Taking Poetry off the Pages: A Glimpse of 2015 Lagos International Poetry Festival

The Centre of Excellence once again showed off its beautiful colours during the 2015 Lagos International Poetry Festival which kicked off on October 28 and ended with terrific dance lessons from Qudus Onikeku on the first of November. This event, the first of its kind in West Africa, was directed by renowned Nigerian spoken word artist, Efe Paul Azino.
For those who missed it, here is a glimpse:

Christopher Okigbo: Guilty or not guilty?

It is the second day of the Lagos International Poetry Festival. The University of Lagos venue assumes a literary ambience as lovers of literature find their way to the J.P Clark Centre, Faculty of Arts. The hall is steaming with poetic voices palpitating in different tongues of appreciation, love, humour and some anger. Nigerian-born poet and performer, Titilope Sonuga, is here to teach a master class on poetry and poetry performance. Learning to be honest, she says, is the basis for good poetry. The poet must be true to self and convinced about their diction. She describes poetry as unravelling, revealing and stripping oneself open, and in explaining this, she introduces a method she calls ‘Open’. After reciting a poem following the pattern she described, she gives the audience a writing exercise, asking them to write poems ‘where something opens up to something which opens up to another and on and on until there is nothing left to be opened’. This is received with enthusiasm as participants write and read their poems which are, by turns, discussed. It turns out fun; more hands waved hoping to be called out to read their works, but Titilope, regretfully, brings the class to an end. Efe Paul Azino appears to announce the beginning of another session – the one everyone has been waiting for.

Prof J. P Clark walks in and his grey hair almost matches the shirt he wears. He is followed by a small entourage: a woman wearing glasses and a short grey weave on her hair with dress made from similar fabric to Clark’s and lips drawn to a smile; Chuma Nwokolo, almost overshadowing the Prof in his full height – his grey hair in contrast with the design printed in red on his shirt with matching Kaftan trousers, and the performance poet, Iquo Diana Abasi Eke, whose careful strides across the room seem to be rehearsing a poem. Her natural dark braids seemed to have missed the meeting where everyone else’s hair agreed to be grey. Efe Paul introduces Prof J.P. Clark as writer, poet and forefather of African poetry. He mentions J. P. Clark’s wife, Prof Ebun Clark, and introduces Chuma Nwokolo as moderator of the session. Chuma Nwokolo and J. P. Clark take their seats amid roars of applause from the audience. The session kicks off with a solemn rendition of Clark’s timeless piece The Casualties by South African poet Natalie Molebatsi.

Soon, session moderator, Chuma Nwokolo, in his baritone; one arm raised in the air, throws the charge to the audience: Guilty or not guilty? But of what offence, one may ask?

The issue of the poet’s or writer’s place in times of national crisis remains a crucial one. Christopher Okigbo is a Nigerian poet, who in 1969, abandoned his pen and plunged into the battlefield; where he met his end. Chuma Nwokolo puts the question to J.P Clark: Was Okigbo wrong for following his conviction and joining the Biafran army? J. P. Clark, whose voice was initially low, gives out a loud shriek at this point. He argues that his ‘friend’ was already flourishing in writing, which was his business and not fighting. He tries to distinguish between political action and military action: a poet or writer can be involved in the political process of his nation through writing, but should withdraw from military involvement which, he argues, is not the business of the writer/poet.

Prof JP Clark and Chuma Nwokolo in Conversations with JP Clark at University of Lagos, JP Clark Centre. Credit: Lagos International Poetry Festival Facebook page.

Chuma Nwokolo decides to carry the audience along. ‘Guilty or not guilty?’ Voices rise in protest and agreement. What then should poets do in the face of war? Natalia Molebatsi wonders. By writing, a writer has already engaged in an act of revolution, J. P. Clark convinces her even before the moderator comes in. It is apparent this poet who wrote the classic poem – The Causalities – is yet to forget the sad memories of not just the war, but of his friend’s involvement in the battle. ‘War is not the business of untrained poets who are useful in their own area,’ he emphasises; in the manner of an elderly man who, having witnessed so much, advises his exuberant children whose zealousness may land them in unprepared-for trouble. ‘The business of war is a total waste,’ he continues; his face and voice coming alive with memories. Millions of young men and woman are eventually forgotten, to what end, really? But Chuma Nwokolo is persistent; is writing alone enough? The writer has his business and it is not taking up arms as war is meant for trained soldiers; Okigbo was not a trained soldier, but a poet, Clark explains. Both the writer (poet) and the soldiers are essential; without anthems, he adds, soldiers cannot march and who writes these anthems? Clark insists that Christopher Okigbo, is guilty and will remain so, for abandoning his art and ending his life at the warfront.

At this point, I think of my interview with Chuma Nwokolo where he said ‘when your roof begins to burn, there is a moment of decision whether to reach for the pen and write a novel on fire, or seek water’. If J.P. Clark insists that military action is not the best option for the poet or writer, in what direct ways then can his works quench the fire without taking his life?

