Filed in Politics by on May 13, 2009

Echoes of Okigbo’s poetic legacy at Ibadan reading tour
By Anote Ajeluorou

THE second leg of the 9 Writers 4 Cities Reading Tour made a stopover in Ibadan last Saturday at the Cambridge House in the Onikere area of the city famous for its ‘brown rusted roofs’. The writers, seven of them representing Nigeria’s new generation writers with two old ones, lived up to its billing as the new voice of Nigeria’s literary output.

One poignant moment that was added to the Ibadan reading stop was it being dedicated to the memory of Nigeria’s prolific and enigmatic poet, the late Christopher Okigbo. As a mark of respect for the late poet, Prof. Ayo Banjo read the speech, which Okigbo’s brother Pius, read at the dedication of the Cambridge House to the memory of the poet. Holding the reading at the Cambridge House showed a re-enactment of the literary traditions that marked the era in which the poet lived, where Ibadan was the literary and cultural capital of Nigeria that had just gained independence with the university being at the forefront.

The house was built in 1960 by Cambridge University Press to accommodate its representatives in Nigeria. In 1965, Christopher Okigbo, who was a rising poet at the time, was appointed its Nigerian representative and moved into the house. The house became famous during this period for literary activities the young poet organised for the visits of guests such as Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clarke, Chinua Achebe and other luminaries of the Nigerian literary scene. Christopher Okigbo left Cambridge House at the start of the Nigerian Civil War to join up with the Biafran Army. He was killed in battle in 1967.

It was Prof. Wole Soyinka, who suggested to the new owners, Spectrum Books, to so dedicate the house to the poet. The dedication plaque reads: Here lived Christopher Okigbo, poet. b. 1932 d. 1967.

Apart from Joy Bewaji, who was absent, all the writers were present including Tade Ipadeola and Lindsay Barrett, who were absent at the first Lagos reading. Odia Ofeimun, who had previously expressed misgiving about going to Ibadan showed up to give a scintillating performance that towed the line of commemorating the event to the memory of the late poet. He read ‘For Christopher Okigbo’ from his collection The Poet Lied, which he wrote shortly after Okigbo was killed in the battle at Nsukka sector of the war. ‘Wayfarer’ was another poem Ofeimun read to the rapt audience about the civil war before he read ‘A Handle for the Flutist’, about anti-poets and anti-democratic elements, and then ‘Pidgin Soup’, which received a rousing applause for aptly capturing the peculiar nuances of that language.

Ipadeola actually opened the reading session after a brief statement by Prof. Emeritus Banjo about the relevance of young writers reading their works to the old and young alike. Though not a writer himself but a reader, and was actually designated a ‘Reader in English’ by the University of Ibadan, he said it was gratifying to be among the writers and was encouraged at their level of literary productivity. “Keeping it up as you are doing could only serve to improve the quality of writing and give the literary scene a certain vibrancy that had been lacking for some time now in the country,” he told the writers and those who had gathered to listen to them read.

Ipadeola read ‘A Time of Signs’ from his new work of the same title after he had first read one of Ofeimun’s poems, the poet who inspired him to begin writing poetry. Dr. Eghosa Imasuen read from his To Saint Patrick while Toni Kan read ‘What’s a Boy without Scares’ and ‘Devil’s Overtime’ from his new work, Nights of the Creaking Bed and a poem from his collection, Songs of Absence and Despair.

Jumoke Verissimo also read ‘Ajani’ and ‘I am Memory’ with such power and passion she got a loud applause for her stunning efforts; she shed her shyness to seize the moment with poetic zeal without stumbling with her lines. Abimbola, too, gave a sterling performance with her fast-paced reading thus immersing her audience into the quaint, local nuances of her beloved Ibadan world. The uncanny politics of the late Alhaji Adedibu resonated in the portion she read to a thunderous ovation before Igoni Barrett read ‘A Loss’ from his work, From the Caves of Rotten Teeth.

But it was literary impresario, Lindsay Barrett, who gave a colourful, revelatory narrative of the evening. An old generation poet and essayist, Barrett came unannounced clutching tripods and camera and all. With white beards framing his mouth but well trimmed, he walked in with a swagger and his story was no less fascinating. He commended the gathering as it showed “interaction and inter-lacing of generations of Nigerian literature”.

