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Oke: Poetry can be a force for positive transformation of society

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IKEOGU OKE is among the three poets vying for the US$100,000 worth The Nigerian Prize for Literature 2017, due to be announced on October 9.

IKEOGU OKE is among the three poets vying for the US$100,000 worth The Nigerian Prize for Literature 2017, due to be announced on October 9. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, Oke speaks about the prize and the humanising power of poetry

It’s just a small step away before victory is assured, having been shortlisted for the prize. Does it seem like waiting for the “famous” Godot?
It’s certainly not like waiting for Godot. Unlike Godot, the object of this wait, the announcement of a winner or none, will eventually materialize, going by past experience.

What are your expectations?
My expectations are to continue to revel in my love of poetry, of literature and the arts generally, and to continue to find pleasure in creativity and the intellectual life, regardless of the outcome.

What makes your book unique and why do you think it should be the jury’s choice?
I wouldn’t think my book, The Heresiad, should be the jury’s choice unless the jury thinks so. But I think it has some unique features. First, the book is just one poem, an epic in four cantos. The Heresiad is a sweeping poetic story of moral heroism that promotes peace and other positive humanistic values and defends freedom of expression and the right to life. In the story Reason, the hero, intervenes to save an author condemned to death by a religious monarch for writing a book he perceives as heretical, which explains its subtitle as Song of Reason. Also, it is in heroic couplets and what I call lyrical pentameters as opposed to the more conventional rhythmic pentameters. The lyrical pentameters render it completely singable, unrestrainedly musical, so much so that every of its lines can be sung and set to music. And music scores derived from some of the lines are appended to the work as a foretaste of its complete formal musicality. So, besides being a book of poetry, it is a musical work and, thanks to its singability, an art song running into almost 100 pages.

In fact, the lines are so lyrical that they can be said to “sing themselves” as Tchaikovsky said of Pushkin’s poetry, making their being set to music an easier task for any composer. It is also conceived for enactment on the operatic stage, with music, drama, etcetera. So I call it operatic poetry, a new artistic concept that integrates literature, drama and music. All this is in addition to its having utilitarian value, as its being critical of the anti-book posture of religious extremism makes it usable to counter such ideologies behind phenomena such as Boko Haram. Incidentally, I worked on the poem, a labour of love, for 27 years, from 1989 to 2016.

From traditional to social media, do you think the prize has generated enough conversation, good or bad? And is the conversation coming as an informed one?
I don’t think such an important literary prize can generate conversation enough. And it has caused quite a stampede of negative reactions recently, in both traditional and social media, and also drawn some positive responses. The positive responses generally uphold the shortlist and the idea behind the prize. The more salient of the negative reactions have come from those who felt unfairly excluded by the jury’s decisions, and those who seem to nurse primeval grudges against Nigerian poets for the endowment of the prize and the organisation behind that, who criticise it as a waste of resources. Incidentally, I had responded to one of such criticisms in my widely published essay entitled “In Defence of Nigerian Poets and the NLNG Prize.”

And some of such critics make the mistake of citing what they consider their past achievements as poets to justify their grouse. They seem unaware that this is a poetry and not an autobiography contest, and the adjudication is based on a single book by each contestant.

So a contestant may have conquered Mount Everest with their past work or been the Sango or Amadioha of poetry only to turn in for this specific contest an entry that the jury considers deficient and which therefore may not go very far in the competition. So we have a situation where some people who apparently don’t even grasp something as basic as the context of the competition for the prize are being critical of it. And I’m surprised that they don’t, considering their levels of literacy and the clarity with which the rules and other components of the competition are set out in the call for entry.

From the longlist of 11 poets to the book party and to just three, just how arduous has the journey been?
For me, it has rather been like a jolly ride on the back of one’s love-horse – poetry!

From your experience in the prize journey, what are the challenges confronting poets and writers in Nigeria and how do you propose to mitigate them?
First, there is the challenge, actually a moral crisis, of many poets, especially the younger ones, who seem more interested in the fruits than the labour of poetry. And for them the fruits can only be one thing: literary prizes. It’s not to them that the Irish poet Seamus Heaney speaks when he writes in “Station Island” that “The main thing is to write/for the joy of it.” And it may not make any impression on them if you tell them that poetry is not an occupation for people desperate for quick success. That it demands the most exacting lexical craftsmanship among the literary arts and may not even yield the secrets of its sublimity to the most exacting craftsman, who may have thoroughly mastered its techniques, lends credence to this. I think a change of attitude by such poets can take care of this challenge.

Then there are such structural or systemic challenges that even serious Nigerian poets and writers hardly find support from the government and donor institutions as in other countries. Our governments and corporate bodies should prioritize support for our poets and artists generally to efface this challenge. But that may have to go with their realising through the works and deeds of our poets that poetry can be a force for the positive transformation of society.

Should you win, is there any social, political or cultural cause/s to which you might channel part of the prize money?
For me, the prize money is like unhatched chicken. Thinking of what to channel it to at this stage would be like counting one’s chickens before they are hatched. And I would rather comply with the English adage that warns us against such indiscretion. That said, there is a line in The Heresiad that proclaims part of my mission with my Muse in the poem as to “give a lifebuoy to a drowning art”, the drowning art being poetry, whose fortune continues to sink in the current of contemporary literature, compared to other genres. I would like to initiate and encourage ventures that not only help save poetry from drowning but also keep it afloat and swimming again to global applause. I would also be improving my current involvement in reviving African folktales for which I have a strong passion.



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