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My poetry is a reflection on the intimacy of evil – Ogaga Ifowodo

Ogaga Ifowodo, (Ph.D) taught poetry at the Texas State University in the US before he took up appointment as the commissioner representing Delta State in the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC. The renowned poet and author of several poetry collections is shortlisted for the 2017 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature for his collection, A Good Mourning. He speaks about this book, the prize, his detention by the Abacha government and his foray into politics.

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What is the sensation like being on the shortlist of the NLNG Nigeria Literature Prize, especially as the announcement of the winner draws nearer?

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That I might be the winner – but is that a feeling or sensation? Just that the wait will soon be over, I suppose.

There were criticisms of the longlist for the 2017 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature. But the critics have gone silent since the shortlist was announced. Do you think the criticisms were fair to start with?

I never followed the criticisms, which, I understand, were mostly on social media platforms, so I don’t know which might have been valid and which were totally misplaced. At any rate, I’m glad to know that the critics have ceased fire since the shortlist was announced! 

How important is the prize to poets in Nigeria considering how much poetry, as an art, has suffered in the hands of both poets and those who read them?

It is not clear to me how poetry has suffered in the hands of poets themselves, not to mention those who read them, but I’m quite certain that the prize is important to poets as to Nigerian literature in general. Literary prizes are a way of validating writers who, more often than not, labour in obscurity, and sometimes penury. The attention that a prize brings to a writer – and in this instance of the NLNG prize, a poet – becomes by the same token attention to his or her work. And literature, to the extent that it is a socially produced thing and so reflects its society, its world, can be one of the more enduring ways of empowering the poet’s more humane vision of his society. 

Your book, A Good Mourning, plays on an everyday expression but in a wickedly witty manner and the poems in the collection are at once introspective and playful as they tackle serious issues. How hard was it to work this playfulness into the collection?

Considerably hard, because one has to be careful not to let the ludic or playful moments take away from the solemnity of the experiences and thoughts that form the subjects of the poems. In each case, the extent of playfulness was determined by the experience or impulse of the poem in question. I’m afraid this makes it seem very practical, as if one can know, before or even while writing, the precise extent to which humour would be a vehicle of giving fuller expression to the thought or feeling that spawned the poem. I guess the difficulty lies in listening to one’s inner ear and ensuring that any playfulness does not make the poem tone-deaf to its inner or inspiring reality – by which I mean the experience of the poem as grasped and re-presented by the poet. 

What was the inspiration for the collection?

The core poems of the collection are differing instances of my reflections on the intimacy of evil. At the personal level – that is, of the dramatis personae – the title poem, which is about the June 12, 1993 political catastrophe, recalls the tragic drama of betrayal by a friend. I think I more explicitly explore this theme in “A Rwandan Testimony” where a traumatized friend tries to confess to murdering his childhood friend and her two children before an imaginary truth and reconciliation panel but is led to the conclusion that evil or what menaces the world, that which “secretes the slow brooks of bitter blood” resides in an “auxiliary organ hitched to every heart.” This thought began in my mind when I visited the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1999, as a guest of the German PEN Centre to that year’s international PEN Congress in Warsaw. One of the poems in an anthology of poems written by inmates which I bought there expressed the view that if Auschwitz had been in England, there would have been willing English men and women to do the biddings of (the English version of) Hitler. And, of course, there have been many books on the phenomenon of ordinary, supposedly innocent, citizens as collaborators in the evil of pogroms, ethnic cleansing and other horrendous persecutions of stigmatised groups and communities. Usually, it is a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, who betrays him or herself first, and then humanity. Having published my reflections on the Auschwitz visit in the poem “Where is the World’s Most Infamous Plot?” about four years after, I knew that I would return to that troubling question.  In the result, the tragedy of June 12, 1993, provided the unhappy inspiration for the collection.  

In that regards, how important do you think poetry is to the preservation of memory especially of a struggle like June 12, which you touched on in your collection?

