Like most prominent writers, Ogaga Ifowodo started his writing career as a school boy in the early 1980s. His first poem won a prize and got published in the school magazine, and that marked the beginning of what later became a fruitful career in poetry writing.
Now a Nigerian poet based in the United States of Amerca, Ifowodo has succeeded in using his lines to capture the carnage in his native Niger Delta region without losing the universal essence of the literary works. The award winning poet has also studied Law and Creative Writing aside clinching several laurels, including the 2005 ANA/NDDC Gabriel Okara poetry prize. He has also published three volumes-Homeland and Other Poems, Madiba and The Oil Lamp. He narrated his writing career to Daily Sun recently in Berlin, Germany:
How I started
It started in my fourth form at the Federal Government College, Warri. That was in 1982. One evening in the dining hall, the lower sixth former who was head of our table – Uyi Worghiren, now a lawyer – turned to me and said rather abruptly, ‘Why don’t you write a poem to enter for our house in the poetry event of the festival of art and culture?’ Every year at that time, we had our own FESTAC which involved a competition among the four houses in dance, drama, debate, and poetry. Uyi and I were in the Great Independence House. I hadn’t until that day thought seriously about being a writer, but it was already becoming clear to me that my bent was towards the arts.
Anyway, I wrote a poem in which I tried to ‘literalise’ the adage, “It’s an ill wind that blows no one any good” – entitled, , Ill Wind! Well, the poem was joint first-prize winner for our house and I was required to recite it to the entire student body! As you can see, I had a rather auspicious beginning! The poem was later published in Delta Link, the school’s magazine, and with the aura of print added to the experience the notion that I could be a poet soon lodged itself in my heart. And the fact that the following year, two clubs, the Literary and Debating Society and the Red Cross, invited me to represent them in the poetry recitation event at their inter-school competitions only bolstered the notion that I could be a poet.
Writing-career or pastime?
I will have to say both! I couldn’t declare that it is a career since writers often have to hold down a day’s job in order to pay the rent. And I couldn’t say that it is merely a pastime since I take writing too seriously to so demote it. Yet, the fact that it is not my only occupation, not my livelihood, and that I derive immense pleasure from it, means that it is a pastime as well. I couldn’t think of a more agreeable way of passing the time, for instance, than composing a poem. Ultimately, I think it is more of a career than a pastime to me.
Poetry. That is what I started with and it remains my preferred medium. Also, because I have had my longest practice in poetry and so feel more assured in it.
Process of writing
I am awful at jotting down thoughts and saving those fleeting moments of grace that every poet learns to capture in a notebook. So, when a phrase, a line, or the beginning of a line that captures an image or thought occurs to me, I repeat it to myself several times to memorise it. Mostly, a poem for me begins with the first full phrase or line that goes to the heart of what I want to say. If I’m not in a position to start writing it right away, I console myself with the thought that if the phrase or line is of any merit, I should be able to summon it whenever I can, but I don’t think this is a good habit.
Time of writing
None really, but I have often found the dead of night the most fecund. There is something about its opacity, the stillness outside the window, that helps the poet enter into the innermost recesses of his mind in pursuit of thought and image. But any time of the day that allows a sufficiently unencumbered moment of introspection will do as well.
Nigerians, Africans, citizens of the so-called “Third World,” and all of humanity. Perhaps not always in that order, but whatever I have to say is shaped primarily by my particular mode of being in the world – in other words, my Nigerianness, my Africanness and my blackness. I hope I do not have to state my belief that ultimately every good work of art speaks a universal language. Two obvious examples – Things Fall Apart and War and Peace.
Responses by readers
The embattled state of culture in our country has so impoverished the dissemination and reception of not only my work but that of the emergent generation of Nigerian writers that it is hard to gauge reception. In all, however, it has been very good. In fact, the responses I have got from my peers, the older writers I look up to, and from abroad, have been quite stimulating.
I have three volumes of poetry; including Homeland and Other Poems, Madiba, and The Oil Lamp. A second edition of my debut; Homeland, will be released later this year by Africa World Press. The latter equally published the second and third volumes. As you know, the traditional first home of poetry is anthologies, newspapers and magazines and I have had a good amount of new poetry going into my fourth collection exposed. I don’t know if I can mention the parts of my stalled detention memoirs which, to my pleasant surprise, have enjoyed elite airing abroad and at home. A part of this volume was serialised by Vanguard in 2004.
I can’t say really. Frankly, I don’t quite know what a writer’s block is – how you can differentiate it from absence of inspiration, or the normal stops or gaps that writers are bound to experience periodically. Maybe that means that I have not had one, or that I simply do not attribute the gaps in my production to the block.
I am a proper village boy. I was born in the town of Oleh, but had my earliest years in Otor-Owhe, my mother’s hometown, following my father’s death a year after my birth. I had my primary education in Otor-Owhe, just ten minutes walk from Oleh. I was raised on the fresh fish and tea-water of the delta creeks and tributaries (until Shell and the other oil companies started poisoning the waters with more determination), but as from the age of seven, I began sharing my time between the village and the city until I went to Federal Government College, Warri.
Then my experience became almost totally city, as I would leave boarding house in Warri for Benin City where I lived with my uncle, a Fourah Bay alumnus, land surveyor, civil servant, and reverend gentleman. I got a law degree from the University of Benin – where I had the most formative experience of my life through my involvement in student activism – and then the Law School in Lagos. I spent eight years with the Civil Liberties Organisation.
In 2001, I left for Cornell University in Ithaca , New York, to finally satisfy my long-nourished dream of literary studies – I had even applied to the University of Lagos for a Bachelor’s in English in 1999/2000 but was denied for a reason I will not disclose! I obtained an MFA (Master of Fine Art) in poetry in 2003. At the end of it, I decided I might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb and enrolled in a Ph.D, also at Cornell. I am currently in the completion stage of the doctoral work.