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Lagos and a Life of the Poets

The writer is a product of his own society; and the story of all great writers from ages to ages has revolved around the very environment in which they grew up. In this fascinating essay, told in an undeniable powerful prose, Nwakanma, himself, a poet, explores the arresting power of metropolitan Lagos on him and his own generation of writers.

POETRY walks on the streets in Lagos. It is in the incredible dynamic of life which enacts, like some incandescent power, the moment of each living hour: it is in the sense by which, living in this city, a poet glimpses a whole new form of life, and an alternative way in which to experience it fully. This vast, tense and bristling city, its social tendon tautly held by imprecise impulses, reverberates in the poetic propensities which she inspires.

Lying amidst a network of lagoons, from which it derived its name, from early Portuguese adventurers, in some halcyon distance, there is a very animated kind of drama which flows in the bowels of Lagos, just as the sea flows by it. That, in actual fact, can be felt in that subtle sense of perpetual motion, in which Lagos can be discerned. And motion is logistics which the poet Okigbo says is what poetry is. And motion is the spirit of Lagos. A continuous flow of humanity, trapped in the imponderable minutiae of existence: like the stretch of pilgrims from Dan to Beersheba. A going and coming that goes on forever.

I had been born in that other city, Ibadan, some two-hours of hard driving away from Lagos, and which had been celebrated by the famous Nigerian poet, John Pepper Clark, in his poem ‘Ibadan’. Of Ibadan, in sharp epigram, J.P Clark had written, with unbearable love:

Ibadan,

Running splash of rust

and gold-flung and scattered

among seven hills like broken

 china in the sun.

But this had been in another age. J.P Clark was living in Ibadan in the 1960s, and was part of the Mbari crowd of Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Uli Bier, which had made Ibadan tick with cultural fervour, until the serious political events which marked that decade, and in which they were all so equi-finally involved, scattered them. But between 1965 and 1966, events moved rapidly to subvert Ibadan’s creative conviviality.

It was in this period that I had been born, around Ibadan – to a generation which my friend, the poet Ogaga Ifowodo, born also at this time, many miles away in the deep riverine marshes of Isoko in the Niger Delta, has called ‘the still-born generation’, an echo, it seems of Wole Soyinka’s description of his own generation as the ‘wasted generation’.

Events had scarred the times deeply. The post colonial mood of euphoria had twisted into pessimism. The coup which Ifeajuna (although Nigerian newspapermen still attribute it to Nzeogwu) led failed, and it created a momentum of political events, the consequence of which snowballed into a civil war. The wild wind of violent events. But I was born in Ibadan, at this time, in the soul of anomie: when the heat of that social crisis, like molten metaphor inscribed my age. My mother remembers the burnings. The city had erupted into the tragic cycle of violence that had marked the 1960s. How the guardian angel of children, had saved me from death: I, a mere sapling, was lying in my cot in Ibadan. And a huge stone had been lobbed at the window of the bedroom in which I was sleeping, by a rampaging crowd in the city, smashing the glass. But, both the broken pieces of glass and the stone, fell just inches away from my bed!

The weakened threshold of our humanity, has been the single most potent inspiration, in the works of my generation – from writers like, Esiaba Irobi, Ike Okonta, Uche Nduka, Maik Nwosu, Chiedu Ezeana to painters like Olu Oguibe, Syl Ogbechie, Chika Okeke, Krydz Ikwuemesi etc; who survived the war and still live with its consequence. It has been a reaching out for certitudes, for the whorl of reason which should explain our conditions, as victims of a still violent, post-war society. The event of the war has driven many of us to the most critical conflict of our lives: we are conflicted on two important question of allegiances – to our nation, which we question because we feel like exiles in Nigeria, and to our heritage, which we question because it seems to have failed us. The poet, painter, and professor of modern African arts at the University of Florida in the United states, Olu Oguibe, captures this dilemma of allegiance in his recent essay on Biafra, titled ‘the killing Fields’, in the Transition magazine.

Oguibe belongs to my generation, marked deeply by war. This dilemma has been narrated, but no one yet has told the full stories, for it seems that the true chroniclers of the last war, will not be, those who fought, but it will be those who were wounded by it: these are the children of war, born mostly between the eve of Nigeria’s independence and the end of the decade of the 1960s.

Especially also because the triumphant army, swept the whole of Biafra into a mould, and enshrined it into the most villainous form of silence. Years of military dictatorship has made it impossible for the victims to speak. The war ended on paper. And the paper declared a ‘no victor no vanquished’. And many of us had flocked to Lagos, in search of a life, and some meaning. Perhaps that is what drew me to Lagos. The search for meaning.

Its most renowned chronicler, the novelist Cyprian Ekwensi, still lives in his old house at Ojuelegba, at the heart of the city, where he wrote People of the city and Jagua Nana. Ojuelegba never sleeps: life here radiates with an uncommon nervousness, at this place, where the Nigerian musician Fela, had sung into legend. Even Fela’s ‘Kalakuta republic’ was in that neighbourhood, before soldiers burnt it down in 1977. It is invested with a tumult of screeching cars, inviolable joys, and Ekwensi’s city novels are the metaphors of Lagos in a particular milieu. Of course, the highlife singers in the 1950s and ’60s, like Israel Woba Njemanze, and Bobby Benson, had sung in the city, and about its discernibly ostentatious pleasures. They were the kind of pleasures which were sublime and distractive. Lagos was, and remains, the example of Nigeria’s own version of the city of a million lights. With its totally byzantine corpulence. In character dissimilar from the urbane remove of Enugu, or the aged, culturedness of Ibadan or even the intriguing mystery of Kaduna’s power cult. Lagos is feisty and almost amoral. And not exactly photogenic, in the classical sense of the word.

