Nigeria Prize for Literature: Nominees discuss where poetry fits as shortlist emerges on Friday

Last year's winner: Cheluchi Onyemelukwe

Akeem Lasisi

Most of the 11 poets on the longlist of the $100,000 Nigeria Prize for literature, on Tuesday, expressed their minds on the place of Literature in society. This they did during a Twitter conversation organised by Olongo Africa as a follow-up to the reading held in Lagos some two weeks ago – as then organised by the Committee for Relevant Arts.

The conversation also appears to have prefaced the announcement of the shortlist of three which, according to the founders of the prize – Nigeria LNG Ltd. – will be made on Friday, August 26. Prof. Sule Emmanuel Egya chairs the judging panel for the 2022 edition, with Toyin Adewale-Gabriel and Dike Chukwumerije as members.

On the longlist are Ogaga Ifowodo (Augusta’s Poodle) Iquo Diana Abasi (Coming Undone As Stitches Tighten), James Eze (Dispossessed), Segun Adekoya (Ife Testament) and S. Su’eddie Agema (Memory and the Call of Waters). Others are Obari Gomba (The Lilt of the Rebel), Romeo Oriogun (Nomad), Chijioke Amu Nnadi (The Love Canticles), Remi Raji (Wanderer Cantos), Saddiq Dzukogi (Your Crib My Qibla) and Joe Ushie (Yawns and Belches).

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Olongo Africa magazine Publisher, Kola Tubosun, who moderated the CORA reading, anchored the conversation too, featuring readings and exploration of the theme of where poetry fits. Ifowodo, Iquo, Eze, Agema, Adekoya, Dzukogi and Ushie participated in the programme.

Ushie sees poetry fitting into every aspect of people’s lives. Noting that the question of where it fit initially sounded vague, he said he decided to look at it from the other way round. So, he asked: Where does poetry not fit in?

He added, “Is it in making a child go to sleep – a lullaby? In my culture, we have work songs, we have war songs. I recall that Agosthino Neto used to compose songs to urge and encourage soldiers when they were fighting for the liberation of their country. So, where really does poetry not fit in? Poetry fits in almost every situation, whether in mourning, or lamenting about our nation. Poetry fits in almost every conceivable aspect of our lives, especially in a beleaguered society like Nigeria.”

On his part, Adekoya noted that claims had, over the ages, been made about the place of poetry and poets alike. According to him, poetry makes what is beautiful more beautiful.

He said, “Life itself is like a garden of roses. Unfortunately, people have not discovered the poetry of life. Poetry is integrated into social life. You go to our parks, you see people selling bread; they don’t just talk about what they are selling, they sing them. One would say: Ofe ni niresi, eran lowo (rice is free, just pay for meat). If you go to the world of advertisers, you find poetry there. Hardly will you see an advert without poetry. Why do they use poetic devices? To capture people. You use language to persuade, sway people. So, the beauty of life is the business of poets.”

Romeo introduced a generational dimension to the conversation. He averred that poetry provided the opportunity of a language in which practitioners could vehicle the weight the country had placed on them.
“My generation are subverting what poetry is – same in Ghana, South Africa… Young people are saying, ‘We are tired’. There is a way we are subverting what people say poetry is. We look at the ugliness of the world and how that ugliness has made us what we are today. Poetry is a genre in which truth is at stake. At the soul of the poem is the soul of anguish, soul of a generation,” he said.

Raji took time to address some perspectives that he considered needed be corrected. For instance, he does not believe there should be generational divisions among poets.
“Poets need to speak across generations. The generational issue is questionable. I do not see much difference between what the Romeo’s generation is doing and what the Raji’s is. There is anguish across generations, for instance. It is important for us not to be talking about departure when we should be talking about continuity,” he said, adding that what people should, at best, be talking about was the difference of sameness.
He, however, agreed with his fellow poets that poetry fits anywhere, any place, any time and any soul.

Tubosun

Ifowodo also agrees that poetry fits everyone – every time and subject.
To him, poetry is that genre with the most elevated form in terms of language, stressing that metaphors and other figures work best in poetry.

He said, “If poetry fits every subject, everyone and we are story-telling animals, and convey what we know, our feelings about who and what we are, on all subjects, then that very genre of writing that elevates our language and purifies must of necessity fit in every time.”

With Eze standing on shoulders of poets who have been – according to him – generational issues should not arise.
He believes that the genre fits so much into the scheme of humanity that poetry is life. He links the role it plays to what music is playing in Nigeria now, especially in terms of catharsis.

Iquo, whom Tubosun could not help identifying as the only women among the 11, agrees with Raji on the generational matter, saying that, in every era, there had always been some forms of anguish, some form of restlessness. She, however, conceded that the country’s problems were getting worse, thus putting more pressure on creative writers and other people.

“It seems the country is running down. So, it’s difficult for the poet not to reflect that. People have been writing about anguish for many years. Even when people write about love, everything is coloured by much hunger, blood etc. This is where poetry fits. For the person writing poetry, it becomes the anchor, to stay out of depression,” she added.

Djukogi does not want too much argument to be squandered on the subject of poetry since, according to him, the subject of poetry doesn’t really count because every poet has their own obsession. He said it was more about the dynamics of language. Dzukogi noted: “There is no absolute in the world. Although my collection is about grief, it is also about the celebration of life. Even in hell there must be something to celebrate.”