AiW Guest: Uche Peter Umez
‘Poetry is sometimes the only glimmer of hope in the darkest corners and most difficult conditions of life.’ – Obiwu
Obiwu teaches English in the Department of Humanities, Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio, United States. His books include: The Critical Imagination in African Literature: Essays in Honor of Professor Michael J. C. Echeruo (co-ed. Maik Nwosu, 2015), Tigress at Full Moon (2012), Igbos of Northern Nigeria (1996), and Rituals of the Sun (1992). He was a fellow of the Presidential Leadership Institute, Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio (2011), and a fellow of the International School of Theory in the Humanities (1998). His other awards include the Faculty Professional Excellence from Central State University (2008, 2013) and the Resolution Recognition (No. 07-4-12-31) from the Greene County Board of Commissioners, Ohio (2007).
Uche Peter Umez: Your debut collection, Rituals of the Sun, was published in 1992 and was well received. It was extolled for its rich mythic dimensions and spiritual vision. Now how come it took you this long, say, more than a decade, to come up with a second collection?
Obiwu: There is actually a twenty-year gap between Rituals of the Sun (1992) and Tigress at Full Moon (2012). This is a practical illustration that the experience of exile affects different folks in different ways. By the time of the publication of Rituals, I was already set as a writer to produce book-length works of various genres at a fairly regular rhythm. So, my second book, Igbos of Northern Nigeria (1996), was published four years later. From the time I left Nigeria and my teaching position at the University of Jos in 1997 to move to the United States and resume my doctoral studies at Syracuse University, New York, the creative impulse more or less suffered an abrupt shock of deferment. I still wrote occasional pieces of poems, but at a much slower rate. Mostly academic essays and protest journalese took greater prominence in my oeuvre. I spent many years taking stock of my new country, my new surroundings, and re-evaluating the first thirty-five years of my life which suddenly lie in ruins in Africa, like an awful hangover after a night of binging on cheap liquor and bad sex. I became more engrossed in rather debilitating long planning with little execution.
I found myself entering an unpremeditated interregnum, like the character of Nwofia in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, born in faraway Mbanta during Okonkwo’s middle period of exile and therefore conveniently elided as a blind spot by both his creator and the critics. So, for all of fifteen years in the United States, I was like the deluged fish of J. P. Clark’s “Night Rain,” “doped out of the deep” and “bobbed up bellywise.” By 2012, I had amassed a substantial amount of poems for two separate volumes. The more disparate pieces ranging over a decade and a half of only poems of exile, in other words, poems solely written in the US, was collected and published in Tigress with the extraordinary diligence of my New York publisher, African Heritage Press. The more recent epical construction that I composed over a two-week period, with the artistic collaboration of Professor Nnenna Okere of North Park University, Chicago, became the volume for “Unspeakable” (AKA “Protocols”) that is now ready to go to press. Another poetry manuscript is also almost ready, but I wouldn’t give away the title yet.
Umez: Take the poem ‘Bloodline’. Although the images are familiar in a Nigerian context, and so are the acts called up in the poem, I was wondering if the poet-persona is not stricken with a destructive form of madness from Agwu ocha (‘white Agwu’). I know the poem derides an ex-Nigerian president’s follies, but to what extent do you think our eccentricities as poets are largely the handiworks of Agwu ocha?
Obiwu: “Bloodline” has direct correlation with “A Man of Good Taste.” The persona of both poems is a man who has given in to the unscrupulous desire that is in him, as the analyst Jacques Lacan would put it. Since he permanently dwells in the unbounded space between the mouth and the stomach, the persona becomes a champion of a perverse pleasure, an unmitigated desire. He kills to eat; he eats to die. I have read some reports about animals that eat their young immediately after birth. I have also seen television programmes of animals that either bash or trample their young to death in inexplicable anger. Closer home, we have all known of incidents in our neighbourhoods about humans that throw their babies in the toilet. All these may appear to the saner world as strange and bizarre. But they all belong to the realm of the human, in the hidden corners of the bestial heart. Some take fright and run or hide. Some stand their ground to confront the evil. Whatever our course of action, it’s understandable, even if unacceptable and illegitimate. This is where the poet, as artist, comes in. By his conscience and vision, the poet has an instinctual recourse to side with God in the eternal conflict with Lucifer. Yet poets and artists (as both Marlowe and Goethe have rightly noted) have been known to offer their services for a mess of the Mephistophelean porridge in global genocides from the German Holocaust to the Biafran pogrom. Records have shown that there were Nigerian poets who busied themselves hauling and marketing crude oil to European markets, while their fellow poets and millions of compatriots were blitzed to death with imperialist weapons in the Nigerian-Biafran war.
