Category Archives: Essays
Kano State is one of the largest centres of literature in Nigeria, with a significant number of youth who are writing in both indigenous and foreign languages. The state produced numerous talented poets and great writers such as Akilu Aliyu, Bashari Farouk Roukbah, Sheikh Na’ibi Sulaiman Wali, Bashir Othman Tofa, Professor Abdulkadir Dangambo, Professor Aliyu Kamal, Dr Yusuf M. Adamu, Bala Anas Babinlata, Ado Ahmad G/Dabino, Balaraba Ramat, Hafsat Abdulwahid and many Young writers such as Nazir Adam Salih, Fauziyya D. Sulaiman and Muhammad Lawal Barista. These people produce master pieces that help in the broadening and strengthening of our culture and tradition. It shows our power of creativity and initiatives that could be utilised anywhere in the world. With this good start, one could understand the readiness of our writers to take the leading role in literary development in the country and beyond.
It is unfortunate that writing and writers remain uncelebrated in Kano. Anywhere in the world the medium to recognise and encourage the works of people is celebrating them in order to inspire the young ones, and also organise special programmes where the related activities would be discussed. I don’t think the people in authority don’t know the merit of supporting the creative writing which is now being overtaken by youth. They are also aware of the consequences of underutilising and not supporting these potentialities of the teeming youth who are looking for the support of our elites.
As I mentioned earlier Kano state is blessed with writers who are writing in the indigenous Hausa language. This attract large market from other states, it even goes beyond West African countries to some parts of Europe. Despite the fact this is to the advantage of the state as it helps in preserving it culture and booming the economy when utilised. What I mean here is that many young writers who are gifted and brilliant were recognised but underutilised, basically because they lack means to publish their works, or even attend fora and workshops that could help them in reshaping their creativity. I know writers Associations in Kano such as ANA are doing their best to promote these young writers, but it goes beyond their capacity. It is a gigantic project that needs a lot of resources. In the 1930s up to the late 70s the northern government invested a lot of resources in the area of literature development. Writers of those days were sponsored to produce novels and books that benefited our country, such as Ruwan Bagaja, Shehu Umar, Magana Ja rice, Idon Matambayi, Kitsen Rogo, Uwar Gulma, Matar Mutum Kabarinsa, So Aljannar Duniya and so on. Prizes were awarded to them for job well done, which motivated them to produce relevant materials that are in line with our culture and tradition.
Why the contemporary young writers are neglected, it is the duty of the whole society to support them so that their creativity can be seriously utilised for our own collective good. I cannot say everything concerning the problems of literature and the way out in this state, but it is pertinent for the Kano state government to look at the issue critically. I knew when the Kano state Governor, Engineer Dr.Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso was preparing to take the mantle of leadership had set a transition committee on Kano State Censorship Board to advise appropriately. This is the board that is duly responsible for anything that has to do with writers and film industry in Kano. I hope the committee has taken note of the previous administrations mistake, where much attention was given to film industry at the detriment of literature development.
I therefore strongly advice that the state government should pay attention to the area of literature development. No doubt literature is related to our education system, because it encourages reading culture among the younger generation. It is obvious that, no generation would develop when young people of that society lack interest in reading. The poor academic performance in our various schools is quite related to an endemic poor reading habit.
It is good if Kano state government through its Kano State Censorship Board organises programmes that would lead to the utilisation of our teeming writers in the state. This can be possible by organising annual prizes on good write-ups that promote culture, tradition and the religion of our people. The programme should help in re-orienting our society by inculcating good values.
The state should organise book fairs and workshops for writers annually, when these are done the young writers in the state would be empowered. The workshops would give room for enhancing their works to tally with the demand of modern world and our society. Organising book fairs is equally important as a means of displaying the product of creativity in our state. Whenever we meet in the national convention of the Association of Nigerian Authors, other writers from the other parts of the countries are amaze to hear the high number of writers, including women who write in the indigenous language. Therefore organising book fair annually would help in promoting and publicising their works.
