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‘Not killing but batting a hundred’




Below is an extract from Conversations with J.P. Clark, moderated by Chuma Nwokolo on October 29, 2015 at the JP Clark Centre, Faculty of Arts, University of Lagos, as part of the 2015 edition of the Lagos International Poetry Festival, dedicated to the poet. Regrettably, the correspondent for The Guardian Arts on Sunday, November 1, 2015 filed a mangled report of the event which was the centrepiece of the festival, held at Freedom Park, Muson Centre, African Artists Foundation, Bogobiri, and other centres from October 28th to November 1st, 2015. He quotes Clark as saying his friend Christopher Okigbo went off to war, “thinking it was a game, that after fighting and killing 100, he would come back”. Here, from the video recording of the event, which has taken some time to retrieve and transcribe, are the words of the poet:<em

Prof, please say a few words to the audience.

On Saturday I was at Abeokuta with Wole Soyinka, opening part of his own house and another he acquired, five bedrooms, two bedrooms for Senior Fellows; and Christopher Okigbo’s daughter was registered as the first Senior Fellow of this center, where you could retreat to, far from the maddening crowd, to write. Reading through your program, I didn’t know there were so many poets and so many platforms where they actually perform their own works and I didn’t know there was such an audience in public to react to these works. It’s a new day. This is not even Osofisan’s generation; these are young people in their 20s and 30s, not just creating, but performing their own works, which we didn’t do in my time, where everything was just text.

Give yourselves a round of applause for that. (Showing the audience copies of Black Orpheus, and the copy where Okigbo’s last poem was published). Speaking of Okigbo, I was with a few poets and artists a few weeks ago to celebrate his birthday. Now there was a book written by Ali Mazrui, which criticized Okigbo’s decision to go to war. Do you find Christopher Okigbo, guilty as charged?

Personally, when the Americans first landed on the moon, I thought they would find my friend there. I couldn’t accept the death of Christopher Okigbo. It was a waste. He was more effective and more useful as a poet. Path of Thunder establishes him as a prophet, one who prophesied war, and that’s how I presented him in the first number of the second volume of Black Orpheus.

Let me read six lines from Path of Thunder:

Fanfare of drums, wooden bells; iron chapter;
And our dividing airs are gathered home.
This day belongs to a miracle of thunder;
Iron has carried the forum
With token gestures. Thunder has spoken.
Left no signatures: broken

So you find him guilty as charged?
Yes – even more.

Let me just take a vote here; because this is a conversation. So does this house find Christopher Okigbo guilty of taking arms, and being involved in politics? Let me see the hands of those who say aye. (murmurs) Is he guilty or do you think he should not have gone to war?
Audience: Yes! Capital No!

Let me see those who think he was right to do what he did. Prof, I think it’s a split house; more people are saying-

No, no, no; the ayes, ayes have it.
(All laughter and clapping)
No, no no; I am not rigging the vote, I am not rigging the vote, it was very clear, only one or two people saying yes at that row.

Prof, yes, I think, I think-

If we know him, he is alive as a poet, as a poet who related to society; and there his duty lay; not in taking some rifle, sitting on top of a jeep- (pause) So you know it couldn’t have been more childish, more child-like an action. That was a war. Chris went there, thinking it was a play, a game of cricket, to come back, after batting a hundred. He was a good cricketer. So, to me, till the end of my life, I will always say my friend wasted his life as a soldier. But he lives on as a poet who related to society, who knew what society was doing, and what was going to become of that society, at that point in time. We are still at it; it’s not over…

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