Uche Peter Umez interviews Ikeogu Oke, a writer, poet and journalist. Oke is the author of three poetry collections for adult readers: Where I was Born (2003), Salutes without Guns (2009) and In the Wings of Waiting (2012). Salutes without Guns was a Times Literary Supplement (TLS) Book of the Year (2010), selected for that recognition by Nadine Gordimer, the 1991 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Oke has also authored poetry for children, including Song of Success (2013), a musical book of children’s poems. He is one of four Nigerian poets whose poems were included in The Second Genesis (2014), an anthology of contemporary world poetry recently published in India.
Uche Peter Umez: Your latest poetry collection In the Wings of Waiting strikes me as a more “tender-hearted celebration” (to use Okey Ndibe’s remarkable phrase) than your earlier collection, Salutes without Guns, which seems to me a stouter – and yet more compelling collection. What might have accounted for this change in depth? Might it be love, which appears to be the dominant theme in your latest collection? Why do you feel you have to write about love so much?
Ikeogu Oke: I did not intend for there to be a change in depth between In the Wings of Waiting and Salutes without Guns. Nonetheless, as every poem, every poetry collection, is likely to draw on a unique motivation, there could be variations in the end-product including variations in depth. But it seems to me that both collections have depth in their peculiar ways, especially when you consider the dominant theme of some of their sections. For Salutes without Guns there is the deep grief that characterises the section titled “A Fortnight of Memories”, a sequence of fourteen elegiac poems inspired by the death of my sister, Eresi. In In the Wings of Waiting there is the equally deep range of emotions discernible from the sequence of fifty two love poems in the eponymous segment. So, one can speak of a juxtaposition of depths – rather than a change in depth – between both collections. And when the emotions expressed in poetry are triggered by different phenomena – grief and love in his case – we shouldn’t measure their depth as if they derive from a common stimulus, assuming there are objective parameters for measuring the depth of emotions beyond what we sense from the words of their expresser, the poet, which may even be contrived or misunderstood and so unreliable. In the end, for the writing and reading of poetry to make sense we have to take what the poet offers us with faith, believing it to be genuine.
Uche Peter Umez: I remember a statement by Marie Howe, “Poetry holds the knowledge that we are alive and that we know we’re going to die,” while reading some of your poems, mainly those revolving around loss. In Salutes without Guns particularly, the poems “A Grief No Voice Can Speak,” “Family Reunion,” “Away but Not Gone,” etc., deal with loss. What value have you found in poetry in times of gloom? Has poetry helped you find some meaning in life? Do you perhaps find anything therapeutic in writing poetry?
Ikeogu Oke: The knowledge that we are alive and are going to die is an indelible stain on the fabric of consciousness. Poetry is surely one of the residues of that stain and the attendant angst resulting from the crisis of being and the sense of the inevitability of death. But it is clear to me that the stain would still exist even if poetry did not, marking our consciousness as it does without the possibility of erasure. A living person does not need poetry to remind them that they are alive and will die. Everything from the death of insects to that of other human beings is there to impress it on their minds in spite of poetry. But as with the knowledge of most things, our affinity with poetry can make that particular awareness keener. Every elegy attempts to revive the awareness, assuming it never lulls, and Thomas Gray’s majestic “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and John Donne’s “Meditation XVII” (rather like a sophisticated prose poem) succeed in doing so to superlative degrees. In both works are perennial and bold reminders that every life marches, crawls or is dragged towards a common destination: death. Of course in writing my own elegies, specifically those you mentioned, that whole sequence in which they occur, I tried to gain a grip on the slippery handle of loss and grief. And poetry proved exceptionally useful in trying to enable me to do so. It led me out of the labyrinths of grief to a successful catharsis.
Uche Peter Umez: What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you sit down to write a poem? Do you think of the subject matter or the form – or what emotion you would like to evoke? Which comes first? What are your sources of inspiration? And could you tell us about your writing process?
