Of wars and words
You learn, sitting in a room full of poets, that a poem too is Kolanut. And, you learn, irrespective of what it does to your protestant mind, that poetry is the highest form of literary expression. You have always believed all the forms to be equal, but, you do not question this new thing you learn because:
1. It came right out of JP Clark’s mouth.
2. He would know about a thing like that.
3.On a scale of self-fixation, this is such a benign self-centered truth to carry around.
It has been said from time to time that writers (for the purpose of this piece, read as poets) habour the urge to be God. You have never really trusted this assessment of who writers are. But, here in this room, on the third floor of the JP Clark center at the University of Lagos, you come close to understanding that this need to remake life, to collect and concretise the transient and human with words is a way to create a world; a possible world. “Casualties”, JP Clark’s war poem and Achebe’s “Mango Seedling” become, not just beautiful poems that capture the complex realities of war, but also revolutionary acts of (re)creation.
But, the case against Christopher Okigbo.
The question of Okigbo is one that every writer eventually arrives at. This question: Is art enough? Is my art enough? resides at the points of tension between the writer as artist and the writer as citizen. Chuma Nwokolo, the gray-haired, larger-than-life moderator for Conversations with JP Clark attacks the question head on: So Prof, do you think Okigbo is guilty as charged? This assumed guilt being Okigbo’s decision to transition from poet to soldier in service of his nation (Biafra) during the Nigerian Civil War.
JP Clark declares firmly that wars — of the physical combat variety — should be fought solely by soldiers. For him, Okigbo served society more productively as a poet. In his death, society lost not a soldier, but a poet.
A poet’s head: Almost-encounters with poet-priests
There is a visible network of tattoos on Lebogang Mashile’s back. Together, they are like a mini city with a butterfly garden at the entrance, a fantasy poem really. I cannot stop looking at it.
I first see Natalia Molebatsi outside, standing in front of the JP Clark center reading a poem into a video recorder. Later she reads “Casualties” to break kolanuts for JP Clark and then she reads a poem of hers. Her words ‘After the war, what do we do with the guns and machetes’ ascend and hang over the room.
I watch Ehis Momodu perform his poem, “There are no children in this place”. Days later, I think this: If Yinka Elujoba’s piece on Mapping Violence is a call, this poem is the response.
There are two men with shaved heads. One is exactly as I imagined him to be, the other is a surprise. I have fallen in love with the words of one and the voice of the other. I observe them closely, plotting strategies of chance encounters. These chance encounters never quite present themselves, or I chicken out each time they do.
I am invited by Chijoke Amu-Nnadi (invoker of spirits, cartographer of love and innocence, poet) to have lunch with JP Clark at the Boat Club in Marina. I completely miss this invitation, finding it hours later on Facebook. I still don’t know what exactly I will tell my unborn children when they ask what I was doing when I missed what might very well be my only shot at fame. This picture:
Soft and Hard poems
This much is true for the continent: for the generation of women writing poetry now, in discovering poetry, they found it to be the art of men. The most circulated poetry bible on the continent is arguably the anthology “Poems of Black Africa” edited and introduced by Wole Soyinka. It is a book of men. Personally, I first encountered what I considered to be ‘real’ poems in this book.
The voices of women poets were for a long time spoken into an unacknowledged vacuum, and when some of these voices began to be affirmed, a line appeared. On one side of this line, the word soft, on the other side, the word hard, and on the line itself, gender. Disrupting this line on the third day of the festival is the job of a panel moderated by Wana Udobang, peopled by Lebo Mashile, TJ Dema, Jumoke Verissimo and Natalia Molebatsi. The voices in this panel present distinct and necessary perspectives to the conversation: Shifting Tides: Women In Society And Poetry.
Lebo Mashile begins the disruption. She points out what is problematic about an institution that constantly makes you aware that the credibility of your work lies in achieving some kind of neutrality of voice. This invalidation of experience, she says, is like living through a world without memories. Botswanan poet TJ Dema offers that she did not start out considering this dominance of men as a barrier. It was simply an absence, one she was going to fill, until her body became an interface between her work and her audience.
For Jumoke Verrisimo, disrupting this interface is identifying what your ‘personal’ is and claiming the space to write and publish this. Lebo points out the difficulty of measuring impact in spaces where women poets often feel isolated and unaffirmed. She lessens this deficit by speaking her affirmations publicly.
Natalia Molebatsi wonders whose job it is to determine what is soft and what is hard, and then she says this: You start out wanting to be a person until you realise what society expects you to be. You are a woman because somebody can break into your body. Because you know that you can say no and somebody can still take.
Poetry: three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a dark alley
I find Charles Simic’s definition of poetry while snooping around the internet because I am not sure how to cram four days worth of words into a single coherent article. I find this definition a fitting metaphor for the poets on the panel, “Poets At Large: The Diaspora Writes Back”.
The question at stake for this panel is both born out of curiosity and an accusation: Why are you writing back? Or, how did your shoe get to the entrance of the dark alley? Nick Makoha, who is joint winner of the Brunnel Poetry Prize 2015, and whose poems are love letters to Uganda, puts it like this: Poetry is a journey that takes you to a place where you realise and admit to yourself that you have lost the thing you love the most and that thing is your country.
There is a word he uses to explain what he means. ‘Metic.’
It is a Greek word: Metoikos (from ‘meta’ indicating ‘change’ and ‘oikos’ for ‘dwelling.’) This word tries to capture the experience of a poet in diaspora as well as authenticate these experiences not readily recognisable in the collective.
Finally, the poet in public spaces: what is poetry for?
I am sitting with spoken word poet (and to a certain extent, Nigeria’s unofficial poet Laureate this year) Titilope Sonuga. She is eating, and I am full of questions. I am not there to interview her, it’s just a table of three girls chatting. Between food and phone calls, we manage to have a full conversation about everything almost. We talk Instagram, Twitter, acting, engineering, Lagos traffic, and then, finally, poetry.
Does poetry make a difference? I ask, abrupt, interjecting a conversation she is having with someone else. She graciously offers an answer. Art is the best medium we have for collecting and archiving our history as a people. I think, what are the chances that a Nigerian would look for answers in art, how relatable is art to the man on the street? And then I say it out loud, fully aware that I am asking a version of the problematic question: Do Nigerians read, care about art?
“Would you look for answers in art?” She turns my question back at me. Seated there, in Freedom Park, Lagos, surrounded by history, it is easy to see how the place of art as custodian of the soul of society is non-negotiable.
The next day, I listen to the final panel discuss poetry in pop culture. We have come a long way from “Conversations with JP Clark” to “Prophets and Profits: Poetry in Pop Culture”. The distance between these two conversations feels like the straight line between how we began and how we got here. The panel has a record label exec, a retired spoken word poet and everything in between. Their job is to dislodge poetry from its pedestal and make it dance shoki.
This is the sum total of what they say:
There is a continuum. On one end of this continuum, there is the tortured writer/poet clutching a thing called ‘the authentic voice’. Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum is the writer who has mastered the art of flitting in and out of the compartments of poet, citizen and hustler. And on the other end is a seemingly dubious thing called Brand Poetry. In this continuum, there is no good or bad, only a knowledge that “All money,” to quote Inua Ellams badly, “is dirty money”. The poet must figure out what the stain is and how long he/she wants to carry the stain for.”