AiW Guest: Nduka Otiono, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
AiW note: Yesterday we celebrated the African release of Wreaths for a Wayfarer (Narrative Landscape Press), published in honour of writer, academic, and esteemed beloved mentor and Nigerian public intellectual, Pius Adesanmi, who lost his life in the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash on March 10, 2019. Edited by Nduka Otiono and longtime AiW contributor Uchechukwu Umezurike, the special anthology of poems features 127 contributors from Africa – including 3 contributions from our very own Reviews Editor, Wesley Macheso (‘Tears on Canvas’, ‘Nausea’ and ‘This Easter’) – as well as from writers around the world – in Asia, Europe and North America, a range testament to the reach and touch of Adesanmi’s life and work, and his great loss to the global African Studies community. You can read yesterday’s post where Otiono and Umezurike reflect on the event for World Poetry Day 2021 here.
Today, we are thrilled to publish an AiW Words on the Times Q&A with one of the editors of Wreaths, Nduka Otiono. Nduka’s rich and thoughtful answers offer a moving and in-depth insight into the production and distribution of Wreaths as the pandemic began to hit last year, as well as to the World Poetry Day event detailed in yesterday’s post. Enjoy!
Could you tell us a bit about your work with/on Wreaths for a Wayfarer and the ways that the pandemic affected your plans?
Incidentally, I have written about my work on Wreaths for a Wayfarer: An Anthology of Poems in Honour Pius Adesanmi in the Introduction to the book which was published in 2020 just before the waves of pandemic lockdowns. The book was inspired by the tragic demise of our friend and colleague, Pius Adesanmi who, until his death, was Professor of English and Director of the Institute of African Studies at Carleton University where I work. I had known Pius for about 25 years, dating back from our University of Ibadan days in the 1990s. Providence had made our paths similar—with both of us moving at different times to Canada for doctoral study, relocating briefly to the United States after graduation, and then returning to the same university in Canada to work after the stint in the U.S. Even more providential was Pius being appointed from his primary Department of English to Directorship of my home department, the Institute of African Studies. This meant working closely again for years; so that the sudden and tragic manner of his death through the Ethiopian Airline Flight 302 plane crash of March 10, 2019 that shook the world, proved quite challenging to process initially. Fortunately, poetry partly came to the rescue, resulting in the production of this anthology. Given the immediacy of the project and the demand for a speedy turnaround time, I chose Uchechukwu Umezurike as co-editor for the anthology. And what a smart choice it has proven, given Uche’s remarkable work ethic, literary network, and commitment to the project.
Fortunately, the North American edition published by Daraja Press appeared in early 2020 in time for the first anniversary of Adesanmi’s death as we had planned. Unfortunately, Covid-19 disruptions took hold as we were planning to launch and promote the book. In fact, the first pandemic lockdown was announced in Canada only a few hours after the 10th anniversary celebration of our Institute on March 12, 2020, during which we first presented the anthology to the public. The spikes of pandemic extended more widely just as our Nigerian publisher, Narrative Landscape press, was concluding publication arrangements for the African edition. The pandemic also disrupted other scheduled plans for the international launch of the anthology. Specifically, it derailed two roundtables that were being organized to launch the book in 2020. The first was to be hosted on March 24th by my Alma Mata and Uche’s current institution, University of Alberta, Edmonton. The second was planned as the U.S launch of the book scheduled to take place during the 2020 Annual Africa Conference at the University of Texas at Austin between April 3-5, 2020. These lost opportunities resulting from the pandemic thwarted the expectations of the 127 poets from Africa, North America, Europe, and Asia, who had looked forward to actively participate in launching and promoting the anthology. It is worth noting that aside from their works, the anthology also features a selection from Pius Adesanmi’s sole collection of poems, The Wayfarer and Other Poems.
Could you do the same for the event for World Poetry Day – how did the event come about?
Eventually, we were able to seize the opportunity of the recent World Poetry Day of Sunday March 21, 2021 to formally present the African edition of the anthology to the world. The event featured over 40 poets and contributors to the anthology from three continents reading from the anthology.
The event came about through a casual conversation I had with Ndubuisi Martins, an Ibadan-based poet and author of the poetry collection, Answers Through the Bramble. Although it was barely forty-eight hours to the World Poetry Day, Martins assured me that he has the logistics to support the hosting of the event. We took advantage of digital tools for organizing virtual events and the goodwill around our anthology to plan and execute the very successful launch of the book that was long been overdue.
What does it mean to you to have such an event during the pandemic?
