasanjo, or any of the primitive and philistine horde of power and money-worshippers we have been cursed with as leaders, do not read poetry, it is truer to say that they do not read any genre of literature at all! I use the word “read” in its best sense — to apprehend or study a text with the intent of gaining understanding, or something like that. It is much truer to say that they lack the necessary impulse behind a genuine love for and appreciation of the humanities: philosophy, art and literature, history. In short, they lack the vital spirit of doubt and enquiry without which there can be no culture and enlightenment. Theirs is a thoroughly cynical mind, convinced as they are that they have all the answers to life’s problems and mysteries. They try to occlude this lack by a comic profession of religious piety, and where that fails, by a brute resort to violence – officially, through the state, and privately, through private armies of thugs and assassins. So I wouldn’t fare better if I were primarily a novelist. As you know, I have been writing op-ed articles in newspapers and magazines since my days as an undergraduate student. While at the finishing Law School in Lagos , I was invited to the editorial board of VANGUARD newspaper as an adjunct member; Chris Okojie was the deputy editor then, and I remember doing a short stint there with the current Aso Rock parrot, Akin Osuntokun. Recently, I resumed writing opinion pieces for The Guardian, which you might have noticed. Yet, while newspaper articles are guaranteed to be noticed by any current goon-in-power, GIP –or, perhaps, we should stick with Vagabond-in-Power (VIP) — or, at least, through his press secretary, it is no guarantee that he will appreciate the finer points of such interventions, let alone be willing to act on them. The Nigerian ruling class — to the extent that it can be said to constitute a class, and not simply a band of robbers — as any ruling class anywhere, is driven mostly by selfish interests which have scant regard for logic or the common good that poets, writers and opinion writers assert. But I should add that I do not write for Obasanjo or any vicious clique in power at any time: I write, instead, for the people who retain the capacity, at all times — no matter if it is dormant most of the time — to banish the goons to the dustbin of history and reassert their sovereignty and collective good. They are the ones in whose minds any poet or writer should seek to help to effect a quiet revolutionary change of perception and attitude.


NA: Well, Ogaga, thanks for that picture of gloom. I suspect that you are aware the Nigerian masses are notorious for turning the other cheek. Those Nigerians who can read between the lines of literary outputs write more literature for eggheads or make haste to exile. I don’t mean to be facetious, but a lot of your writings, including your latest poetry collection ‘The Oil Lamp’ highlight the plight of Nigeria’s Niger Delta people. Poems and newspaper articles have been written about the 1999 Odi masacre, yet nobody has been held responsible for it. Using the Niger Delta as a backdrop, tell me, has protest literature become  the proverbial toothless bulldog?


OI: But it isn’t quite a picture of gloom! In fact, I ended on a rather positive note, and was realistic enough to add that however dormant the masses may appear—and I will add now, even in the face of seemingly intolerable provocation—they retain always the ultimate power of condemning their oppressors to the trash-can of history. It is a fact, and the history books burst with proof of this claim. Moreover, it is not true that the Nigerian masses are as docile as you make them look. Why, Nigeria is in a ferment even as we hold this conversation! Take two cases: the Niger Delta and the East, especially as the latter’s case is championed by the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). We often speak of a revolution, an uprising, but revolutions are never prompt. Whenever that cataclysmic moment that we call a revolution occurs, know always that it had long been in the making, aggregating its incendiary materials from the uncountable wrongs that may seem to have gone unpunished, or the apparently ineffectual protests and sundry other spontaneous acts of rebellion that preceded it and may very well be counted for nought under your view when measured against the injustices they denounced. My point is that whatever you will count as “turning the other cheek” right now could very well be one of the many acts that the people will call out on the day of reckoning; be very well some person or class of persons’ main motive for mounting barricades when the time comes. One thing I must add before I go to the second leg of your question: it has become increasingly hard to fight under a pan-Nigeria platform, thanks to the excellent work at destroying our budding spirit of nation and patriotism that successive blind, greedy and incredibly corrupt leaders have done. So while the entire nation is in ferment, the agitations appear to run along sectional or ethnic lines. But that is precisely because the nation-state bequeathed to us by the British at flag independence was unworkable, unsustainable right from the start. What is worse, the little that had it going—the fervour of the anti-colonial movement—has been destroyed, and, increasingly, the people have been driven to their ethnic enclaves. But in my view, this is a good thing! For we are now constrained to go back to first principles, to accept the obvious truth that unless the real interests of the constituent nations of the contraption—though it needs to be said that all nation-states are contraptions—called Nigeria are allowed to form the basis of any purported effort, we can have no hope of building a nation to command our loyalty. That means getting together at a sovereign national conference, or any gathering of the tribes under any nomenclature but of similar plenary powers, to decide what the union should be and under what supreme articles of faith. That is the only acceptable way of creating such an artefact as a nation-state: from the bottom up. So the centre is quiet, and the periphery in turmoil. Good for Nigeria, if we—especially the class of intellectuals—learn the right lesson from this.


