Playing with Poetry: A Conversation with Tade Ipadeola

Image: Screenshot from a PEN video (modified)

“I do think that our greatest investments should be back in our originating homelands. If we did have libraries all over Nigeria today, we might not have Boko Haram…”

 Poet, lawyer, and Yoruba culture enthusiast, Tade Ipadeola is well known in African literary circles.  His works include Voices: Interiors and Exteriors (1996), A Time of Signs (2006), and the award-winning The Sahara Testaments (2012). Shortly after his 50th birthday in 2020, had a chat with him. Characteristically thoughtful, Tade offers some interesting responses to questions about his authorial vision, his politics of language, his poetics, and his recent fellowship at the prestigious Iowa International Writing Program. This conversation with African Writer Associate Editor, Tolu Akinwole, has been edited for clarity.


It is really good to connect with you, and to be able to have this conversation with you. I will let you in on this: Sola Osofisan suggested having this conversation, although I had also been nursing the idea at the time. Of you he said, “Well, you know, Tade is deep, so one has to be very careful.” Now you have no idea how much trouble that statement threw me into. So, I will be trying to sound deep here. I want conversation actually to revolve around your politics and your poetics. But above all, I would like for it to be a conversation about your authorial vision. Along that line, here is my first question, which is really just for my edification: why have you chosen poetry as a primary means of artistic expression, or did poetry choose you, as they say?

Ah, I’m glad you added that caveat or rider. Because the older I get the more I realize why poets often say that poetry chose them and not the other way. When I was younger, in secondary school, I used to write essays, and I used to represent my school at essay competitions. In those days, in the early to mid 80s in Nigeria, you had a system where schools competed at the regional level, and then at the state level. And you get rewarded. I remember that in 1986, when I wrote my last competitive essay for the school, my essay came second, and I was given a prize of N50. That was a lot of money because my tuition at the University of Ife for a year was N100. So, although I wrote some poetry when I was in university, I did not start writing seriously until I left the University. I would chalk it up to the influence of the late Sesan Ajayi. He was my lecturer in my first year at the University of Ife. That was 1986, the year that Niyi Osundare’s Eye of the Earth won the Commonwealth Prize. And one of the good things was that suddenly I began to realize that poetry could be a rich form of expression. But an earlier influence was my father, a teacher of literature. He introduced me to poetry very early, when I was 11. He made me read J.P. Clark and Wole Soyinka into his tape recorder. So that I could get the cadence, and I could hear how poets think, especially poets who are not English but are writing in English. So, I got a pretty early introduction to poetry from my dad. But when I encountered Niyi Osundare in the first year at university, I realized poetry could actually be more musical than I had known. Niyi Osundare had the quality of mellifluousness which no other contemporary of his had. My wanting to emulate Osundare became a problem because I could not effectively replicate his style because it is intrinsically his. So, I gave up the idea of writing. When I started working in Ibadan, I met another lawyer in the Ministry of Justice who was a poet. She was not intimidated by anybody, so she just wrote. She dragged me to meetings of the Association of Nigerian Authors and, on one occasion to Harry Garuba’s office. Garuba had an inscription on his wall which read: “Poet at Large.” So, the challenge came organically.

Another influence was the Thursday poetry group meeting at the University of Ibadan (UI). The group paraded very intimidating poets like Godwin Ede, now Amatoritsero Ede, Remi Raji, they had hired a guy by himself. They had just about just about anybody who was anybody in that corridor of time. So, I started writing seriously around that time, and released, jointly with Abioye, one slim collection called Voices in ’96. After that, I just kept writing. And so, in fact what I noticed was around that time I was always writing for the newspapers, opinion pieces. So I continue writing essays, but gradually the essay writing stopped and poetry just asserted itself.

