G’Ebinyo Ogbowei is the author of four books of poetry and the NLNG (Nigeria’s biggest literary prize) most recurrent longlisted person in the poetry category having been longlisted in the poetry category of the awards in every year of the genre’s rotation. In this interview with Su’eddie Vershima Agema, G’Ebinyo bares his mind on a lot of issues including the NLNG prize, his literary journey, the non-existent money that most people believe President Jonathan sent to him. Find excerpts:
Give us a background to the man, Ebinyo Ogbowei?
I was born July 19, 1955 in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. I am a native of Amatolo in the Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. This makes me an Ijaw of the Ogboin Clan. But from my early poetry any reader with background knowledge of this area would see that I draw from my Nembe Ijaw traditions. That’s because I’m culturally Nembe, having been raised by my maternal grandmother, a native of Brass, headquarters of the Brass Local Government Area of Bayelsa State.
I started my primary school education in Baptist Day School, Aggrey Road, Port Harcourt, but later transferred to Township School, Moscow Road, Port Harcourt where I finished in 1968. I had my secondary education at Federal Government College, Sokoto (1969 – 1973) and Federal Government College, Ikot Ekpene (1974 – 1976). I hold a B. A. (Hons) in English from the University of Lagos and an M. Phil. in African Literature from the University of Port Harcourt.
You mentioned somewhere that you are a late entrant into writing. What held you back and what is the story to your writing and publishing journey?
I started writing while at Federal Government College, Ikot Ekpene, nothing of that period survived. My first published poem appeared in Idoto, a literary magazine published by the Department of English, University of Ibadan. After that my poems appeared in The Nigerian Tide (now The Tide) and later in such journals as Okike, Matatu, Prism International, Ariel, Black American Literature Forum and Liwuram, mainly in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 2001 that my first collection let the honey run and other poems came out.
By the time I published that volume, younger poets like Remi Raji, a student I taught at Olivet Baptist High School, Oyo, were already established. If I’d had personal contact with Pa Okara and the late Prof Wilfried Feuser much, much earlier, my story would have been different. Exposure and mentoring are very critical, if a writer is to start early and produce quality works. I’m indebted to Prof Feuser, who read some of my poems and encouraged me, getting “the fisherman’s dilemma” published in Matatu. He also introduced me to other journals where my poems were published in the ’80s. I remain eternally grateful for that push.
As a Christian I don’t want to discuss the things that held me back. I rather would want to thank God that I’m now published and waxing strong.
How many books have you published so far and what has the writing experience been like?
The writing experience has been challenging. I have a lot I want to do now, because it’s already late afternoon. How much time do we have until nightfall when we’d be called to sleep? Virtually little or no time left!
With just five volumes, I can’t claim to have achieved much. Still we remain thankful to God for His grace and manifold blessings. Although I’m not yet on the reading list of Departments of English in universities at home and abroad, the few critical assessments of my works haven’t been bad. We’re still praying that the Father of lights would beam His light on my works and draw quality attention to them.
Your latest book, marsh boy and other poems is part of a trilogy. Let us in briefly on the trilogy, the story behind them and the latest collection.
marsh boy & other poems is the concluding segment of a trilogy that started with the heedless ballot box (2006). The second part of the trilogy is song of a dying river (2009). They’re all thematically linked, addressing two major problems – (1) environmental pollution that endanger our lives, threaten traditional sources of livelihood and quality of life; environmental pollution resulting from the unwholesome activities of companies like SPDC, AGIP, ELF, Chevron and Mobil, and (2) the human condition, dramatizing our proclivity to treachery and savagery as we heedlessly walk into the twilight.
Underpinning these poems is the crying need for love and compassion, which is deliberately ignored, radicalising and pushing the sufferer to embark on certain redemptive acts that drag society further down the road of self destruction.
On the surface it would appear that I support violence. Not true. I only tell the truth as I see it. And this brings me to the responsibility of the poet. Wilfred Owen insists, “All the poet can do … is warn”; that “the true poet must be truthful”. And by this, I believe, he means a dispassionate analysis of the human condition. True, the poet is a translator of the mood of his nation, doing this through the manipulation of words to reveal the deepest feelings, the deepest thoughts of his people whose spokesman he has become. But his responsibility goes beyond expressing their deepest feelings and thoughts.
My purpose in the trilogy, therefore, is to make sense of the human condition, to take a hard-headed look at the depravity in our society, to help it see a vision of possibilities of change for the better and the forces weighing against those possibilities. Having made this vision clear, it’s the obligation of the poet to nudge society in the direction of those possibilities. Whether readers apprehend this in my poetry, I doubt very much. May be I’ve not been very successful in revealing this. Only the critic can tell. Let’s be patient.
