CHIMALUM NWANKWO - PROFILE OF THE POET
By Nnorom Azuonye
Chimalum Nwankwo is one of the strongest poetic African voices of our time. In his various highly acclaimed and applauded accomplishments in poetry, he has honed his craft achieving a higher stature and elevation in all its facets - language, imagery, music and the subliminal idiomatic cuts effortlessly embedded in the body of his work. Although he writes in English, his poems are in fact in the Igbo vernacular expressed, rather than transliterated in a foreign language resulting in dispensation with any distracting academic plagues of universality, which would have mutated the raw and intriguing energy of his unique accomplishments.
Born in what is now Anambra State of Nigeria. Nwankwo was educated in Nigeria and the United States of America. He obtained a Ph.D in English from the University of Texas, Austin and is currently a professor of English at North Carolina State University, Raleigh. He has won the Association Of Nigerian Authors Poetry Prize twice: in 1988 with Toward The Aerial Zone and in 2002 with The Womb In The Heart and Other Poems.
The Womb In The Heart is without doubt a pacesetter in modern African poetics. Dr Esiaba Irobi - a professor of International Theatre and Film at Ohio University describes this book in an 'e-mail to Nnorom Azuonye 26/02/03' as "…a great work of art which straddles childhood, adolescent and mature experiences of war and exile and identity and loss. (Feminism as well) …It is a milestone in African Poetry. The Womb in the Heart uses a vernacular aesthetic, an Igbo oral structure to convey and express a modern Igbo sensibility in English. There are numerous transliterations of Igbo proverbs etc., but the power of the work is that it is incantatory, musical, sophisticated in its imagery, cultic and, most importantly, lends itself to performance instead of reading."
Nwankwo takes the oral presentation of poetry very seriously, writing in the Preface to The Womb In The Heart - (in itself a discourse on sources, making, and delivery of poetry non-posturing salient fashion of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet) that "a poem is not a poem until it has been read and heard, confirmed to possess both oral and aural intensity. The good word deployed effectively usually has both magic and penumbra! It resonates and evokes and makes the most innocuous extraordinary or forbidden."
If today Nwankwo has a unique voice in African poetry it is a result of a long journey of searching, experimenting, allowing himself to be influenced and having the will to extricate himself from those influences and forge his own creative visions. In an 'e-mail to Nnorom Azuonye 26/02/03' Nwankwo says:
"I was fascinated by novel encounters with poets like T.S. Eliot and Christopher Okigbo, and the indirection of the black mind and imagination evident in black art. I admit early echoes of Okigbo in my work, but I am now ensconced in my own artistic aerial zone - my own territory of vision and thought and practice...uniquely mine… I love the easy flow in the works of poets like Walt Whitman, Lorca, Neruda, Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, U'tamsi, the later Okigbo (far from the clutter of Western classicism and its useless allusions)...the enchanting and "sedating", the ritualistic and incantatory, the intriguingly mysterious. Now, that is not the difficult or obscure. I look for the magic of the sound and imaging, in my belief that as I said in the Preface to The Womb in the Heart, that words have penumbra. Words have resonance beyond linguistic meaning. My favourite example with my students is a line from Eliot :"I will show you fear in a handful of dust..." There is here a potency that is vertical and horizontal in its physical and metaphysical implications, its human and spiritual dimensions. Such facilities exist in indigenous Igbo poetics, in the proverb and riddle and so forth.
Profile of the poet continues >>>