The poet, Odia Ofeimun, was one of those who came to Lagos at the end of the war from Benin city, where he had  been a war-time reporter for the provincial newspaper in the city, the Observer, on the same desk with the novelist, Festus Iyayi, winner of the Commonwealth prize for fiction in 1986. Obasi was fond of fat books, beautiful women and cognac. All these, Maik and I discovered, were interests we commonly shared.

And so, we soon hit it off: every Wednesday night, at the lull of production, we were to be found in the Editor’s office, smoking endlessly, quaffing beer or brandy or coffee, and speculating on the most arcane forms of metaphor, or proposing some great new literary movement, till the lights seeped through the curtain, and we became too restless with incantenation.

Sometimes, we ventured into the nights with Ely, at great risk, like the one occasion, when he and I nearly got smothered into the great incandescent light of an on-coming car at the Maryland end of Ikorodu road, arguing seriously on the merits or not of commercial writing from ‘serious’ literature, while returning one morning from Niteshift, at one time, the celebrity hangout in the city, and under the serious grip of the deity, Bacchus.

Or when he and Maik Nwosu got so drunk, they could no longer identify the particular address of the house to which they were originally headed at Yaba, and they parked the car on the kerb and slept till morning! Many of us, were homeless, with impermanent moorings, hibernating from home to home and living out of duffel bags. Craving only the space to write, and write and write … with our blood.

Our manuscripts were our only possessions, and they had no homes, but in our bags. Some nights, for instance, for lack of where to sleep, Uche Nduka and Izzia Ahmad were known to have sometimes stayed awake with the revelers of Obalende, that part of the city where no one sleeps, till the next morning. Some were luckier. I was lucky to have a room upstairs in the home of an uncle. But I was too regularly late home, and was loath to wake everybody on the street, whenever I got home late in the night. Lagos suffers from a siege mentality, and most streets, like the one in which I lived, have huge iron gates. I had to make a lot of noise, usually in the early hours. On a few occasions, to avoid this, I have had to pay some prostitutes in the Ayilara neighbourhood of Ojuelegba, the red light district of the city of Lagos, just to sleep in their rooms!

We drank, because like all flawed and broken people, we had little consolation from life, in the theatrical, dog-eat-dog mood of Lagos society sweltering under military dictatorship. We were wasting, with deliberate, suicidal relish. Many in my generation, feel choked out of a common heritage, for we have known nothing other than violence and lawlessness and the dehumanisation of military rule. Our anger and frustration, ring like the echo of drums thundering in our writings. But it does not beg for pity, only understanding. As Uche Nduka affirms in his poem, Chiaroscuro:

I won’t have to outdrink the fish

and outsmoke the chimney.

I will pull you to where poems

 quell the rage of booze and smoke…

Uche Nduka worked, two streets away from the Ilupeju office of TSM, on Coker Street, where Update Publishers occupied a rambling one storey building, full of cobwebbed shelves, and browning manuscripts, and an increasingly frustrated poet, who began to disengage emotionally from his job, at the time I happened upon him one afternoon, and he took me out to his favourite restaurant for lunch.

Story of his generation

He was gathering materials for his experimental prose work, on the lives of the poets, especially the new poets, whom he had encountered, which he had then titled, On the Romp. It seems to me, however, that the materials he got, were utilised in his poems, Chiaroscuro, in which assuming the character, Abaji, he narrates in verse, the story of his generation, and the compelling human drama which drives their existence and their art.

He had been in the same graduating class with Maik Nwosu in the university. Nduka Otiono, who had moved to the Classique magazine would join up with us, every evening after work, at our favourite restaurant, where we normally had raucous arguments. We were normally broke, but never too broke for beer and vegetable stew and pounded yam. Sometimes, we would have to beg for our transport fare back home in the night! Sometimes, the woman who ran the restaurant would pile up our bill till the end of the month when we were paid, and when we would renew our credits! It was at this point, that Maik Nwosu showed me manuscripts of some of his poems, many of which appeared in his book, Suns of Kush, which won the ANA/CADBURY prize later. I showed him the manuscripts of Sonori of a Lilac, my first collection of poems, and I think, it was at this point, that we understood, what we soon discovered to be the central meaning of our poetic vocations, as the attempt to re-invent poetry as the lost ‘language of the enlightenment’. Maik Nwosu thankfully acknowledges this when he wrote in Suns of Kush:

You and I know, obigbo

that there are contentions

 larger than the world…

Those contentions are linked inexorably to our artistic quests, and to the way in which we provide the creative testament of our generation of writers. That has been, I think, the real meaning of my poetry, and the poetry of many of my generation of writers: to describe our anguish, and to present them before a pitiless world, as an experience of value.

In Lagos, now, there is a certain calm: Of course, we still venture to Jazzville, on Majaro Street on some Friday nights, we still commit adultery, and wound our livers with alcohol. Many of us have fled into exile, unable to function any more, in the political turbulence, in the aftermath of the June 12, 1993 elections. Some are dead or dying or broken. Even now, many of us cannot publish our works, as a result of the death of publishing in Nigeria, and the subversion of the new Nigerian voice by international publishing concerns. We still console ourselves, however, by reading to ourselves, and by passing our works round to each other. Someday, many of these would be discovered, hopefully, by literary archeologists.

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