Much of the socially conscious, nationalistic poetry emerging from the Niger Delta of recent, beginning with the poetry of Ibiwari Ikiriko, has enabled us, as P. B. Shelley would argue, “to contemplate and measure the mighty cause and effect” of our troublous union. Although we all agree Nigeria has all the potentials of a great nation, we haven’t seen and can’t extol its strength and splendour, being victims relegated to the base and cursed to bear the burden of this unwieldy federation. In the poetry of Ikiriko as much as mine, our senses of history, contemporaneity and introspection are artfully combined to reveal the region’s disillusionment, for flag independence hasn’t enlarged freedom in the Niger Delta, but has resulted in political emasculation and economic privation. Our poetry demonstrates that ethnic identity lies at the core of the nation and determines the state’s definition and treatment of the individual. Contrary to popular expectations, the return of democratic rule has only produced chaos and empowered criminals and unprincipled opportunists. These are the painful truths the marsh boy grapples with. And it’s the responsibility of the poet to, through symbolic language, decode the ideology of double-speak and unmask the masquerades who manipulate language to deceive and tear society apart.
Poetry, unlike the other genres, being exceptionally brief, more evocative and graphic in its use of language, in its yoking together of disparate and dissonant elements, acts more directly on the senses, eliciting in the reader a novel perception of reality. In reconciling these dissonances, the reader comes to perceive new possibilities – the possibility of creating a society, a new federation out of a deeply divided and conflictive society. The poet harnesses the affective power of poetry to help society understand, organise and regulate conflict so that liberal democracy may thrive.
The NLNG is Nigeria’s biggest literary prize. You are a veteran of the competition having being long listed for the award a record three times. You have been on that long list every poetry year since the inception of that prize in 2005 (2005, 2009 and 2013). What are your views on having not gotten to the final list on the other occasions (the other one being the non-awarding of the list to any of the long listed writers)?
I’m trying to fathom why the NLNG Nigeria Literature Prize continues to elude me. I’ve been asking myself what’s wrong with my poetry. Is it the politics, the style or something with the delivery? May be a prude on the panel dislikes the vivid sexual details in some of the poems in midnight blues, the second section of the collection. God knows, but I won’t let that bother me. Like Prof Charles Nnolim pointed out, neither Wordsworth nor Shakespeare nor Keats won any literary award, yet they’re acknowledged masters of English Literature.
What about the father of free verse, Walt Whitman? He suffered discrimination on account of Leaves of Grass, which today is regarded as a classic. Did he win any laurels? But he grew in stature as a poet and patriot. Wole Soyinka wasn’t considered for the National Merit Award until he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
So why should I bother if the panellists overlook my work or misread my patriotic contributions to Nigerian Literature? I’ll keep writing, working hard to find my depth, to improve on my art. And I’d ask all my friends and fans not to let this bother them. What matters most is what history says about us fifty, sixty, a hundred years hence. I’ve survived discrimination by jaundiced, ethnically biased critics who won’t acknowledge some of us from the Niger Delta as worthy of their attention. Former students pursuing postgraduate studies in some universities outside this region report their bitter experiences – how they’re told to drop studies of our works for those of writers from the region in which the universities are situated. In the University of Ibadan, however, we’ve received favourable reception.
This brings us to the politics of literature in Nigeria. There are scholars who are openly antagonistic on account of ethnicity. Our engagement with environmental and nationality issues doesn’t go down well with them. If they could, they would kill the artistic expression and communal feelings of such an important geopolitical region as the Niger Delta. Whether such persons are on the NLNG panel is what I don’t know. If they are and bring their bias to bear on their reading of my poetry, that would be truly regrettable. And if you ask me, I’d suggest panellists be thoroughly screened, because intelligence some of us received before that 2009 fiasco doesn’t give us any confidence in … The NLNG Nigeria Literature Prize should reward excellence and not encourage ethnic balancing, whatever that means.
What’s your take on the NLNG competition generally?
What’s my take on the competition? Whatever I say now doesn’t matter. Nigeria is a funny country. Read my poems closely and you’d discover where I stand. And some of these poems are prophetic. Read the heedless ballot box, the town crier’s song and marsh boy. But I can say this: I’ll go on writing. I’ll go on telling the truth as I see it. I’ll go on discharging my duties as a poet and as a patriot. And, more than this, I’ll go on working to improve on my art.
