A Word Merchant’s Logbook

by Segun Akinlolu

(A travel report by Nigerian performance poet and musician Segun Akinlolu aka Beautiful Nubia)

England has always held some strange kind of attraction for me. As a child, the magic word ‘London’ conjured up images of grandeur. Growing up I came face to face with the reality of this romantic foreign place with its cramped houses and over-populated streets but my fascination with it and curiosity about it never dwindled. So this year I made my move, packed my tiny travel kit, my essential tools (guitar, agogo, and drum) and took a trip to the place of my childhood longing.

Well, not exactly like that…more like I had been invited to deliver a paper on ‘the revival of oral traditions through performance poetry’ and how this might help the book industry. Some dull sounding topic, eh? The conference was being put together by the Department of English at the Bath Spa University College in Bath and was scheduled to run a whole weekend from July 10 to 13, 2003. Bath is a picturesque, serene, small city in the southwest of England. Once called Aquea Calidae by the Romans, it has long been famous for its hot springs and healing baths which drew aristocrats and elites in the days of Jane Austen. The baths have been closed in unfortunate circumstances since 1978 but are expected to reopen this year. The city, by virtue of its rich history and designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still draws large numbers of tourists, and the rich and the upwardly mobiles.

In England, each time I told anyone my destination was Bath, they gave me that funny look like ‘you are some rich African prince or what?’. Rich I did feel on this trip as I planned my strategy, which revolved round three key events: my paper in Bath, and the two poetry events I had been booked for in London and Bristol. Come on the ride then…

Friday July 4th, Toronto

I ride into Canada’s entertainment capital with a group of friends who are also members of my music band, the Roots Renaissance. We are playing a major festival tomorrow but first I have to showcase my poetry at La Parole, a poetry series pioneered by Karen Richardson. Toronto is a place I have always loved. I actually spent my first year in Canada here but this night I get close to hating it. Having been on the road all day from Ottawa and a tasking rehearsal, having to endure a two hour traffic jam in the heart of Toronto is painful and unforgivable. The Toronto summer is full of street festivals and one of them is in the works, the reason why so many roads are closed. It is a sweaty and ruffled me who eventually climbs the La Parole stage at 10 pm.

The series was begun a year ago by Karen and has rapidly grown to become of the key performance poetry venues in Toronto. I had met her in Ottawa a week ago through Anthony Bansfield, who runs a spoken word series called the Golden Lounge Series where I have performed in the past. I put up a thirty minute performance and entertain questions for another thirty. Some of the questions are so touching. Most of the people in the crowded room are black – African and Caribbean. With questions like, “Do you believe in indigenous religions and orisha?” and remarks like “Thank you so much for giving us a taste of real authentic Africa and for being so proud of who you are and where you are from”, you realize these are people driven by a need to connect with their own past and culture. I agree to do a small song in Yoruba as a farewell piece. There are a few misty eyes in the audience and I am touched. Afterwards, a young lady comes over and introduces herself. Her parents are Yoruba from Nigeria but she came to Canada when she was a kid. She regrets her inability to connect with her own culture or speak her language and she thinks I have helped her take a very important decision: she will go back to Nigeria next year and rediscover herself. She buys my cd to keep her company.

This event was a necessary precursor to my trip to London for it put in perspective for me the burden performance poets and other artists bear each time they go on stage. My words are not taken lightly, I have to be careful what I say.

Monday July 7th, Air Canada

Many Canadians, especially the Canadian press, like to lampoon their national carrier but my experiences flying with the airline have always been pleasant (of course sometimes they show crappy movies and the music selections often leave you wondering if the selectors live permanently in the air). This trip is no different: I think the service is great but the music, well, stinks. It is a smooth flight though, and I do not think Canadians have anything to be ashamed of in their airline; rather they should ask some of us about our own.

