Amatoritsero Ede, an award winning Nigerian writer based in Canada, is famous for his efforts at enhancing the literary development of fellow writers. As the moderator of one of Africa’s largest writers’ listserv, krazitivity, with a membership comprising Nigerian writers living at home and abroad and the editor of Sentinel Poetry (online), his efforts have yielded tremendous results over the years. In this interview with SUMAILA UMAISHA, the holder of combined Honours Masters degree in German Language & Linguistics and Literature in English & Cultural Studies from the University of Hanover in Germany, speaks on literature and the internet and the effects of self-publishing, among other issues.
NNW: Let’s begin with your brief biography.
Amatoritsero Ede: I was born in Sapele, Delta State on March 6th, 1963. I grew up there. My childhood existence was fringed by the ever-glowing haze of gas flares on the horizon above river Ethiope. It was my one fascination to understand in my child’s wild imagination what presence it presaged. I would stand on shot legs spread wide open and bend my head between my knees, the better to gain an understanding of that cosmic phenomenon through the frames of my legs, eye-balling the sky upside down. I never understood it. Only much late in life did I realize what that strange, fiery ball of fire was, and how it has disrupted lives and wasted land. I attended Bishop Johnson Primary school in Sapele and then Eghosa College in Benin City, and finally Adelagun Memrorial Grammar school in Ibadan. Later I worked with Spectrum books as an Editorial Assistant, more an underpaid editor’s position really!; Gbenro Adegbola’s Bookkraft (did I get that right?!). And finally, in 1991, I started studies at University of Ibadan in German Language and Literature in English before leaving for Germany in 1994 for further studies.
At what point did you start your literary career?
I began writing in high school. I was a lonely and dreamy, much misunderstood child, always buried in books. So books, first and then writing was a kind of retreat to an inner world. I actually started writing songs, first captivated by Fela’s horns. My inspiration was of course my first contact with poetry at Adelagun Memrorial. I had an English teacher, Mr. Gbadebo, who seemed to sympathise with whatever it was that troubled the quiet shy boy that I was. I gradually grew more brazen, of course, as the teens years progressed! I buried myself in the the works of pioneer African poets, especially Soyinka’s poetry. Okigbo’s “Before you naked I stand, mother Idoto”, seemed to be a form of greeting between some of us boys. I like the thing happening on the page with this magic called poetry. I started trying my hands at poetry. The first time I wrote a poem, I remember, was in class four. As time progressed I collected quite a number of juvenilia and had a small notebook of them, which I seemed to log around. Poetry became a retreat from the harsh world to my overly sensitive self. I was quiet, morose and simply thought in verse. If I had a problem – poetry was the counsellor I went to – I wrote about it. In some way then, at that point, writing was therapeutic. Hemingway insists that all you need to be a writer is a bad childhood. I had my share of a bad childhood, which made me very sensitive, and I worked out personal problems in inflammatory verse. As such poetry saved me from the streets – which is not to say I was not at times rascally as boys can be. But it was a kind of mild, disinterested truancy. As time went on I discovered the Augustans, John Dryden and Alexander Pope. I simply walked into Odusote Bookshops at Oke-Ado, Ibadan one day and bought the collected works of those poets. It was an eye-opener. Dryden had this powerful and precise way with words. I learnt a lot from him. Of course I wrote in imitation of their kind of heroic couplet at that point. I did not try my hands so much at the Alexandrian epigram. As time went on my reading got wider. Hopkins was a delight, Elliot too and so on. That was how it transpired. And then poetry became a progressive obsession, then a passion. As time went on, one realised the other uses, apart from the therapeutic, to which writing can be put, and you were hooked for life!
As an expert in German and English languages, which of the two is richer in literary tradition? And which is more effective in poetic expressions?
There cannot be anything such as richer. The uses you are capable of putting language to depend on where you are coming from and your capacity with each language. As for literary traditions, each is equally rich. In German literature you have great writers like Goethe, Stefan Georg, Holderling, Maria Rilke, Bertolt Brecht and more; in English you have Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, Thackeray, Joyce, Elliot, the romantics, the modernists ad infinitum. So it is all relative. So to have to compare the effectiveness of German or English as literary languages is a difficult thing to do. But German has one up on English. It is the language of philosophy. Actually this was one of the reasons that made me want to study German at the outset. I felt that if people like Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel, Wallerstein et al wrote complex exegesis in German, then it must be a language of thought. Never mind that some of these philosophers were thorough-going racists in their work – like Hegel, who wrote Africa out of history, consigning it to an empty abyss. As for English, well they have their philosophers too: Hobbes, Hume, Adam Smith and John Locke, etc. Again these philosophers have their biases as far as other races are concerned. But at the point I made my decision, I was not thinking of their politics. I decided I had mastered the English language well enough, I did not need to study it, definitely not in isolation. So I felt that since German seems amenable to abstract thought, I would have an extra tool for thought if I studied German as a major with English as second major. So it began. I have only dropped German after the MA. In my further studies it is English all the way but with an emphasis on African Studies. I used to write poetry in German but I stopped because I felt I was not going to help perpetuate a language, whose people were oppressing foreigners in their country, in my experience. So I have never published any of my German poetry. I also add the caveat, that there are great contemporary German people in Germany, but there is a clique of the political right, which continually embarrass and upstage the whole population with their racist rhetoric and acts of murder.
You are an ex-Hindu Monk. Has this fact any influence on your writings?