Agwu oji (‘black Agwu’) and Agwu ocha (‘white Agwu’) are the twin-agencies by which we are chosen for the roles we play in the earthly war between good and evil. (There is no pun intended in the curious translation, which would make Agwu ocha or ‘white Agwu’ an ally of the destructive imports of Christian-Islamic imperialism in Africa. Could our ancestors, since they were folks endowed with the power to see the future, have foreseen such an interesting turn of events?) By its very nature Agwu is always already an eccentric god. Yet Agwu oji is the creative spirit that is responsible for the ‘third eye,’ the ‘chalked eye,’ which makes for the beautiful and sets boundaries and controls on the good and the bad. Agwu oji is the avatar of the poet, a creative force who is the ‘good poet’ – a rather tautological expression since the bad poet doesn’t exist, is an anathema and the obverse face of creation. Agwu ocha, on the other hand, is the patron saint of all that is wrong with the world in which a ‘poet’ sells crude oil on the international market when his or her countrymen and women are dying of hunger and weapons of mass destruction. That ‘poet’ has sold his or her soul on the stock exchange and taken sides with Mephistopheles and corrupt politicians and military autocrats. That is not a poet and is in no way different from the persona of “Bloodline” and “A Man of Good Taste.” His desire has defined him and become him.
Umez: In the poem, ‘Bless the Child,’ the land to which the child is born is depicted in terrifying hues. The child will have to grow up in an unloved land that not only ‘…lies in ruins’, but is also:
The Mobius Serpent
That coils on itself
Tail in its mouth
And tongue untied
Like a poisoned arrow…
I was thinking of Blake, Soyinka’s poem to his daughter and Okigbo’s poem to his own daughter, while reading this poem. Why did you choose to juxtapose innocence with experience? Is this poem derived from personal experience? And do you think you have been (over)influenced by Okigbo, considering that Professor Obumselu and Professor Ebeogu have pointed out the influence of Okigbo in your poetry?
Obiwu: The concluding lines of the stanza you excerpted from “Bless the Child” (above) continues along the lines of my preceding response: “Like a poisoned arrow/ Drawn to snap/ And feed on its own young.” It circumscribes the persisting idea of a pervasive self-immolation in which the nation-state (Nigeria, for instance) is mired. It echoes the concluding quatrain of Christopher Okigbo’s Path of Thunder, which speaks of “a going and coming that goes on forever” between “an old star” and “the new star.” It invokes Wole Soyinka’s schema of the Mobius strip and the oft-referenced “cyclical pattern of human stupidity,” which is only mediated by the force of a “kink.” Both Okigbo and Soyinka bounce off of W. B. Yeats’ “Great Wheel” schemata as portrayed in the slouching “rough beast” of “The Second Coming.” Yeats harks back to William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience,” as seen especially in “The Tyger” from the latter – an immediate source of the title of the collection. From Obiwu through Soyinka, Okigbo, Yeats, down to Blake, the poets are all signifying their mystical identification with the apocalyptic intervention of the incomparable Leviathan, the “wriggling serpent,” of which God is praised for making. It’s a way of saying, with how bad the present is, how else could it end but worse? It’s almost inevitable in Nigeria, for instance, that if you’re happy that your grandfather did not die in the genocide of Biafra, your father would die in Ogoni, or your uncle would die in “June 12,” or your brother would die in Odi, or your sister would die in Zaki-Biam, or the “indignant desert birds” of the Boko Haram will hover over your children and grandchildren in Adamawa, Borno, and Kano, and the cycle goes on like “a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi.”
