When UNILAG gathered eggheads for Prof. JP Clark
From July 11 to14, 2018, the University of Lagos hosted the maiden edition of John Pepper Clark International Conference.
It had as theme, Connecting the Local and Global Across Literary Genres.
Before the conference, there was considerable excitement, both within University of Lagos and the wider literary community, at the prospect of hosting such an event in the life of a man whose commitment to African arts and humanities scholarship is highly prized.
Its conveners, Prof. Hope Eghagha of the University of Lagos and Dr. G. Oty Agbajoh-Laoye, of Monmouth University, USA, were optimistic of what the conference would achieve.
In a statement issued earlier to call for papers, they noted the conference was expected “to be an agenda-setting event in which participants, drawn from the literati, local and foreign academic institutions as well as other institutions involved in knowledge production across the globe would map a field for J.P. Clark Studies and locate the place of the poet, playwright and elder statesman in historical contemporary developments in African and Nigerian writing.”
The statement also said, “this international conference would address a variety of themes, ranging from the indigenous and communal, to broader contemporary issues like the African Diaspora, global Africa, the local and global, issues and dimensions across and within the micro and macro aspects of the writings of J. P. Clark.”
The conference lived up expectation.
The opening ceremony, which attracted eggheads such as, Prof. Ayo Banjo, former Vice Chancellor of University of Ibadan, Prof. Dan Izevbaye, Prof. Niyi Osundare and a host of academics from the university community, had Vanguard publisher, Mr. Sam Amuka Pemu, as special guest of honour.
Professor Wole Soyinka gave the keynote address entitled, Othello’s Lament: the Migrant Rues the Waves, where he at looked migration from historical times and how they have shaped modern discourse.
The host of the event was Prof. Muyiwa Falaiye, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts. Chairman and Chief-host was the Vice-Chancellor of the university, Prof Toyin Ogundipe, who came in shortly before Soyinka rounded off his keynote.
Emeritus Professor Banjo moderated the first plenary session tagged, ‘Reminiscences on J. P. Clark’.
The discussants included, Professors Izevbaye and Osundare and the poets, Tade Ipadeola and Oke Ikeogu.
The moderator, who was also the chairman of the plenary, started proceedings by highlighting the humanism of J. P. Clark.
The emeritus professor, a former vice chancellor of the University of Ibadan, said, “I have always enjoyed Clark’s literary works and essays.”
He mentioned Clark’s early essay, The Legacy of Caliban (in The Example of Shakespeare, 1970) as an exemplar work.
Professor Izevbaye reflected on the works of Clark through a critic’s lens.
The critic recalled how his own set at the University of Ibadan saw the beginning of African Literature through the first published works of the Kiagbodo-born writer.
He said, “we considered ourselves as a witness of a literary genesis.”
Izevbaye also lamented the way Clark is not recognised as much as his accomplishments demanded.
“People don’t appreciate him as much as his accomplishments required them to do,” he said.
Professor Osundare began his reflection by saying, “Clark showed us how to do it.”
He recalled his encounter with the poet’s works briefly in high school and much more in robust interactions in classes taken by professors Banjo and Izevbaye at the University of Ibadan during his undergraduate years in the late 60s and early 70s.
Osundare was elated that a deserving giant of African Literature was honoured with an International Conference, which not only celebrated him, but also reflected on his many works.
He further said he was delighted as programme like the International Conference foregrounds that “eulogy is better than elegy” as it is better to celebrate the greats while they are much more around. He commended the organisers of the conference for the recognition they gave the man of letters.
Ipadeola and Ikeogu, who won the Nigeria Prize for Literature sponsored by Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Limited differently in 2013 and 2017, also reminisced on Clark’s humanism as they each recalled their different encounters with him.
Ipadeola, especially said he got confidence in his poetry collection, Sahara Testament, which won the prize after he gave it to Clark, who not only read it, but made invaluable comments on the poems in the collection.