Another area that I feel needs a serious support is the area of sponsorship, although sponsorship here may be in many stages. It could be sponsoring young writers to produce good manuscripts for publications; it could also be sponsoring their activities. Supporting young writers is a collective responsibility from government, banks, multi-national companies, and non-governmental organisations.
But the truth of the matter is that government should take a leading role, by being the agency for decision making, law and order; it has a vital role to play in the implementation process. Kano State Censorship Board is taking the responsibility of censoring what comes from our writers, but sincerely speaking, it must go beyond that. They should also participate in the promotion of literature; because we have all the ingredients to develop the sector. If in the 1930s, wonderful stories could be developed, why not this 21st Century when the agents of development are everywhere and our lives unfolding in drama.
Another very important area that needs government intervention is the establishment of writers’ village in the state. Recently the Kano state Governor announced his intention to establish a Film Institute. This to us is a welcome development and a good initiative that will enhance the role of Kanywood. Writers’ village would also serve a similar purpose, because it will give room for writers in the state and beyond to develop good creative works.
Finally in this world that is increasingly globalised, it is very important to recognise the value of improving our literature. We have to build on the knowledge of our local community, in order to cope with the globalisation and maintain our relevance. We have to read a lot, and learn to copy from others so that the good things in others can be aped and utilised. This is the only way we can penetrate the international market. I am therefore calling the young writers to read everything that comes their way, because that is where the foundation of their ambition lies. Fiction is more truthful than fact.
Zaharaddeen Ibrahim Kallah is the Branch Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors Kano State Branch
Generally, if the words “film industry” or “cinema culture” are being bandied about, it is assumed that Hollywood films are the topic of conversation. However, since the early 90s, two countries have eclipsed the number of films in production by the Hollywood machine. India, which churns out upwards of 3000 films per year is the world leader in film production. The Bollywood industry is the leader in film output as well, far outdistancing all other countries. The second country at the top of the film production leader board is Nigeria. Though its output is smaller, the actual number of films in production, in what has become known as Nollywood, places Nigeria at the center of a new hotbed of film creation.
The largest film industry in Africa, Nollywood, primarily produces work for the home video and straight-to-DVD market. Rather than relying on big budgets, a cadre of wealthy producers, and major distribution, Nigerian filmmakers, much like the independent film makers currently operating in Europe and the US, produce films almost entirely alone. While this does often have a noticeable affect on the visual quality of many of the films produced, it has not hampered the creativity of the Nigerian filmmaking community at all. If anything, working with tight time and budget constraints has caused movie makers to approach their filmmaking art in ways that have given the Nigerian film industry a look and “feel”, all its own.
In order to understand how Nigeria’s film industry rose to be a powerhouse of African cinema, one must look at how the movement developed. In the 60s, erstwhile Nigerian filmmakers found the cost of making films to be completely prohibitive, and turned to the burgeoning Nigerian television industry, which was government supported, in order to utilize their filmmaking skills. Initially, they focused on filming the many plays that were produced in the already well-established Nigerian theatre community. A country with a vital and culturally significant storytelling history, Nigeria afforded local filmmakers with a rich and exciting creative palette. The theatrical productions they filmed were subsequently reproduced, and set the stage for what would become a thriving home video market. It was not until nearly 30 years later, in the early 90s, that the film community established a successful identity in its own right, with the release of “Living in Bondage” by Kenneth Nnebue. The success of that film, and more importantly, the word-of-mouth distribution model that would become a hallmark of the Nigerian film industry, set the stage for an explosion of film. Rather than relying on established international distributors in glass towers with
In the late 1980s, Achebe, in his timeless classic, The Trouble with Nigeria, classified Nigeria as one of the most unsafe places to live in the world today. Daily events in the country have made this assertion truer in our times than in the late 1980s. Only last year when the nation was in a euphoric mood of celebrating her fiftieth anniversary, a gift of bomb blasts at her seemingly impregnable Eagle Square was handed to her. If the army barracks and the Police Force Headquarters in our federal capital could have their share of bomb blasts, where lies our security? Indeed, the perennial ethno-religious crises in Kaduna, Jos, Bauchi and most parts of the north appear to have come to live with us like the Isreali-Palistinian crisis. The Niger Delta militancy in the south-south, the emergence of the extremist Islamic sect called Boko Haram in the north and the obvious disaffection and disunity among the citizenry have made fear the commonest denominator in Nigeria today, the all-pervasive kind of fear that preceded the Civil War in the late sixties which prompted Okigbo in his poem ‘Come Thunder’, to lament: ‘… a great fearful thing already tugs at the cables of /the open air.’ It is this fear, which is more often than not trailed by violence and debauchery, that has become a recurring decimal in our chequered history as a people and forms the fulcrum of Umaisha’s collection of seventeen short stories, ‘Hoodlums.’