At some point it did – when I was in the Hare Krishna monastery in Lagos. But I could not say, like Steve Biko, “I write what I like.” I had to write pseudo-religious poetry with Krishna stuck in somewhere there. Like the Jesuit priest, Gerald Manley Hopkins, I could only have written about non-religious themes illicitly, if I wanted to – I never did; which meant it was a dry period for me. It was one of the reasons I left the monastery amongst others, like my dislike for regimented authority. We woke up at the same time (3 a.m.), took our morning baths at the same time, had morning service at the same time (4 a.m. till about 10 a.m.), had breakfast at the same time (10 a.m.) and went about our priestly duties during the day at the same time, to return at the same time for evening service at 7 p.m. And by 9 p.m. we must all fall down and sleep and rise again like automatons and it went on and on. The lasting influence it had is that it freed me completely of any kind of that type of institutional or self censorship. Since I left, “I write what I like”!
Having been a book editor, how would you describe the literary production by young writers as regards grammar and other aspects of writing?
I left Nigeria in 1994. So I have not read much work produced in Nigeria. But I have heard and I can believe that publication packages are shoddily done sometimes, that the printer’s devil takes charge at times. I can only say that, from my experience, as a Book Editor at Spectrum Books, complete professionalism was the norm, and that there was a lot of rigour in the editing or indexing process there. I don’t know if they have maintained that standard. Professionalism should be the hallmark of any kind of publishing effort.
Based on this, would you encourage self-publishing?
I would not. I would strongly advise against self-publishing. If you have been following the sentinel journal online, I have never published any of my poetry there, positioned as I am as editor to take all liberties, I do not do it because it is unprofessional. The only time my work appeared there was when Nnorom Azuonye, the founding editor, interviewed me as guest in 2004, ever before I even knew I would be editing the journal one day. I have also not published Nnorom’s work there. And thankfully he is gracious, professional and seems to agree with my editorial discretion, even without me having to explain. Even vanity publishing is unprofessional since the normal and necessary peer-review process is truncated. I do understand that sometimes a poet has to resort to this. But he has to be a finished poet already – if he is ever pushed to such a measure. Great works have come out as self-published or vanity-published material. But this is the exception not the rule. Joyce published Ulysses first with a street side printer in Paris, I think. It is better to have gone through a peer-review process of assessment, acceptance or rejection before a book comes out. A writer who has never choked down a rejection slip will not get far, really. Rejections are part of the trade. In fact it is an honour to have been rejected. At least one had something written that could have been rejected in the first place. If you cannot write at all, you cannot get rejected at all; there would be no need for a rejection slip, abi no be so? This is important especially when the poet or writer is still going through his period of apprenticeship. So I would rather shun self-publishing of any sort. This is one of the reasons for an unnecessary proliferation of chaff in the name of being prolific.
The online poetry journal, sentinelpoetry.or.uk, which you edit, is very popular especially among African writers. Tell us about the journal; the history, mission, problems and prospects.
Nnorom Azuonye, founding, and now managing, editor would have been the best person to ask this question. But I will try to answer it as I understand our mission to be. Sentinel is a web-based literary journal of poetry and graphics registered in the UK, which I edit out of Canada. My team are in UK, and USA, with me being in Canada – one of the joys of online work. And the international spread of the editorial board replicates the international spirit of Sentinel. Its content is not geographically specific. We publish material from all over the world in a truly global spirit. Our Guest poets come from every corner of the globe. All we ask is that they be finished poet. Then we publish aspiring poets and other poets till honing their crafts. The condition of being guest poet, as I understand it, is that the poet should be a finished poet, whether with a book or without. Good case again is Chiedu Ezeanah, who I had as guest poet on Sentinel about the same time as he published a collection, and who had been writing poetry and winning literary prizes for 20 years before he saw fit to bring a book out. Now that is an example of a patient poet. Poetry is not something to be mass-produced. Sentinel was founded and set up from the pocket of Nnorom Azuonye in 2002. It is still funded from his pocket. We are just trying now to get a public funding. He has done literature a great service and sentinel has become a platform for featuring contemporary poets from all over the world and from Africa. The mission and goals are on the site to glean. But I simply say that it is globally conceived, is all inclusive and has subsidiary publications and a brick and mortar publishing arm, which release the sentinel poetry quarterly in print form. The brief of the quarterly has been enlarged but I don’t remember the details right now. Anyone interested in the history should go online and will find all necessary information including submission guidelines. There is also a sentinel poetry Bar, where aspiring poets can discuss their works and get useful critiques from fellow aspiring poets.
Do you see the internet eventually replacing the book culture?
I do not see that happening – even if you now have e-books, online poetry and sundry. There is this magic about holding a book in your hands, smelling the aroma of a newly minted text. Besides there is the inner private life and quiet a book gives to you, which a text online will never satisfy. There are even people who do not like reading on the screen and have to print the material first – either due to bad sight or the handy feeling of holding a text. Besides, you cannot write in the margins and hold a conversation with a text if it is online. Of course these days, there are technologies for probably doing that, but it is not quite the same thing. Do you know that when television appeared, the same questions were asked about the theatre? Then there was the big screen too. Did the radio stop people having conversations with each other? No! These technologies will only function alongside each other and compensate for omissions in each medium. There is also the thing about print culture that won’t die, the kind of publics it creates – the book readers clubs, perhaps informal in the case of Africa, the tea-house or coffee-shop gathering to read newspapers. In Nigeria I know sometimes it is the newsstand public space, where the issues in the newspapers or news magazines are hotly debated, argued about and pontificated upon. The internet is just one other form of, one other public space for communication.