In his paper, Canon J.P Clark: A Personal Account, Ipadeola said, “I was lucky to have encountered Clark so early in life.
We have had giants walk among us long enough even if we do not always call them by their true names. JP Clark has cleared a swath.
Let those privileged to know him and his works rise, proud that he is and ever shall be, African, one of us.”
The co-convener of the conference, Professor Eghagha, rounded off the plenary with closing remarks.
Several high-profile scholars presented papers on the octogenarian.
There were 55 presentations in panels/roundtables that explored the theme, ‘Connecting the Local and Global Across Literary Genres’ in the four-day literary excursus.’
Delegates looked at the universe of Clark, the pristine and unsoiled natural, as well as human world of the Izon in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, which has shaped Clark’s writing.
“The rampaging and destructive politics of representation, the actions and inactions of oil and petro-chemical industries, multinationals, and imperialism and capitalism as well as irresponsible governance and the pseudo-modernity of contemporary Nigeria (read Africa) to sites outside the continent are captured in his work across genres,” as the conveners noted.
The papers proceeded from the immediate to the universal to capture the scope of J.P. Clark’s literary oeuvre. The conference was structured around plenaries on the different genres — drama, poetry, oral tradition, prose, film, music, and virtual realities.
In his paper, From Paradise to the Trysting Creeks: J.P. Clark-Bekederemo’s Poetic Expedition in Mortality, Nduka Otiono examined Clark’s metaphysical exploration of rites of passage and the various facets of ageing and dying from both African and Western perspectives.
While condemning the despoliation of the creeks through oil exploitation, he looked at the metaphysical aspects of life through mediation on death in works such as, The Company of the dead and A prayer.
Promise Adiele’s Masculinity in Chaos: Interrogating Gender Tensions in JP Clark’s Song of A Goat argued that male superiority is always in chaos each time a man, as husband, fails to fulfil either his social or biological function. Adiele noted that such failure would lead to tragic consequences in the family as well as the society at large.
In his paper entitled, Implication for Self and Other: JP Clark’s Casualties as National Memoir of War, Ndubuisi Martins Aniemeka’s focused on the poem as a memoir.
The paper concluded that Clark’s Casualties, beyond being a political record, is a memoir of war, whose dialectical implications are immense.
Tochukwu Okeke explored the scenic potentials in the staging of J.P. Clark’s Ozidi. In his paper titled, Designing J.P. Clark’s Ozidi: Challenge for the Scenic Artist, he created an ambience for the scenic artist in their exploration of modern staging techniques.
In her paper, Promoting Masculine Hegemony Through Humour: A Linguistic Analysis of Gender Stereotyping in The Wives Revolt, Akaenyi Nkiruka Jacinta sheds light on stereotypical patterns of representation of women in The Wives Revolt through the use of humour.
The four-day conference, no doubts, showcased the diversity of Clark’s writing.
When put under the spotlight, there is ample evidence of strong presence of Ijaw myths, legends, and religion, masks, pantomimes, drumming, and dancing alongside poetic dialogue.
Other highlights of the conference included the drama presentation.
For early career and established scholars alike, the conference offered an opportunity to build networks, exchange ideas, discuss ideas for books and other types of publication, participate in discussions and present work-in-progress.
“The conference will yield several publishing opportunities: abstracts, conference proceedings, and an edited book on Perspectives on JP Clark,” the conveners said.
Best known for his poetry, 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.
Born in Kiagbodo to an Ijaw father and Urhobo mother, Clark received his early education at the Native Authority School, Okrika (Ofinibenya-Ama) and Government College, Ughelli, and his BA degree in English at the University of Ibadan, where he edited various magazines, including the Beacon and The Horn.
Christened Johnson Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, but upon the publication of Song of a Goat (1961), his name was shortened to John Pepper Clark by the designer of the cover.
Clark-Bekederemo’s 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.’’
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.
He served for several years as a professor of English at the University of Lagos, a position from which he retired in 1980.