From his days in Sunday Sun where he pioneered the literary pages of the tabloid to his days in corporate affairs department of some Nigeria banks and the present where he serves the Anambra State Governor as the Chief Press Secretary, James Eze has maintained fidelity to the promotion of literature in Nigeria. After decades of gestation, his debut poetry, Dispossessed, was eventually presented last month at the Anambra State capital, Awka, amid rave reviews. In a bid to attract new audiences to poetry and enhance the accessibility of his poems, in particular, Eze has made the most of audiovisual media. In this interview with Henry Akubuiro in Lagos, the bard tripped memory lane to recount his love for poetry, the bent of his writings and how his innovations with new media have panned out vis-à-vis acceptability of his poetry.
Dispossessed, your debut poetry volume, is one of the most talked about poetry releases in Nigeria at the moment. What ignited the afflatus?
Poetry came to me very early, right when I was in secondary school. I didn’t study poetry in primary school, but I started reading books early in primary school, from Chike and the River to One Week One Trouble, Passport of Mallam Ilia, to mention a few. In fact, before I even got to secondary school, I was feeling a little comfortable with the use of English. In my Class 1 in secondary school, we had a teacher who stepped into class and gave the class a written text in English. Everybody failed, including myself. I was surprised, for I had thought I could write fairly well. So it got me curious, and I began to pay attention to this teacher, and found out that I didn’t know anything. So he began to teach us literature and introduced us to poetry.
The poem he introduced to the class was Gabriel Okara’s “The Call of the River Nun”, and, from the way he dramatised the poem and brought the story home, he reminded us of the background, what made Okara write the poem, and how Okara came from a riverine area in present-day Bayelsa State.
Each time I listened to Ikechukwu Odoh (my English teacher then), I felt carried away to a riverside –Okara’s lines were so sharp and vivid, and I could imagine the things he was saying. I fell in love with poetry from that moment. I started reading more, including the Shakespearean sonnets. They were beautiful, and shaped my poetic sensibilities. My affliction with poetry continued when I actually went to the university and studied Mass Communication at the Enugu State University of Technology. We didn’t have a lot to do with poetry, but there were poems we studied. That was when I encountered “Ulysses” by Alfred Tennyson, “The World is Too Much with Us” by William Wordsworth, and others. But it wasn’t deep enough.
Actually, my training in poetry began when I finally moved to Lagos and became a newspaper man. I met Nduka Otiono –we both worked at ThisDay. Even though he was my senior, we became friends instantly. He had a good library, which I benefitted immensely from. I also met writers who thronged his house. At a point, he believed so much in my talent and, even when I was at my formative stage as a writer with any sensibilities at all, he made me review Victoria Kankara’s Hymns and Hymens at Unilag, and it was like I did an excellent work of it, and I took that to the bank.
Then, when I joined The Sun as the literary editor of Sunday Sun, under Louis Odion, I started meeting writers. I will never forget my encounter with A.J. Dagga Tolar who lived in a house full of books. I was amazed. I saw books I had heard of but had never seen before. He was so magnanimous that, when I was leaving, he gave me a Ghana-must-go of books. I went home and began my private readings. That was how I discovered the major poets and critical works by them and on them. That was how I read “Tradition and Individual Talent” by T.S. Eliot. It was a very serious education for me. Then, I began to evolve, taking writing seriously and experimenting with short stories and poetry at the same time.
I interviewed legendary scholar like Gabriel Okara, Elechi Amadi and Ben Obumselu. It was a fantastic period of absorbing stuffs from the masters and how things should be done. I remember when I met Elechi Amadi and asked his views on contemporary Nigerian writings, and his observation was that young writer were in hurry to publish, which had affected what they were doing, that people wanted fame and publicity, to the detriment of their craft. Prof Obumselu told me how Chris Okigbo went on hibernation just to read and understand a difficult book that he was trying to deconstruct.
That tells you how determined the founding fathers were, if I may use that expression. You don’t come to the business of writing unprepared. Okigbo read Classics and studied all kinds of ancient literature, and he made a lot of allusions to Greco-Roman culture. If you read dispossessed, you also find a bit of my own scholarship in the title poem “dispossessed” when I say, “We need another emancipation proclamation”. If you google this, it will tell you what Abraham Lincoln did concerning “Emancipation Proclamation” which declared black slaves in America as free. If you are not adequately prepared and you come to this business, you will not demonstrate enough depth, because things are so interconnected that, if you have absorbed a lot of content, it will definitely reflect in your writings.
Evidently, you have been writing poems for decades, why did it take you so long to come out with dispossessed?
It took me time because, one, I was waiting for the right time. I also wanted to be sure of myself. I wanted to be certain that I had done what I needed to do for my first book. That doesn’t mean this book doesn’t have its flaws, but, at least, when you encounter one or two poems that don’t strike you as poetic enough, you will probably encounter three or four that will make up for whatever weaknesses you see. I also acknowledge my late arrival in one of my poems, “here I come”. Though I am coming out late, from the reactions that have trailed dispossessed, it is very obvious it is well worth the wait.
How did you manage to break into the international market? Your books are on sale in Canada US, UK, etcetera…
There is no secret to it. Dispossessed was published in Canada by Fasihi. The publisher played a major role in getting it across the major online stores. But the online stores have to also double check the quality of what is being offered, by my estimation. From the way the book has travelled, I sense that maybe the western audiences must have found value in it. I have heard it from one of the foreign reviewers say something to the effect that dispossessed is a personal journey that finally became a universal experience.