Yes, I’ve been there thrice, each time shoved aside. Do I accept their judgement on my work? Not all. In 2005, go take a critical look at the works that were adjudged winners, none of them is better than let the honey run and other poems. Check its highly figurative language, imagery, symbolism, lyricism, etc. Its production isn’t worse than any of those works. If anything, it’s better than one of them, the other coming out of the Kraft Books stable being on par with it.
Let’s leave this NLNG wahala. I don’t want to be accused of being a sore loser. And I don’t see myself as a loser at all. As you saw in 2009, those guys lied and awarded the prize to themselves, to the Nigerian Academy of Letters that didn’t contest. Read their report and you’d see that they read only the first section of song of a dying river and hastily wrote a statement that flies in the face of poetic facts. Whether it was the same for the others, I don’t know.
Talking of 2009, you were among the nine shortlisted poets in that year’s controversial NLNG literary awards (alongside Hyginus Ekwuazi, Musa Idris Okpanachi, Lindsay Barrett, Ademola DaSylva, Nengi Josef Ilagha, Ahmed Maiwada, Odoh Diego Okenyodo, and Omo Uwaifo). What’s your take in particular on the decision of the judges not to give out the prize to any of the writers based on lack of quality among any of the works?
How can you organise a pageant and, having pruned down the number to ten, turn around to tell the public none of the contestants is beautiful enough to be declared winner? That would be dishonest, won’t you say? Such things can happen only in Nigeria where PHCN compels you to pay for its incompetence and sickening corruption; where applicants are tricked into paying all sorts of fees for university admissions they know they’re most unlikely to be offered.
Talking of prizes, you jointly won the Isaac Adaka Boro prize for Niger Delta Literature in 2008 with Ebi Yeibo. What was the feeling like winning the award and what’s your take generally on literary prizes?
I don’t write for prizes, despite the accruing economic benefits and publicity. This explains why I’ve not bothered to enter my works for the ANA prizes. The NLNG Nigeria Literature prize is a different kettle of fish.
People would ask, If so, why the little known Isaac Adaka Boro Prize for Niger Delta Literature? Isaac Adaka Boro is the foremost Ijaw hero. I started the prize in my first stint as chairman, ANA Bayelsa with the support of Chief Timi Alaibe. Our hope then was to get the Bayelsa State Government to take over the prize, incorporating it into the annual Isaac Boro Day celebrations. This hasn’t happened, because those managing the affairs of the state have been less than patriotic. Isaac Boro Day isn’t much about immortalising Isaac Adaka Boro as it is about looting the treasury, playing on the patriotic sentiments of ordinary Ijaws. With much fanfare, millions were squandered in a tribal ritual of exhuming from an unmarked grave in Lagos and reburying in Yenagoa bones that haven’t been forensically verified to be those of Isaac Adaka Boro.
But, if we may ask, where are the structures in Kaiama, or the laudable youth programmes initiated in that community to immortalise him? There’s no chair in NDU, or Nsukka where he studied, to commemorate his noble struggle and ideals. Nothing! And I agree with the Northern Governors who insist we should account for the 13% before we come asking for more in our misguided agitation for resource control.
Apart from writing, you have been involved in literary politics rising to the post of Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors (Bayelsa chapter). What was the experience like and what’s your view of literary associations in Nigeria?
Literary politics indeed! Bitter-sweet. I’m an emotional person with strong beliefs. Once I believe in an ideology or vision, I hold on to it tenaciously. I didn’t go into ANA for what I could get for myself, and didn’t exploit the position to advance my personal agenda. Thank God, I met young men and women who shared my passion and vision. With their support we made modest accomplishments. We could’ve achieved more, but allowed petty jealousies, bickering and suspicions to tear us apart and waste our efforts. Certain members of the Association, one of them a member of the exco, derived demonic joy in sowing suspicion and distrust that divided the exco. Why he did that I can’t say.
My second coming wasn’t been as acrimonious as the first that saw the exco pitted against our pioneer chairman, Nengi Josef Ilagha, who is my cousin. He was Special Adviser to the Governor, Chief D. S. P. Alamieyeseigha, whose government could have done much for the Association, if only we had creatively harnessed this relationship. Nengi is a great organiser and dreamer, with lofty dreams for ANA. We lost all of that due to infighting.
My second tenure was supposed to correct some of the mistakes of the past, but ANA Bayelsa was by now so factionalised that those who should have helped move the Association forward were no more attending meetings. The cheering news is that Mrs Bina Nengi Ilagha returned to the fold and served as Vice Chairman. She availed ANA of her wealth of experience. Unfortunately, towards the tail end of our tenure, she was involved in a keke accident and couldn’t … She’s such a fine person to work with, frugal, soft-spoken and cheerful.