I land in London at night; it is a seven hour flight but by the time you add the five hour time difference, it seems like you have been in the air all day. An old university friend, Sola Esan, my junior in veterinary school at the University of Ibadan, meets me at Heathrow and together we take the tube to his place where I will spend a few nights. It is my first time on the famous London underground train – a bumpy, roly-poly ride, but who am I to complain? This is still better than the okada we ride in other places.

Tuesday July 8th

My first day in London and I am just happy to stay in, getting my breath back. The weeks leading to this have been hectic and a day of rest should do me some good if I am to enjoy this trip. In the evening Sunkanmi Sanusi, an old friend and broadcaster from Lagos, comes visiting. He has just moved to the UK and has lots to tell me. We discuss the state of literature and music in Nigeria. He is a talented artist in his own right and I hope his poetry and music will find expression one day soon. We make plans to see London together tomorrow. I make calls to the conference organizers in Bath to let them know I am in the country.

Wednesday July 9th

Sunkanmi comes around early and we resume where we left off yesterday. He has just gotten some tapes from Funso Ogundipe, a Nigerian jazz musician who now also resides in London, and he is all excited. Soon, some other Nigerian friends come in and we start the lamentation process which always leaves me drained. Why are things the way they are in our country, why are we not blessed with creative, innovative leaders, why do we have people in power who cannot love their fellow man, whose only focus, it seems, is just to keep their own side of the field fertile? Where will the young go with all their dreams, why is there is no infrastructure for the arts or any other thing…?

I tell them of my experience in Canada where the government invests heavily in supporting artists and their works and how the country reaps from these efforts too. When will there be change eventually? As we begin our little tour of London, the questions roam my subconscious. Even as we meet our young London guide, Han, a Malaysian student, as he drinks his thick coffee, black and takes pictures at Trafalgar Square, my mind remains in turmoil.

Late in the afternoon, I visit the Canadian High Commission in London, a visit which my manager has prearranged. I am received like a state dignitary by pretty Katherine Bond and given a tour of the facility. Katherine is interested in organizing a showcase for me whenever I come to England again. “This is what we do for visiting Canadian artists”, she says. Meanwhile the Nigerian High Commission in London never responded to my manager’s e-mail about my impending visit. I am disappointed that Nigeria doesn’t work as hard to promote and accept its own talent.

Next we take a trip to Camberwell to meet with Toun Sonaiya (nee Okewale), a former top manager at AIT/Raypower who has been living in London for several years. Toun treats us to a sumptuous dinner over which the lamentations continue, but she introduces a positive dimension with some of the new ideas she is working on to contribute to the growth of Nigeria’s telecommunications industry. What she proposes is a very brave and innovative initiative. I believe in her and believe she will succeed. If more and more young Nigerians would position themselves as champions and leaders of industries that they understand, and are ready to go with their whole heart and total sincerity and honesty, change may come soon.

Thursday July 10th

I am off to Bristol on the train. Bristol is a medium sized city, about two hours by train from London. It’s been many years since I have been on a train. This journey through picturesque plains and hills with cattle grazing on the countryside, reminds me of my exhilarating railway trip through Southern India seven years ago. Ike Anya, a Nigerian poet and medical doctor who has kindly offered me a place to stay for the next several days, meets me at the train station. We are happy to meet each other finally after many e-mails. We are united not only by the fact that we are both medical practitioners (now, let no one forget that I am a veterinary surgeon) and poets, but also in our adoration of the late Chief Bola Ige.

Ike is attending a conference in another town and leaves the run of his house to me for the next three nights.

Friday July 11th

The first day of the conference. I have chosen to attend for only this one day for two reasons: to reduce costs and also enable me to execute some of the other things I had planned to do while in England. The bus from Bristol to Bath takes only twenty minutes but its another hour for the bus that will take me from the centre of town to the university, where the conference is holding. The bus driver is kind enough to wait for me as I finish burning up my hour at the cyber café. This show of courtesy is probably what keeps tourists coming back to small centers such as Bath. I am happy to eventually hop on the bus and immediately engage in a conversation with the passenger behind me who is, coincidentally, attending the same conference. He has come from another part of England and seems excited to meet me in such a casual way. He offers me a share of his boxed lunch, which I gratefully accept. As we munch away on our sandwiches, we discuss literature and performance poetry. I am touched by his simple act of kindness, the second in less than an hour.

