Osundare: For Nigeria, global artistic feats despite leadership failure
With their personal reputation and accomplishments, Nigerians have continued to bring the country fame and glory at a time its global image and relevance appear to have irredeemably dipped, due principally to poor leadership. Temilade Openiyi’s recent win of the prestigious Grammy award and renowned physician-writer, Dr. Wale Okediran’s decoration with the Gold Medal for Productivity in Literature at the just-concluded Eurasian Literary Festival of Festivals in Cairo, Egypt are the latest instances of such distinguished honours that have rubbed off on Nigeria’s sagging status among the comity of nations. Just before these two, precisely on December 16, last year, Niyi Osundare, Distinguished Emeritus Professor, linguist and multiple award-winning poet, was awarded the Boao International Poetry Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Poetry in China. The diadem, one of the two which rank the highest in the hierarchy of the Boao International Poetry honour list, is normally awarded to a prominent poet from any part of the world, while the other is reserved for another poet found to have distinguished himself within China. Osundare co-won the coveted Chinese literary prize with Xu Jingya, the first poet from the African continent to be so honoured! The poet laureate, who, however, could not attend the award ceremony, at the 2022 Boao International Poetry Festival in Shanghai, greets the recognition with mixed feelings. On one hand, he sees Nigerian artists’ feats on the global stage as a testament to the abundant but unappreciated talents in the country, on the other, he is even more saddened that the country itself lags behind if it is not entirely missing in the international collaborative efforts at fostering cultural and artistic development and promotion.
• Wins Boao International Poetry Prize
Congratulations on your new award, Prof. How did you get to know about it?
Well, surprised and delighted that my work is being read in China and one is getting some kind of recognition from there. The news of the award came to me through Cao Shui, a tremendously energetic and innovative poet whose work I read for the first time almost two years ago. I was really moved by the global reach and ecumenical spirit of this relatively young writer who approached the world with remarkable wisdom, maturity, and self-assuredness. I am fascinated by his ability to break down walls, cross boundaries, interrogate the metaphysics of the Tower of Babel and its various figurations, in a genuine attempt at getting Humanity to speak across the continents. Incidentally, the Babel trope was the prop of a lecture I delivered at the PEN conference in 2005 at a town called Bled, a spectacular place in Slovenia. I sent him a few words from my own essay too; and that was where our dialogue began.
It was he who told me of the Boao International Poetry Festival in Shanghai, and said that if I had the time, it would be good for me to come to attend the festival. Then later, it was through him, I got the news that I had been selected as co-winner of the 2022 International Poetry Outstanding Achievement Award. This award usually goes jointly to two prominent poets: one from China, and the other from the other parts of the world. The two winners in 2022 are Xu Jingya, described as a famous Chinese poet and yours sincerely from Nigeria. I learnt that I was the first African poet to receive this award. The two of us were recognised in Shanghai on December 16, last year, on the first night of the festival and its grand opening. Because of the Covid situation, I couldn’t register my physical presence at the festival, but my acceptance speech, entitled, Why Poetry Matters, was translated by Cao Shui and presented on my behalf by him.
That apparently implies that you are read in China?
Well, I would not consider my writing as popular in China yet, but now, through his translation effort, Cao Shui is introducing my poetry and other works to Chinese readers. But I am an ardent reader of Chinese poetry and Chinese literature generally and an admirer of Chinese painting. I also teach Chinese poetics in the theoretical/conceptual part of my creative writing workshops. One of the most interesting things about the history of Chinese poetry is the close link between it and Chinese dynastic movements and transitions. Different dynasties seemed to have their own impact on poetic forms and techniques, and poetry and the poet were accorded due respect and provided the means of sustenance and survival. Poetry was so central to Chinese culture that it also affected politics positively. So, monarchical politics and the institution of poetry had an interesting coexistence.
So, one expects that the modern political reforms that replaced the Chinese political system, as we used to know it, must also have affected the character and form of the poetry. What is it like now in terms of thematic engagement and style?