Thank you for that. But I must let you know that you are doing to some of us what the likes of JP Clark and Soyinka did to you. Some of us who aspire to be poets pick up your poems and feel inadequate. As you must often hear, your poems awe, inspire, haunt, construct, solidify or just luxuriate in the literary awareness of themselves as poems. Now on that note, I would like to ask a very general question about your poetics. In preparation for this chat, I had to re-read the paper you presented at the conference in honor of Wole Soyinka in Nigeria last year (thanks for sending it to me, by the way). In that paper, you submit, with characteristic poetic flourish, that meaning is a shape shifter. By that you mean that hermeneutic ventures tend to be contentious. Of all the genres of literature, there is hardly any that projects the multivalency of meaning as poetry. What is your relationship to meaning? By extension, and to push you towards criticism, what is the relationship between poetry and meaning?

That is a tricky one. My other name in Yoruba is Alayọ. I bear Ayantade (Tade for short, which is what people call me by), but it is my father’s name. Now so that there would be no confusion in the house, my grandmother, my mother, and my siblings call me Alayọ. They say that as a child, I was really very playful and got to a point, I think in my early teenage years, my father got fed up with my playfulness, and he wondered whether I was really good to go to university and do things like that. I used to sit with my grandmother, who was a fantastic storyteller, and when she was not telling stories when she was selling nuts, yams, and things like that. She was just a beautiful user of language in those other contexts, the quotidian everyday context. And I used to listen to how she played with words. My father inherited an aspect of that. They used to say my father sent proverbs on errands. But I would say that I didn’t come to poetry through the route of meaning as such. I came to poetry through the route of play. I got to know the meaning of poems much later. I reveled in the idea of having words play with each other, and having thoughts contend, joust with each other. Those things gave me joy because they showed me that you can make life fun. It’s that kind of sublime conversation between ideas and words and thoughts that first drew me in. Of course, much later, I started to look into poems much closer. And, starting with Eye of the Earth, which I had to engage at the university level, I began to see that poems are actually vehicles for serious, sometimes political, thoughts, serious ideas about how to live. By the time I came across a poet like the W.S. Merwin, the American poet who recently passed on, I realized that, poems can be very important tools for making serious statements about not just how you feel but also about the state of the world, about how things should go. So, for me, meaning came, eventually, and sometimes maybe dominated the scene. But initially it was just the idea of having words have a rump that drew me into writing. You can say part of that is also because I’m Yoruba, and Yoruba can be extremely, extremely playful with words. It is a highly tonal language and it affords much playing. The Yorubas, I think, don’t have a sense of what is obscene, but they have a sense of the ribald. Take for instance how at an ayo game, elders playing ayo they make jokes but in ways that will not “corrupt” the youth. When you listen closely, carefully considering the multiple meanings that their words convey, you will find that they are talking about things different from what they seem to be saying. These uses of the language drew me into poetry as I came to practice it.

“I didn’t come to poetry through the route of meaning as such. I came to poetry through the route of play. I got to know the meaning of poems much later…”

That answer sits right at the mouth of my next question. In the same paper I referred to earlier, you cited the Yoruba saying: “ààbọ̀ ọ̀rọ̀ làá sọ fún ọmọlúwàbí,” which translates loosely, very loosely, into English as “a word to the wise is enough.” That proverb came up in your discussion of àrokò, the Yoruba symbolic system of communication, which is a vibrant test of Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of semiology. I wonder if the notion of “ààbọ̀ ọ̀rọ̀” (the half-word) drive your art at all?

I actually think that the Yoruba went farther than the English. Whereas the English say a word to the wise is enough, they Yoruba say that half-of-a-word suffices. The Yoruba will chide a younger person for not correctly reading a facial expression. And as a child grows older, they expect them to read bodily gestures correctly as well.  So, from facial expressions to gestures, the enterprise of meaning making in the Yoruba culture is so embedded in the ability of the individual to sum up the entirety of a situation and make meaning without the need for many words. I think if I remember correctly, in the same paper I referred to an expression from the Oyo part of Yorubaland, “a kìí sọ̀rọ̀ tán” (meaning you don’t say all you want to say at a sitting).