My paper, entitled ‘The Revival of the Oral Traditions through Performance Poetry’, is the third for the day and I experience a feeling of accomplishment standing there in front of this august audience of about a hundred of the top performance poets/spoken word artists from around the English-speaking world. Also present are literary scholars and directors of international poetry festivals. My paper revolves around the importance of performance poetry in efforts to revive the flagging book industry in different parts of the world, especially in places that had strong oral traditions like Nigeria. The comments and questions that follow indicate that my position has piqued some interest and confirms that there are parallels between the Nigerian book industry and others, especially where it concerns poetry.

We take a break after the next paper. Over lunch, I make the acquaintance of Dave Reeves and a few other poets who still want to discuss some of the elements of my paper. I also chase down Patience Agbabi, one of the foremost performance poets in the UK. Patience, who is a British citizen of Nigerian descent, is one of the headliners of the conference. She and I had met under similar circumstances in Harare at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 2001. She had been impressed, then, by my performance as much as I was overwhelmed by hers. Today she sounds weary, “I don’t really do a lot of performance poetry any longer. I spend a lot of my time giving workshops”, she offers. I ask her why. “I just feel a need to encourage young talent and also slow down the pace for myself a little”, she replies.

Performance poetry means a lot to Patience: “For me performance poetry is about inspiring people. It’s about connecting, uplifting. It’s about celebrating the sound of the words, the meaning coming through the sound, not just the meaning of the words on the page. It’s about the sound communicating. For example, children can hear your poetry and not understand any word but they enjoy the sound of the rhythms and the way it links it with music”.

Segun: “What do you think it does for your audience?”

Patience: “Some say it connects people to the heartbeat in some very primeval way. People respond to the rhythm of words; without the rhythm there is no poetry really, that’s one of the things that distinguishes it from prose. I think people like to hear words used in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily hear in everyday speech. Poetry occurs everywhere but I like to see it celebrated.”

Segun: “What do you think about the conflicts between writer-poets and performance poets. I am sure you know that many mainstream writer-poets tend to say that performance poetry is a lower form of art….”

Patience: “In Britain for some time there has been some kind of stage/page divide. I do think that in the past five years, especially in London, there has been a lot work on both sides to bridge that gap. Those two are kind of reconnecting, which is important, because neither can thrive if they’re in opposition to each other.”

Segun: “So do you think the growth of performance poetry is a good thing for literature generally?”

Patience: “Oh, without question. (Textual) poetry has always been a minority art form but I think the communicative powers of performance poetry are so far-reaching and I think it’s important for people to see that poetry isn’t something that just has to be read. The oral has been very prized in many cultures around the world. There’s a danger in thinking that the book means progress and there’s no other means of developing culture.”

Segun: “Why do you do it? “

Patience: “I never grew out of enjoying the words. I enjoy the physical action of performing; the physical action of the words through the body like a vibration. I enjoy the current of energy that I get from the audience; I don’t enjoy performing when I don’t get anything back from the audience. I like giving and receiving. Ultimately, it’s about that current of energy.”

Everything she says is like a sweet song to my ears. Several other interesting papers later, we are back in the main hall and Bob Holman, who is one of the best-known pillars of the poetry slam scene in the U.S. comes over to introduce himself. He was in South Africa recently where he experienced Akeem Lasisi’s performance at the Durban Poetry Festival. He has only words of high praise for Akeem’s work, costuming, and theatrics. Segun Lee French, another British-born Nigerian and also a performance poet, joins us and we discuss innovative methods of using the oral traditions of Africa, especially with the introduction of stagecraft, props, and costume, to generate higher response from the audience.