Now as to protest literature becoming a toothless bulldog, I must say that I do not know when it was ever a toothed dog! Look, let’s not reduce literature, or the arts in general, by judging it according to the most insignificant of criteria: whether or not it takes the place of politics, the concerted exercise of the right to self-determination and to participate in government—for that is what the view you express, in my opinion, amounts to. A poem, a novel, a play—even an essay or a sermon—by itself alone will never lead people to membership of a fighting organisation, to meetings, and to protest marches. Literature, whether of the protest variety or not, achieves its best effect in the cultural domain, and there the dynamics are too complex for us to gauge its impact in any acceptable empirical way. Mind that the aesthetic, and cultural documentational — so to speak, but if you like, the simple aspect of bearing witness to the epoch through artistic representation—dimensions of literature and art would be completely occluded or rendered irrelevant by such criteria as I imagine inform your question.


NA: I am not sure you have not evaded my question. I do not suggest literature should take the place of politics - governmental politics that is, for every piece of writing has its own politics. Let me rephrase the question. Your book The Oil Lamp artistically 'bears witness' to what is happening in the Niger Delta. Is that correct?


OI: I thought that was a fair interpretation of your question! Well, to answer your rephrased question, Yes!


NA: What end, if at all, does the book seek to achieve?


OI: I think this comes out well enough in the general defence of the limited, but immeasurable because timeless place of literature that I have been mounting. I will consider The Oil Lamp, as indeed any other book or poem of mine, to have achieved its end if it successfully bears artistic witness to my time. I’m sure you will agree that the enduring quality of art very often makes it a better witness, a better record of lived experiences, than historical accounts. I guess I have very modest expectations of the ends of art in the way I understand your question. Let me just say, then, that bearing witness, in an ethically and aesthetically satisfying way is all I would hope The Oil Lamp or any of my writing achieves. Anything else is a boon.


NA: In ‘New Writing Worlds: Interview with Ogaga Ifowodo’ Charlie Watson asked you if writing could make a difference, and your reply was, “Directly, no. Literature will not change the unemployment situation, nor will it stop Shell from flaring [burning off] gas in the Niger Delta. For those in the corridors of power the lure of money and the spoils of power are too great. But writing can contribute to awareness, it can change attitudes, it can make us appreciate the world in a different way. It can make us better people.”  I am tempted to put it to you that you are sitting on the fence and that the reason you choose poetry as your preferred medium is because of its passion element. Somehow, I am not persuaded that literature that makes people aware of oppression without insinuating a march  to the house of liberation has not somehow lost its way. But let’s move on. Tell me, what determines the subjects of your poetry and the style or form in which you present them?


OI: But a minute before we move on, for I don’t think that your remarks are a fair interpretation of my view. At the very least, you can say that I am consistent! I had no idea you saw the New Writing Worlds interview, so it is clear I haven’t been trying to justify my position there. You can only say I’m sitting on the fence if you believe that your view—that “literature that makes people aware of oppression without insinuating a march to the house of liberation has … somehow lost its way”—is the absolute truth of the role, or the proper role, of literature in society. I would then ask you for evidence, from as far back in the history of the spoken or written word as you care to go. If you notice, I haven’t denied a role for literature and if I thought that being a writer would be a waste of time, would be to follow a vocation that has “lost its way,” then I certainly wouldn’t touch it with a broken pen; certainly not quit law for it! It seems to me that our differences on the question lie squarely in the degree and manner of literature’s social impact. It is one thing, as you say, for literature to “insinuate a march to the house of liberation,” and quite another, I think, for it to effect that march—that is, to see to it that the people do actually march! I hope you agree that literature is just one of countless human endeavours, and a very elite one at that! The array of events and process that will lead to a march to the house of liberation are far too complex to privilege literature, and the poet or writer must either be prepared to give muscle to her words by involvement in other modes of engagement with reality, of influencing and transforming society, or be content with the very limited but nonetheless important role of her work—indeed, of the combined role of all the literature of her age. And before I go to the next question, I should add that although poetry is my primary mode of writing, and the one in which I feel most confident (simply because it is the genre through which I came into writing and the one in which I have been most apprenticed), it is not the only one I practise. I have already mentioned my interventions in the popular press, but I’m sure you are aware that at the moment I’m also working in the fiction and non-fiction genres. But for my current doctoral studies, I would have completed both manuscripts—one a memoir, and the other a collection of stories. Moreover, I believe one can be as passionate as ever possible in any genre of writing. Wouldn’t you consider—to name three obvious examples—Soyinka’s Madmen and Specialists, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” very passionate works?