And I argued that that aspect of our lives as Africans made it across the Atlantic into the New World. And you can see it in a lot of music like reggae. Now reggae music has four beats, but they actually play only three. The fourth beat plays itself in your imagination. The pleasures of listening to reggae comes from that. (I mean roots reggae, not ska, not dub reggae.)A part of the pleasure is that your mind is also playing along with the musicians. That feature of roots reggae is a problem for those who are to transcribe it to notes. When transcribed, it does not make much sense to its readers because it only represents three-quarters of the actual the music. Yet, it is understood as a complete musical form, even without being played out fully. So, the craft of poetry, for me, is essentially one that allows you to play around with that kind of worldview, that allows a child to listen and make meaning. You can teach a child to recite “Twinke, Twinkle, Little Star,” and that child can grow up to be a cosmonaut, an astronaut, an astronomer, and think literally of the stars as the stars. But you can also leave the child alone and let the child wonder whether the girl next door is the little star—where aspects of the Western culture, especially of the English language, meets what we do in Africa. Paul Simon, went to South Africa and I wrote this fantastic song called “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” I am not sure that if he had stayed in America or Europe alone, he would have come up with lyrics to songs like that. But these are the things we do here [in Africa] that are almost everyday riches in, in our thinking, in our way of looking at the world. So I would say what drives my art is the idea of having words shape one’s thinking along with other things in one’s environment, one’s perception of events. I think that the African worldview allows for that capacious mode of thinking, an almost animist way of looking at the world that acknowledges that the things one sees around one have a say in what is happening, and one has a duty to listen, so that one doesn’t assume that it is only what one expresses that matters.

Thanks for that. When I read the paper your presented, I really wondered why you have not written a text on theory, something akin to Soyinka’s own Myth, Literature and the African World. What strikes me now as you elaborated on your art is how richly the Yoruba language and worldview drives your thought. And that leads me to my next question. In a recent interview you hinted at the perennial anxiety of writers about their audiences as the reason for the reluctance of many writers to write in their indigenous languages. This again brings up two questions for me; the one invites a broad theoretical response, and the other is quite personal. I am sure that you are aware that the issue of the use of indigenous languages in African literature remains a fiercely debated one whenever it is brought up—you think of the intellectual conversations that have been held around this idea by Chinua Achebe, Obi Wali, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kole Omotosho and the echoes of that debate in the thoughts of recent writers and critics such as Achille Mbembe, Mukoma wa Ngugi and Taiye Selasi.  The question is what should be the relationship of the African writer to the English language? There, I am pushing you to comment on the politics of language for the African writer.

I think Ngugi did a beautiful job of trying to draw the boundaries, trying to map the province. I think that we have a duty as African writers to write in our indigenous languages, not minding how many people read those languages. We have a duty to have to have these books or read as audiobooks. A language like Yoruba, for instance, is rich.  I mean, I would give anything to have a voice recording of Fagunwa reading Ogboju Ọdẹ ninu Igbo Irumọlẹ. I can read and understand it , but I know that there are things that sheer tone illuminates.  Going through the liturgy of the Anglican Church in which I grew up, for example, I discovered new meanings each time we had a new Vicar in my local church. Those Vicars came from different parts of Yorubaland, and their inflections of Bible passages or the psaltery illuminated something that probably would have escaped me. For example, my Vicar calls the camel ìbákasíẹ, and not many speakers of Yoruba know that the language recognizes the two species of camels that are dominant in our part of the world: The double-humped camel (the Bactrian camel), ìbákasíẹ, and more regular single-humped camel. So, it is our loss as a people if we do not have all these things written in our indigenous languages. We have come a long way with technology to make this possible. We will do ourselves a lot of good if we retrieve what writers have done in English. This is why I have decided that my first book in Yoruba is coming off the press. I will not announce the title now so as not to jinx it.

Now the second leg of my question: In preparation for this conversation, again, I consulted some of the interviews you have had. One called attention to the broad web of allusions in your poetry. The allusions, for me, enrich your poetry. But the question is, do you fear that your allusions narrow your audience? Or, put another way, whom do you consider as your audience? 