In the evening all the participants gather at the bar for the ‘open mic’ where about twenty of us will showcase our work in two poems each. Before it is my turn, I walk up to Byron Kocen, medical doctor and chairman of the Austin International Poetry Festival in Austin, Texas. He had confessed to me earlier how much he enjoyed my paper and I wish to know how an old medical doctor became so entrenched in the arts. As it turns out, Byron uses poetry in his practice, dedicated primarily to children, to help kids overcome Attention Deficit Syndrome (ADS). This, he believes, is evidence of the power in words.

Later, I share a few words with a world-famous Canadian poet now living in France, Todd Swift, who spearheaded the publication of 100 Poets Against the War, a book of selected poems from poets around the world protesting the American-led war on Iraq. Todd believes it is time to use language and words to bring change to a conflict-weary world. He is committed to working to create an international network of performance poets working together to bring change, “Poetry must be accessible, real poetry must be fun – read or heard or seen performed – it must influence change. Performance poetry was the original way of sharing poetry in all cultures of the world, and we must go back to that. The page kind of imposes certain restrictions which performance enables us to access. Performance poetry is less judgmental and open to marginalized groups because the elite dominate the poetry world. In America, the poets who win prizes and get reviewed tend to be white and male, but when you look at the spectrum of voices that come across in performance poetry, it’s much more open”.

Saturday July 12th

I ride the train back to London to participate in the Farrago Performance Poetry Series. John Paul O’Neill, who runs Farrago, claims it is the longest running poetry slam series in the U.K. I am honoured to be their international guest for the month of July. The event holds in a small room above a bar and it is not a large crowd either but a very informed one made up of university students and professors, other performance poets, and enthusiasts. I close the evening with a twenty-minute set and an encore. It is so beautiful here in this tiny room with people who seem to love every word issuing from my mouth. I feel appreciated, elevated, and I feel like a bottle of something but the bar is closed by the time I make up my mind. I am introduced to several high-flying poets on the London scene who, not surprisingly, are of African origin. We all seem to carry in our blood the genes of the itinerant African poet of yore. Amongst this group there is no pretence – you feel like part of an important movement.

Later, I spend some time experiencing the bustle and hustle of London’s West End with Ola, a Nigerian who has lived in the U.K. for the past ten years, and his white girlfriend, who is also a fantastic performance poet.

Sunday July 13th

I wake up once again in Sola Esan’s London bed. I say my farewell to him and the young Samuel family, with whom he shares the house. I sleep all the way back to Bristol on the bus, woken up only intermittently by a noisy punk family of four who are dressed gaudily in black leather, chains, all kinds of outlandish body piercing, and fake tattoos. Strange people…

Monday July 14th

This is my last day of this trip and it is also the night for my second show: the Bristol International Poetry Slam, which is to feature four international poets of whom I am one. Apart from myself, there is Canadian-born Corey Frost, a writer and performer who presently lives in New York and has won notable awards as a spoken word artist, and for whom this is part of a continuing tour; Anita Govan, a popular Irish performance poet with an entrancing voice and great stage craft; and Georgia Popoff, a poet and journal editor from Syracuse, New York. We had all met at the Bath conference on Friday. This event, which is sponsored by the Arts Council of England and developed by Bristol poets and poetry promoters, Peter Hunter and David Johnson, also features local stars Doreen Baidoo and Sacha Tremaine. It holds at a big bar called The Croft. I stroll in with my performance paraphernalia and Ike Anya, who has also just returned from London.

A slam is not just a regular performance event where each poet does his stuff and goes away. Rather, it is a healthy mock competition between participating performance poets. In most cases, there is only one grand prize but it is rare to find the winner gloating, for at the end of such an event every poet who participated is a winner. The goal of the slam is to create excitement in the audience: as long as you are able to bring them out again and again to spend their time and money to watch you, the purpose of poetry is advanced and the poets get to have a regular contact with a market and make some money.

