Nnorom: In your view, has another poet come out of Nigeria who is, or can be as important in the development of poetry in Nigeria as Christopher Okigbo?
Obi: Oh certainly, my generation is resplendent with poets and poetry. Esiaba Irobi, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe, Ogaga Ifowodo, Maik Nwosu, Onookome Okome, Toyin Adewale, Amatoritsero Ede, Lola Shoneyin, Unoma Azuah, Angela Nwosu, Remi Raji, the late Sesan Ajayi... too many people writing world class poetry. These chaps are redefining contemporary Nigerian poetry, and could be counted among the best of those writing in the world today, irrespective
of the politics of publishing that have restricted them from an international audience.
Nnorom: What is the extent of Okigbo's influence outside Africa?
Obi: Immense. He is for one, the most anthologised of modern African poets. And he is quite inevitable if one must understand the transitions within African modernity and its poetics of social engagement. Okigbo has a central place. I've said somewhere else, that there are at least four poets of that generation from Africa, who will be counted among the definitive voices of all time: Okigbo, Senghor, U'Tamsi, and P'btek.
Nnorom: If you are introduced as a poet to somebody and he asks simply what do you write about? How would you best sum up your body of work?
Obi: What do I write about? Often there's a vital link between every writing and history, and society, and the compelling moments that seek clarity in the imaginative consciousness. I write about rivers and trees, the sea, the hills, of births and deaths, of transition. I write, borrowing the rapidly lost mystical world of the Igbo, and translating within it a contemporary regard for the condition of society: the contradictions of power, the tragedy of violence, such things. I also write about that part of my life that is pagan - my love of the sensual, the pleasure of the senses. Agwu afterall, is my creative avatar, and he loves wine and women.
Nnorom: You won The Association Of Nigerian Authors/Cadbury prize for Poetry in 1996 with your volume of poems The Roped Urn. How has this affected your life as a poet?
Obi: In 1996, the ANA/Cadbury prize paid N50,000. That was handsome enough to pay my rent in Lagos, and leave me quite enough for bottles of cognac and wine, for a little while. That is the only significant way that the prize has affected my life.
Nnorom: Esiaba Irobi in his poem "Tamsin" suggests that poetry in essence should be a more performative art. Do you agree with this? Do you sometimes write a poem with a view to having it performed?
Obi: I believe that each poem contains its own logic, and that there will be poets who declaim, as well as poets who seek introspection, and so have no need to declaim. There is thus, a difference between a poet like Jean Binta Breeze or John Agard, who perform their poems, and John Ashbery who does not. They all however seek to communicate an experience of value. I also understand Esiaba's need - coming as he is from the stage also: there's always that impulse for performance. And that is also good. I think the greatest excuse for poetry should be poetry itself.
Nnorom: Nathan Lewis a poet who was my guest in November 2002 hinted that one the biggest challenges to young poets today is the rap/spoken word phenomenon. He argues that "These poets, and the others who just want attention, frustrate themselves and others who actually work hard at putting words together. It doesn't seem to me our craft should be tainted by the more sensational aspects of performance. Thus far, our craft has been able to remain the most pure in literature. This is a personal frustration of mine." Is this a problem?
Obi: Quite frankly, I do not see the problem. If anything, I think we could sometimes borrow from the rap impulse, just as some modernist poets borrowed from Jazz, or pop, to show the rich resource of language that is available to the poet.
Nnorom: You mentioned earlier in this conversation that African poets don't get the right publishing deals and exposure they deserve. Do you agree with some schools of thought that argue that the majority of African poetry does not survive translation, and this lack of universality short-circuits any interests in the International arena.
Obi: The politics of publishing is critical. My analysis is that it is often the prerogative of the metropolitan press to promote what it finds most amenable, and to silence the rest. The argument is not really about translation: most African poets, for instance, write either in English, or Portuguese, or French. So it is not quite about translation. It is about economics. It is also about affirmation. It is about the narrow corridor in which publishing simply lives. It is also about something in the western consciousness that insists upon an assumption that poetry, literature, in fact, does not exist in Africa - only wars, and pestilence, and anarchy, and dictatorships. I think, the question is not about translation. It is about the selective rituals of international publishing and I think, its imperative of deliberately silencing the African side of the story in the late 20th century, (and early 21st c.) because it is a terrifying story - one which the rest of the world is too guilt-driven to hear.
Nnorom: Suggest ways that young African poets can be given more relevance and pride of place in the global poetry environment.
Obi: New African writers ought to come closer, identify each other, and begin to fashion a response to the conditions of writing in the continent - and in fact - in the rest of the black world. I think there ought of be publishing collectives, new ways of distributing and promoting new writers within the growing Diaspora, new journals and meetings of writers and scholars of new writing from Africa and the rest of the black world. That way, we'd give this some impetus.
Nnorom: What other book or books are you working on at the moment?
Obi: Oh, I completed a collection of poems called "The Horsemen and other poems." I have also completed the biography of the poet Christopher Okigbo which I'd been working on since 1988. I'm currently working on another collection of poems, a novel which I've been working on for quite a while, and a few other things. In fact right now, I'm making sketches and notes for a - play - a poetic drama based on an ancient Igbo myth around the futility of power.
Nnorom: Mr Obi Nwakanma, thank you very much for talking to me, I have enjoyed this chat very much and have personally been instructed by it I hope that visitors to our site who will read this through this month and in the future will take away as much as I have. But just before you go, tell me, do you remember the first poem you ever read?
Obi: I do not recall at all, but it must have been to a woman.
Nnorom: I should have known that, Agwu afterall, is your creative avatar, and he loves wine and women.
©2002, Azuonye, Nnorom "My e-Conversation With Obi Nwakanma" www.nnoromazuonye.com