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Clark, the ‘fisherman’, sets sail

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor, Adelowo Adebumiti and Sunday Aikulola
14 October 2020   |   4:14 am
That, exactly, was how the Founder and Director of Rainbow Book Club, Koko Kalango, exclaimed when she heard of Prof. Johnson Pepper Clark-Bekederemo’s demise yesterday.


“Eh ya!”
“Eh ya!!”
“My God…. Oh my God… Oh my God.”
“God, Prof? Gone?”
“It is well…”
That, exactly, was how the Founder and Director of Rainbow Book Club, Koko Kalango, exclaimed when she heard of Prof. Johnson Pepper Clark-Bekederemo’s demise yesterday.

According to Kalango, “the death of J.P. Clark is a personal loss. The last time I saw him was around Christmas time. It was at a function. I wish I had gone to greet him. But I’m very grateful I met him. I will not forget his poem, Ibadan. I thought he was an English man. His death is a loss to literature and Niger Delta has lost a voice.

Kalango said she had opportunity of interacting with the late writer and wordsmith when he headlined the 2009 Port Harcourt Book Festival. He was also around in 2010 when some of Nigeria’s writers were honoured and during the reign of Port Harcourt as the World Book Capital in 2014. A day was dedicated to him at the event.

For Kalango, “J.P. Clark never pretended. He was one person who said it as it were.”

Born Johnson Pepper Clark-Bekederemo in Kiagbodo, on April 6, 1935, Clark-Bekederemo was the son of a chief in Ijaw ethnic group, and an Urhobo mother.

Growing up in a small fishing village that had no elementary school, Clark-Bekederemo nevertheless enjoyed the best education that British colonial Nigeria had to offer due to his parents’ influence.

He attended British-run schools at the Native Authority School, Okrika (Ofinibenya-Ama) and then entered the colonial Government College in Ughelli, graduating in 1954.

Clark-Bekederemo worked for a year as a government clerk, gaining contacts among Nigeria’s elite, and in 1955, he entered the University of Ibadan (still a branch of the University of London at the time), where he edited various magazines, including the Beacon and The Horn. He received an honour’s degree in 1960.

Christened Johnson Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, his name was shortened to John Pepper Clark by the designer of the cover of his publication, Song of a Goat (1961).

His subsequent publications used ‘John Pepper Clark’ and ‘J. P. Clark’ somewhat indiscriminately, until the publication of State of the Union, by ‘J. P. Clark-Bekederemo’ in 1985.

In his preface to that volume, Clark-Bekederemo wrote, ‘‘These works mark for me my assumption of my full family name, after waiting several years to do so jointly with my elder brothers. It is time to identify the man behind the mask so often misunderstood and speculated about.’’

Although he was not always out there in front, he was a major contributor to the manner in which the general populace viewed Nigerian literature.

He had collections such as, A Reed in the Tide, occasional poems that focus on his indigenous African background and his travel experience in America and other places; Casualties, which illustrate the horrendous events of the Nigerian Civil War; A Decade of Tongues, a collection of 74 poems, all of which apart from Epilogue to Casualties (dedicated to Michael Echeruo) were previously published in earlier volumes; State of the Union (1981), which highlights his apprehension concerning the sociopolitical events in Nigeria as a developing nation and Mandela and Other Poems (1988), which deals with the perennial problem of aging and death. Clark has won several major local and international awards.

Upon graduation from Ibadan in 1960, he worked as an information officer in the Ministry of Information in the old Western Region of Nigeria, as features editor of the Daily Express, and as a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. While at the University of Lagos, he was co-editor of the literary magazine, Black Orpheus.

He served for several years as a professor of English at the University of Lagos, a position from which he retired in 1980.

In 1982, along with his wife, Ebun Odutola (a professor and former director of the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Lagos), he founded the PEC Repertory Theatre in Lagos that staged most of his plays.

The Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki, said, “Prof. John Pepper Clark was a great academic and a celebrated poet, who contributed immensely to Nigeria’s advancement through his numerous works. His literary exploits brought honour and great respect to Nigeria, and his contributions to literature and education in general will outlive many generations.

“His writings mirrored the society all through our development as a nation and he raised his pen when it mattered the most to condemn societal ills that threatened our collective existence and advancement as a nation as well as a continent.

“My heart goes out to the Clark family at this time, and I urge them to find solace in the impactful life Prof. John Pepper Clark lived. We thank God for giving us a man of such rare talent and may his soul rest in peace,” Obaseki added.

