My friendship with Babatunde Lawal - the now very significant African and Caribbean Art Historian was also very instructive. At that time he was writing these novels in a European accessible Pidgin that were extraordinarily vital and located entirely within a baroque village underworld of warring witches bearing magical roots and potions in service or in deadly opposition to the heroic quests local figures. Tunde, in my opinion, had an extraordinary eye and ear, and a vital sense of the language.
NA: Those of us, the younger Nigerian students and writers continue to study the nineteen-sixties and the strong literary platform our frontline writers raised off which we leap in our search for our own voices. We have our perceptions and interpretations of the writings of that era. I would like to have your own detached assessment of Nigerian poetry of that time.
SV: Most of the world I first encountered in Nigeria was a long reach from both Williams and my own urban roots. Poetry in sixties Nigeria often seemed academically rooted in European modernism. I could read Christopher Okigbo with respect for his careful ear and phrasing, but I could not connect with the mythic content. Similarly Gabriel Okara could write quite beautifully and, I think, more movingly. J.P.Clark was more solid. His "Abiku" poem still resonates for me. (Parenthetically I and my colleagues in the English Department were able to invite J.P. and Gabriel to give great public readings to students and faculty which I suspect had long term influence on me as well as students). Soyinka's London encounter with the English landlord was, however, in my terms something I could "hear."
Much of the language I encountered, however, was rendering a world of which I had no empirical sense so much of what I read seemed to stake its significance through reference to symbols inherent and important in traditional life where on the other hand - I was trained to be hungry for literal evidence or content. It's probably why I initially loved going to Onitsha where as legend then had it someone could find all the parts required to build a 1952 Chevrolet. But I also loved the chapbook culture of which Donatus Nwoga had first introduced me. Onitsha was full of a kind of factuality that I found fascinating.
The Nigerian writing on the campus that most impacted me was not popularly known or accepted. Akomaye Oko's poetry immediately caught my ear particularly for its literalness about his circumstances. He was able to write quite directly without having to invoke a whole mythological world surrounding a circumstance. And yet there was such work say that of Pol Ndu that was built around ritual whose language remained attractive and compelling.
Frankly I became stuck between two worlds. On one hand, working hard to engage the mythical "other" and yet hold my ground and look for objective manifestations of this other that I could embrace in my writing. As I once paraphrased Robert Creeley at a campus poetry workshop, I wanted to make the movement of language as genuinely felt as the kick of a foot. Yet, retrospectively, in terms of the development of my work, I also wanted to achieve an incorporation of the mythical into that process. After all, Charles Olson who also very much ascribed to the physical fact of language was also equally embraced in part by the world of myths.
Please note: Part II of this interview follows will be published in the September 2003 issue of Sentinel Poetry.
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