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G’Ebinyo Ogbowei: On Empires, Prickly Poetry and the Coming Hour of Reckoning

Uche Peter Umez interviews G’Ebinyo Ogbowei, former Head of Department (English & Literary Studies) at the Niger Delta University, erstwhile Bayelsa State chapter chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors, (ANA), and author of five poetry collections. Since 1978, his poems have appeared at various times in journals such as Idoto, Matatu, Okike, PRISM International, and Black American Literature Forum. His collections let the honey run and other poems and song of a dying river were shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2005 and 2009 respectively, while marsh boy and other poems was long-listed for the same prize in 2013.

 

Uche Peter Umez: Percy Bysshe Shelley said, “Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” How do you view this statement in line with the themes in your collections, wherein there appears to be more recollections of misery than happiness? What is poetry to you? What truths has poetry revealed to you?

G’Ebinyo Ogbowei: Do I react to Shelley’s definition of poetry, or do I tell you what truths poetry has revealed to me? Shelley’s definition cannot be all embracing – that is, if poetry is a revealer of truth. When William Wordsworth defines poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, which he insists “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”, he doesn’t tell us what type of emotion this might be – whether of love or hatred, fear or courage, sadness or happiness, revulsion or attraction, an astounding surprise or a calm, collected anticipation.

What particular feelings flow from my recollections of events taking place in my immediate environment? What particular emotions, what particular impressions come away with me from my encounter with our social history and my daily walk through “the despoiled delta”? What impression does the abused little boy who is forced to watch his mother and sisters raped by armed robbers who broke into his home come away with, especially when he discovers one or two of them to be children of powerful neighbours? Is it a depraved mind that recreates this brazen badness to draw attention to the trauma of the hapless child?

Shelley insists, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar”.  Our duty is to remove the veil of hate, prejudice, and plundering greed cast over our once alluring and bountiful wilderness. For me, the duty of the poet is first and foremost to the people. Indeed, as Wordsworth points out, the poet “is a man speaking to men”.  He is a man with a message. And this is why we study theme – the work’s message; its view about life or human nature. Moreover, mine is poetry that embodies the dreams of our people for freedom and a happy life; poetry that demonstrates to the people of the Niger Delta that they would gain their freedom not through endless appeals for compassion to the cold-hearted, predatory party at the heart of the chaos destroying this great nation and those calculating, imperial “sahelian siblings/… bullied south by smothering sand”, who insist our “sorrowful swamps” belong to them, but through a bloody struggle. And we are, indeed, at the threshold of a full blown civil war.  This is the truth my poetry reveals.

Uche Peter Umez: let the honey run happens to be the less belligerent in tone when compared to the other four collections, and there is a comingling of loss and desire, an elegiac tinge in many of the poems. However, your latter collections pulsate with indignation against the “rape of the delta” and “the savagery/that disfigures the delta”. How has your environment, your background as a Niger Delta, shaped you as a poet? Don’t you think that many of the poems emerging from the Niger Delta are too invested in protest poetry? Would it be wrong to say that you are an activist poet?

G’Ebinyo Ogbowei: I’m sure I’ve already answered the collection of questions under your second question.  Yes, let the honey and the town crier’s song are less belligerent than the last three collections.  And, I’m sure, if you study the collections closely, you’ll also notice that the heedless ballot box stands in the middle, although in language and execution, it is conterminous with song of a dying river and marsh boy. For me, Brass, the home of my maternal grandmother who raised me, is home. Born and brought up in Port Harcourt, I see myself as a true Niger Deltan; not an outsider, not a stranger, not an interloper. And I am a witness to the persistent, wicked and thoughtless destruction of our liberal lowlands. This is the homeland that has nurtured me and shaped my ideas and outlook on life.