Very, very important. Those who cannot remember the past, the philosopher George Santayana, famously warned, are doomed to repeat it. And closer home, we are all familiar with the aphorism on the importance of knowing “where the rain began to beat us.” Poetry as the literary form that exalts the most in mnemonic devices – repetition, rhyme, rhythm, imagery, not to mention economy of words – is for that reason a perfect vehicle for the preservation of memory. 

How much of a validation would winning this prize be for you?

I can’t say. It will no doubt be quite considerable, considering the growing interest it has been generating, many thanks to the prize money! In a different context, in Europe and America, for instance, a prize like the NLNG Nigeria literature prize would instantly catapult its winner to global literary fame. But that is due to a long-established culture of respect for writers, writing and books – in short, for intellectual labour – with institutions dedicated to promoting its value. 

In Nigeria, unfortunately, the cultural infrastructure to optimise the validation conferred by a prize was not only weak to start with, but is now in total shambles. It is going to require even more interventions that go beyond prizes – radical interventions, for instance, in the educational sector, the book publishing industry and in the revaluation of cultural work – to be able to speak of the true extent of validation conferred by a literary prize in Nigeria. 

You have been known as an activist for many years and were at some point detained by the Abacha government. Was prison life important to your writing life? Has it inspired any works from you?

It has. The poems I wrote in prison are part of my second collection, Madiba. Moreover, excerpts from my detention memoirs, more than half complete, have been published – in the seminal anthology Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing, edited by the poet Jack Mapanje; in the New Writing Anthology NW 14, published by Granta in collaboration with the British Council, and on the online platform african-writing.com. It is one of the works-in-progress that I hope to bring to fruition next year.  

We look forward to reading them. What are your thoughts on the state of poetry in Nigeria at present? Do you think the volume of work being produced has the required quality to define a critical period such as this?

I think that poetry is very much alive and well in Nigeria, as well as in any other epoch. It is, of course, the case that the number of books published anywhere and in any genre is never matched by their quality. It is precisely why prizes, among other means, act as literary gate-keepers or arbiters of taste. I liken this to panning for gold: a horde of “miners” and a great deal of dross, but few and far between the lucky instances of gold nuggets!   

Your foray into politics in 2014, aspiring to be a legislator, proved futile. Could you tell us what happened? And from your experience how different would you say poetry and politics are?

Simply, I lost. Because I had no money. When I solicited donations, as little as N10,000, as is done in more respectable climes (though I doubt I can use this word with what happened in the United States of Trump and with Brexit in mind), I was mocked as being unsuitable for the office I sought: “He doesn’t even have a kobo, and he wants to run for the House of Representatives!” What happened was that my opponent, arrested a few days before the primary election by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on suspicions of being a 419 scammer, was released on the very day of the election and escorted by a police convoy into the arena, with him waving triumphantly to the delegates from the back of a pick-up van. 

On the strength of tall promises of personal rewards in cash and kind – and, as I heard, of even flying some delegates to Dubai – he beat me hands down. Only for him to disappear the very next day. Such that the party leaders summoned me back from the United States where I had gone to lick my wounds to return home so I might be substituted for the victorious flagbearer who, curiously, was never seen nor heard from again, until he learnt of efforts to substitute my name for his. Well, that didn’t happen, INEC’s window for substituting candidates having closed by that time. 

As for the difference between poetry and politics? Between night and day, I’d say! Two totally different preoccupations and I don’t think this needs to be explained beyond saying that one is entirely an activity of the mind, practiced most often in the solitude of contemplation, while the other is the most public of human activities, where the mind, or more precisely, mindlessness, of others, determines the outcome. 

Oh, one more thing: you don’t need money to write a poem, while money is just about the only thing you need to have any hope of being taken seriously as a politician. At least, as tends to be the case generally with the brand of electioneering politics we practice in Nigeria. I hope that changes very soon. 

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