By Chris Onuoha
Professor John Pepper Clark Berekedemo who passed on last week, was a renowned poet and playwright. Born in Kiagbodo to an Ijaw father and Urohobo mother, the deceased fondly called JP Clark, received primary education at a native school in Okirika, Burutu local government in the former Western Ijaw and proceeded to Ughelli Government College for his secondary education.
He obtained his first degree in English at the University of Ibadan in 1960 and worked as Information Officer at the Ministry of Information in the Old Western Nigeria.
He served for several years as a Professor of English at the University of Lagos, (UNILAG) and retired in 1980. In 1982, with his wife, Ebun Odutola, also a Professor and Director of Cultural Studies at UNILAG, he founded the PEC Repertory Theatre at the University. Clark was widely travelled and held visiting professorial appointments at several colleges including Yale among others in the USA. His notable poems include Mbari, A reed in the tide, Casualties, A decade of tongues, State of the union man, and others.
The erudite and emeritus professor has bided the mother earth bye but lives on. Talking about living on, some of the people in the literary community who spoke about him affirmed that Clark is not dead but had dropped the pen for the younger generation to continue.
Prof Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, a former Head of Department UNILAG is one who doubles as JP Clark’s former student and colleague, as a staff at UNILAG. In her reaction, she says JP Clark may have journeyed to his Kiagbodo root but his legacies live on.
“I feel so sad to learn that JP Clark, my mentor, my teacher and somebody who inspired me to be a writer is gone,” Adimora-Ezeigbo said.
“But I feel so happy that his works live after him. Writers don’t die. Those of us who have been shattered by this news should take heart because his works will live. It’s a legacy he kept with us into generations and he would continue to be read.
“For the family, they had a great father and for Ebun Clark, she had a great husband.
“He was a mentor. He taught me as an undergraduate student in University of Lagos and he was there when I joined as a staff in the institution.
“I have a lot of respect for him. I was just young when he was teaching us. I had read him in secondary school and then, to come to Unilag and met him in person, you know it was like heaven on earth.
“And I said to myself, “is this, the JP Clark I read his book, ‘the night rain’ and ‘Agbor Dancers?’
“His poems are simple but typically satisfying. He wrote well. When you read him, you wonder how poetry could be simple and at the same time, fascinating and lyrical.
“I think he was one the best poet we have in Africa. He will live forever.
“Thank God that there is already a big edifice called JP Clark center in the University of Lagos.
“That centre should become active now with the stage he plays and organise workshops where his poetry would be taught and read.
“I also want to encourage those of us who lecturer and still in the system, to teach his books. These are great works of art.
“The succeeding generations should be taught his works, so that he continues to live in the memory of his contemporaries and those coming after. He deserves an honour.
“Lastly, I will remember him as a very quiet, principled and reserved person who never showed flamboyancy in his lifestyle.
“I am not surprised that his burial was done according to his will.
“Sometimes you wonder about all the noise people make about burial.
“It is not the ideal thing. I admire his personae, and having that kind of principle that money should not wasted on his burial, he saved his family from trauma and unnecessary expenditures.”
Jahman Oladejo Anikulapo is a vibrant Nigerian literary, arts and culture resources person and former Arts Editor at the Guardian Newspapers.
To him, JP Clark is an old man that is worth celebrating, but according to him, when someone of that caliber sleeps, it is like a mighty Iroko that fell.
“JP Clark in 1998 made a last wish that was captured in his poem; “Now that where I am going is nearer than where I began, may I…” People like JP Clark are ones you call literary octopus, in the sense that if you check the volume and brevity of his works, you sometimes imagine the level of resources deposited in him,” he said.
“JP Clark apart from being a teacher was a poet, dramatist and was very exponential in the play “Ozidi Zaga” in the University of Ibadan.
“You can recall JP Clark and the old civil war story and also his effort at the State house to make plea during the hanging of Mamman Vatsa and Ken Saro Wiwa alongside his contemporaries, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.
“He was a teacher and someone that has lived in what you can call the better Nigeria time.
“These groups are not passive and are parts of the story of this country. If you live through that kind of life, you could imagine the kind of regrets.
“Lately, sitting with him, he narrates the kind of disappointments in the way the country is being run.
“Recently, in one of his books, America, Their America” a book he wrote when he was in the US, he reflected and saw what the president is doing now in the case of “Black lives matter”, and was surprised that what he said about 50 years ago, just manifested.
“These are writers who are like seers, who saw what could be. He was like another father to me and I wish him a peaceful passage.
For Ben Tomoloju, his fondest memory of JP Clark was as a literary juvenile, he literarily fed on JP Clark’s poems.
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“In those days as teenager, I chant his “night rain”, “Olokun: “As tides through the weeds of the sea.” And “Abiku: coming and going,” and also his other works in poetry and essays.”
On the vacuum his death has created in the literary world, Tomoloju said that his spirit and inspiration is much stronger because he has planted seeds that need to grow in terms of literary acumen and has influenced over 4 generations.
“He was an emeritus professor who produced many professors, outstanding poets and dramatist. Poets don’t die. We can possible call him Immortal JP Clark Bekederemo.
“He is incomparable. Like his distinguished peers, he stands on a pedestal of pioneers, and pathfinders in the literary world.
He was a global icon in drama and he has used his works, not only to analyse the state of affairs of our country but to prophesy the future of the country.
“In one of his works, “The Raft,” he spoke about the dismemberment of raft on a turbulent sea and the metaphor goes to a nation called Nigeria.
“Such people don’t die. They live with us in the spirit. We miss him in person but his works will continue to inspire us. That’s what I call greatness.”
For Professor Mabel Evwierhoma, a theater art teacher, her reaction was that of pain because she wished he was still around to read her book submission taken from a part of his poetry.
“I was very sad because four weeks ago, I submitted a book chapter on one of his plays and many of us thought we are going to have him, at least read one of our submissions,” she said.
“Many people read his poems and see him as a militant poet and a true spirit of African renaissance.
“But in his plays, you will see some quiet characters who fight for the attainment of liberty, for the freedom of human spirit.
“Prof JP Clark was special because, in his works, you will find that path-finding spirit that cuts across poetry, prose, drama and folklore. He was an engaged political writer.
“Although, his poems are quite lyrical but in plays, he will find that spirit that is in quest of a better life for the community beyond individuals.
“When his characters discuss politics, they do so, from a very deep understanding of leadership and governance to yield dividends to the people.
“He should be remembered for his pioneering, creative spirits that counts. He was a creative artist who went into theater entrepreneurship and journalism. The present generation should tap into this ebullient spirit that is very rich in creativity.