Akeem Lasisi, poet, journalist, and double winner of the ANA/CADBURY prize for poetry spoke with SYLVESTER ASOYA on his kind of poetry and why he thinks literature will do well in the coming years.
Q: You have won the ANA/CADBURY Prize for Poetry twice. What impact does this have on you?
A: It is an exciting experience winning the prize again. My first collection, Iremoje, a ritual poetry for Ken Saro-Wiwa won it in 2000, while Night of My Flight has just won it again. It is a mark of fulfilment as a poet, especially for someone who approaches poetry from performance perspective. In a way, I think it shows that the African traditional poetry is still alive and very relevant. The Yoruba oral poetry, with which I largely experiment, still has a chance, and I feel inspired to do more in that area.
For the prize, the financial reward is significant, particularly, considering the fact that books don’t sell like before. So, the N50,000.00 that came in 2000 and the one thousand dollars that is coming now are good enough to buy a few writing materials and refreshment for the body. One should be grateful to Cadbury Nigeria Limited for sponsoring the prize.
Q: Talking about performance poetry, what has been your experience?
A: I find it very interesting, challenging and rewarding. When I was just starting out as a performance poet about 15 years ago, many people thought I would not be able to go this far, because they felt that with modern English poetry, there was a limitation. But, so far, one has been able to establish the possibilities and potentials in performance poetry on one hand, and experimenting the traditional and modern forms on the other. The objective has always been to make poetry as entertaining and as functional as any other form of art. And the market has been receptive to the experiment.
Q: How large is this market, and where have you performed?
A: The market is expansive. I have discovered that people really love poetry, depending on the way you present it. I have performed for individuals and corporate organizations. For instance, I had a memorable performance experience at the 70th birthday ceremony of the Late Chief Bola Ige. After my rendition at the event in Ibadan, Ige embraced me for about five minutes and chanted prayers fervently on me because he was impressed beyond words. Eventually, he described me in his post-birthday article as a “young wizard of Yoruba and English Poetry.” I have also performed at Poetry Africa, organized by the Department of Creative Arts, University of Nathal, South Africa. While in South Africa, I had a dramatic encounter. Bob Holman, a leading performance/rap poet, who came from the US was shocked at the way I spontaneously performed Ijala and English poetry. Later, he came to me, accusing me of using juju (African magic/charm) to hypnotize the audience, while the rendition lasted. But he discovered that it was natural with me after I had performed in the same way at different occasions in the course of the festival that lasted five days.
I have also performed for Ford Foundation, the British Council, French Cultural Centre, United States Information Service, Globacom, MTN, Guaranty Trust Bank, Animal Care, the Association of Nigerian Authors and several others.
Q: Nigerian authors have just elected new officers. Where do you see literature in the next couple of years?
A: Well, one is happy that after an unusually charged political campaign, the coast is now clear for Dr. Wale Okediran and other candidates that emerged winners at the election. What Nigerian authors need to do now is to cooperate with them so that we can jointly address the issues of publishing, piracy, low readership, and the challenges of improving on our craft. The fact is that whether anyone likes it or not, literature has come to stay. And it is my belief that despite all the problems we have around literature currently, the future is bolder and brighter.
The reason for my optimism is that something is likely to happen along the line which will make people drift back to things that have higher values than mere material things. Part of the future of literature is the performance aspect of it. More than ever before, we should forge synergy for the written and performance. For instance, we need to practically demonstrate the relationship between literature and film, and see how both can work harmoniously to the benefit of both practitioners. Also, it is my desire that government and other relevant agencies should take advantage of literature and film. In addition, we need more investment in performance poetry because it is a way of preserving and exporting our cultural heritage.