In ‘Hoodlums,’ Umaisha explores several themes, ranging from fear and violence in our polity, feminism and the plight of children during crises, politics of bitterness and godfatherism and love, to metafiction and dystopian literature. In the stories, ‘Militant’, ‘After the Riot’ and ‘Hoodlums’, we see the gory pictures of the activities of the Niger Delta militants and the ceaseless ethno-religious violence in the country. In a season of anomie such as Nigeria’s, hoodlums are daily birthed; whose targets are the sane, ‘those who still had a future’ (p. 13). Umaisha unravels further the moronic psychology of hoodlums on the same page 13 when he wrote: ‘When the hoodlums sighted someone, they would rush and beat him repeatedly till he fell. Then they would slaughter him. The more a victim pleaded with them the more brutal they became. After slaughtering such a victim they would set the body ablaze.’ Hoodlums are therefore psychopaths who revel in bloodletting. They are monsters and bloodhounds. Like J. P. Clark’s all-embracing definition of casualties in the Nigerian Civil War in his famous poem ‘Casualties’, Umaisha sees hoodlums as not only those who physically unleash violence but include even the educated elite who fan the embers of disunity such as the journalists who incite crises by sensational reporting. On page 27, Umaisha made a Police Inspector speak his mind, thus:
‘”Do you see those hoodlums out there?” He pointed at some fleeing matchete-wiedling youths. “You and your editor and all the other journalists who help to escalate this crisis by sensational reporting are no better than them. They are all hoodlums and they will be treated as such.”’
In reply to this accusation, Ben, a journalist character in the title story unwittingly drops his guard when he pleads: ‘I don’t think it is too late, sir. One editorial is enough to do the magic. The fighting will stop. Even the reprisal attacks in other parts of the country will stop … ‘(p. 29). The activities of hoodlums on rampage will always result in mayhem as graphically painted on page 26:
‘The number of policemen and soldiers on the streets was obviously too small to cope with the situation. Dead bodies were everywhere, the driver barely avoided running over them. The sight was so horrible that grave silence pervaded the van.’
In ‘The Outcast’ and ‘The Forbidden Path’, Umaisha shows his disenchantment with our patriarchal society for its preference for men over women. In ‘The Outcast’, Ilema was discarded in a rubbish dump by her mother when she was an infant on account of her being a female child (p. 40). Umaisha paints the picture of a callous society that does not forgive a woman’s childlessness as he aptly put it in the mouth of his character Mummy on page 43: ‘“I am an outcast”, she continued. “I was rejected by my people. I was branded a witch and rejected because of my inability to bear a child. Even though in my desperate quest for a child, I moved from one husband to another like a harlot, they still failed to understand my plight. They said I couldn’t give birth because I ate my babies in the womb.” Because of the sexist society that she lives in, Mummy dreams that Ilema will ‘grow into a woman of substance, into a man’ (p. 45). Similarly, in ‘The Forbidden Path’, Onkwo, the oldest person in Irebu village is branded a witch and ‘… from that day, children never went near her again’ (p. 55) because apart from having one of her sons ‘lost to the city’ (p. 55), the rest of her other ten children are dead including her husband!