Ikeogu Oke: In writing poems I usually don’t think of any of those, except of course I am writing a commissioned poem, to specification, about a predetermined subject. And even at that the subject only provides a creative stimulus, a sort of thematic spark that lights the fire of creativity. Ideally, I write poems spontaneously and do not arrange trysts with the Muse. I prefer her surprising me with an ambush, which she often does. Usually the critical impulse kicks in after the frenzied composition, and in the most fortunate of circumstances I have found that I need not alter a word of what I had written while the Muse visited, and that the words conform to an unpremeditated musical pattern. And that I could sing them as spontaneously as I had written them. But there is an exception – THE HERESIAD – the unpublished musical epic, in a modified form of heroic couplets I call lyrical pentameters, on which I worked sporadically for about 25 years, most of which was devoted to rewriting and polishing the work in hopes that it would turn out flawless. So sometimes my encounter with the Muse seems a wrestle to produce lines which, in W. B. Yeats’s memorable words, seem like a moment’s thought. And I have drawn inspiration for my poems from just about anything.
Uche Peter Umez: “Your Father Says No,” “A Voiced Concern,” “Rocks on Our Path,” and “The No Your Father Said,” echo the prejudice and misgivings that bedevil some relationships between man and woman, especially when both partners are from different social or cultural divides. Do these poems reflect a personal experience? What do you think of the influence of personal experience on poetry? For instance, there are poems inspired by your daughter and perhaps a beloved. Can you say just a few words about the stanza below?
I know I have just reached
The first of the seven mountains
I can climb and the first
Of the seven seas I can swim across…
Ikeogu Oke: Of course the claims in the lines – of having reached the seven mountains and the seven seas – are not literal. They attempt to transpose an existential experience into legend. But the truth of art is hardly ever literal though it could hint at literalness. The poems you mentioned grew out of experience, personal and imaginative. They are part of the sequence of love poems in In the Wings of Waiting. And being love poems, they had to be products of experience, as I cannot imagine writing a love poem without being in love. That’s emotional and intellectual dishonesty rolled into one, to me an unthinkable misrepresentation. And for lyric poetry, I think the best, most persuasive ones, most persuasive in terms of sincerity, are inspired by personal experience. Generally, a poet should write best about what they have lived through, whether physically or imaginatively, whether directly or vicariously. And sometimes to experience is to engage with the senses of the imagination or, put differently, to sense with the antennae of the imagination. The poems for my daughter are pure expressions of parental affection, with the anxiety that often tries to blight the purity.
Uche Peter Umez: Philip Levine says, “The truth of poetry is not the truth of history.” In reading “A Patriot’s Prayer,” I am inspired to believe in the power of words, but then the poem “The New Colossus” plunges me back to face the recurrent spectre of misrule that decimates much of our existence in Nigeria. Don’t you think we tend to exaggerate the significance of poetry? What use is poetry where crass materialism and relentless self-aggrandizement shape the language of the day? How do you respond to Levine’s line?
Ikeogu Oke: Life could seem like an endless factory of futility. The author of the book of Proverbs simply but impeccably describes its labours or their end as vanity upon vanity. But I think the thought of its futility would be more oppressive without art and other forms of human distractions, devices and achievements that could help mitigate the harshness of that reality. And that for me is how poetry can prove useful, in aiding a salutary illusion of life’s meaningfulness, in offering us some sort of object to hold and possibly keep our balance in what could essentially seem like a journey in emptiness, towards futility, life. That sort of usefulness cannot be exaggerated, I think. It is too self-justifying for that. Without it – by which I mean things like it – life could seem absolutely, immitigably meaningless with disastrous consequences for those who try to live it. Joseph Conrad said that every age is found on illusion so that men do not renounce life early and the human race come to an end. And the foundation of that illusion is in how things like poetry give “meaning” or a semblance of meaning to life. Of course I agree with your quote of Philip Levine. Ideally, the truth of poetry is imaginative truth while the truth of history is – or is supposed to be – literal truth. The one owes its existence to the senses and the other to the mind as the nest of the imagination. The different effects of your reading “A Patriot’s Prayer” and “The New Colossus” is understandable, since the poems were inspired by positive and negative impressions of our country, the one intuitive, the other real. By the way I consider what you call the spectre of misrule as part of the learning curve of leadership. And you may agree with me if you consider what has happened in other nations in history. Nations evolve, and usually for the better.
Uche Peter Umez: You strive to follow Horace’s maxim that poetry should both delight and instruct. Moreover, you advocate that a work of art, poetry in particular, should encapsulate both aesthetical and utilitarian values and in your poetry you have tried as best you could to reflect this vision. What do you think of poetry that embodies only aesthetic value, and nothing more? Art for art’s sake?
