Nnorom: Obi, I have to tell you, it is an honour to have you as my guest for December 2002. This month is very important in the development of my work. To begin with, Sentinel Poetry Movement which I have just founded has now come alive and new online Sentinel Poetry Magazine has now gone live. All these at a time we have Christmas in the air and Esiaba Irobi - the Minstrel himself coming to London for a big poetry bash among other things. It is an exciting time for me and I am joyful beyond words that your work will form a big part of these end of year activities. My visitors will want to know more about you as they read your work. Let's begin with the basics. Your name is Obi Nwakanma. Do you write under any aliases?
Obi: Yes, of course. My name is Obi Nwakanma. I have never had any need to write with a pseudonym, except perhaps once, when I had to publish a piece in a Nigerian newspaper, just to avoid a conflict of interest with The Sunday Magazine, (TSM) where I was a staff writer. I'm comfortable with my name. Anything, I think, that I feel convinced enough to say, ought to have my signature, and without the ambiguity of an alias. It is a matter of conviction. Not that I have anything against using a pseudonym when it is expedient to do that. In fact, in the difficult terrain that I've had to operate as a journalist, that is Nigeria under the military dictatorships of most of my professionals years, that need was possible, and quite expedient. But I've always chosen to put my name alongside my conviction.
Nnorom: I know what, you mean. I too have rejected suggestions to write under an alias, to use a more pronounceable name. More about you. Where and when were you born?
Obi: I was born on December 18th, 1966 in Ibadan, Nigeria. I'm of that generation born under the dark, terrifying eve of war, and violence, and we have never really known true peace. And that perhaps tells significantly in the way my work is shaped, in the things I've chosen to write, and in the ways I've chosen to write them.
Nnorom: Did you get any help or formal training in the art of poetry writing?
Obi: Well, I took an honours degree in English at the University of Jos. That's as much help as anyone could get.
I was very involved in, helped in fact to establish the writing scene at the University of Jos in the 1980s. That led to a ferment, and that ferment has led to what we are beginning to see emerge as the Jos school, among whom would be numbered a chap like
Helon Habila, who just won the Caine prize. He came to Jos after I left, but the movement we started was alive, and he was a product of this too. In the writers group in Jos, we read and critiqued our works.
So in fact, the best training for poetry, for writing in any genre is reading, reading, and reading. Reading especially one's contemporaries. One must see the movements, the arguments, the divagations, and then find an imaginative anchor within it all.
Nnorom: How did you get to develop an interest in poetry?
Obi: Well, I'd always grown around books. My father had a decent library. My mother was a school mistress, and there was always the contact with books. I read my mother's copy of Arrow of God, the first of the Achebe books that I read, in primary four. It was in the same period that I read Ngugi's Weep not Child, and Alan Paton's, Cry, the Beloved Country.
Very early, and my fascination for literature grew out of that contact with materials always lying around. I quickly devoured my father's newspapers, whenever he returned from the office. Very early on, way earlier in primary two, I was already reading the Drum magazine, which came out of South Africa, and was quite taken by the detective comic, Spearman. But on arriving the Government College Umuahia, which had a fairly well established literary tradition, I realized that I loved to write. It was easy to get into the Stone library, and see all those books, and in time, I easily took to poetry. Reading Okara, Soyinka, and especially JP Clark's poems, and the other modern African poets who were introduced through the school curriculum. Umuahia had great teachers, and somehow, they made the poems - whether it was the late English master, Mr Abosi teaching Chaucer or his favourite Shakespearean sonnets, or the Indian Unni, comparing a cricket late cut to perfect poetic delivery - poetry seemed to come alive for me.
I was not particularly an orthodox student, but I was happiest editing the Simpson House magazine, "The Dewar" and later on "The Umuahian (Red Star)." And I realized in those days, that I wanted to be a writer. My greatest epiphany came however, in 1984, when I discovered Christopher Okigbo - whose name I had only come across on the very old cricket scorebooks at Umuahia, where he made a series of centuries in the 1940s. Okigbo's poetry was new and magical to me when I came to it. And that was when, I think, I began to take myself seriously as a poet.
Nnorom: I share your experience of Biafra. I was born in July 1967 in the heat and heart of Biafra. You and I did not choose the best of times to come into this planet. The place of being a one-year-old when your country was plunged into a bloody 3-year war is clear as an influence on your work. You have also said that your poetic epiphany was the discovery of Christopher Okigbo who in fact has influenced poets such as Akomaye Oko and Obiora Udechukwu. Chinua Achebe has also likened the anger in the poetry of Olu Oguibe to that of Christopher Okigbo. Why is it so difficult to talk about post-1966 poetry in Nigeria without mentioning the name Christopher Okigbo?
Obi: I was not quite seven months old when the first shots rang out on July 6, 1967, initiating the shooting stage of the Biafran war. That war claimed the poet, Okigbo, in the very early months. By the time he died, Christopher Okigbo had established a reputation as the most gifted poet of his generation - one which had Achebe in the novel, Soyinka in drama, and Okigbo quite pre-eminent in poetry. Somewhere in between all these was JP Clark. But Okigbo was absolutely the poet of that generation.
People lament his death, mostly for cutting short a most promising poetic career, one which redefined modern African poetry - shifting from the classical, to the mystical, combining the mythic power of his Igbo culture, with the resonance of say, the Yoruba rara chants or Ewi poetry, and then proceeding in the last stages - in "Path of Thunder" - to inscribing the aesthetic of the public voice in modern African poetry. It is that kind of eclecticism, the catholicity of imaginative reference that makes Okigbo difficult to overlook.
In actual fact, I think the best thing about Okigbo's influence has been said by the poet, Odia Ofeimun, who once said that Okigbo has knocked us all who follow him on the head. His influences abound - from the poetry of Pol Ndu, Okogbule Wonodi, Chimalum Nwankwo, Niyi Osundare, Obiora Udechukwu, or even the American poet, Jay Wright, possibly the greatest living lyrical poet out of America today, to the poetry of a more contemporary generation, including Oguibe, Uche Nduka, the late Sesan Ajayi, and numerous others who have be spawned out of the Okigboan experience. It is indeed difficult to deal with Okigbo, because his grip is claw-like. But I think in fact, that the mystique of his death, has thrown him up as the national poet worth celebrating - both in terms of the eternal prophecy of his poetry, and in the orgasmic beauty of its performance.
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