Oh yes, things have changed, as modernity has taken its toll, with the coming of contemporary poetry starting from about the 1970s or so. There are young Chinese poets who have interrogated the old paradigms and are breaking out on their own. Incidentally, Cao Shui is right in the centre of that kind of tradition. Still profoundly Chinese but also global at the same time, I think these are the people who have really opened up Chinese culture to the rest of the world… We cannot talk about culture without making poetry a major topic. You know, poetry travels from one part of the world to another. So, the poetry I am reading now is not as regimented and rule-governed as ancient Chinese poetry. But please note: I am not an authority in Chinese poetry, and I also have a language disability there; I cannot read in Chinese; so I can only read it in English translation. But as a linguist myself I know that when you translate a poem into another language what you leave behind is the poetry. What I see in contemporary Chinese poetry is a certain kind of freedom, formal freedom, and aesthetic freedom. In terms of subject matter, contemporary issues have come to receive attention in Chinese poetry. In the past, that poetry was dominated by Nature and natural images such as the moon, change of seasons, flora and fauna, rivers and lakes, etc, depicted in their delightful variety. In fact, this is one area where I find the dialogue between Chinese painting and Chinese poetry really edifying: the use of colour and the way colour reflects the change of seasons, change in the mood of man and nature, the remarkable dynamism and predictability of the changes that account for different periods of the day, the physical topography as represented by the hills, mountains, rivers, and the road. The Human Being was also a predominant subject, especially rural farmers, peasants, and artisans. Also remember that China has gone through different cultural changes (some would say revolutions) in the past century. Each instance of change has impacted Chinese art and culture.
I believe Nigeria, having so many poets of international status like Wole Soyinka, your good self, the late Okigbo, should be in a position to host such a major global literary event. So, who sets the ball rolling and what would it require to fund it, perhaps?
Seek ye the political kingdom, said Nkrumah, that remarkable Ghanaian statesman and Pan-Africanist, and all other things shall be added unto thee. First, the political space will have to be friendly. Right here where this interview is taking place, for the past 24 hours we have not had electricity! In many, many other places, they haven’t had it for weeks! This is one country where the national power grid can break down as frequently as it pleases, even though we are in no war situation, and we have no major disaster. With the scarcity of fuel, the use of the almighty savior, the power generator, has become unreliable. Will you want to bring world poets here to stumble in our darkness and roast in the heat? What about security? Who can bring any of those poets to Nigeria today in the name of holding an international festival, with the dreadful possibility of their being waylaid and abducted for crippling ransoms, by bandits and kidnappers who now constitute an alternative government in Nigeria? What about the galloping inflation we have all over the place and the suffering of our people? What about the deaths on our roads? Our stifling, garbage-choked roads and streets? As I have said many times, in Nigeria, government is absent in the most important areas of the people’s lives. You know, everywhere you go, our government keeps disappointing us.
This was the same problem we had when the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA) was inaugurated in Accra in 1989. You would have thought that the headquarters of such an important organisation should ‘naturally’ come to Nigeria, given the predominance of Nigerian writers on the continental level. But it never happened. The Ghanaian government had already laid out a beautiful, functional structure in a well-appointed part of Accra, that suited PAWA’s purpose efficiently. In that period of Nigeria’s history, we were ruled by military dictators who put writers in detention, and whose members would later hang Ken Saro Wiwa, a former President of the Association of Nigerian Authors. Yes, the relationship between the Nigerian Pen and the Nigerian Sword was that cordial! When you really look at the matter, you discover that the glories of writers, artists, and other creative people in Nigeria have been achieved in spite of beneficence from the Nigerian government, not because of it.
This is an unfortunate situation, really, because literary festivals have their own way of boosting the prestige and recognition of their host countries, in addition to making it possible for local writers to mix with writers from other parts of the world, trade creative ideas and techniques with them, and establish friendships and associations that often last a lifetime. This is the kind of benefits the Medellin International Festival has been able to foster in the so many years it has facilitated the gathering of some of the world’s greatest poets and enriching the Colombian atmosphere with songs in numerous languages from many parts of the globe.
When I arrived in Medellin in 2010 and was hailed “Poeta” by common people in the streets, I embraced my new title with melodious delight. A day later, I was one of the international performers in an amphitheater, with hundreds of friendly, appreciative people as audience. Thereafter, we performed poetry in the marketplace, botanical garden, and college classrooms. The moving force and spirit behind all this is a man called Fernando Rendon, renowned poet and man of letters in his own right, and founder of the World Poetry Movement, an organization which promotes the necessity – and inevitability – of the connection between poetry, Human Rights, and socio-political justice. I was delighted to learn that he is one of the former winners of the International Poetry Outstanding Achievement Award which has just come my way. There are similar festivals in Rotterdam, Berlin, London, United States, Cuba, Serbia, South Africa and many other parts of the world where poetry is valued as a major platform in cultural and diplomatic matters.