If in my first tenure we were able to rent a 2-bedroom apartment as office for the Association, which we moderately furnished, our second tenure secured a parcel of land for the Association. The Monthly Readings we started are still ongoing. The aim was to take literature to the villages, involving the SS 1 – 3 Literature students of the local secondary schools.
Literary associations like ANA are useful and should be encouraged. But they’re only as useful as their individual members. If fraudsters and opportunists are in its exco, then it’s no use. Literary associations should be strong advocacy groups advancing the cause of writers and Literature.
What’s your view of contemporary writing in Nigeria? What do you think the role of writers should be in contemporary Nigeria?
Contemporary writing in Nigeria is doing well. We’re witnesses to a thriving literary culture in Nigeria. What we should discourage is the politicisation of Nigerian Literature, the promotion of the interests or literature of a particular region or ethnic group at the expense of others. We should use Literature to promote social integration, not division. I want to see a situation where writers from, say, Imo collaborate with those from Rivers and Bayelsa to promote not just Literature and literacy, but our shared history and culture. After all, a lot of us from Rivers and Bayelsa have mothers and wives from Imo, Anambra, Abia, etc. We have cousins, uncles, aunts, in-laws and very close friends and business associates from these Ibo states, yet pretend we’re different. So, if you ask me, writers should be in the vanguard of creating a new Nigeria.
In the same vein, I’d encourage writers from the South-South to explore the political alliance between the North and the geographic, not political, Niger Delta to advance the development of Literature and a virile reading culture in the two regions. Incidentally, these are the two educationally most disadvantaged regions in Nigeria. We can also bring in writers and NGOs from abroad interested in these regions to help drive this project.
If we assert ourselves, if we’re doing the things we’re naturally endowed to do, I don’t see why people in Government would engage historians or political scientists to write their memoirs or biographies, a business that naturally falls to us. As persons gifted with a deep understanding of human nature, which we shrewdly display in our portrayal of characters and profoundly complex human crises, there’s no reason why our members shouldn’t be first choice in the constitution of panels and committees such as the one that was headed by the MOSOP leader, Ledum Mitee, on the Niger Delta. Seeing that Governor Chibuike Amaechi is a lover of the arts and a moving force behind the Garden City Book Fair, one would have thought that President Jonathan would’ve approached ANA to mediate in the face off between him and the Rivers State Governor. Rather, we saw Bishops engaged in a conciliation effort that was doomed to fail, because they’re not trained to read mood and decode language, especially double-speak and body language.
Who doesn’t know that the Chief Servant of Niger State, Governor Babangida Aliyu, is a patron of ANA, one of its main backers? If he’s one of the pillars of the New PDP, who best to employ to arbitrate, to persuade him to return with his group to the PDP family than ANA?
You had a launch for Marsh Boy and other poems let us in on the day and your views of book launches, presentations and the like.
The public presentation of marsh boy & other poems took place on June 15. A lot of people think I’m now a multi-millionaire. How disappointed they’d be to hear that I’m yet to settle some debts emanating from that programme! Yes, the President, His Excellency, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, who was Special Guest of Honour, sent a representative who came without the envelope or cheque. I’ve made several calls, sent text messages and e-mails, but e be like say de money don enter voice mail, like we’d say in Pidgin. So, may be you’ll help me appeal to Mr. President, tell am say Ogbowei neva get de money wen him send o.
Forgive my use of Pidgin, which, incidentally, is my first language, growing up in Port Harcourt in the late ‘50s and ‘60s and having lived there until 2007. It remains the major language of the oil city till today.
Unless you’re a politician, or well connected to the very big players in Nigerian politics, you should forget book launch. Those who come make pledges they don’t intend to keep. Some very dishonest ones even give you dud cheques. We bring our hypocrisy and criminality into the open. It’s a way of life, and we preen and gleefully display our criminal emptiness and duplicity. Regrettably, these charlatans and scoundrels see themselves as artists and not as a scourge or affliction society should purge itself of.
Whatever it is, I’ve learnt to be patient. For, as the Hausa proverb goes, he who is in the house waiting for an august visitor will not get tired or develop waist pain. Let’s patiently wait, because I’m confident the envelope will eventually arrive.
What do you think can be done to improve the literary sector in Nigeria?
I’ve addressed some of the problems facing the Nigerian writer. There are a lot of fine writers out there – young, with fertile imagination and doggedly determined to succeed. Mentoring and enlightened encouragement are vital. Look at young Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Do you think she would have turned out to be this celebrity we know today if she hadn’t grown up on UNN campus?