Ikeogu Oke: Art for art’s sake is a redundant categorisation because it denotes nothing in reality. Every work of art is produced for a purpose and not to serve its own insular ends as suggested by the phrase “art for art’s sake”. The profundity of what Chinua Achebe said in response to that categorisation, derived from Igbo cosmology, that if one thing stands another stands by it, becomes more luminous the longer one contemplates it. For a work of art – in whatever form, including poetry – does not fulfil itself but finds fulfilment in or through something other than itself, including appreciation by an audience. So, for instance, where the “Mona Lisa” stands you are wont to see lovers of art literally near it in admiration. And that makes its beauty utilitarian – as a stimulus for admiration which is pleasure in a subdued form. And it does not make an overt social or political statement like “Guernica,” which besides eliciting a similar response from art lovers can also provide a canvass from which their contemplation of its social and political message may rebound, indicating another, rather secondary, level of utilitarian relevance. I recall making this comparison in “Interrogation,” a poem in Where I was Born, my first book of poems. And it can be extended to two major categories of poetry – poetry with or without an overt social or political message. Art for art’s sake refers to art with the latter sort of character, in whatever form, while the opposite is art created supposedly as a mere expression of beauty, with no utilitarian string attached. But why try to use art to create only beauty – the source of its power to delight – when you can successfully use it to do more – like instruct, etc. – and so increase its significance?
Uche Peter Umez: According to you, part of your vision as a poet is to “bridge the gap between lyricism and musicality”, as shown in your poetry collections, including the ones for children. What motivates you to set some of your poems to music? What decides the rhythm for a poem, given your deep interest in music? Do you think musicality is essential to good poetry?
Ikeogu Oke: Musicality is the perfect expression of poetic form. It is the ultimate manifestation of that melodious fusion of rhythm and lyricism called cadence. Poetry, in perfect motion, becomes indistinguishable from music. And, yes, I have put considerable emphasis on making my poetry perceived as musical, but not so much by contriving the musicality as due to the fact that some of my poems turn out inherently musical, like the ones for children, recently published in Song of Success, an African Pageant of Children’s poems, by HEBN. So you can say, as it were, that the musicality comes with such poems as a new-born child comes into the world with blood in its body. It is not transfused post-composition. The instinct that produces the poem produces the music along with it. Of course I have written many poems which do not lend themselves to musical composition or performance, an indication that I do not think poetry should always do that, or that musicality is essential to good poetry. In fact I am aware that a poem can be very bad qua poetry and yet very musical. But I consider musicality a remarkable way of augmenting the pleasure that can be derived from poetry, especially good poetry. For me nothing decides the rhythm of a poem. The process of making one is rather like that of a weaverbird building its beautiful and intricate nest, without an architectural blueprint as far as visibility can tell. Instinct plays the key role.
Uche Peter Umez: A good number of your poems are in rhymes, while some are sonnets. In fact, all the epigrams in Salutes without Guns are in rhymes. Obviously, you seem much interested in form. What attracted you to this approach? Can you describe your own experience of writing towards certain particular forms?
Ikeogu Oke: Our world is defined by form. And I cannot imagine art, as I understand it, divesting itself of form. In my readings I have soaked up various influences which have sometimes manifested in my writings in unpredictable ways. One of them is the art of rhyming, and typically sonnets are a species of rhymed poetry, poetry cast in an inflexible structural form of usually fourteen lines with variations of rigid metrical lines. I recall writing the sonnets “The Sting of Death” and the “The Victory of the Grave” included in elegiac poems to my late sister almost at the speed of thought, with everything falling into place rather unpremeditatedly. Most of the other poems in the sequence are not rhymed. But all were written under the same emotionally charged conditions dominated by intense grief, with tears literally running from my eyes and occasionally wetting my manuscripts. So in the course of writing the poems I just realised that something had come along with rhymes, something unanticipated, the sonnets, a remarkable gift for which I remain grateful. I had awakened from some sort of compositional trance after writing both sonnets and, feeling a heavy cathartic weight roll off my heart, read them through and realised that I needn’t change anything. I was more gratified when my American friend Donna Miesbach read them shortly afterwards and wrote to me that my sister did not die in vain with her death having inspired a poem like “The Sting of Death”, or something to that effect.