Now I come to your question—what determines my subjects and the form and style in which I present them. The first part is easy enough: events around me, autobiographical or otherwise—and around me means the whole world. In any case, a writer’s work, I should think, contains the answer to that question, and for a socially-committed writer like me, every poem announces its source. As for the second part of the question, I doubt that I, or any poet, for matter, can give a satisfactory answer, for here is where the writer’s individual genius—by which I mean, distinguishing attribute—manifests itself. I’m tempted to say that since form—and here I limit myself to poetic form—has always been evolving, has never remained static, with a lot of promiscuity regarding the contents it serves, a poet’s choice of form for a subject is more likely to be determined by a certain idiosyncrasy, an intuition, a conceit, say a desire to prove mastery of a particular form—albeit, with the shadow of its traditional place lurking in the corner!—than say, strictly speaking, any Puritanism. In short, there couldn’t be any such thing, as that would spell the end of creativity, of imagination. But to try to be more exact, let me say that I settle on a form if in the course of writing and rewriting the poem, I feel satisfied it has aided the fullest expression of the thought or experience that moved me to write. In other words, when the form I may have started or ended with leaves me with no desire to try another, I consider it adequate.


NA: Come to think of it, could you not have remained in your career as a lawyer and write great literature as well?


OI: Theoretically, it is, but it is clear to me that practically, it isn’t. I like to put it this way: law and literature are like two rival goddesses; you can’t hope to serve both well by dividing your devotion. You have mentioned passion in poetry—and I have insisted, in art as a whole—and that is hardly something achieved by divided loyalty. I don’t know if there are any instances in literary history of writers who made a success of BOTH writing and any of the professions; that is, made a success of them while practising both at equal intensity. Where they were great, where they entered the canon (however defined), they seemed always to have sacrificed the profession (law, medicine, or in the case of Wallace Stevens, insurance) to literature. And I haven’t even mentioned the many other areas of primary or formal training that writers seem always to come from—writing being, perhaps, the most democratic of all human endeavours! How many remember, for instance, that Salman Rushdie is a historian? Or that Gabriel García Marquez was almost a lawyer before he became a journalist, and then quit journalism for the career of a novelist? And so on and so forth. I think once you decide to be a serious writer—mark the emphasis on serious—then clearly you have to accept the one and only commandment from your jealous goddess: thou shalt serve no other god(dess) but me! Which is not to say that the writer’s original training is wasted. I very much believe that my training in law and involvement in human rights work add a dimension to my writing. Of course, the artist just by her enhanced sensibility is able demonstrate the most heightened sense of justice and human dignity without needing to have a background in activism on behalf of those causes, but she will certainly not be worse of for having an enriching one either. We all write or act from a social location, an interpretive horizon, defined by all that we bring to it by way of cultural orientation and experience. For eight years, I tried to make that dream of complementarity work: have a perch in a human rights group from which I could return home at night to write poems and stories. It dawned on me slowly but surely that unless I was prepared to cheat the one for the other, there was no way I could be fully satisfied with the overall results of my efforts. Still, there is a difference between not practising law (as I’m not), and not putting to use one’s knowledge of the law. Theories and principles of law will always remain with the person who has learned them, and it is up to him to use them as he deems fit in conjunction with other knowledges. If that person is a writer, I think that can help to clarify vision and intensify experience—two vital aspects of writing.


NA: Would you ever consciously write a poem about nothing in which the ultimate aim is the enjoyment of words?


