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“Things Fell Into Place Almost Miraculously” | Interview with Ikeogu Oke (video)

I have been enthralled by Ikeogu Oke’s book of what he terms “operatic poetry” since I first encountered it (review here). There was something about the work that speaks to joyful experimentation, hard work, resilience (it was started in 1989) and a grand ambition. It is the only collection on the shortlist that is just one poem spread over hundreds of pages. It combines elements of fable with drama, poetry, and music.

In this interview, regrettably the shortest of the three because of time constraints on the day of recording, I talk to him about the work, about his craft in general, and his aspirations for the work going forward.

Enjoy.

This concludes the writer interview series. Previous interviews can be found here.

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Update: October 9, 2017: Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad is the 2017 Nigeria Prize for Literature winner. Read the review of his work here. Congrats to him.

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“Every New Environment Has Its Own Inspiration” | Interview with Tanure Ojaide (video)

Professor Tanure Ojaide, author of Songs of Myself (review here) is an accomplished and prolific writer with 20 collections of poetry and countless awards to his name. He has been at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) since July 1990 where he is the Frank Porter Graham Distinguished Professor of Africana Studies, but he has lived in Ilorin, Kwara State, now for a couple of years – a fact I didn’t know until I got to speak to him for this series.

In this conversation, I ask him about a number of things including the transition from living, working, and publishing around the world to settling back into the Nigerian environment in a deliberate attempt to capture a new home audience. I was also very interested in his use of Urhobo language and poetic style in his work.

The interview was the longest of the three writers, but it has been edited here for brevity.


Read the previous reviews, and watch previous interviews, here.

 

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“No Serious Writer I Know Writes for a Prize” | Interview with Ogaga Ifowodo (video)

In this conversation with poet and James Baldwin lookalike Ogaga Ifowodo, I try to get at his purpose for writing a book about the June 12 crises, and what exactly he means by “the intimacy of evil”. His collection, A Good Mourning (Paressia, 2016) is an engaging work of competence and style (review here).

I also wanted to know why now since the June 12 crises has faded to the background of Nigeria’s socio-political memory. What did he think of the role of a writer in society, and what is the limit of writing in effecting change.

Watch the conversation below.

Read the previous reviews, and watch previous interviews, here.

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Interview With Professor Ben Elugbe (video)

Professor Ben Elugbe is on the Advisory Board of the NLNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature and has been for many years.

He is a Professor of Linguistics and a former Head of Department of the Department of Linguistics and African Languages, University of Ìbàdàn where I was once a student. He taught me phonology. He is one of the most important authorities in African linguistics. (I co-edited a book of language essays on his honour in 2011). He is also a former President of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, and President of the West-African Linguistic Society (2004-2013).

In this interview, I interrogate him about the Nigeria Prize, his role as a member of the advisory board, his opinion on the prize itself and the entries this year. I also ask him about the controversy surrounding this year’s longlist and shortlist, particularly of the accusation that one of the judges ran a publishing house in which one of the longlisted books was published. He had some interesting responses.

Watch his response and the full interview below.


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This is the continuation of a series of interviews about the 2017 Nigeria Prize for Literature. Read more about it here, and read a review of each of the books on the shortlist (as well as the schedule of the release of future interviews) here. The prizewinner will be announced on October 9, 2017.

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On “The Heresiad” by Ikeogu Oke

The Heresiad (KraftGriots, 2017) by Ikeogu Oke is, in my opinion, the most ambitious of the books on the prize shortlist this year. It is a book of what the author called “operatic poetry” (another way to put this would be “poetry in drama and song”) featuring one poem extended over a hundred pages. Yes, one poem. It is epic in its scale, ambition, and character (and even in the words of one of the blurbs. See it:

“It is powerful, and brilliantly composed – a true epic!” – Lyn Innes (Professor Emerita, School of English. University of Kent, Canterbury))

But seriously, the work packs within it a lot of history, philosophy, narrative, culture, allegory, politics, and tradition, rather unapologetically. Without the author’s name, one might confuse it for a work by Shakespeare of any of the writers of the old traditions defined by form, rhyme, and musicality. Only slightly, of course. References intrude from Nigerian (and African) socio-political issues enough to define the work as one addressed to a specific, even if global, audience. And to that idea of musicality, the author graciously provided musical notes with which the poem can be sung.

The name Heresiad, is derived from “heresy” just as the Iliad was derived from “Ilium” or Aeneid from “Aeneas”, as the author explains in the preface. But what needed defending, even more, was the style, operatic poetry, which Oke described as being deliberately crafted as “an art form that transcends verse and goes on to embrace song, music, and drama.” Previous works of this nature which have misled readers into expecting musicality through the use of “Songs of–” in their titles were singled out, from Turold’s The Song of Roland to Vyasa’s The Lord Song to Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino. (He couldn’t have called out Tanure Ojaide’s Songs of Myself, the other book on the shortlist, because this serendipity of both their presence on the shortlist couldn’t have been predicted. But the juxtaposition of this factor in defining Heresiad as unique and better realized as practical literature does appear significant). By discounting the need for a titular nod to musicality and instead embracing it in true form, Oke admits to pursuing a grander ambition: to make written words sing, a homage to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose words to that effect was quoted as an epigraph.