Stories like ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Do or Die!’ poke fun at our unsophisticated politics of bitterness and godfatherism. ‘The Last Hiding Place’ and ‘The President’s Portrait’ depict metafictive processes of creativity and the enigmatic nature of artistes generally, while ‘Seat of Power’ describes a dystopian world reminiscent of Orwell’s masterwork, 1984. It is worthy to note that despite Umaisha’s dark world marked with violence and savagery, the victimization of women and children, politics of ‘do-or-die’, somehow love survives. In ‘Soul Mate’ and even the doomsday title story, ‘Hoodlums’, love flourishes even in a time of war. The love between Ben and Mairo in Kaduna cuts across the religious divide. It is pure, unadulterated love that is religion-blind. This is a bold, no-holds-barred story that shows that Nigeria needs writers like Umaisha who are detribalized and de-religionized. Writers who, when possessed by the creative muse, will utilize the social function of literature to unite rather than to preach sectionalism and religious intolerance.
Unarguably, Umaisha’s Hoodlums is a celebration of the blissful marriage of topical themes and aesthetics. As a poet, Umaisha has been able to transfer the subtlety that poetry is renowned for to his short stories, thereby placing some high demands on the readers to read between the lines to be able to fathom some unsaid things. Umaisha employed great economy of language like Hemingway in Hoodlums. This kind of cryptic use of language is evident in ‘The Forbidden Path’ when the writer used just two versified lines on page 57 to tell the entire story of Onkwo, why she is labelled a witch. This is a skill which reinforces the short story’s unique singularity of effect apart from the fact that it can be read at one sitting, with no single word wasted. Edgar Allan Poe, in the first real analysis of the short story, posited that: ‘In the whole composition, there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.’
Perhaps, the apparent weakness in Umaisha’s Hoodlums is the lack of experimentation in narrative styles. All the stories conform to the traditional form of storytelling in the mould of folktales evident in the works of the early masters of the short story form such as Poe and Melville. In the entire seventeen stories, none of them is Chekhovian nor experimental like Hemingway’s. There is no doubt that the short story is more similar to poetry than the longer prose form of the novel, and just like poetry, form is as important to the short story, if not more important than the subject. Also, in one or two instances, Umaisha’s characters are flat, cowardly and not invested with heroism like Iyayi’s Heroes. The character of Ben, the journalist in the title story, is that of a despicable coward on page 30, as follows: ‘He got down on his knees and began to pray – something he had not done in a very long time … No one looked back except Ben. And what he saw was beyond words. He slumped.’ In ‘The Outcast’, Ilema’s character is portrayed to be weak when, upon the revelation of the circumstances surrounding her birth, ‘she suddenly lurched forward and slumped to the floor’ (p. 45). Melodrama in fiction is always accompanied with weak character portrayal. Ironically, the effect of melodrama in literature is always the opposite and negative, for instead of striking the reader hard in the face, it falls off flat on the ground because of its lack of verisimilitude. On page 11, Umaisha wrote:
‘Mummy was running fast. She spread out her arms when she saw Tene. The little girl also spread out her arms, running towards her as fast as she could. But just before she got to Mummy, another explosion went off close by and something she could not see lifted Mummy high and smashed her on the ground. Mummy struggled to her feet but fell back.’
The same can be said of Ben’s ‘hazy image of Mairo, weeping and stretching out her hands, inviting him to come over’ on page 29. Well-packaged and edited, Hoodlums is almost error-free save for a few lapses such as ‘contentious difference’ (p. 14), ‘And as he presently focused on a mob” (p. 99) and ‘His heart skipped a bit” (p. 102).
Be that as it may, Umaisha’s Hoodlums announces the arrival of an accomplished short story writer in Nigeria, who, in the succeeding years, will continue to give us more snapshots of the human condition and nature in a manner not amenable to the novel form. Even the great masters of the short story genre such as Melville, Turgenev, Chekhov, Hemingway and Katherine Mansfield could not boast of an accomplished first collection like Umaisha’s ‘Hoodlums.’ It is indeed a must-read for all those aspiring to excel in short story writing and for those on the lookout for real entertainment.