When you ask, “Don’t you think many of the poems emerging from the Niger Delta are too invested in protest poetry?” would you rather we take up other themes and pretend all is well with our region?  It’s like asking the baby with a virulent fever to stop crying so that you and your wife could go on eating your dinner or watching your popular soap opera.  The very life of the child is at risk, so it won’t keep quiet. And this, indeed, is tragic – that while we do our duty, finding vividly more candid ways of forewarning our compatriots of the dangers ahead, of the fast approaching storm that may splinter and sink our ship of state, taking many down with it, tribalists and comprador critics who profit from our poverty and misery attempt to shout us down and draw attention away from the unique literature now coming out of the Niger Delta.

As Dennis Brutus points out, “the creative act is an act of dissent and defiance” and “to assert one’s creativity is also to assert one’s humanity”. Our very survival, our very humanity, is daily being subverted. We cannot, therefore, afford to be totally committed to poetry, because that would do damage to our integrity – and here I’m paraphrasing Brutus, who never fails to remind us of the obligation of the poet to his endangered community. So we’re committed to constructive resistance to tyranny, ethnic cleansing, and a virulent land grab now playing out in Benue and Plateau States. The same murderous group insists the oil-rich Niger Delta and its resources – the rivers, creeks, fishes, timber, oil and gas – are theirs. You ask if it would be wrong to describe me as an activist. I refuse to be classified. Yes, my poetry – such as, only a part (of) it – is rooted in the Niger Delta, communicating the feelings of the people in the creeks: their fears, their anxieties, and their cry for justice and for the recognition of their humanity. We use the landscape to create a powerful symbolic poetry that is an expression of the Niger Delta experience – its despair and hope, its destruction and liberation.

Uche Peter Umez: I like the way the Niger Delta functions as a metaphor for what is wrong with Nigeria at present, “the doctrine of pillage/and prosperity” which our democracy has perfected. I also like the way you juxtapose the massacres in other lands with the ones in our homeland. I am particularly amazed at how you meld old and contemporary histories and myths to illuminate the tragedies in our country. In the heedless ballot box, for instance, you wrote: “i am alexander/returned from a purgatorial journey/to feast the hungry ghosts of tiananmen.” This trope is most obvious in the collection marsh boy. Still, in both song of a dying river and marsh boy, there is that recurring image of “the city by the sea”. Could you talk a bit about this city by the sea?  Why is it so important to you?  And has your idea of what poetry is changed, seeing as you have been writing for well over thirty years, across generations of poets?

G’Ebinyo Ogbowei: Thank you for the compliment.  As a responsible poet, I write with an acute “historical sense”, which, according to T.S. Eliot, “involves a perception not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence… which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and the temporal together”. Now, aren’t we all the products of history? Aren’t we all united by our pursuit of profit, by this gormandizing greed that dehumanizes, and then preys on the weak and the poor?

Is Nigeria not a product of the British Empire built on pretense and plunder?  Would it be wrong then to see the SPDC (Shell Petroleum Developing Company) as an offshoot of the British Empire that sanctioned piracy as a doctrine of foreign policy?  And in this, is the British Empire any different from the Roman Empire, of which it was a province? Every empire is built on the doctrine of tyranny and pillage.  And this is no less true of the Nigerian State, the only difference being that its thieving, fraudulent and megalomaniacal leaders, more obsessed with power that they might have unhindered access to state funds and control of state institutions, owe no loyalty to the state.  Glorified slaves, these bogus sovereigns would sign off vast swathes to Berlusconi, Bush, Deng, and Mitterrand.

I see myself as an internationalist, for my concern, as you can see, is not merely the Niger Delta and its people, but the plight of the deprived, oppressed poor wherever they may be – in Argentina, Bosnia, Chechnya, Guatemala, Iraq, Nigeria, or the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, or in the refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.  Because literature, like music and painting, is universal, I’ve learnt to broaden the canvas.  For the abuse of human rights, the oppression of the poor, the exploitation and marginalization of minorities of resource-rich territories, the despoliation of the environment and acts of genocide are not peculiar to the Niger Delta.  These crimes against humanity go on unabated in Burma, Chechnya, Darfur, Gaza, Indonesia, Iraq, and the Congo DR – where militias backed by the powers in Kigali and Kampala have carved out fiefdoms to extract and export precious metals – the Central African Republic, in the newest African nation, South Sudan, and in Zimbabwe.