Reacting to the news, Femi Osofisan, Emeritus Professor of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan, expressed shock at his passing, saying that he was at a loss for words to describe the devastating news.

“I am in great shock. I am deeply saddened by the incident. I can’t talk for now. I need time to compose myself and collect my thoughts before I can make any comment,” Osofisan said.

Prof Duro Oni of the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos said, “it is sad we have lost a big masquerade from Kiagbodo.”

Oni said Clark was one of the most prolific playwrights the country ever produced. “His poem, Ibadan, rolls in the head. We were just talking about him yesterday or the day before with Prof. Muyiwa Falaiye at the J. P. Clark Centre. The centre was an endowment by the Delta State government, under Governor Emmanuel Eweta Uduaghan and named after the inimitable Prof. J. P. Clark of the Ozidi Saga, America their America and my favourite poem, Ibadan… Running Splash of Rust and Gold … Flung and Scattered among Seven Hills like Broken China in the Sun … Rest in Peace, Prof. J. P. Clark.”

Celebrated poet and polemicist, Odia Ofeimun, said, “now that he has passed on, we can say that the generation that made Nigerian literature the big deal in Africa has been reduced by one great number — J.P. Clark was among the earliest, who gave us literature. Even in his old age, he kept on producing literature. Almost every other year, he brought out a collection of poetry or play. That type of commitment to a vocation is the one that demands we show him respect and honour.”

The veteran journalist, culture communicator and theatre practitioner, Ben Tomoloju, said a titan has gone home, where the legs of ordinary mortals cannot wander. “Emeritus Professor John Pepper Bekederemo-Clark saw it coming when he spoke during a celebration held in his honour about a year or so ago. He referred to his sojourn on planet earth at that time as that of a voyager in the foyer of a departure hall. Some people probably thought the poet was only being himself; an enigmatic wordsmith weaving sentient metaphors upon the transiency of human existence. Others were full of apprehension, knowing the characteristic proclamation of a prophet at full bloom. J.P. saw his own mortal transition coming and did not mince words to declare that it was almost time to go.”

The former Deputy Editor of The Guardian said, “we miss him greatly. Members of my generation as literary juveniles were nurtured with his works and those of his equally legendary peers right up to our stages of full maturation. Abiku… Coming and going this several seasons… Night Rain… What time of night it is/ I do not know… Olokun… I love to pass my fingers/ As tide thro’ weeds of the sea… We chanted these lines and others with aplomb in our pre-teen age. JP had been with us as we grew our wisdom teeth. He has made a phenomenal impact on our growing consciousness as young people. And as adults, he has been to us a pathfinder, fighter for justice, nationalist and culture icon.

“For the moment we can only commiserate with the entire Clark-Bekederemo family, the head of the family and JP’s elder brother, High Chief Edwin Clark, as well as my teacher, JP’s widow, Professor Ebun Clark and the children. May God grant them the fortitude to bear the loss.”

Poet and Nigeria Prize for Literature winner, Tade Ipadeola, said, “J.P Clark left behind a staggering body of work, both creative and critical. He is irreplaceable. The world has lost an eminent mind and a national treasure.”

Prof. Hope Egbagba said J.P. Clark has entered the last boat of humanity.

“Clark’s poetry lives after him, his dramatic works lives after him. To us, he left a thousand libraries of his work; what he has encoded in his literary works will live with us till eternity. His written works outlive him and will outlive all of us,” Eghagha said.

He condoled with the family over the loss, saying they should be consoled by the fact that he built a great legacy that will stand till eternity.

Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo described Clark as versatile and the most lyrical of African poets, saying his poetries has simplicity and great aesthetic beauty.
“I think we have lost a great writer. But we can take solace in the fact that he will live forever in his work,” she said.

According to Dr. Obari Gomba, a poet and lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt, “JP Clark’s métier is important to the world’s literary tradition.”

The two-time winner of ANA Poetry Prize/winner of ANA Drama Prize, said, “It is the best of writing by any standard anywhere. In his poems, plays, non-fiction, academic essays, he commands the rare position of a canon-setter, unafraid to expand the possibilities of human imagination. His artistic praxis has guided and inspired generations of writers and scholars. I am one of those Clark’s work has shaped… May God comfort Prof. Ebun Clark and the entire family.”

The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) President, Camillus Ukah, said, “JP Clark was a literary landmark. His departure has no doubt distorted the African literary space. Gratuitously, his iconic works will remain the canonical compass to locate his indelible footprints at all times.”

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