“I set out to compose a work that will be compliant with the characteristics of epic. What I did differently was to make that work unrestrained musical.”
Until his death on Saturday, November 24, 2018, at the National Hospital, Ikeogu Oke was a Nigerian writer and public intellectual. His poetry and short fiction have been published in the United States, the UK, Nigeria and India since 1988. In 2010, the Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer selected Salutes without Guns, his second collection of poems, as one of her two Books of the Year for The Times Literary Supplement (TLS), describing him as “a writer who finds the metaphor … as perhaps only a poet can.” His fifth poetry book, The Heresiad, in 2017, won the Nigeria Prize for Literature. In this interview with HENRY AKUBUIRO in Lagos shortly after he was shortlisted for the glamorous prize, the late poet explained his poetic bent. It was first published in The Sun Literary Review on September 30, 2017.
The Heresiad took you 27 years to produce. Why did it take you so long?
It wasn’t as if I was writing the book for 27 years. The first time the first poem came to me and became part of this book theoretically was in 1989 or thereabout. After I had sent it for publication, I can recall I was going to Lagos, and, in the middle of traffic, some fresh lines came to me, and I wrote them down. I realised that the lines were meant for the poem. So, I called the publisher and upgraded the manuscript. So, between the time the six lines and the last lines came to me, it took 27 years. In essence, I was still working on it. However, I had considered the major writing finished in four years, but since it wasn’t published, I kept on revising and rewriting. Sometimes what I had to do in a whole year was to change a line. Sometimes I had to take out some words without altering the meaning of the particular line. Some words are smoother and more important to convey a meaning or add to the aesthetics. Within the 27 years, I wrote other collections as you probably know; I got two university degrees, raised a family, and held several jobs. I did so many other things.
The title of your book manifests certain linguistic defamiliarisation. How did you come about this?
Yes, The Heresiad is actually a coinage. There is a trend in the conception and titles of epic poems. Illiad is actually culled from Illium; Odyssey from Odysseus; Iled from Ilnes; Dunsiad from Dunce. In this case, Heresiad is coined from Heresy, because the offence for which the author who was condemned to death, which triggered this poem was heresy. So, this is, in a sense, a poem inspired by the need to reconcile people to the need not to punish heresy but to respond to it in ways that are reflective of the fact that people have the right to disagree and not get hurt from doing so. Somewhere in the poem, I talked about every religion being the product of heresy. Most people don’t seem to understand this. At a time, Islam was a heresy; Christianity was a heresy against Judaism. So, when heresy succeeds and becomes established, you now don’t want the other person’s heresy to survive. I said to them, if your heresy was tolerated or become triumphant, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t still a heresy’ you don’t have to kill people because they committed heresy. So, you find a way and deal it without turning religion into the instrument of murder.
What’s the meeting point between your poetry and music in the light of the lyrical abundance in the cantos?
I think that poetry and music are quite related. But, of course, not all poetry is musical and all music is not poetic. But there is a meeting point, and it is quite possible to transform the best poetry into music. If you are familiar with the poetry of the Scottish poet, John Dunes, he wrote one of the most lyrical poems: O my love is like a red, red rose newly sprung in June…. These are things poetry can accomplish in the hands of a gifted poet, bridging entirely the gap between lyricism and musicality. This is something I have sometimes accomplished in my poetry. I think I consider myself fortunate that I could do this. I have written some children poems that have been produced into music. But I didn’t think I could accomplish the same thing in a long poem like The Heresiad. What we have in The Heresiad isn’t just a literary work but a musical work. I am looking forward to the day a song composer will pick it up and compose the opera that I envisioned.
The Heresiad revolves around operatic poetry, which fuses music and drama. What’s the thinking behind this style?
Basically, what I set out to do was to write an epic, and these are, of course, are elements of epic, a story told in dramatic form with a theme and characters that are grand in a sense super humans. Of course, an epic tells a story. I set out to compose a work that will be compliant with the characteristics of epic. What I would say I did differently from the other epic poems was to also make that work unrestrained musical. While Homer referred to epic as a song, even though he didn’t intend to be seen literarily as a song; and Virgil would say a similar thing, even though you don’t expect a lasting song; and Okot p’Bitek would refer to his poem as song of Lawino, even though he didn’t intend to make it a song. Ikeogu is saying his own is the song of reason and he intends it to be sung. I can sing any line of the poem. In terms of craft, that is what The Heresiad does.
The Heresiad centres on moral heroism. I am wondering whether you were trying to go back to traditional poetry where heroes are valorised?
I don’t think that’s intentional. Heroes shouldn’t be valorised because they are heroes; they should because of what they do. I think literature should, as much as possible, be virtuous without being preachy. When I write, I saw the balance between aesthetics and purpose. In this book, I put a character at the risk of life. Even though that character has genuinely offended those who are after him, I was trying to say the kind of recklessness that got him into trouble shouldn’t be recommended. But I also have to save his life. Invariably, nobody is valorised. It’s about trying to create a more harmonious world. So, if anything is valorised it such values as forgiveness as sacrifice, repentance. Reason is, in a sense, valorised, because of how he intervened not by force of power now-because if you look at Homer, for instance, his heroes are given to martial violence. He valorized strong men, but I think Virgil was a gentler soul. In this case, what is valorised are humane values.
How would you spend the prize money if you win?
There is a number of things I need to do. Poetry is a dying art, and it needs help. I will find some way of encouraging the growth of poetry, genuine poetry and poets; not just anybody who calls himself a poet. I will be happy to be able to contribute to not just the growth of poetry but other genres of literature. I would also like encourage the development of African folktales. Something needs to be done if we want to save one of our greatest cultural and literary heritage.