Literature does not only entertain. Its functions go beyond the aesthetic to include the moralistic and affective.  So we write to stir the heart of the reader, to prick the conscience of the oppressor, to provoke good people at home and abroad, to take remedial action – to do something about the environment and the structural imbalance in the Nigerian Federation that condemns the Niger Delta to a frustrating Sisyphean punishment of bearing the burden of an unthankful nation that badmouths it. Hence, in my last three collections (the heedless ballot box, song of a dying river and marsh boy & other poems) diction, sound, imagery, symbolism and myth have combined with history – ancient and contemporary – to highlight the harsh experiences of the people of the region. “The city by the sea”? Go back to “fear is put to flight” (the heedless ballot box, 57), “curving winds of hate” (song of a dying river, 26 – 27) and “avoid them” (marsh boy, 42 – 43), and read them closely against the backdrop of unfolding history. These are prophetic poems and the prophecies are coming to pass. Let’s leave this to the critic.

Uche Peter Umez: David Galenson said that, “All art is allusive, connected more or less visibly with earlier works of art.” Aside from mythic references, especially Izon mythology, I notice you easily deploy biblical allusions in the town crier’s song, song of a dying river, and marsh boy. How much resonance does religion have for you in poetry? Are you interested in exploring myths as they sometimes parallel the realities of our time? Or as they enrich the allusiveness of your poetry?

G’Ebinyo Ogbowei: Not just biblical allusions, but historical allusions as well.  I also allude to artists and their works.  For example, in “this unsung hungerbatics” there is the allusion to the famous Italian poet, painter, sculptor and architect, Michelangelo and his friend, Sabatiano Luciani, whose painting Raising of Lazarus, was developed from sketches supplied by Michelangelo (let the honey run”, 11). There’s also the allusion to the Post-Impressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh in “madonna in black and gold” (the heedless ballot box, 36 -37). Although the allusion is to his Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, it is clear that the hint is to Van Gogh’s slashed left ear.  Whether self-inflicted or cut off by Paul Gauguin, a keen fencer and friend with whom he had a row one evening shortly before Christmas 1888, the reader is not informed.  Another allusion to this tortured genius  and son of a pastor, who struggled through life and died at just 37 from a gunshot wound, can be found in “the door way to hell” (song of a dying river, 95). It refers to Van Gogh’s short stint as a preacher in the village of Pettit Wasmes in the Borinage, a dreary mining district in the south of Belgium. This was from the winter of 1878 to the fall of 1880.

Biblical allusions and mythical symbols/elements drawn not only from my Izon culture, but also from other sources adorn various poems in the five collections. Take a close look at “for Kenule Saro-Wiwa” (let the honey run, 47 – 48). It is steeped in African folklore and ritual associated with the burial of the dead.  This poem, which demonstrates the primacy of ritual, laments the betrayal and martyrdom of a hero who cannot join the illustrious ancestors, because certain necessary funerary rites have not been performed.  The poem reveals the magical potency of these rituals essential for the initiation of the soul of the hero into the cult of the ancestors and the survival of the group. The rituals of burial afford the community the opportunity to express its anxieties over its survival in the face of external aggression (Or is it brutal repression by the state?) and to strengthen fraternal ties.

When you ask how much resonance religion has on my poetry, you make me believe I’m on the right track.  I am a deeply religious person.  The Bible, like all similar religious books – the Koran, The Path of Purification, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads, etc. – is a book for all time. It is God’s book of law to order our steps.  So I repeatedly return to the Bible for enlightenment and to help me find my voice.

