By JAPHET ALAKAM
Talk about Niger Delta people, theÂ things that come to mind are oil, militancy and youths restiveness occasioned by many years of exploitation of the oil rich region. But that does not take away the fact that apart from oil the region can still boast of producing some of the finest brains in the different areas of human endeavor.
This was the message that was put across to the public last Wednesday at the Afe Babalola Auditorium of University of Lagos, Akoka as two Ibadan based publishing houses, University Press and Musoro Publishers organized a unique celebration in honor of Delta State born septuagenarian writer, poet, playwright and scholar, Prof. John Pepper Bekederemo Clark tagged; 50years of Artistic Excellence of J.P. Clark.
The event which was chaired by Deacon G.O. Onosode, the Pro chancellor University of Lagos drew the presence of who is who in the literary community, friends and associates of the celebrant, University students as well as some secondary school students in Lagos.
In his opening speech , Deacon Onosode remarked that his life and that of the celebrant crossed in several ways dating back to their Government College Ugheli college days through the period of their higher education at the nationâ€™s premier university, the University College, Ibadan.
Deacon Onosode who was happy to chair the 50 years of Artistic excellence of JP Clark said that he and Clark came from that part of â€œthe country very much in the news- the oppressed people of the Niger delta.â€ But he was quick to remind the audience that â€œClark is not just a citizen of this part of the country (Niger Delta), but a citizen of the world who has spoken in a language that all heard through his prodigious writing.
He therefore described Prof Clark as one who has made wonderful marks in different fields as an academic, a writer, the civil service and in the media adding that Prof Clark was being celebrated not just because of his prolific productions, but because his presence in the many areas of undertaking influenced other peopleâ€™s lives.
Recalling how Clark rose from a lecturer to become a professor in the University, Onosode siad â€œ I cant hide the excitement that I had when we watched his play like â€˜The Ozidi Sagaâ€™ for instanceâ€ saying that the poet is a gift to the nation and deserves to be celebrated.
The chief host of the occasion and Vice chancellor of University of Lagos, Prof.Adetukunbo Sofoluwe who was represented by the Dean of Faculty of Arts, Prof. Duro Oni confessed that when he was told to stand in for the VC that he became glad because the occasion would afford him the opportunity to meeting distinguished people whom he has not met before.
Recalling that the couple( Prof Clark and Prof. Mrs Clark) made a mark in his life both as a student and as a lecturer. He recited one of Prof. Clarkâ€™s famous poem Ibadan and narrated how he played a role in Clarkâ€™s first play Song of a Goat while he was a high school student in Kaduna.
In his remarks on behalf of the two publishers, Mr Kolade Monsuro said that they are presenting two books by two different publishing companies to mark 50years of Artistic Excellence of J.P. Clark. The Collected Poems (1962 – 2000) by University Press Plc and Full Tide: Collected Poems by Monsoru Publishers all in Ibadan.
Kolade remarked that â€œfor 50 years Prof. Clark has been writing, reading, thinking and writing stating that his words have come to invoke our writing and thoughts no wonder he is sought by numerous publishing companies.â€ Continuing he said â€œOften, the words are very prophetic because the writer possesses that uncanny character to see above the fog and make an attempt to convey it to the rest of us.
The author looks at issues or speaks to moments of time from an unusual prism and gives them to us in words that have alternative meanings thereby leaving us with myriad of interpretations, that is the poet in him … the poet is a soothsayer.â€ He described poetry as an individual interaction with the author while drama is a collective interaction with the audience.
He also stated that when the author writes he had valid messages he wants to share with the audience and challenged all to get the books and read them as that will not only provide enjoyment but will challenge the readers through their contents which when harnessed will lead to the growth of the citizenry.
â€œProf. Clark is not done yet, any time the books went to him, he returns it with a new poem which he calls jaraâ€ and concluded by praying thatÂ the books travel as they intend it to travel far and wide.â€
As part of other programs mapped out for the event was a toast for the man of lettersÂ made by two eminent professors, Prof Ayo Banjo and Prof. Biodun Jeyifo of Harvard University.
In his toast, Prof. Banjo described the celebrant and the wife as â€œthe most spectacular couple in literary creativity; one of the founding fathers of Nigerian literature ,who has engaged in two onerous genres of drama and poetry.â€ He pointed out that the poet was made famous by one of his plays â€˜The Ozidiâ€™ saga that portrays the issues of the Niger Delta.
He reminded the audience of two spectacular works, his travelogue, America their America and his academic writings including; The Example of Shakespeare. Banjo fumed at the way many Nigerian writers give excessive attention to issues like colonialism, neocolonialism and other Nigerian issues and forget to tellÂ about what is happening in other countries. Contending that through America their America, Clark broke that barrier many years ago, and that as a writer Clark through his literary essay, The Example of Shakespear proved that a writer needed to have a conviction that made his works credible.
He said that Clark has been able to present Nigerian culture in a credible way describing him as a self -effacing artist, scholar whom every body knows, but who rarely appears in the covers of newspapers. â€œClark has added value not only to us, but to students here and those to come. He has been a blessing to our generation so we should celebrate him especially in this era of celebrations, Achebe was celebrated last year and this year Nigeria will celebrate 50 years of independence.â€ He however pointed out that the academy of letters is worried about the use of English in the SMS by the younger ones.
In his own contribution, Professor of English literature from Harvard University, Prof Jeyifo described the occasion as â€œthe celebration of the life and works of one of the greatest living authors and finest literary artists our continent and country has produced.â€ He said that Clark always knew he has a mission as reflected in what he referred to as one of the greatest moments in his play Ozidi, which, he described as a moment of awareness as in when the main character in the epic drama ; Ozidi shouts, â€œI am Ozidi.â€
On what many people appear to describe as Clarkâ€™s extreme aloofness, Jeyifo recalled that him and his generation saw that nature in Clark and decided to leave him alone. Stating that while the likes of Soyinka and Achebe surrounded themselves with younger artists ,Clark did not .But when he reached to what he described â€œas artistic maturity they realised that what they termed as aloofness is what Ayo Banjo was describe as Clarkâ€™sâ€ self – effacingâ€ principles.
Prof. Jeyifo concluded his remark by reading from Clarkâ€™s collected poems where the poet was worried that only a small part of his works will be remembered when he is gone and prayed that it will not be so with the celebrant.
Other people who made significant contributions at the occasion were: Clarkâ€™s former student, Professor Funso Akere, Frank Aig Imouhkede, Leader of Ijaw Monitoring Group, Comrade Joseph Eva , Toyin Akiosho among others.
Important digintaries , who graced the occasion included: Professors Ayo Bajo, Biodun Jeifo, Izabeye, Femi Osofisan, Duro Oni, Akachi Ezeigbo, Femi Osofisan and Funso Akere.
Others are Chief Emeka Anyaoku, DeaconÂ Gamaliel Onosode, Ambassador Edwin Clark, Sam Amuka, Frank Aig Imouhkede, Amb Segun Olusola and Odia Ofeimum.