- Isaac Attah Ogezi
“In Nigeria, corruption doesn’t just pollute the system, it is the system” Time Magazine, April 25, 2011. Page 28
Yes, Oladimeji Bankole (Ex Speaker, of the House of Representatives) was arrested for corruption, but to achieve a balance, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) should also arrest other top politicians who have stolen massively from the public treasury. Our security agencies cannot claim ignorance of the free movement of other heavily corrupt politicians in Nigeria. Another question is, under what condition(s) did the ex speaker obtain those fraudulent loans from the bank(s). It might also be interesting to beam searchlight on the bank(s) involved.
Arresting Bankole or other corrupt politicians might not make any impact, if the Nigerian system continues to treat corrupt people kindly. “The greatest incitement to crime is the hope of escaping punishment” Marcus Cicero. This is more prevalent in Nigeria. The system rewards and recognizes corrupt people. In most cases, prison sentences are mere Childs play. Former Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun was convicted of N20 Billion naira fraud and was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment, Mrs. Cecilia Ibru, former MD/CEO of Oceanic Bank was jailed 6months for stealing N54 billion naira. Olabode George committed a fraud of over N85 billion naira in Nigeria, and was given only 2.5 years (two and half years jail sentence). Bankole might even not get conviction, talk less of sentence. Remember James Ibori (Ex Governor) of Delta State was discharged and acquitted in Nigeria only to be arrested in Dubai and extradited to UK for the similar offences he committed in Nigeria.
The list of corrupt cases in Nigeria is endless and there is no end in sight. Time Magazine is right to say that in Nigeria, corruption doesn’t just pollute the system, it is the system. “The World Bank estimates the country’s generals and gangster politicians stole $300 billion in the three decades to 2006”(Time Magazine, May 3rd 2010 Edition, Page 42). Who knows the figures stolen from 2007 till date? One thing is obvious; the level of corruption in Nigeria will certainly make development of our country near impossible. Preventing corruption should be a top priority. The authorities should also take punishing corrupt people seriously. The author wants to be proven wrong, that the present government might not be able to wage an effective war against corruption. May God Bless Nigeria.
Chinedu Vincent Akuta.
An activist and Citizens Journalist.
Facebook / C.v.Akuta.
The early years
How did I start writing poetry? This is one of the most difficult questions I have to answer. It is also simple. I was suffused with emotion and I found myself transferring my feelings onto paper. It felt good and I kept at it! I must have been about thirteen then.
Throughout my teenage years, I kept on writing poetry with the limited vocabulary that was available to me. Usually emotional stuff which I then thought was romantic. At that time, I was mostly the only audience for the poems. A few close friends were allowed to take a peek at my scribblings.
Genius or laziness?
As I made progress in my poetry writing, I noticed that I was not able to revise my writing. I actually could write a poem straight from my head (or was it my heart?)! It should be noted that I was not privileged to have contact with poets and I was so reluctant to share my poems with a wider audience. I called my efforts ‘attempts at poetry!’ But it happened that I would write a poem and be happy with it without any revisions! At first, I told myself that I was a natural. Then I thought ‘if only I could receive some form of formal training or coaching in poetry!’
Meeting other poets
During my days in the university, I had written quite a few poems. One of my best friends was a volunteer typist for the Fellowship of Christian Students (FCS). He had typewriters in his room on campus. I learnt to ‘pick’ and started to type my poems. I would read them to my friends at the FCS meetings or post them on the notice boards at vet school. All comments were good and encouraging. There was no severe criticism which might have made me to revise my work. While at vet school, I was able to compile a typed collection of my poems under the title Precipitates from the Heart: An Attempt at Contemporary Poetry (I have since reworked almost all the poems in that collection!). I bound the collection and started to share them with other people. Still, the audience was not a critical one.