So, yeah, the eminent Professors Ben Obumselu and Afam Ebeogu rightly note the influence of Okigbo in my poetry. It’s, however, not so much a creative overindulgence, as it is also the overdetermination of Agwu ocha’s perversion of the landscape of Nigerian poetry that is manifest in the poetry of Okigbo, Soyinka (as Ogun), Obiwu, and indeed a range of poets of the Nigerian patrimony going back two hundred and twenty-five years to the publication of Olaudah Equiano’s exilic poetry in his autobiographical Interesting Narrative in 1789. My poetry is, therefore, founded on the Yeatsian vision on the drowning of the “ceremony of innocence.” The Tigress collection highlights that phenomenology in its structure and organization, and is illustrated in the opening title poem “Tigress at Full Moon.” Thus, where Blake ends his poem with the presumptive rhetorical question, “What immortal hand or eye” dares to frame the fearful symmetry of the tiger, Obiwu ends his poem by presenting an even more dreadful symmetry in which “a regal tigress at full moon” is “plowed” by “a rampaging Agwu.” In other words, what could be worse than the endangered persona of the tiger itself? As the Igbo say, whatever bites a leopard to death is a master-biter. It is as if both Blake and Obiwu draw on the monstrous metaphors of the tiger and Agwu ocha to revivify the mutually destructive Samsonite-Philistine confrontation. To Samson’s riddle, “Out of the eater came something to eat, and out of the strong came something sweet,” the Philistines respond with, “What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion?” There consequently follows one of the first cases of architectural implosions in recorded narratology that destroys a generation of the Philistine leadership and a mass of the people when Samson buckles the central pillars of the Dagon temple in the city of Gaza. For their daughter Delilah, and because he is a Jew, they take his Nazirite hair and eyes. He returns the favour by taking their temple and the lives of all who gathered to gloat over his enslavement. As I cited in the book’s epigraph from Karl Marx, “A nation and a woman are not forgiven the unguarded hour in which the first adventurer that came along could violate them.”
And so, yes, as in the instances of Okigbo and Soyinka, “Bless the Child” was written to register the conflicting emotions that followed the news of the birth of my first daughter in Nigeria. I was in the United States at the time and things were extremely dire, and still are, in many ways at home. Fortunately for Ada and I, I have met Okigbo’s daughter and at least one of Soyinka’s daughters and they have all turned out well in spite of the excruciating circumstances of their early childhood as children of activist poets.
It is, therefore, a half-hearted reading that would engender the sort of niggling questions I have received from a couple of commentators about why ‘tigress’ was used in the title of the book, when “there is no tiger in Africa.” One usually presumptive poet even suggested at a reading that I should have used ‘lioness’ instead, because “Okigbo used ‘lioness.’” What did they say to Chris Abani for using ‘Graceland’ in one of his fiction titles? I have wondered. Why do they write in English, since the English language is not original to Africa? Why do they live and work in the US and not in Africa, earn American dollars instead African seashore cowry shells, in many cases marry non-African spouses and sire biracial children, and yet turn around to pontificate on what is African or not about the title of a book that was written and published in the US? I have, therefore, tended to give a series of brusque responses depending on the moving spirit at the time: a loud silence, a wry smile, or a dry answer like, Oh, I like my ‘tigress’ more!
Umez: There is a dash of playfulness in many of the poems, even when they are portraying bleak human experiences. Does this reflect a sort of enjoyment or “jouissance” on your part? Was this a conscious decision to write in this tone? And why did you choose this tone?