Having an international literary event such as we had on the last World Poetry Day and during the pandemic meant that we had to be at our wits’ end to make it successful. More so, given the speed with which it was planned as indicated above. Besides ensuring that we chose a time that worked for participants in multiple time zones, we also had to figure out a theme that would resonate with participants in the context of mortality and the pandemic. So, we settled for “Mortality and “Way-fairing” in the Time of Coronavirus.” The theme, we believe, helped frame the significance and urgency of the event, especially against the context of the millions that have died from the virus world-wide, and the vaccinations being rolled out across the world. It was my way of reflecting on the convergence of Adesanmi’s tragic death along with the 159 citizens of about 35 countries on board that flight and the mass deaths caused by the pandemic. There had to be more substance for the potentially Zoom-weary writers on a busy Sunday that had other World Poetry Day events on schedule. The success of the event against all odds has encouraged Uche and I to develop a related theme for a virtual Creative Writing Panel scheduled for April 29th (1pm EST) to launch Wreaths for a Wayfarer as part of the forthcoming Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE) 2021 annual conference. The theme, we have chosen to extend the conversation begun with the World Poetry Day event, is “Poetry and Impermanence.” The theme will enable us to read from the book and to discuss its significance beyond the shadow of Covid-19 which got in the way of its timely launch in 2020. Our theme thus goes beyond the “temporal” of the COVID to include loss, grief, mourning as part of impermanence in our social world, and how we employ poetry/art to contemplate (im)permanence.
In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before and/or how are things on the ground there with you?
I have been on sabbatical since July 2020. This meant that officially I have some time to rest. However, a combination of factors has ensured that I have not had the expected rest during a sabbatical or travelled, as I had initially planned.
Paradoxically, then, the pandemic means, as a friend has framed it, that I unofficially have two “sabbaticals”: The Corona sabbatical and the academic one. The one has cancelled the other for me! This is even more the case by the increase in workload that online business has triggered. The personal space and boundaries typically established by traditional in-person business transactions have been eroded by the emerging virtual office culture. So, flowing with the tide, to deploy an apposite cliché, means that one has also had to suffer pandemic/Zoom fatigue. However, knowing that vaccines are on course to gradually lead us back to some kind of normalcy inspires hope and encourages one to look optimistically to a post-sabbatical period.
The challenges of living and working during the pandemic notwithstanding, I am gratified by the kind of work I have been able to do during these home-bound months and season. Among others, I have been able to complete work on three books: an Oral literature book due out in June 2021; DisPlace: The Poetry of Nduka Otiono due to be published in October 2021, and a new edition of my first book, The Night Hides with a Knife, to mark its silver jubilee anniversary.
What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time? How can our blog communities best support you?
Now, that is a tricky question—at least, the first part of it. This pandemic period has engendered the most sustained period of introspection that I have ever had. This has been creatively salutary but psychologically tough. It has made me more aware of the significance of W.E. B. Yeats’s popular quote from his poem, “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Contemplating the idea has spurred me to work. Another good thing from the season is that it has inspired me to return to a hobby that I thought I had forgotten: bird watching. And I have captured the experience in an article titled “Avian Friends, Naturecracy and Artocracy in the time of Coronavirus.” This was quite uplifting, and I was gratified by how positively it touched readers who reached out to me.
The enthusiastic publication of the article “Avian Friends” by one of Nigeria’s leading online literary magazines, The Lagos Review, and the positive feedback I received immediately suggests ways that blog communities such as yours best support intellectuals and general readers. The blog primarily provides a platform for alternative voices and robust reflections shorn of the occasional pretense and cant of peer review publication. The blog provides a community for networking and for drawing the support of an arguably less judgemental writers, thinkers, and general audience who share a common love for literature and ideas. Continuing to sustain this kind of blog is the best way to support its varied and scattered community members. This is more so given the often-short span of existence of even some of the best blogs. Sustainability is the keyword. And I wish your blog the very best of it.
Nduka Otiono is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Coordinator at the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University. You can follow and keep up with Nduka via @NdukaOtiono on Twitter; on Facebook; via LinkedIn; and through Carleton University’s social media too: @CUnewsroom; @Carleton_U; @IAS_Carleton.
You are warmly invited to join the editors for an upcoming webinar celebrating Wreaths on April 29:
“Register now for the final installment of ACCUTE’s Pandemic Webinar Series, Wreaths for a Wayfarer: Poetry and Impermanence. The webinar happens on Thursday, April 29th at 1 p.m. EDT. This event is a creative writing celebration and commemoration of Pius Adesanmi. Featured writers are Raphael D’Abdon, Akua Lezli Hope, Nduka Otiono, and Uche Peter Umezurike.