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How Poet Ikeogu Oke read angry, but beautiful poetry

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BY TUNJI AJIBADE
The poet, Ikeogu Oke, was the first  writer in the year to feature at the regular Guest Writer Session organized by the Abuja Writers’ Forum (AWF). In  this report, TUNJI AJIBADE,  highlights on the key issues frothing from the reading .

A question led to it – the issue that turned out to be the subject of the day, that is. And that, at the January edition of the Abuja Writers’ Forum’s Guest Writer Session. The prolific poet, Ikeogu Oke,  was in the house that time, and he was asked a question. It is about the poetry of many Nigerian writers that is laden with anger.  “Do you think it is possible that we move away from angry poetry to ‘new poetics’  –  which recognizes the way we all live our lives, without the anger?” The question came from a member of the audience.  The guest writer answered. But that, after the entire day’s event was almost at an end. Before then, things happened.

The Pen and Pages venue of the event was the centre of all attention in Abuja on January 29. The guest writer who had arrived at a time the seats were yet to be occupied  would later on express his amazement that the hall was full. “It tells something about us as a people, the value we represent,” Oke observed. Even then, things had happened before he made that remark.

A musician, Princess Joy, was on hand to kick-start the event. The first song, which she titled “Welcome to Guest Writer Session” was dedicated to all who made the event a success by their participation. Other songs followed, some of which she performed when the guest writer took a short break. Millicent Osumuo, a visual artist put up a mini art exhibition. The debate and the passion her work generated among her listeners was remarkable.  She explained ‘Glimpse of hope’,  the painting with a little girl looking up in an array of colours.

Not many saw colours at first, until another artist in the house commended them, saying the colours indeed showed off what the painter had in mind. Before then, enthusiasts who saw with layman’s eyes had made their opinion known to Osumuo who must have been amused at the different interpretations the audience gave her work. She also showed another work that generated the same intense debate. She called it ‘Rhythm of the day.’

This rhythm was made by the drummer in a two-piece painting which she held side by side and explained as one. The artist said her work depicted the way the Maker of  heaven and earth works. People sleep, God does not sleep. He works. The artist’s drummer beat during daytime in one piece of the painting that had daylight in the background. He also continued to beat his drum throughout the night in another piece that had a dark background. The artist said the drummer gave off rhythm of love, joy, peace and all that God gives to man.

The guest writer took the ‘Hot Seat’ after the art exhibition, and he read from his poetry collection, ‘Salutes Without Guns’ poems such as  Fire Report, which was “an experiment in poetic journalism”, as the poet put it; A ‘savage’ writes back, which was his tribute to Chinua Achebe on reading his comments on V.S. Naipaul’s contempt for the African in Home and Exile;

A prayer to love, which reflects the poets disapproval of people who try to recruit others in their hate game. Other poems were, A grief no one can speak; Away but not gone; Above as below; Trees callously felled. The poem, A palm wine ode, was with a refrain, and it was one of the few poems the writer sang, and to which his audience responded.  A palm wine ode got the audience laughing, and it got them clapping too. What with lines like “Did we get drunk? Or half-drunk? Or tipsy/Did we go home giddy, to wind up in a stupor? Did we find some shy tongues running loose with words? How none of these were noticed –  the night we drank palm wine.”

Both Oke’s poems and the manner he sang a couple of them drew diverse comments from the audience later on, and that was because participants came from  different backgrounds, and they heard as well as interpreted what they heard accordingly.  Ikeogu read some other poems as tribute to people he respects or whose works influenced his poetry.  Chinua Achebe, whom he called his mentor, came in for the former, and Nadine Godimer belonged to the latter category.

There was an intensity to the discussion in the gathering, that time; It was obvious people came to draw from the experience of a published author, and to add to the general debate about writing and the Nigerian writer. This was reflected in the quality of the contributions, and it also showed in the remarks and the questions when it was Question and Answer time. Not a few of those present praised the more than one hundred poems in Salutes Without Guns.

There was a remark about the regularity of the concluding lines in some of the poems,  to which the poet responded by telling the circumstances surrounding the writing of the poems in question. It turned out they came out of the poet’s pen “without forethoughts” and when he took a second look at them, they fulfilled some technical requirements, a reason he let them be.  An observation about the poems satisfying lyrical needs also led to the question about the possibility of Nigerian writers moving away from writing angry poetry to “new poetics.” Ikeogu’s response was, “Yes, it is possible.” He went on to explain that many of his poems such as, ‘A fire report’ which was about a fire incidence at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, was an angry poem.

“But it was written with beauty in mind.”  He would go on to explain that “we can’t stop writing out of anger about our condition, or what we experience. The only thing is that we need to be conscious of making the product beautiful, because poetry is beautiful.”

By this, Ikeogu explained that he meant there is a need to make full use of the art, have a mastery of the craft of writing poetry. This view reflects the position of Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG’s) panel that is responsible for the award of the Nigerian Literature Prize when it that refused to award the poetry prize in 2009. According to Prof. Ayo Banjo, who read the panel’s report, most of the works  shortlisted did not exhibit the fullest grasp of the craft. Yes, the poets wrote profoundly and on wide ranging subjects, the retired professor had explained then, but a mastery of the craft was not exhibited. And of course champions tend to be those who have mastered the craft of their trade.

Making an angry poetry a beautiful work ensures it lasts long after the poet has left the scene, Ikeogu had added.  In that sense, he subscribed to the argument that a writer is necessarily attuned to the conditions of his environment to the extent of writing angry poetry, “since we are as good as the values we represent,” he said, concluding the session.

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