Obiwu: I received one of my greatest gifts as a poet from a South African friend over the last Christmas break. She informed me that her daughter, a university freshman, had so taken to my friend’s copy of Tigress at Full Moon that she carried it with her everywhere. During one of their discussions of the poems, my friend noticed that her daughter used the feminine pronoun, ‘she,’ in reference to the poet of Tigress. On inquiry, it dawned on my friend that her daughter had mistaken me for a woman! She directed the young woman to my small portrait on the back cover of the book. “But his voice is so feminine!” she screamed in bashful delight. For some reason, my photograph had escaped her attention. My professor friend and I had a few minutes of roaring laughter over the phone, and I told her how delighted I was to hear such an amazing story. No one has ever taken me for a woman, well, except in my other life as a poet. I now wish that more young women (and men) would carry copies of my books with them everywhere. At least, I would think my poetry is more life affirming than the cigarettes or drugs that some of them carry about. To be fair to the menfolk, though, I have come across a few reports of guys taking Tigress on business and pleasure trips. I believe the writer and reviewer, Ikhide Ikheloa, was one of those to write of their travel with the book.
But, no, there is no conscious decision to write in a playful or joyous tone. If anything, I am fully aware that mine is a voice of innocence straining through the harsh light of the day, like a fresh plant breaking through the sordid earth. As it has often been said, we laugh in order not to cry. As a reader I always have an eye for the truth that is told in jest, and I have no doubt that such a consciousness could find a way into my own writing. Beyond that, my experience is vastly different from that of millions of my compatriots. I have lived through four national citizenships by the time I turned forty-five. As a child in Biafra, I was one of the few survivors of the very first Nigerian federal air bomb assault on the Umuahia main market in 1968. I watched my youngest brother die of kwashiorkor from a Nigerian government-imposed starvation, and there was nothing my helpless parents could do for him. I barely escaped the same fate. I have seen and known things that would make the average Joe deaf and dumb. But I have also had a great and lucky life. I have been a special beneficiary of the most illustrious mentors and patrons. I now understand why the Igbo say that what the dog sees and is crying wolf, the sheep had seen and shrugged with indifference.
What you call “jouissance” in my poetry, therefore, describes my recognition that there is nothing like a full enjoyment or a complete satisfaction. I know that every enjoyment ultimately leaves a sour taste in the mouth, a sense of emptiness, disappointment, failure, and yearning. That is the point of such poems as “Her Eyes Were Watching God,” “Bloodline,” “Secret Soldiers,” “A Man of Good Taste” and “The Undertaker’s Smile.” I also know that happiness has eluded me in this life, but hopefully not in the next. One thing that has never failed me, though, is the big laughter in my heart. That is the sense of joy I have when I complete a poem or any piece of work in which I felt that I have done exactly what I set out to do. I also enjoy the tweaking phase at the end of a first draft when I tinker with the words and the order of arrangement just to achieve the particular purpose of the work. I do not, however, confuse laughter with happiness. Just be careful not to hurt your head or your lungs. “Obamacare” has no provision for the health hazards of excessive laughter.
Umez: Robert Frost said, ‘Writing a poem is discovery.’ But I can’t help feeling that writing a poem is essentially an attempt at recovering a moment, otherwise gone – be it an impression, event, or even a thought. For you, what impulses drive your poetry? Are your impulses geared towards a recovery or discovery?
Obiwu: Actually, “discovery” and “recovery” are great ways of seeing or viewing the art of poesie. Both words would imply a certain re-familiarity with what was lost or hidden. In that case, I would very much prefer recognition as the operative term in my encounter with poetry. What is lost is not really lost, and what is hidden is not really hidden, but only appears so, or seems “as if.” In other words, how could something be lost or hidden when it is always already there in the present awaiting discovery or recovery? In effect, the process of what Robert Frost calls “discovery,” what you call “recovery,” is neither; it is “meconnaissance” or misrecognition. It’s only a “re-cognition” of what we have always already known. If it is lost or hidden, it is lost or hidden in the unconscious or the subconscious self, which is why it is quickly recognized, or “cognized again,” once it reappears in poetic composition.