OI: No! I wouldn’t consider that a sufficient motivation for a poem, even in the category of light verse. I might, just conceivably, include a stanza, or a refrain, of pure-sound-and-no-sense-words in a poem, but I fear that context would then give the words a meaning beyond what you are asking in your question.


NA: What about the times you write political or issue poetry, what is top priority on your mind – message, imagery, or music?


OI: That is an odd list! All poems do not succeed evenly at the level of imagery, music and message — what I would rather call the “subject” of the poem. In fact, as much as it might still be regarded as some kind of axiom that all poetry aspires to the condition of music, poetry — especially modernists and contemporary, or if you like, post-modernist poetry — is hardly ever musical in the strict sense. It often surprises me the level of tuning off from meter and rhyme that modern ears seem to have undergone! I suspect that much of the blame for it must go to the blitzkrieg against some of the time-honoured and more musical attributes of poetry have suffered at the hands of a very influential movement within postmodernism. It’s premise is a false association of formal poetry or art boasting those and other “high aesthetic” attributes with order, reactionary conservatism, coherence, meaning and beauty; all of which, it claims, makes the art false to an epoch that has none of those qualities. Yet poetry is nothing if not the symbolic use of language. It is where image or metaphor reigns supreme, so it goes without saying that following a sufficiently strong impulse to write — that is after seizing on a subject for a poem — the next most important worry is the image and the word to embody it. That is the only thing I like about Ezra Pound, his founding role in the imagist poetry movement. It has been pointed out to me that I tend to alliterate a lot, which in itself is a musical quality, but I am half conscious of that when I write. I have to say, though, that while the greater part of writing may indeed be perspiration, the poet is very often not like a carpenter conscious of every nail he drives into the frame to build the cabinet. Some things just come to him, for good or for ill, but even the politically engaged poet knows that his message fails miserably if he fails to do his duty by poetry.


NA: You recently became a father. Will any consideration for the welfare of your child affect the way you write about the issues you engage? (In other words, are you going to give more of yourself to ensure he grows up in a better world?)


OI: To the first question, a definite No! As to the second, I’m not quite sure I understand what you mean. If I’m right that in a sense this harps back to the very first question you asked, then I can only say that I will always give the best I am capable of giving, and which my circumstances permit. The world is too complex and social events too dynamic, especially in this day and age, for me to predict my future course of action. One thing for sure: to the extent that poetry and any other mode of writing I practice give me a voice, I intend to use it towards enabling a more beneficent use of the word. After all, there is a sense in which it is true that every thing starts with speech. I certainly wouldn’t want to leave the world a worse place for my son than I met it, though that is a prospect well beyond my individual means to promote or prevent!


NA: Who are the top five authors on your bookshelf?


OI: None, in the sense that my taste is so eclectic, which is not to say undisciplined, and there is so much excellence in the world that it would be hard for me to name just five. I can tell you though that when it comes to poetry, I consider Derek Walcott the ultimate teacher, the one to whom I go most often to be awed, and so to be inspired and amp my ambition; Soyinka I admire a lot for the way his mind works — but I shouldn’t get into this game which only compels one to choose when one is far better of revelling in the bounty. I have found instruction and inspiration in the strangest places, and I’m sure it is so with virtually any serious poet. With T. S. Eliot, it was minor, lesser known poets — especially, the French ones.


NA: Do you have a never-travel-without title?


OI: No, for wouldn’t that mean that you would read that same book every time you set out? My travel book list depends on what I’m reading at the time. Thus, as I leave for Uppsala on the 29th of November to attend a creative writing workshop on war and peace in Africa, I will be taking with me Dennis Brutus’s classic collected poems, A Simple Lust and his Poetry and Protest, a collection of poetry, interviews and essays. This is because Brutus will be a guest of honour at the event and before having the benediction of meeting him, I feel it a duty to refresh my mind with his excellence. So  I will be reading a lot on the plane! I will also take with me my half-read copy of George Szirtes An English Apocalypse. I met him at the New Writing Symposium in Norwich that you referred to earlier, and since I started reading one or two poems a night from it a few days ago, I have been so fascinated with his daring formalist commitment, and the experiences of exile and a second home he narrates that I’m glad I shall be having the duration of a long trans-continental flight to pay it the deserved attention.


NA: Ogaga Ifowodo. It has been good talking to you.


OI: The same here, and thank you for having me.


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