In addition to this is the need for young writers to be talking to more experienced practitioners in ANA or some other body, who would look at their evolving writing and advise them. Such young writers need a father/mother figure that would nurture and give direction to their creative impulse. It should go beyond just reading one’s work to an audience who respond, making recommendations for improvement here and there. One is looking at a situation where the young writer is also taught some of the basic rules on style, creating and developing believable characters and setting that are real, etc. This mentor is like the master artist who teaches his promising student technique and the skilful use of tools (brushes and paint). Whipping up his passion and desire, he encourages him to find his depth, discover that unique quality that would distinguish him among the accomplished writers of his nation. He also has the added responsibility of linking his protégé to a reputable publisher.
When we talk of the Ibadan or Nsukka School, what do we really mean? Various schools exist today – for example, the Abuja School, the Elechi Amadi School, which is what the Port Harcourt School is, and the Yenagoa School with Ebi Yeibo, Sophia Obi-Apoko, Lambert Ototo, Akpos Adesi, Ben Benabai and I as the main practitioners. But can we truly say there are specific ground rules or theories we’ve developed to guide the development of the literature coming out of our respective domains? I doubt very much.
The other problem is that of publishing. Our elders like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, J. P. Clark-Bekederemo, Gabriel Okara, Cyprian Ekwensi and Flora Nwapa had their palm kernels cracked for them by the gods, to borrow an Ibo proverb made popular by Achebe. Publishers looked for them and marketed their works. Not so the younger generation. Most of those masquerading as publishers today are nothing but printers or glamorised middlemen. They offer no editorial services essential to the production of well-written novels, plays or poetry collections. They know next to nothing about page planning, the art that transforms the book into a work of art.
And this brings us to the problem of illustration. Look at the area of Children’s Literature, which I teach. Most of those parading themselves as writers in this genre know they’re not honest. I read a collection of poems for juveniles written by a renowned Nigerian poet and laughed. You deny our children quality nursery rhymes and juvenile literature, which we enjoyed, and feed their young minds gibberish that do not excite their young imagination, expose them to the beauty of lyrical language, etc. that we find in those beautifully illustrated imported books, which we and our younger ones read in school.
How can Nigerian Literature improve if we continue to politicise everything; if all we think about is how much would come into our pockets, or how much our ethnic group would gain from this warped and fraudulent educational policy? We should be honest. And ANA should help drive the educational policy of this country. I’ll raise this matter with the ANA President. We can’t remain in the background and let civil servants, many of them neither civil nor patriotic, destroy everything we hold dear. And what’s dearer to us than our children? Your problem mightn’t be the self-serving politician as much as the corrupt, cringing, and calculating civil servant, who keeps billions of Naira of Police Pension Funds in his bedroom.
There’s so much to be done, and we all need to come together to improve Nigerian Literature. Let’s not leave it to the politicians and civil servants. ANA should put aside petty jealousies, ethnicity and primordial connections that have fractured this nation and concentrate on the one business that continues to project Nigeria as a leader in Africa – Literature.
World security challenges and dangers of terrorism hit closer recently when we lost a revered poet, Kofi Awoonor. Anything to say concerning him, his death and the circumstances?
Ah, the death of Prof Kofi Awoonor. This is the sad side of war. For, as Siegfried Sassoon points out in “Aftermath”, “War’s a bloody game”. The tragedy of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya forcefully drives home this point. War, of whatever colouration, always brings out the beast in us.
The death of Kofi Awoonor also reminds us of the seamy side of African politics – its grisly, rapacious aspect that has resulted in a Somalia that threatens the stability of the Horn of Africa; a Zaire where warlords sponsored by Uganda and Rwanda are more powerful that the state; a fractured Sudan that continues to intimidate and terrorize its citizens and neighbour to the south; and a Mali, that until the intervention of France, was a safe haven and training ground for Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. Boko Haram fighters are believed to have gone there and to Somalia for training. The politics of plunder and murder must stop if we hope to avoid such senseless slaughter of innocents.
- The Worldhood of the World: the Menacing Vision of Su’eddie Vershima Agema (sueddie.wordpress.com)
- FRESH AIR, LIFE AND WRITING: A MOST REWARDING CONVERSATION WITH NSIRIM by Su’eddie Vershima Agema (sevhagereviews.wordpress.com)
- Ogbeni Femi, and the future of Yoruba oral performance (africainwords.com)
- Investigation on Concrete Poetry (garrytheman.wordpress.com)
- Poets Dream of Peace in Afghanistan (noahsprojectblog.wordpress.com)