It’s such pity the problems you have cited would deny the country the opportunity of hosting the world festival.
It has so much to showcase, culturally.
You are right: there is a lot to showcase about Nigeria. Ours is an abundantly endowed country whose leaders do not know what to do with the endowments. No genuine citizen can be proud of the state of the country today. Too many failures. Too many missed opportunities.
This is not the Nigeria of our dream. Everything about this country has gone down, down, down!!! No electricity, no food, no personal safety. If you have a headache and you are a politician in need of treatment, off you jet to London or Paris or New York, or, these days, to India. If you have anything to say to us Nigerians today, you go to Chatham House in London as the newborn obedient servant of the Empire that you are. I never knew Nigeria would sink this low. At the moment, this is not the country one would want to invite anyone to for a festival. But I hope that that country will overcome the present problems and we will be able to welcome the world in the future – if we work honestly and assiduously for the required change. That will be when those who administer our country are leaders, NOT rulers.
Let’s return to China, Prof. Just before we veered into discussing the International Poetry Movement, I got this impression that I was probably not before the Chief Priest of Olosunta, but sitting right in a pagoda with a Chinese priest, will it be right to describe you as a ‘Chinese’ now?
Ha, ha! Now, you have gone irredeemably poetic. Well, call me Chinese, call me French, call me Jew, call me Arab, call me Urhobo, call me Hausa/Fulani, call me Igbo, and call me Yoruba. Just know that Humanity is one, I spell my own humanity with an uppercase ‘H’. It is very important. I read Chinese poetry and it speaks to me. In fact, in my acceptance speech, I had to mention some of the old Chinese poets whose works I have read and enjoyed. I think Cao Shui said sarcastically that those were old poets, and that one of the poems I cited was up to 100 years old. Well, the older the better – if it was and is still good. Good poetry is like wine: it mellows and matures with age. The man who transformed the landscape and mindscape that changed China forever, Chairman Mao, was also a poet. He was not only guiding the people, he was showing them how to hold the plough and how to react against their oppressors; he sometimes used poetry, good poetry, in advancing his ideas. I read of a number of instances in which he engaged with leading poets in China … trading poems and ideas with them. Can you imagine the Head of State of Nigeria today exchanging poetry with Wole Soyinka or whoever?
Well, you still have some intellectual and literary-minded statesmen among our ruling class too, the late Mamman Vatsa, for instance…
Yes, poor Mamman Vatsa, but he was never Head of State… I will never forget what that man did for the literary/arts community. He was our host for the annual ANA convention in Abuja in December, 1985. That was when he led us (a delegation of Association of Nigerian Authors) up the hill in the Capital City and said this piece of land is yours. He and Chinua Achebe were right in front as we marched along, the rest of us, younger writers, were the enthusiastic foot soldiers fervent with dreams and daring. Memorable moment. I will never forget how determined, focused, and idealistic ANA was at that time. And how united. This was a time our beloved ANA stayed sane and secure under ONE and the SAME roof, and our after-convention communiques addressed burning national issues without prevarication or fear of hypocrisy. How I wish one didn’t need to talk about those good old days in nostalgic terms!
“Why Poetry Matters,” you entitled your acceptance speech. Could you unpack this thesis for us, please?
Yes, it is a short speech designed for a six – minute delivery. What I am saying there is basically that poetry matters because it is the music of our being, the music of our soul, the music of our mind, the music of our ideas, the music of our future. Poetry matters because it sees unity where others see severance. Poetry matters because it provides us a weapon for our fight against injustice. It teaches us the best ways of reaching out – rejoicing with those who rejoice; sorrowing with the sorrowful even as our songs pave the way to the possibility of hopeful joy; deepening our insight while expanding our horizon; disciplining our impulse while emboldening our resistance to evil; holding our hands every minute and leading us to the House of Truth, and Beauty, its soulmate. Poetry matters because it restores and sustains in us all that is Human – and humane. “Dare to be different, positively different!”, genuine poetry commands. Think hard, think deep. Wear courage like a shield…. Let me conclude this interview by poaching the last paragraph of the ‘famous’ acceptance speech:
Poetry matters because it never fails to remind us of the common colour of the blood in our veins, the violence of hunger, the ugliness of evil, the frailty of our forests, the vulnerability of our rivers, and the sigh of our Planet. Poetry never forgets, and never ceases to remind the Future of its debt to the Past. Wherever Justice is hidden, you can trust poetry to seek and find it. For in its lyrical habitation lives our Lamp of Life.