Of course, in these timeless myths, in these allusions, we discover ourselves repeating the tragic errors of the past rather than benefiting from the lessons of history.  Let’s look at “folasade” (let the honey run, 40-42) with the kile of Fenibeso, the Wakirike (Ijaw) god of war as refrain.  Nigeria may pride itself as being a religious nation, but its rituals of corruption and organized disorder prove it to be at heart hedonistically rebellious and paganistic.  Nigeria, as I point out in the heedless ballot box, is “a failed federation” (42), “a gated country/dissolving its rich tapestry of tribes/ into a patchwork of disconnected nationalities” (43).  It is a nation that celebrates failure and, with much pomp and pageantry, glories in falsehood.

Uche Peter Umez: song of a dying river is replete with animal imagery. Perusing the collection, we encounter animals like cobra, adders, alligator, vultures, hyenas, lions, etc. What determines the choice of imagery for you? And why use such terrifying creatures?

G’Ebinyo Ogbowei: The choice of animal imagery is determined by the seriousness of the subject.  Why I use such terrifying creatures? Because they best reveal our base nature, reflect the evil locked up in each of us, which we all must work hard at exorcising. In a scandalously criminal, crafty and conflictive social environment such as ours, where human life has little or no value – that is, to our scampish, cynically ruthless rulers; where, as Oswald Mtshali declaims in his popular poem, “Nightfall in Soweto”, “man has ceased to be man”; where “man has become beast; where “man has become prey”, what better imagery to employ than animal imagery?  Our nation has been turned into one vast political jungle by our militicians, who are no better than the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, as I observe in “echoes out of dark sepulchral hearts”; “a nation most heartily reconciled to death” (marsh boy, 55).  But, as I point out in that poem, “rumbling bellies fresh from the barricades” soon would “take elena from targoviste/marshall marie antoinette to the passionate guillotine”. The dark hour of reckoning is fast closing in upon us. This also is the message of “the harsh harvester” (the heedless ballot box, 44).

Poetry makes us see this descent into anarchy; this descent into savagery – the disorder, the suffering and the meaninglessness of life occasioned by this aggressive, self-destructive greed; this corrosive use of power.  And this is where allusion, working in imagery, is beneficial.  Herein lies the power of poetry – to evoke certain emotions; to provoke and nurture in the reader social consciousness; to shake the reader awake, to shake him out of his complacency.

Uche Peter Umez: the town crier’s song is full of portent, “the song of the cobra”, evoking “the fire of passion and hunger”. We are even forewarned in the poem “tomorrow beats drums”.  The entire collection is almost reminiscent of Okigbo’s Path of Thunder. Yet what is most disturbing about your own collection is that although most of the poems were written in the 80s, the events that informed your vision at that time are repeating themselves as yet. Does poetry matter? Why should anyone have to take poetry seriously?

G’Ebinyo Ogbowei: Again, I thank you for the compliment.  Christopher Okigbo is a poet I greatly admire. In my formative years, I learnt a thing or two from him. Many of my poems are prophetic, resulting from clear visions. This is why I advise GEJ to read marsh boy, because there’s something on him there. He would do well to study carefully the allusions that cover him and his administration in “marsh boy”. Also I admonish those who think the Niger Delta is too divided and weak to stand up to their bluff to study this collection. The collapse of the almighty Roman Empire is an empirical lesson. The Soviet Union and Yugoslav are very recent cases in point. Let them learn that every empire of greed sows the seeds of its destruction.

Does poetry matter?  Would you have us banned as Plato advocates?  Would you have poetry outlawed because its language is dark and obscure? Even the beautiful, lyrical language of the poetry of Shakespeare’s sonnets, William Wordsworth’s ballads, or the odes of that wonderful soul, John Keats, may not be easily accessible to the untrained ear.  The affective value of poetry cannot be overlooked; they help us deal with certain emotions. A reading of Keats’ odes, for example, exposes us to power of the revealing poetic imagination.

