SENTINEL POETRY #24   November 2004

By Emman Usman Shehu

The dearth of publishing books in Nigeria, particularly those with a literary bias, has become so acute a situation that any new publication elicits much excitement. This attitude became very evident recently when the Lagos branch of Women Writers of Nigeria (WRITA) organised the "1st WRITA (Lagos) Book Presentation". For an association concerned with encouraging more women to be involved in creative writing, having six of its members publish books in the genres of drama, prose and poetry, called for some celebration. There are explanations for the publishing dearth. The writer of the introduction to a recent anthology of Nigerian poetry, 25 New Nigerian Poets, puts it this way:

                     The literary renaissance joyfully announced by Harry Garuba
                     in his introduction to
Voices from the Fringe, an anthology of 100
                    young Nigerian poets published in 1998 is today non-existent.
                    The intervening decade between 1988 and now (2000) was
                    burdened by the military regimes of General Ibrahim Babangida
                    and General Sanni Abacha. The decade beheld the betrayal of
                    our political will, the annulment of the June 1993 elections, the 
                    murder of human rights and political activists including the former
                    President  of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Ken Saro Wiwa.
                    Several Nigerian citizens were forced into exile by the death
                    threats of the Military terror squad or by harsh economic

While it is true that the tyranny and harsh economic conditions of that period
constricted the avenues of publishing literary works, the problem had an antecedence. The system was never effectively organised to provide favourable opportunities for writers. The literary bloom soon after the nation's independence should have provided the impetus for both public and private initiatives but not much attention was given in that direction.  Thus, when the season of tyranny came, it was very easy for the fragile structures to collapse. The disappearance of the limited opportunities also coincided with the burgeoning of fledgling writers. Even in that very difficult period, a lot of writing was being done save that the avenues of making them public had become severely limited.
Perhaps because of its compactness, poetry became the much-loved form of artistic expression, and the handful of publishing outlets - especially newspapers and journals (if even the latter appeared infrequently) - showed a strong preference for this genre. Angela Nwosu and Toyin Adewale - who incidentally wrote the introduction I quoted earlier - became familiar names through the appearance of their poems in newspapers and journals or poetry reading events. Indeed, Adewale states this clearly on the acknowledgement page of her collection. The publication of Nwosu's
Waking Dreams and Adewale's Naked Testimonies, which formed part of WRITA's celebration, is a positive development because it serves as a reminder that even in the most difficult times the creative spirit cannot be vanquished. Their choice of this particular genre may not be unconnected with the observation by the American poet, Robert Frost, that "Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat". This is very evident in good poetry, because of the intensity with which it tackles the issues of human existence.

Angela Nwosu (nee Agali) holds a Master's degree in English from the University of Ibadan.  Her
Waking Dreams had attracted attention even in its manuscript form, as it was on the 2001 shortlist of the Zulu Sofola Prize for Literature. The collection, now in print, has forty poems. They are not broken into segments. The initial impression one gets is a certain calmness that suffuses the collection. This is established right from the first poem, "Chain":