Of the thematic preoccupation of the book, Oke says it is written “to make a case for unhindered intellectual and creative freedom… and for mutual respect and harmony between faith and thought, otherwise religion and intellectualism.” In my interview with him, he admitted that the idea of the book, and the first verses in the book, came in 1989 when “a famous writer” was condemned to death for the crime of heresy. He didn’t need to – nor wanted to – mention Salman Rushdie by name, but that connection became immediately apparent. In this book, the condemned author and narrator is Zumba, who was so censured for having writing a “bad” book. To enforce this sentence, and to save him from it, a few other characters, in the person of Reason, Doom, Anger, Sword, Machete, Axe, Stone, Panther, Care, Bluff, Smithy, etc, were introduced with fully-realized characters, compelling presence, and voice. In their thought processes and the unfurling of the curious plot, the poem realizes itself in full glory.

One of the limitations of traditional poetry, which can also become its most enchanting feature, is rhyming. It is a feature that I happen to love. But it is a feature fraught with a lot of risks one of which is the occasional trading of meaning for the benefit of a properly rhyming word, or the use of the immediately available rhyme instead of striving to find the perfect one. In Heresiad, some of these limitations show up, like when “bypass” is made rhyme with “pass”, “reproof” with “proof”, or “unwise” with “wise” (and in one unintentionally hilarious instance, when the native language interference pushes “blade” to rhyme with “head” (page 57). For a book of this type of ambition, it might be that those kinds of lapses are to be expected and tolerated. But for an unlucky book, they can become the flaws by which they are defined.

But when it works, though, it works quite beautifully.

I’m part of this misnomer, I confess,

And so are all you Faithfuls, nonetheless.

Or who among us Faithfuls can have read

The book for which we seek the author’s head?

Rhyming might seem like a trivial issue on which to spend critical time until one realizes that each couplet throughout the work sticks to this rhyming pattern on top of what Oke describes as “lyrical pentameter” (adaptability to lyrical utility). The realization that the author had spent countless man hours crossing all his Ts to achieve this kind of ambitious and thoroughly satisfying theatrical result is most impressive of all.

Now, the author’s plea had reached his ears,

A plea that dripped with anguish and with tears;

And Reason, yes, had pondered through a plan

To take help to the joy-forsaken man.

(page 36)

Equally as impressive is the realization that the book took twenty-seven years to write, over different iterations.

Now lift your voice; lift your voice and say;

Your voice, not mine, must rise and lead the way:

What now transpired among the rising five

Who wished our author more dead than alive?

What – the thought – that, of its own accord,

Changed their common tilt towards discord?

A love as yet profound inspires my choice

To be the human echo of your voice.

(page 52)

Speaking of theatre, when was the last time you read a book of poetry with accompanying musical notations? I certainly haven’t seen any. But here, on page 106-112, the author, with the help of Adéogun Adébọ̀wálé, helpfully guides the future theatre and/or musical director on what is the appropriate way to translate the texts into music.

During my interview with him, I asked whether he would be willing to sing some of the lines to me, and he graciously obliged. It was not as impressive as I’d expected it, but who expects an author of a work to always be its most competent performer? Not me. It is ironic, of course, that this musical characteristic of the work once became a point of risibility when a restless Facebook critic dismissed it as a gimmicky invention to win the $100,000 prize money. On the contrary, I think it is one of the book’s distinctive features, showing it as different as possible from the others on the shortlist in terms of ambition, inventiveness, interdisciplinary scope, and resolve. Now, to see it on the stage!

The author’s habit of including footnotes and references at the bottom of relevant pages irked me at first. They had appeared as an unnecessary usurpation of the critic’s role. But this wasn’t the case. They add a lot of value to the work in illustrating, where necessary, the writer’s influence, allusion, or research. Not one was superfluous.

From what I have observed of the pattern of choice by the NLNG judges, who have typically favoured works of formal and traditional forms in style and ambition (See: The Sahara Testament), I will predict that The Heresiad might take home this year’s prize. There is something about the work that speaks to an intense commitment to innovation, tenacity, joyful experimentation and social commentary in a way that provokes delight and engagement. It is doubly worthy, of course, for its successful bridging of the genres of poetry, drama, and music, while making a strong point, through allegory and an enchanting imagination, about the role of free speech and the responsibility of the writer in a modern society.

I’ll be surprised if the judges disagree, but such surprises are welcome when it’s not one’s work on the shortlist.

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Find a link to the previous reviews here.

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Update: October 9, 2017: Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresiad is the 2017 Nigeria Prize for Literature winner. Watch my interview with him here. Congrats to him.

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