I will give just one example with my poem, “A Man of Good Taste.” I had read J. M. Coetzee’s representation of the persona of the travelling scholar in a sexual tryst as an “oral poet” in the novel, Elizabeth Costello, on publication in 2003. When, in 2009, I read of the mindboggling divorce case in which a husband accused his wife of sleeping with his father, a former president, I suddenly perceived an image of the said ex-president as a lascivious, if mythopoeic, father of the horde. I immediately had a clear picture of the father’s mouth (“snout”) and stomach (“loins”), “oral-driven,” as part-objects of he who would go down at all cost (including paternal and familial honour) even on his own son’s wife – all pointing to Coetzee’s representation of the crude professor who combines cruise lecturing with “conolingus” performance. The six-year gap between the fiction text and news text is nothing to the unconscious, which is a repertoire of memories, a repository of knowledge, captured like an indelible film, like a fly trapped in an ointment, drawn in and embalmed without escape or decay. Wordsworth would describe the phenomenon as “emotion recollected in tranquility”; but I would – as would Pound – call it image recognized, re-imagined, revitalized, and revivified.
“The Deadline” has quite a different scenario. I heard Tupac’s posthumous song, “That’s Just the Way it is,” on radio while riding with a friend the week, possibly the day, it was released. The reverberating piano tune and the uncompromising fatalism of the lyrics haunted me for days and disturbed my sleep a bit. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the hounding image of the black American poor or the pervasive image of American racism that ensnared my dreams with the song. It was rather the continuing, transmogrifying holocaust of Islamist extremism in Northern Nigeria that the song recalls in a faraway land, in which one’s body is trapped at the physical place of residence whereas one’s spirit is marooned elsewhere that was supposedly home. One night I gave up counting the imaginary stars on my ceiling and just went straight to my desk and wrote “The Deadline,” which is a personal reinterpretation of Tupac’s disembodied voice from the grave. In Tupac’s song I recognized the futility, the hopelessness of my own exilic condition.
Umez: The six poems in Path Four: Babel in your collection are rendered in vernacular, though with English version. What I find most appealing is their euphony! So what defines the poem as a poem? Is it language? Is it form? Or is it the poem’s ability to engage the reader intellectually, sensually and aesthetically? What was the poetic experience for you while you were writing these particular poems?
Obiwu: The poems of “Babel” are, indeed, the more challenging of all the poems of Tigress in terms of time and technique. They generally doubled the average length of time it takes to compose a poem. First, I composed each poem as I normally compose all my other poems, only that I had to do it in my native Igbo language. Then, I began the process of translating each of them into English. I had to battle through the question of orthography. Should I, for instance, privilege The New Standard Orthography (NSO) over the Onwu Orthography, or should I find a middle ground between the two mechanisms. There is no doubt that I preferred the umlaut to the sub-dotted vowel, but I still haven’t quite made up my mind about the problematic of the ‘ch’ digraph (see Michael J. C. Echeruo’s Igbo-English Dictionary, 1998). Should I use the contraction or not, or should I decide what form is applicable as occasion demands? There is also the very intriguing complication of translating Christopher Okigbo’s two lines from “Elegy of the Wind” (in “Path of Thunder”) to Igbo as epigraph to “Ïgba Afa Eze Dibia” (“The Chief Priest’s Invocation”). I had seen only one other person attempt an Igbo translation of Okigbo’s poetry, Dr. Paul Onovo of Georgia State University, Atlanta, and I never stopped wondering how challenging it must be to keep the faith with Okigbo’s language and, especially, music.
To me, therefore, the best of Igbo poetry is in the music and, sometimes, dramaturgy. Whether it is “tumbom, tumbom,” or “gwam, gwam, gwam” (riddle), or tongue twisters, or invocation, or “mbem” (poetry) itself, rhythm is the key. There are folks whose ordinary words of speech are music to the ear. The least that the Igbo poet could do is compose poetry from that backdrop of the traditional praxis of the genre. From my perspective, that is the advantage I have for growing up under the shadows of a great folk-speaker like my maternal grandmother, “Dedem”; an incomparable folk dancer and singer like my mother, “Eriko”; and a legendary performer of the Owu mermaid tradition like “Area Scatter.” It is not necessary, though, to insist on setting Igbo poetry to music; it doesn’t hurt either.