I came across a writer, Pita Adamu-Eteh, when I was a participant in the National Youth Service Corps. For the first time, I was able to get an informed criticism of my work! He gave me a hand-written review of Precipitates from the Heart and encouraged me to get that published. Tall order to a freshly graduated veterinarian with eyes on private practice! But for the first time, I got told something about techniques. What I can remember today (over 20 years later) is about my frequent use of the first person. Pita thought that I should try and write as an observer rather than as a participant in my poems. I have since found out that it makes a tremendous difference if I changed ‘I’ in my poems to ‘he!’
The summary of my ramblings so far is that I was not in any way editing my poems. I left them ‘as written’ ninety-nine percent of the time. At first I thought it showed me as having a natural talent for writing poetry. But then I began to feel that I needed to acquire some skills in revising my work since it was apparent I was going to have to share them with a wider audience.
Maiduguri and the Fulani Poet
To talk about the publishing industry in Nigeria would take more time than I can have in this write-up. In any case, the difficulty of creative writers to get published in Nigeria is well documented. So to share my poems I kept typing them up and binding them into collections. I had two of such collections, Victims of Laziness and Tears in My Laughter. I shared them with as many as I could.
In 1995, I was chanced to meet Professor Zaynab Alkali in Kano (I believe she was at Bayero University for her sabbaticals). Professor Alkali is one of most-known and respected female writers in Nigeria. I approached her in Kano with my poems. I admit I nursed a secret hope that she would take interest in my work and help me get published (she later linked me up with a publisher but I received a very polite rejection slip)! She was indeed interested. By some coincidence, she was arranging a poetry/short story workshop in Maiduguri. Yes, I was invited to participate in that seminar! It was sponsored by a Swiss organisation and had a Swiss national, Al Imfeld, as co-facilitator.
That meeting in Maiduguri, a dusty town on the edge of the Sahara, turned out to be one of the most important events in my writing history!
The event was organised to support the development of writers living in Northern Nigeria. Each participant was asked to present her/his work and then had everybody to comment on/critique the writing. Those who wrote poetry were asked to read two poems, while short story writers read extracts from their stories or novels. I was the only ‘lay’ person in that workshop! There were either university lecturers and journalists or graduates and students of Literature or English Language. As the days went by, I became more apprehensive. I would see a very good piece torn to shreds. There were talks of styles, meters, feet and all sorts of literary and critical terms!
And then the day came when I was to present my poems. I was scheduled for the afternoon. That day I could hardly eat my lunch. ‘Kabby’, I said to myself, ‘what are you going to do?’ I picked out two of my favourite poems, Fulani Migration and The Langtang Goddess. I then had a hurried lunch and returned to the meeting hall. I decided it was best to perform my poems. I asked the maigadi (guard) for a stick and practised my presentation while the other participants were still at lunch.
There was a big round of applause when I finished performing my poems. Surprisingly, there was not a single word out of place! Well, somebody wanted to now why I used glit and not glitter! The Swiss co-facilitator said that he wondered why we were writing love stories when military dictators were there to write about but that’s a story for another time. I was certainly not the best writer in that room that day, but most people thought that I did the best presentation. The facilitator said that my work needed no inputs because I had performed it! He said that performing a poem removed any unnecessary words or styles. This was a helpful hint that has continued to be very useful to me and I still perform every poem I write before I consider it finalised.
So I came out of that workshop with a lot of benefits – good money for participating in the workshop (first time my writing put bread on my table), a chance to see my work in print at last (an anthology of poems and short stories was published to which I contributed two poems), a good feeling for performing my poems, I made lots of friends and I got a new name for my stage performances, Fulani Poet! Yet, the fear of critiquing was firmly planted in me. What with the level of professional critics in that workshop!
The Fear of Criticism
Not to be critiqued but to critique! I left Maiduguri in 1995 with a firm believe that I needed to begin to critique and revise my work. Yet the more I tried to revise my poems, the more I muddled them. How did I judge a poem? If it appealed to me, it was good. In finishing my poems, I relied on the feelings that the poems evoked in me. When I read other people’s poems, I also relied on this feeling to really like the poems or not. But the more I began to consider my poetry as serious stuff, the more I knew that I needed to acquire the skills of criticism. I was no longer getting comfort from telling myself that I was writing poetry as a hobby and it therefore did not matter if I was informed in the techniques of writing or critiquing poems or not!