Gauging from the passion with which the slam poets go at it, it is often hard to believe a slam is not a real and career-defining competition. Personally, I think it is difficult to objectively compare the works of two different performance poets especially when they use different tools and techniques. The biggest impediment, in my estimation, is the personality of the poet himself. Some of us use song, dance, and drums while others use shock, sex, and anger. People like Akeem Lasisi chant; I use my guitar and other instruments; some people where flashy clothes and bring in props ranging from bells, to crowns, and even fake guns, all in an effort to engage not only the ears of the audience but the eyes and the whole body. In such a situation, it is hard to pick one poet over the other, especially since, in most cases, each poet is presenting his own self-developed piece.

In the long run, I guess the audience is the best judge. At most slams, whichever lucky poet is the one who had the greatest effect carries the day. Before the commencement of the programme, organizers choose people in the audience to be judges. They’re given score cards ranging from 1 to 10 which they raise after each performance to rate it for content and technique. Averages of these scores are then added together to decide the winner.

For tonight, David and Peter have chosen to go this way. We have four judging groups and two rounds of performances by each poet. At the end of the night, I am declared the winner and I am 50 pound sterling richer. It is not a lot of money, as you can see, for poets of this caliber to compete over; they just do it for the fun of it, for the love of the art, and for the progress of performance poetry. Georgia and the other poets congratulate me, she even goes ahead and buys me a drink as we all exchange books and cd’s. When I am asked to go on stage to close the night with another piece, I return all the compliments – praising not only the skills of my fellow poets but also the sense of camaraderie that has enveloped all of us this evening. Once again, several audience members surround me afterwards. The words, ‘Once you take more than your just share somebody somewhere suffers for it’ in my poem “The King’s Messenger”, has touched them. I wish they were the leaders of my country.

July 15

By the time Ike and I settle down to our Chinese dinner, a new day has slipped in. We review the night’s performance together. I see pride in Ike’s eyes. We love our country so much, we love to see her celebrated even through the small achievements of one person. We cannot stop talking – about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, the undercurrent of fear and insecurity in our cities, the lack of sensitivity in our leaders – till I board my bus for London Heathrow at 3 am. People like Ike are not only de-tribalised, they also believe in humanity, in the need for every one to be happy and be able to access the good life in the land they were born in. After talking with someone like him, I am filled with hope.

It is quiet as I ride into London. It is my chance to see this dream city of my books come alive slowly into a new day. I have not had any sleep but my mind is very, very awake.

The slam was great, wasn’t it? We rocked the house, didn’t we? But I am just an ordinary Nigerian sharing with the world the beauty of my abused homeland and a taste of the immense talent that abounds there. Despite the restrictions imposed on us by a system of lies and deception, many Nigerians still seek a path of growth, universal prosperity, and peace. It will require brave, visionary leaders to face head-on the problems that assail Nigeria and apply innovative solutions. These solutions must be derived from the local environment; almost every effort by African countries to solve their internal problems with solutions from abroad fail woefully. Today’s leaders are like shameless beggars, pan in hand, begging for the forgiveness of national debts that they themselves blindly, foolishly, and unnecessarily incurred. Rather than pleading for external help to fight self-imposed social decay, poverty, and disease, the new generation must start to look inwards into our culture, our value system, and our strengths to harness the necessary implements for change and societal growth. Perhaps African leaders are too ignorant, or blinded by their own greed and selfishness, to see that every assistance that comes from the west carries a little handbag, the contents of which spell doom for our environment and ageless values.

We must keep hope alive: hope is in the children, it’s in the young people with talent, it’s in the visionaries scattered all over the globe who are silently, slowly deploying their gifts to re-engineer our present. It may seem like a hopeless, insoluble muddle now but this country will one day be a place where dreams come alive. Hope is hidden in unexpected places; change, sweet change will come one day bursting forth through these dark clouds of despondent stasis, like the golden rays of the sun at its very birth.

Bye-bye London.

(For more info about Segun’s poetry, music, and activities, please visit www.beautifulnubia.com)

Akinlolu’s travel photos

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