Uche Peter Umez: I like the poem “The Palm wine Ode,” its jaunty cadence, its full-bodied tone. It is simply delightful! Did you compose this poem after some inspirational rounds of palm wine swilling? How long did it take you to write this poem? How much time do you spend revising a poem? How do you know when a poem is successful or ready for publication?
Meat was at the ready – salted, peppered, dried.
“He-goat meat,” we called it. – It had a stubborn hide.
It lent itself to chewing, with all that taste of brine,
And washing down with pleasure – the night we drank palm wine.
Ikeogu Oke: In a sense “The Palm wine Ode” was literally a gift from palm wine. In the last year of my postgraduate studies at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, a group of fellow postgraduate students – all men, incidentally – struck on the idea of reviving the culture of drinking palm wine and roped me in. So we contributed money and bought fresh palm wine and a goat that was slaughtered and tastily prepared for the great revival which lasted from dusk till well into the night, a memorable mix of banter, conversation and merriment, with many a swill of palm wine from cow horns or the other type of cup, like calabash, traditionally used in drinking it among our people, the Igbo. The experience was novel; and poetry is bred from novelty. Having retired to my room after the event, I woke up a few hours after midnight with an irresistible urge to write a poem, and the lines of “The Palm wine Ode” simply followed one another unpunctuated. The epiphany of how singable some of the stanzas are came right after the composition, and then I found someone to set those to music, including the one you have quoted. Whether or not and for how long I revise a poem depends how it was written. Some poems have come to me so full and perfect that I did not need to revise them at all. For me that’s inspiration at its best. At other times I have gone in search of poems and if and when I found them have usually needed to wrestle with them through composition and revisions to bring them to a publishable state, which for me is that state in which meaning and felicity of expression achieve a perfect fusion – perfect by my imperfect estimation.
Uche Peter Umez: In “Yola” and “As the Leaves Grow on a Tree,” you wrote prose poems. Is this an attempt at experimentation? What is your view about prose poem? Also in your poems, you seem to have a fondness for footnotes. Is it really necessary to use such a device for poetry? Don’t you think it undercuts some of poetry’s charm?
Ikeogu Oke: My writing those prose poems was more conscious than experimental. I realised as I started writing the poems that they made their own demands regarding form and simply conceded to them. I wrestle with such situations sometimes, of wanting something for a poem and the poem insisting on having its way. In this case I let both poems decide while I complied. You know, Virgil once referred to his poems as his children. And writing a poem can be compared to raising a child. As the parent you may have – or should have – plans for your child. But the child, for some reasons, could have their own plans for themselves. And I think it is a wise decision to let our children be, who seem to know where they’re going, while offering them guidance, be they human or poetic children. For me, “Yola” and “As the Leaves Grow on a Tree” are two of such poetic children.
I think prose poems, like every other type of poetry, are as impressive as one is able to write them. Skill and expert delivery is everything. Any poetic form would fail to impress without both. What I have for footnotes is for me not really fondness. I’m rather something of a stickler for clarity and would like to ensure through the explanations in such footnotes that my readers derive more, knowledge-wise, from my work. Footnotes have been used by other poets or their publishers. I remember one of my editions of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland being studded with them. And I can’t see what poetry stands to lose by, for instance, having some of its localised symbols explained in footnotes for the benefit of the potential reader who may not be familiar with such symbols. For me, such footnotes play the same explanatory role in poetry as in any other form of publication. And I believe they increase rather than reduce the value of the published work. The charm of the poem is in the poem itself; it is not in the footnote and so the accompaniment of a footnote cannot undercut it, I think.
Uche Peter Umez: What started you writing poetry for children?