Umez: Hannah Arendt says we learn to be human in the course of speaking about what is going on in the world. To what extent do you think poetry humanizes us as a kind of conversation between the poet and his reader?
Obiwu: Professor Obumselu says that poetry (and literature generally) is a conversation with eternity. How else could we have read Seamus Heaney, Chijioke Amu-Nnadi, Akachi Ezeigbo, Roger Hecht, or Maik Nwosu? Besides the art of nation building, the next most important task of humanity is the art of conversation. Okigbo identifies it as the “logistics” of poetry. In fact, Chinua Achebe and the Igbo would actually put storytelling ahead of nation building. That is why the Igbo invented the term “Nkolika,” the story is greater, which is also a given name, a forename, of the female child. The supremacy of the creative discourse is at the core of Achebe’s novel Anthills of the Savannah (1987), especially in the signification of the character of the journalist and writer Ikem Osodi, the old man from Abazon, and the leopard and the tortoise.
Poems about the phenomenology of nature and the eternal beauty of art tend to emphasize the perpetuity of human communication. They can excite us with a momentary perception of the limitless power of the human imagination, as Wordsworth’s “There Was a Boy” helps us to achieve. They can depress us beyond belief, exposing us to the well of loneliness, the bottomless abyss to which all creation is bent, as Shelley’s “Ozymandias” achieves. Yet they can show a beauty that passes all understanding, as Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” or Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” achieves. In varying forms and shades, this is the singular aim in my poetry of natural exploration, from “Nature Music” in Rituals of the Sun, to “Her Eyes Were Watching God,” “Babambe,” “Old Niger Runs through It,” “Beauty,” “Snowhill,” and “Ground Dey Shake,” all in Tigress at Full Moon.
Umez: ‘We are all confessional poets sometimes’, as John Ashberry would have us believe. So what’s your reaction to this statement in light of your poem titled, ‘Beauty’?
Obiwu: At the surface level structure “Beauty” (23) is, like much of recent American work, confessional. But that is in the sense that art or, in this instance, poetry has a place or space for its immediacy in historical materiality – e.g. the body of woman, or joy, suffering, and death. In that sense, yes, “Beauty” is confessional and a product of an instance of joy and laughter – if not of love or anything deeper. But then through a series of rewrites over several days and weeks, I set to task to divest it, prune it, in fact pluck it clean of all unnecessary fat or feathers that make it seem obese, hoping to achieve a semblance of concreteness beyond its sensual existence. In spite of all my efforts, it has not quite succeeded in crossing my threshold of poetic standard, apparently because of its original source in banality. The Igbo always pray for the survival of the child, no matter his or her genealogy or DNA. Still, behind or before the shut door – that is, beyond earshot – everybody ruminates over the blemishes of the child who is fated, who would amount to nothing, the infamous ‘bad seed,’ whose mother was raped and whose father was the notorious village thief or murderer. Such is the fate of poetry begotten in nothing but the flesh, without spirit or depth. So, I went further clipping and cutting the wings and fangs of “Beauty,” just to see if it could go on to call attention to something more abstract, my ultimate aim being to emphasize the place of the “objet petit a,” the part-objects, what some would call synecdoche (or metonymy). I wanted to show that at the base of all our quests, the real fun, the whole enterprise, depends on the ‘how’ of the tributary streams that sum up the big sea.