In 1999, I packaged my collection of poems, retitled The Man Lived, using the desk-top computer in the office and sent it off to the Association of Nigerian Authors for consideration in the ANA Poetry Prize. The collection, for which I had gotten a cute rejection letter, won! The fact that I never got the prize money is a story for another day, but from the time I suddenly saw my name among the ANA prize winners in the newspapers, I knew that I needed to pay closer attention to my poetry!
My fear began to turn to panic. I later joined a literary group, the Abuja Literary Society in 1999. I was well-received at the monthly readings! It was a time I always looked forward to as there were poets, prose writers, musicians and all sorts of performers! I learnt a new form of criticism that was meant to encourage and not severely discourage a writer. We all said nice things about each others’ writings and performances. There were of course, times when one was offered advice on how to improve one’s writing but it was all in a good brotherly (and sisterly) spirit. Not the stuff I have heard about – the fierce exchanges in some writers’ groups or clubs. Not that that was bad, since such an approach has helped many writers to hone their skills. The approach has also helped to quench the zeal of many aspiring writers. So a consideration for the mix of the audience, to me, was useful.
I tried unsuccessfully to get some advice and encouragement from ANA for the publication of my award-winning collection. There wasn’t the least interest from ANA and I did not get a reply to any of my queries. But winning the ANA poetry prize had whetted my appetite to get published and I was not discouraged at all.
I should mention here that I have always wanted to be a publisher. In 1997, I assisted my pastor to publish a pamphlet titled The Victorious Married Life. It was the stuff from a 3-day marriage seminar in the church. I edited the work, got it printed and bound and organised a public presentation. That felt very exhilarating! So I registered a business name, Kairos Productions, and published a small book, Hindrances to the Anointing by Joseph Bitrus. I got an ISBN from the National Library of Nigeria. In 2003, I got 10 ISBN numbers and I was on my way to being a publisher. I had my own unique identifier at least! That year, I published the memoirs of a school administrator, Wutama Bulama Samba’s The Joy of Empowering Others to Grow.
I was now fairly confident to publish my own poems. I hesitated a lot, wondering if the poems were really good enough for publishing. My fear stemmed from my inability to really, really critique and/or revise my own poems! If I was to succeed in sharing my poems, I needed to know that I was offering the best. This was my perfectionist attitude infecting my thinking. I made a serious note to develop some critiquing skills. I was not satisfied when people said that my poems were good.
I took the plunge and out came The Man Lived in May 2004! Self-publishing attracts lots of comments and opinions. I believe that self-publishing will eventually develop the market for creative writing in Nigeria. In any case, the subject of self-publishing is too enormous and out of the scope of this chat. However, I was happy that I had published three writers before I did mine.
Okay, most of my readers thought that I was good! But I still had the fear of sharing my poems. I had to either develop my critiquing skills or accept the fact that I was just going to be writing ‘from the heart!’ Mind you, many people told me that it was great to write and not revise poems. I confess there was a nice feeling to laying claim that one was a genius and that my poems came off my head all completed! It was a good but not a satisfying feeling. There were some poems that I knew instinctively that they were good as written (requiring no editing whatsoever)! Yet I told myself I did need to develop my skills. Muse would not let me off that easily!
Enter ‘Crossing Borders’
I was about to go to the UK for my postgraduate studies when the Crossing Borders programme was advertised by the British Council in Nigeria. I jumped at the opportunity, applied and I was selected. The Crossing Borders programme was an online mentoring programme for writers in Africa who were paired up with experienced writers in the UK for mentoring purposes. I was a Crossing Borders participant for 2 years from 2004 – 2006. My mentor was a Welsh poet laureate, Menna Elfin. In the first year, I concentrated on writing techniques and performance poetry. In the second year, I sought to work on bilingual writing so that I could write a poem in English and translate it into Bura, my first language and vice versa.