First, he regretted the death of Okigbo, whom he described as ‘absconding to join the war’ as Cambridge Press representative much against what Prof. Soyinka, other writers and himself would have liked for him to do at the time. When the news of his death came, he said, the same Prof. Soyinka led a loud protest against it; it was partly what led to his being imprisoned and from where he wrote The man Died.

Having just arrived from his native Jamaica, what he met on the ground at Ibadan on the literary, artistic and cultural scene made him stay as it was so inspiring, he confessed. He even had a story-telling programme on TV, which told exotic and fantastic stories to its audience. Then he began to run the Mbari Club, which was a hub of literary and cultural activities at the time in Ibadan before the civil war. “We were in a historic, literary setting,” Barrett recalled, “when the civil war broke out and disintegrated everything.”

He revealed that when he arrived Nigeria in the 60s, he did not have a university degree but he was prolific and his volume of work showed that he had experience in what he was doing. Prof. Soyinka then offered him a job to teach drama at the university. “That was something exciting at UI then,” he confessed. “If you have experience and from the wealth of what you have written, you were accepted. Ibadan played an incredible part in my life.” He admitted that he was no longer as prolific as he used to be having reduced his output in fiction writing to concentrate on political writing. Poetry, however, is an exception to that rule as he still writes it. “I’m no longer a creative writer as such but I can’t stopped writing poetry.”

Speaking candidly about his son, Igoni, the organiser of the reading tour, the elderly Barrett admitted to a measure of neglect of his son, whom he did not see for 20 years soon after turning seven. And, when they reunited, it was such a brusque affair that prompted the young Barrett to make a scathing entry in his diary about how casual his father was to him after 20 years of absence. The older Barrett sneaked in at his son’s diary and admired to such trait in his son and agreed that it was how he expected his son to react. About the reunion, the elderly Barrett said, “I really was lackadaisical and unexcited about it after 20 years.”

As for his son’s writing, he said he did not encourage him to indulge in the frightening profession but that his mother allowed and encouraged it, adding that it might be genetic but the inspiration wasn’t from him. “Writing is a terrible mistake,” he said, almost regrettably, “I never encouraged him because there’s no money in it. Don’t look for any signs of my talent in him; he’s singularly talented. I published his book because I enjoyed it. When the BBC returned his play as unsatisfactory, I said they were mad because I’m convinced it was good.”

Like all old dogs, the older Barrett was circumspect about doing business, especially literary business, on the internet, suspecting that there would be a lot of fraud and unwholesome practices. But when the young Barrett egged him on and he saw the vista it offered to the literary community, he bought into it wholesale, saying it was from there he met such exciting young poets like Verissimo and other new writers, who were bearing the banner of literary creativity aloft. The veteran writer also admitted that he was just beginning to realise the richness of Nigerian literature with the role of some of his students including Prof. G.G. Darah, who currently lectures at the Delta Sate University, Abraka.

“Igoni has opened a new world of literary possibilities online for me,” he enthused, adding that rebranding Nigeria “should mean recognising the new ones coming, it should mean giving voice to the new people coming up.” He stated that there was a silent war of ownership going on in Ogoni over his son, whom the Ogoni are claiming for themselves without knowing that his mother is Kalabari and not Ogoni. He advised his son to brace up for it.

Thereafter, he read ‘Old River’ from his new collection, My Memory of Rivers, which sums up his impressions of the Niger Delta people since he has been working there for some time now. His poem is about rivers, which he says are not necessarily agents of communal boundaries in the region but as a source of interaction and projections among the communities within which they abound and surround. He also read a piece about youth restiveness, where he warned about according respect to elders, who the youths met, and something which they will some day become, too, as it was a circle that could turn vicious depending on how they relate with the preceding one. He could not read from Song of Mumu as he did not come with one. It was a book that Jonathan Cape rejected but was accepted by Longman Plc in Ibadan.

One eminent writer and critic who expressed happiness at the reading was Prof. Dan Izevbaye, who listened raptly all through the event. He said it was encouraging for young writers to take their craft to the audience for whom the works were intended and encouraged more such activities on the literary scene.

Although it boasted a full house at the Ibadan reading, there was little activity at the sales point. It obviously meant few writers signed autographs unlike the Lagos edition of the reading where the writers made brisk sales and busied themselves signing their books for buyers. The next stop of the reading tour is at The Palms on May 17, 2009.


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