Of course, poetry should be taken seriously.  Like every other work of art, poetry entertains and teaches. It has both literary and cultural values. A poem may help us better understand a historical or cultural event. Reading Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol, or Okara’s “The Fisherman’s Invocation” do you not come away a wiser person? Each of them, in one way or the other, provokes you to reassess the impact of colonialism on the African and your relationships – whether as a husband, public official, or as a student.  The director in Okara’s psychodrama, “The Fisherman’s Invocation”, for example, does not compel the unskilled fisherman at the prow to be like him.  It only makes him aware of the sickness in his soul and his need for healing, for uniting his future with his past; the need for him to live in harmony with his environment.  It reveals the importance of the environment in the development of a healthy personality. This is what poetry does: it helps us look into our soul and to understand and heal the pain and trauma in our souls. Poetry isn’t propaganda.

Uche Peter Umez: Even with the unabated dispossession and palpable gloom in the Niger Delta, in particular, and the country in general, there still appears to be this persistent theme of love in all your collections. How do you manage to remain so committed to poetry? Patriotic to the homeland? Was there ever a time you felt like quitting poetry? 

G’Ebinyo Ogbowei: No, I’ve never thought of quitting writing poetry.  And why should I? You wonder how in spite of “the unabated dispossession and palpable gloom” in the region and the nation at large “there still appears this persistent theme of love” in my poetry? Simple, brother. We’re the products of love. It is wired into our DNA. It’s good for the community. It’s good for the individual. How I remain committed to poetry?  How does a footballer or football fan remain committed to the game of soccer, following one club all through his life? It is demanding, but it’s a passion I hope to keep burning till the Father calls me home.

Uche Peter Umez: You have been writing poetry for more than thirty years and looking back, it used to be quite difficult having a poem published in print, but these days (thanks to the Internet, if you will) it is much easier and faster to have your poem published online. What do you think of this development? How does this affect the quality of poetry? Don’t you think the Internet has made poetry a little commonplace?

G’Ebinyo Ogbowei: The Internet is a blessing.  At the touch of a button, we’re flooded with information that would have taken us a             week or a month to find. As for having one’s poem published easier and faster online, I’m yet to try it.  Unless one’s work is copyrighted, following due publishing process, the danger of having lines or the entire work pirated is latent. The quality of work one comes across online?  My answer is, mixed. The advantage, however, is that friends, say, on Facebook, read and critique the work, helping the author rework and transform the poem into something more elegant. Online, the lucky poet receives encouragement and gets invited to life-changing literary events that may forever transform his view of literature and craftsmanship.

Has the internet made poetry commonplace? Maybe, maybe not; it depends on how you look at it. On Facebook I come across a number of new writers from Nigeria. One of them is a young man named Madu Chisom Kingdavid. The other is Rasaq Malik Gbolahon. I enjoy reading their poems on Facebook. The latter is maturing very fast. I also encountered you online and admit I’m impressed by your drabble.

Uche Peter Umez: The poem “amnesty” reads like a kind of paean to some iconic figures, even with its ironic tones. Why did you draw on these names and the events surrounding them? And in your poetry, jazz appears to be your favourite. Is there any other music genre you like listening to? Who are your favourite poets? Finally, what would you rather be if you don’t have to be a poet?

G’Ebinyo Ogbowei: Without those names and the events or works of art alluded to, would the poem be what it is?  So, in what way do these allusions enrich the poem – add colour to and reveal the theme and tone of the poem? How do they evoke and heighten emotion while fostering social consciousness?

How do they help us grapple with disorder and the savagery unleashed on society? These are questions I’d want you to answer. Apart from jazz, I listen to classical music, reggae, and gospel music. My favourite poets are John Donne, William Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge, and T.S. Eliot. Others are Walt Whitman, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes. From Africa you have Leopold Sedar Senghor, Gabriel Okara and Dennis Brutus. I don’t know what I’d rather be if I weren’t a poet.  Never thought about it!

 

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