My participation in the Crossing Borders programme was another important high point in my poetry writing, especially in editing my own writing.
The Message and the Medium
Poetry is a form of communication. What it communicates, how it does it and the worth of what it communicates form the basis for criticism (Richards, 1929, p.11)
What have I learnt in my interactions with poets? The only bad poem is the one that is pretentious and not sincere. This idea has helped me to view poetry criticism from two angles. One angle is the importance of the message that the poet wants to communicate and the other is the technique or style of the poet.
My belief in the message angle is reinforced by what many people say about poetry. Someone said that poets are the true legislatures of the world. Other say, poets are prophets. I whole-hearted agree with both assertions. It has even frightened me sometimes to see what I have written in some of my poems come to pass!
Poets are usually trying to pass across a message without preaching, be it about love or about politics. That is why I believe that the first part of critiquing a poem is about an analysis of its message and the simple test here is ‘is it true?’ This question should be asked in the universality of human experience. Variants of the question will be, among many others, ‘is the poet telling the truth?’ ‘Is the language true?’ The poet should be telling the truth because only then can he connect with his readers. The language should be true because the persona cannot speak outside of the manner of her/his expression. When there is no truth in a poem, it is considered contrived or forced.
So then, when I critique a poem, I try to make an analysis of where the poet is coming from, what he is trying to say. The poet could be African, Nigerian or American. There are universal truths and there are local truths that I should hope to see in the writing. The final result of my analysis here is to convince myself that the message has been passed well through the reading and understanding of the poem (understanding here is dependant on each reader).
In the second analysis, one should try to look into the medium through which the message is being passed. This is equally important because the medium can distort the message or prevent it from being heard. Here we are talking about stylistics, all those stuff about meter, feet, etc (end of thinking capacity). This is where I am out of my depth (what I have been trying to say in the beginning of this write-up). And I believe also that this is stuff for scholars or those who are well-read in criticism. We need to develop our capacity in this regard before we can venture to pontificate over people’s writing.
This type of criticism is not about grammar or spelling, as we see most of the time at writers’ meetings. That, I believe, is editing. It is equally important but certainly not critiquing.
Criticism calls for utmost humility because it is difficult to sit over someone’s writing and pass a judgement in whatever form.
Someone has said that critics are like eunuchs. They know how it’s done, they see it being done but they cannot do it! To me, that is very true. Given, some critics are first writers and they have earned the right to critique other people’s writing. But the really good ones do it honestly and humbly. The bad critic, to me, is he/she who constitutes himself/herself into a god of literature whose opinions must be taken as gospel truth.
Again, someone has said that a critic is someone who guesses himself/herself into a writer’s fame. Such a critic uses the writer to call attention to himself/herself.
A lot of times, the views of different critics on the same subject are so divergent that one wonders how such conclusions are reached. It may be possible to say that everyone tries to defend his/her stance/opinions/ideas! One critic may gush over a work while another trashes it. This is human nature and the cliché one man’s meat is another man’s poison comes to mind. However, an honest critic will always take pains to comment on the substance of the work before him/her or at worst, state clearly what his personal likes and dislikes are after an objective review of the writer’s creation.
This brief chat is meant to stimulate a discussion which may be helpful to others like me who love to comment on literary works but do not have the scholarship to properly do so. Some might say, we should then leave criticism to the professionals. But I submit that some readers of a good piece of writing may have something to say about it and should do so with humility and decorum, clearly stating what is personal opinion/like/dislike.
Personally, I am very content to comment about what I read based on how it feels to me, what meanings/messages I get from it that is useful to my development as a human being. Then, my little knowledge of writing techniques permitting, I also comment on the craft of the author. It can be deduced promptly that I am a not a believer in ‘art for art sake.’ I believe that every piece of art evokes in me something beyond the craftsmanship that touches my soul and gives a hint to a meaning that I can take away and use in life.
To make my experiences richer, I am committed to learning more about criticism.