Does poetry make any difference?

For these lovers of Okigbo and literature, the burden of the question gathers them together again on the third day of the festival, this time at the monumental Freedom Park on Broad Street, Lagos Island. Among pictures and sculptors of historical significance, voices rise in communion; seeking solution to a plague that affects them all – the seeming diminishment of poetry’s role in society. Does poetry make any difference? Are poets merely witnesses or legislators? At the end of the microphone, as moderator again, is Chuma Nwokolo with South African, Lebo Mashile and Nigerians, Akeem Lasisi, Chijioke Amu-nnadi and Dike Chukwumerije as panellists.

Dike Chukwumerije thinks that for poetry to be able to make significant difference in government, poets must go beyond satisfying themselves; they must listen to the society and speak honestly to them through their works. Amu-nnadi argues that at the end, it becomes ‘a measure of the choices we make.’ According to him, some people may simply choose not to read and that even the process of putting people in government ennobles those who do not understand poetry. Chuma adds that the system can be changed. He mentions the Bribe code; an anti-corruption campaign led by him and urges all to be part of it by signing up at
Beyond cleansing the system, Akeem Lasisi explains how people are more affected when they can relate easily with what is done. Collaboration, for him, is one way poetry can reach and affect more people, which would, in turn, effect change. He talks of collaboration between poets and singers, poets and rap artists, movie actors, any meaningful collaboration that takes poetry off the pages of a book. Lebo Mashile concurs.

Chuma Nwokolo and Lebo Mashile in the panel: Witnesses or Legislators: Does Poetry Make any Difference? Credit: Lagos International Poetry Festival Facebook page

There is a need to find a balance between what is popular and what is traditional, she comments, ‘collaborating and working across media is essential’ and for poetry to make a difference, it must be remembered. She implores the audience to engage in the archiving of literary activities in Africa so as to ensure that these works are accessible and live on even after their authors are long gone. Chuma Nwokolo concludes the session with this poignant remark about modern avenues for saving and utilizing literature. ‘Cook it, take a photo of it, put it on instagram, record it and then eat it.’

Discussion continues: Technology and Art (Poetry)

The audience disperse in groups, dissecting Chuma Nwokolo’s last words. Few hours after, Dami Ajayi, Nigerian poet, comes to their rescue by moderating another session with Chuma Nwokolo, Nigerian A.J Dagga Tolar and Ugandan Nick Makoha, as panellists. Titilope Sanuga joins them later on. AJ Dagga Tolar, poet and founder of AJ House of Poetry, on discussing poetry and technology/social media asks, ‘how realistic is the revolution on Twitter?’ He argues that the process of rebirthing the society is beyond digitization; organization is paramount and ideas must be there before tweeting. But Nick Makoha thinks that digitisation is fundamental. He talks about accessibility of books online via platforms such as Amazon. The book itself is technology, he adds. The processes involved in bringing it to life are technological. Dami Ajayi further questions the panellists on how to do away with the ‘distracting nature of the internet;’ how much time should a writer spend online? Chuma Nwokolo believes there is a difference between research time, when the writer is on the internet and writing time, when he is off the internet and writing. Nick Makoha says it would not be so difficult to decide as long as one is able to identify what they are using the internet for. AJ Dagga Tolar, however, advises young writers to take time off the internet and work towards improving their skills, ‘time provides growing expertise,’ he adds.

The panel discussion; Verses in Bits and Bytes: How Technology is Changing Poetry at Freedom Park. Credit: Lagos International Poetry Festival Facebook page.

The conversation on arts and technology ends with the agreement that whether traditional or digital, archiving of literary activities in Africa is key.

Borderless Words: The Concert (Day 1)

Change is not all that poetry represents. Sometimes, what a person wants is an evening in an enclosed space with air-conditioners cooling off the day’s stress as they listen to words and watch performances from people who are only a little less powerful than the gods.

Wana Wana’s sweet-singing voice and Nick Makoha’s reverberating spirit thrilled the audience to no end. And just when we think we have seen it all, Natalia Molebatsi comes on, raging gently – passionate and appealing; Dike Chukwumerije’s eccentric and orgasmic performance; musical Jumoke Verrisimo, and Sage Hassan throwing everyone off their seats in laughter. But there is Chuma Nwokolo, powerful, humourous and satirical. So we are laughing and thinking until Titilope Sonuga comes on stage; solemn and profound, the audience see themselves in every line and Inua Ellams, somehow reminds us of the streets or that life we think we have forgotten, with Lebo Mashile throwing the black history to our faces. Chijioke Amu-nnadi comes offerring a befitting catharsis in his dual performance with Natalia Molebatsi – the violists notes, Natalia’s mime and Amu-nnadi’s words, a cacophony that finally transports our souls off Muson Centre, Lagos. And we do not wish to return.

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