Ikeogu Oke: I began to write for children by accident. In the run-up to the 2005 Nigerian International Book Fair, the writer Wale Okediran and Chinyere Nwoga, two of the organisers, invited me to read my poems for school children who had been invited to take part in a sort of meet-the-writers segment of the book fair. I recall Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo also taking part in that special event for children. But looking at all the poems I had written until then, both published and unpublished, I realised that none of them was suitable for the palate of young readers, being targeted at adults. So I decided in the ten or so days before the commencement of the book fair to write new poems for children. Writing one poem first thing in the morning and one last thing in the night, I wrote twenty poems in ten days, half of which are in my said collection titled Song of Success, an African Pageant of Children’s Poems (2013), published by HEBN. The other unpublished half is a sequence of dramatic poems for children, tentatively titled The Circus, primed for such theatrical performance suspected by the title. I realised that the poems could be sung right after composing the last one and have since proceeded to have the first ten set to music, with their music scores and audio CD of songs derived from them accompanying their publication in book form. I was thrilled when the children for whom I first performed the poems at the book fair made an uninvited rush for the typescripts afterwards. For me it was an augury that children would largely be impressed by the poems. Somehow I had always wanted to write for children, so as to catch them young for poetry, for literature; but it seemed to have been an unconscious or latent desire. And I am grateful to Wale Okediran and Chinyere Nwoga for making me more aware of the desire and setting me on the path to realising it through that auspicious invitation. Children are the future of literature as everything else; without them there will be no future readers of writers. So writing for children is for me a way of identifying with the future.
Uche Peter Umez: As a social commentator, don’t you feel that when you give too much time and attention to prose, it weakens the integrity of your poetry? How do you respond to this? I mean, don’t you think that essays have more immediate, even far-reaching, impact on readers than poetry would ever have?
Ikeogu Oke: Being a social commentator is an entirely different engagement for me. I can’t see that it weakens my poetry. If anything, it strengthens it. I actually think all types of writing are good for the writer. For it amounts to flexing the literary muscles, as it were, which should grow stronger with use. But I think the impact of any essay, and other types of writing for that matter, depends on various factors top of which include its literary quality and execution and how well it treats its subject matter and associated ideas. In this regard a good essay is better, and should be more impactful, than a bad poem, and vice versa.
Uche Peter Umez: Having performed some of your poems at home and abroad, what’s your take on performance poetry and spoken word? Don’t you think poetry slam will “undermine” poetry, given the bandwagon mentality many of us Nigerians are prone to? Finally, which poets excite you the most? Which ones have influenced your development as a poet? By the way, when do we expect an ode from you to Nadine Gordimer?
Ikeogu Oke: I believe performance poetry can help improve awareness about and draw a larger audience to poetry. But poetry is still something best created and consumed in solitude and mostly in a meditative state. My worry about performance poetry, even as an advocate of it as a medium of publicity and, as it were, for retailing the pleasure that may be derived from poetry, is the danger of its undermining the reputation of the art. I mean, it is possible to give a good performance of a bad poem and vice versa, depending on the skill of the performer. And the audience, who may have limited or no knowledge of poetry, may be led by such eventualities to place the wrong value on the respective poems. So I regard performance poetry as a double-edged knife, clearing the way to an enhanced public enjoyment of poetry on the one hand while being likely to injure the reputation of the art unless close attention is paid to the other edge of the knife. And it is due to what you call the bandwagon mentality that it is important to be very mindful of the knife’s other edge. Quality, and its proper assessment, must not be sacrificed for popularity.
The list of poets that excite me is really long, from Homer to Virgil to Dante to Hafiz to Chaucer to Walt Whitman to Alexander Pope to Tagore to Yeats to Neruda to Heaney: many ancient and modern poets, as it were, from many different cultures and backgrounds. I’m being terribly unfair by leaving out many of their names. They have all impacted my poetry in some special way, and I acknowledged some of them in my poem “A Poet’s prayer” published in the collection Where I Was Born.
I have written several poems for Nadine, who unfortunately passed on recently, that could be regarded as odes. Here’s one, written while she was still with us, like the rest:
For Nadine Gordimer
I came to you afraid and trembling,
And you stilled my nerves with your calming touch;
Now I shall chase you forever
With the ghost of my gratitude.
Mother of what I am and all that I may become,
Rooted like a sapling in the nursery of my art.
Great tree, feminine and resilient,
Veteran of many seasons marked by chills and windblasts,
You spread your oaken branches above the hapless weak,
And shed your thoughts like acorns to feed a famished world;
Your roots are sunk in virtue, your trunk stands firm on right;
Your leaves, green slates for justice, are always filled with light.
You shine with rainbow flowers, the type the world may see,
Only when, in eons, your type returns to earth.
Author’s pix: From Ikeogu Oke’s Facebook page