Remember that I got into poetry through the route of play. The second thing is that most people who grew up in Nigeria in middle class homes in the 70s and the 80s had encyclopedias in their homes. In mine, there are full sets of various encyclopedias. There is a definite shift now. I read those encyclopedias voraciously. Some of my siblings thought it was my way of escaping house chores, but my mother always implored them to let me read. Now those things have a way of broadening knowledge and enabled me to be able to do some comparative cultural analysis. Another influence was my grandmother. When I turned 50 recently, I thought back on my childhood and a few things struck me. I found that there was certain information, call it dangerous knowledge, kept from children. You know that indigenous knowledge is phenomenological and not merely driven by classroom instruction. That my father was a school principal did contribute to that. He was so passionate about knowledge and drove me to consume knowledge and that is what shows up in my art.  I find that those who will like your poem will still like it.

Now, let us shift gear. You were recently in Iowa to attend the famous Iowa writing program. What one word would summarize your experience at Iowa?

Splendid! I wish we could replicate a fraction of what they have in Iowa at the Universities of Lagos, Ife, Ibadan, Ilorin. When students experience writers like that, they get to appreciate the world better, because they get to know what is going on in other parts of the world.

Could you say a word or two about your reception in Iowa and what you think about their perception of Africa.

Iowa is a fantastic space for a writer like me. One of the things that struck me was how there was no artificial division between the city and the university. City dwellers could use the school libraries and students could use the city public libraries. This sort of infrastructure for knowledge sharing is what I hope gets built in Nigeria. We do have to rethink our priorities [in Nigeria], so that we can expend public funds not merely on stadiums—in fact, the best players are leaving the country for Europe. This closeness of the University to the city has a noticeable effect on the school and the general outlook of students. My interactions with students at the University of Iowa was really fruitful. I find the students’ knowledge of literary art, and their knowledge of my work, sometimes intimidating because well, they knew I was coming, so they had prepared themselves for my coming. They had read my work and asked really engaging questions. So, I found the time in Iowa intellectually stimulating.  

“I would say what drives my art is the idea of having words shape one’s thinking along with other things in one’s environment, one’s perception of events. I think that the African worldview allows for that capacious mode of thinking…”

Speaking of reading, you won the NLNG Prize for Poetry in 2013. With the prize, you founded a library. Why a library? I know you have mentioned how you drew the inspiration for that from your father. What seems apparent is that you are making a statement about a writer’s commitment to their community. Reminds me of Chinua Achebe’s assertion that the writer is a teacher. So, when I ask why a library, I am wondering about your philosophy of public engagement. Could you speak to that?

On my philosophy, that goes back to my childhood.  My father went to school as an adult. In his day, the community donated funds to send him to the University of Ibadan. When he graduated, he became a teacher and his orbit was his local government area. In 2018, Kofi Awoonor was shot dead in Kenya. I was shaken by the news that such an old man who contributed much to African literature would not have the benefit of dying peacefully in a bed. So, I mentioned in an interview in leading to the award that if I won, I would build a small library in honor of Awoonor. So, when I won, my father, who was still alive at the time, reminded me to reinvest that money in my community. So, I called my carpenter and got to work. Now we have the library stock with books coutesy of intellectuals like Ebenezer Obadare, Akin Adesokan, and Wale Adebanwi. Those three started it and others joined. Now I boast that the Kofi Awoonor Library has books that the Oyo State Public Library does not have. If you come from such a background where your parents went to school on community money, giving back to the community has to drive your public engagement. Until his death, my father had a blackboard outside of his home with which he taught children in the community, preparing them for examinations. I do think that our greatest investments should be back in our originating homelands. If we did have libraries all over Nigeria today, we might not have Boko Haram. We have to find a way to populate our local libraries, find a way to continuously circulate knowledge. The knowledge does not have to have originated in the West. One of the stories I want to put down was told to me by my father. When he was a hunter, he came across a two puff adders mating. The male puff adder was so angry that its coital act was interrupted that it exploded. He had no idea, and neither did I, that such things could happen. And, who knows what that knowledge could inspire in someone who has it.

About the author

Tolu Akinwole

Tolu Akinwole is a PhD student in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he recently earned a master’s degree in African Cultural Studies. He is interested in the everyday politics and Afropolitan sensibilities of the African urban space and how these are shown in Anglophone African literature. He is co-editor of the poetry anthology, Our Legacy of Madness.

Add Comment

Click to comment. Comments held for moderation.