First question: Could you tell me a little about where you grew up and how you came to poetry?
I grew up at Onitsha, the famous town of Onitsha Market Literature that sits on the bank of the River Niger. I was living with my uncle Mr Job Okwuoma Aginam, a linguist who spoke five languages and was teaching at the secondary school, Christ the King College (CKC), Onitsha. I was six years old in 1967 when the civil war, the Nigeria-Biafra war, started. I had to leave Onitsha with my uncle and ended up living with my parents in the village. The entire dimensions of the war – the suffering, kwashiorkor, war games, heroic stories of soldiers – informed my early poetic sensibilities. When the war ended in 1970 I rejoined my uncle in Onitsha to resume primary schooling. I was an altar boy in the Catholic Church and the rituals of the Mass were poetic to my halcyon soul. In primary school I was exposed to nursery rhymes, and the musicality of poems like “Old Roger” and “The Song Of The Engine” influenced me in the early days. Before entering secondary school I was already composing guttural songs. I knew from the very beginning that there was no better life than the poetical.
In an interview, you once described your poetry as ‘verbal terrorism.’ Could you expand on that?
I used the term “verbal terrorism” in my lampoon of left-wing pseudo-intellectuals fond of mouthing Marxist phraseologies. The term of course goes further to elucidate the modern-day bombast that drowns out all civilized dialogue. The saner voices can hardly ever be heard across the board whilst verbal terrorism rules the waves.
Your poems are prone to prosodic pyrotechnics. Does a poem start for you with sound, sense, or some combination?
In attending to my poems I tend to ask: “How does it sound?” It is crucial for the poem to at least sound like poetry before lending itself to message or meaning. In some instances the poetry starts with the first line. It is then incumbent on one to add one line after another until a coherent whole emerges. Linear meaning sucks. The atmosphere of the poem is more important than touting earnest message. I believe that a poet who starts out with a message ends up preaching. Sound and sense make harmony.
As a journalist writing under Abacha, you staked your life on the value of reporting the truth. How do you see your poetry in relationship to your journalism?
One of my poems, I believe “We Shall Vote With Stones” dedicated to General Babangida, was read in a church by a pastor and it was reported widely in the newspapers. That put my life in all shades of danger. But somehow we survive, as my late friend, the South African poet Dennis Brutus would write… I see myself as a committed individual. The poetry and the journalism serve their purposes. Some of the shorter poems that shoot guns actually get their initial airing in the newspapers.
What individuals or institutions have most encouraged you as a poet?
The public at large cannot be done away with. Nigerians have a winning fondness for poetry, and this keeps the poet encouraged. The camaraderie among the poets makes for formidable solidarity. At different times, institutions such as the many writers’ bodies across the nation have undertaken readings in furtherance of the art. Publications in USA, Britain, India, Russia etc. have been very helpful.
How would you describe the value of poetry?
Poetry is the ultimate art, the language of the gods. Poetry is divinity. The magic of the written word emanates from poetic utterance.
How do you imagine the audience for your poems?
The poem is for every fine mind. I do not discriminate in the search for the audience for the poem. If the poem appears difficult at first, then read it a second time and a third. A student is expected to pass his exams as time goes by. All it takes is perseverance. Then maturity supervenes.
Based on your experience, what are the greatest challenges facing the Nigerian poet today?
There are hardly enough institutions manifestly supporting the poetic arts. It is as though every poet is on his own font. Publishing outlets are few and far between. Poverty and poetry operate as Siamese twins joined at the stomach of hunger.
What literary organisations or supporters would you say are most influential in Nigeria right now?
There are some publishing entrepreneurs doing some good work. The online portals are also waxing strong. The younger ones are forever opening up newer vistas.
To what extent does government support writers in Nigeria?
The Nigerian government and writers operate as parallel lines that cannot meet even if forced to do so by advanced mathematics!
Anything you would like to add?
And the stroke of the beast
On the hub of evolution
I gave birth to myself
With a bang so big
I lost both ears!