I finally agreed with my publisher and the reviewers, in spite of my initial protestation, that there is a reason why we almost always spend all our energies in the foreplay, instead of going straight to the point. Because when you hit the target the sex is over. Thus, we try to extend our presence before the ‘Thing’ in itself, because without the part-objects that delay and distract the pilgrim’s progress, like praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede for us before her Son who would then intercede for us before His Father who art in Heaven. All these intercessions, rigmaroles, crisscrossing, circumlocutions, helter-skelter, give Catholicism its validity before all the rest of the latter-day churches or denominations that have continued to replicate themselves ad infinitum. What I’m trying to say, therefore, is that as a Catholic I know that confessions have their place, albeit limited place in the larger scheme of human experience. At the heart of it all St. Augustine’s “Confessions” is actually much more than just confessions. It’s about the “City of God,” the path to salvation. In that light, Obiwu’s “Beauty,” in spite of its aesthetic challenge, is about the “city of love.” It’s a way of saying that what saves the value of human quest in love and sex, or beauty, is the lingering, close attention to detail that is necessarily paid to such minor objects as the voice, ear, thighs, hands, hair, hips, lips, breasts, etc. Everybody knows that those details are really not the true target of either love or sex. So, why do we waste so much time and energy with them? It’s simply because we know that without them the kingdom is lost. They are guides to the path of sexual redemption, like the many individual street lamps that lead us through the dark to our home. As it is said, what is salt without its saltiness? Am I being blasphemous? Thank God we’re in the twenty-first century!
Umez: And does poetry really matter at this moment in time when we are confronted with daily horrors in news and within our neighbourhood? Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring poets?
Obiwu: From everything we have learned and read of the experiences of Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara, and Michael J. C. Echeruo in Biafra, poetry appears to be one art of the literary form that is very possible in a time of national cataclysm. Okigbo, Okara, and Echeruo combined their war duties with actively participating in composing Biafran war songs. And the visiting American members of the Committee for Biafran Writers and Artists – including Vance Bourjaily, Leslie Fiedler, Herbert Gold, Harvey Swados, and Kurt Vonnegut – testified that Achebe and other Igbo intellectuals they encountered in the heat of Biafra became emergency poets, since no other form of writing or research was possible in the immediacy of their war condition. “We are all poets now,” Achebe reportedly told the visiting writers who sought to know what writing he was doing in the war.
So, yeah, poetry is much more possible in all conflict situations than the more elongated and demanding genres of drama, prose fiction, or even criticism – at least, in terms of space, ink, paper, time, attention span, and retrievability. As Achebe rightly notes, problem helps to create literature. When everything else fails, poetry doesn’t; dream doesn’t; hope doesn’t.
It’s rather disheartening that a large number of the younger crop of Nigerian writers writing today are scared to confront the big issues, the big challenges of this particular period in Nigeria and Africa. Like their fathers, many of them have blinded themselves from daylight mass murders and heehawed over politics of camp and corruption. Unlike their well-read and adventurous writing forebears, they have indulged in delusory backslapping over cheap beers, Internet howl, and groupthink. Fortunately, it’s not too late for some of them to be rehabbed from trifling in genre clichés that inspire no one but minor local and western award granters with wads of Naira and Euros. There is certainly more that endures in serious literature than immature fancies.
I have noted, in my essay “Achebe’s Poetic Drive,” that poetry is not a popularly competitive genre compared to prose fiction. Because of its metric pattern and metaphoric form, it lacks the language accessibility of prose. Worse still, poetry – of the written kind we practice – has forever consciously aligned itself with the cultic or elitist society, unlike fiction and drama. For all these, the serious poet who sets out to make money or earn a living on the sales promise of his poetry books is a fool, indeed. Poetry, by its very nature, is the high art of service and sacrifice. As in the example of Biafra, poetry is sometimes the only glimmer of hope in the darkest corners and most difficult conditions of life.
Uche Peter Umez is a poet and short fiction writer. An Alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), Uche has participated in residencies in Ghana, India, Switzerland and Italy. He was one of the winners in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 2006 and 2008 respectively, and has twice been shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2007 and 2011. He is the author of Dark through the Delta (poems), Tears in her Eyes (short stories), and Aridity of Feelings (poems). His children’s books include: Sam and the Wallet, The Runaway Hero, The Boy Who Throws Stones at Animals and Other Stories, and Tim the Monkey and Other Stories.
Obiwu reading ‘Her Eyes Were Watching God’: