Osundare to young writers: avoid the Nollywoodization of poetry
It was an engaging and cerebral evening two Fridays ago when Goethe Institut, Lagos, drew the curtain for the calendar year while hosting poet of the marketplace fame, Professor Niyi Osundare, at its signatory programme, Literary Crossroads series, which brings ‘together African writers on the continent and from the Diaspora to discuss contemporary trends and themes in Literature.’
For many, the event was the best way to begin a fascinating weekend and end a year of many literary activities.
In conversation with journalist and author of Jailed for Life (2003), Mr. Kunle Ajibade, the electrifying conversations traversed topical issues alternating between the state of education in the country, politics and leadership in Africa, relevance of writers and writing, why an African poet must be socially committed, to age-long feuds in the literary firmament.
The occasion was also the first public reading of Osundare’s new poetry collection, If Only the Road Could Talk: Poetic Peregrinations in Africa, Asia and Europe (2017). The audience was a mélange of popular faces in the literary and arts spheres, comprising writers, scholars, seasoned journalists and literary enthusiasts.
Last month, Osundare was the special guest of honour at Lagos Book and Arts festival LABAF (2017), where he delivered a cautionary keynote address, warning the world of a potential outbreak of World War III, premising it on the lurking omens such as the emergence of Trumpism in America, the prevalence of demagoguery, jingoism, fascism, widespread of religious fanaticism, Nazism, fake news and other similar events that heralded previous world wars and turbulences. The article was frequently referenced on the evening where the literary virtuoso was in his best element, enthralling his spellbound audience. No doubts, everyone left with the forboding feeling that the world is verging dangerously towards another possible disaster.
“This is indeed a season of omen,” Osundare intoned.
The master stylistician also deliberated on the evolution of change and argued that change or revolution doesn’t come suddenly as we think, rather, “it is an outburst of accumulated efforts of past years.” Citing the French Revolution of 1789, as an example, he said, “when we talk about the French Revolution, we say it began in 1789 but that isn’t true. It began more than 200 years before then with great writers like Jean Jacques Rousseau. People had begun to absorb all these activities. What we saw in 1789 were an outburst; it was when everything had boiled over and ripened. If a revolution isn’t prepared for, it claims its own children; it won’t succeed. It takes a vanguard of people; this is why writing is so important. This is why education is so important. Education makes people easy to govern but impossible to enslave.”
On the knotty problem of leadership and overwhelming state of decay in Nigeria and Africa as a whole, Osundare remarked that he once shared the same viewpoint with Chinua Achebe on the matter that the problem with Nigeria was solely leadership until his current detour.
“Our leaders are bad, o yes, but what have the citizens done to change bad leaders?” he queried, opining that the blame should be shared equally between bad leadership and docile citizens, who are tolerant of everything their leaders throw at them. “We are being ruled by illiterates!” and drew comparison with the foundational infrastructure still visible in Senegal that were laid during the reign of Léopold Senghor, which would make anyone know that a poet was once there and then to Ghana where the dexterous touches of a cerebral leader, Kwame Nkrumah, are still palpable.
“When Ghanaians came to Nigeria in 1983, they took over jobs from Nigerians because they had been well-trained and skillfully prepared for the future at various technical schools,” he reminded his audience.
Osundare also recalled an intellectual discussion with a visiting German president, who left him in awe with his versatility in all fields of intellectual discourses.
“I kept wondering if Nigeria can ever have such literate (person/leader) to take charge. A literate (person) has good conscience and knows the intricacy of things. We are ruled by illiterates, who surround themselves with fellow illiterates and favour them. When a man or woman of intellect moves close to them, they will do all within their power to frustrate and push him/her away. They have simply implied ‘keep reading your books while we keep counting the money!’”
While bemoaning the current state of education, the young people in attendance were stunned by the poet’s startling revelation that Nigeria, with over 158 universities, is more illiterate than it was 50 years ago, when it had one university.
“Private universities are a recycling of illiteracy,” he emphasised. “They make illiteracy more glamorous or expensive and, unfortunately, government has supervised the decimation of education in Nigeria. There was a time we were pilloried for teaching what we were not meant to teach… The educational system was brought to its knee during the periods of military juntas, who started gradual withdrawal of funds.”
The intricate web of conversation also touched on the ability of the poet to convey his/her message to the audience without needless obscurantism. Osundare is a proponent of lucid writing, where the message takes precedence over style, unlike most first generation Nigerian poets among whom Soyinka is chief.
“Our time has been a little different from that of the first batch of Nigerian poets,” he stated. “I read Soyinka’s The Road and Idanre and Other Poems; they were tough! Here was a writer that had experienced suffering and wanted to share with the people. But how many of such people and the leaders can understand the messages in these books?”
He subsequently made allusion to his definition of poetry, as enshrined in his collection Songs of the Marketplace (1983), which is regarded by many as a poetic manifesto of modern African poetry. Obviously, his position aligns with Chinwezu and co in Towards the Decolonization of African Literature (1980). A polemic discourse against the first generation poets, the book also espouses the clarity of message and the incontestable responsibility of the African writer in effecting positive socio-political change in his immediate society.
Without being thrifty in narrating his life’s ordeals, Osundare spoke about how a literary festival that was planned in his honour at Ilorin was relocated to Ife because of repeated threat messages and calls from those the poet laureate alleged were goons of the current Senate President, who he had criticised in one of his recent writings. He said it was a pointer to the fact that people still read in the country, “including our leaders, who often appoint professional readers.”
While rounding off an evening of striking ideas, the seasoned scholar and winner of Nigerian national Order of Merit (NNOM) enjoined young writers to keep at their craft and learn to shun the allure of copycatting the West, adding, “We have the most talented people in this country despite all the distractions.”
He further advised them to desist from ‘the Nollywoodization’ of poetry in the country, saying “regardless of our race or gender, we have to take our fate in our hands.”
Although the literary guru acknowledged the steady rise in the number of poets and collection of poems in the country each year, he advised against cheapening quality for quantity, as is the case with Nollywood films, where quantity is the norm rather than quality content and artistic excellence. He also canvassed the need for swift containment of the growing desire to write to the taste and style of Western publishers to be accepted.
“What I see in a lot of young writers is an attempt to run away from Africa and to write like Americans and Europeans so they can get their books published there.”
While narrating the bombardment of his email box by young Nigerian writers desperate to be published abroad, Osundare insisted that being rejected by foreign publishers doesn’t signal death to one’s creative ambition, adding, “Albeit, there are obvious reasons for this development: They have lost faith in Nigeria. Nobody should blame them, but I like to advise them that there is a day after today. Our sleep isn’t death.”