In so many ways, if you look at my approach to the book, it is broken into three parts: innocence, transgression, and atonement. The facts that I am also coming out this time makes it easier for me. Maybe if I had published it as a youth, there would have been only two Stations of the Cross (laughs). But what we have here are three Stations of the Cross. I am a Christian –three is the number of perfect manifestation. We have the Trinity: the God, the Father and the Holy Spirit. In the composition of the human being, we have the spirit, the soul and the body.
In life, too, we have the three stages: childhood (innocence), teenager/youth (a stage when it is very difficult to exercise parental control and even self-discipline) and adulthood (which is the stage you look at your adolescent and youthful years and laugh at your mistake, and begin to take decisions adults take and also take responsibility). At that stage, you are not only worried about yourself anymore; you are also worried about the community of humanity.
If you read dispossessed, it takes off from the days of innocence when my I was trying to introduce myself, to find my footing in life, look at my childhood, the memories that I cherish, and fantasise what it means to be a boy when I was a boy. “Dear Mama” is something I took from Tupac Shakur’s song, “Dear Mama”. After that stage of innocence, which is represented here, next comes “transgression” in which you find love poems. Some are tortured, some are celebratory, while some of them are actually me as the poet-persona looking at my relationship with my country, Nigeria; and Nigeria has been a wayward lover to me, not keeping her promises to me, breaking my heart when I least expect that, and disappointing me in so many ways. But, in one or two of the poems, you will also see me declaring my love for my country, the country of my birth, and saying, ‘this love will not accept defeat,’ because you can’t put a knife between me and my country. Which country again do I have?
These poems should be read not just the way they appear, because they are poems that are driven by imageries, because I see myself as somebody who has benefitted so much from the imagist movement that Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot propounded. That’s why I said, when you read my poem, you see a lot of imageries; you see a lot of metaphors, so much that makes you realise that this poet is saying this but he also means this or that.
When you move from “transgression” and you get to the “atonement” part, that is where I engage Biafra. “Dispossessed” itself is a poem of five parts. It takes off from the Biafran genocide and then moves to Nigeria –the dilemma –how did we manage the promise of immediate post-independence? It moves to Africa. At some point, I was asking, are we the only colonised people in the world, because our contemporaries have shrugged off the cobwebs of their colonial past and they have moved into a new dawn of self-validation and fulfillment. We are still struggling, and, in some parts of Africa, we are actually experiencing a recrudescence of colonialism in the sense that the Chinese are moving in and putting the manacles on our brothers, especially in the eastern part of Africa, with economic colonialism.
What’s your relationship with Chris Okigbo, for I notice your prosody and imageries have Okigboeque patina. Also, you have a poem on Idoto, his hometown –a panegyric.
Okigbo was one of my strongest influences. You may also recall that I organised, along with my friend, Odili Ujubuonu, the yearly Okigbo poetry festival in his hometown –Return to Idoto. I wouldn’t be involved in such a programme to immortalise Okigbo if I wasn’t deeply influenced by Okigbo’s writings. So my relationship with Okigbo is between a master and a pupil. Of course, I have my distinct voice, but I love the kind of poetry Okigbo wrote. Okigbo wrote poems in manner very rare in the sense that Okigbo himself said something to the effect that he wanted anyone who read his poems to share in the experience. He said he was not trying to pass a meaning but wanted to share his experience.
In any case, you can read an Okigbo poem and may not understand it, but, in the process of reading the poem, you are sharing in the experience. You struggle to understand Okigbo, because Okigbo himself struggled to write those poems. He had a lot of influences, and they came into his poetic craft. Now, if you read an Okigbo poem, you are sharing in Okigbo’s struggle to write. I would like to think my poetry is more accessible than Okigbo’s poetry, because I opened myself to a lot more influences. I remember very clearly that it wasn’t until I read Pablo Neruda that I realised how important it is that a poet should be more accessible; he should be able to communicate even when retaining that lofty, sublime expression that keeps your work poetic to the audience. Communication is very important, and you must not lose your audience. I am a follower of Chris Okigbo’s approach to poetry, but I have a distinct kind of poetry that I think is mine. Having listened to many voices, I have been able to fashion out what works for me.
One unique thing you are doing with dispossessed, which is not so common in Nigeria, is using audiovisual media as a promotional device. What’s the vison behind this project?
As far as poetry is concerned, I have always said that, I am seeking new audiences for poetry. Poetry has been so detached from the people that, if we don’t watch it, the craft might not thrive as it should be, especially in a world where a lot of influences are at play. The social media has opened so many spaces that many people throw in a lot of things into the space and, if you don’t reinvent poetry and make it amenable to newer audiences, it might become too esoteric that its survival cannot be guaranteed. So I try in this collection (video) to interpret some of the poems as direct songs. I got some people to voice some of the works. There is one that Bob Manuel Udokwu did –“tear drops on Ozubulu”. It is an audio. If you listen to it, it is so intense. Bob Manuel brought his entire weight as a performance artiste to bear on the rendition. The other one is a poem on Biafra by Thelma Elems, a Lagos-based, radio presenter on Inspirational FM, Lagos. Both of them tried to tease out the intense emotion embedded in the poems. There are so many ways to read a poem –you can read a poem without encountering the poem. I must confess it wasn’t until Thelma read out “Biafra” that I felt as though I was meeting Biafra for the first time; I was encountering Biafra as captured by myself in an entirely new light. She was able to tease out the emotion there, and it is easy for anyone who listens to her to connect to it. So I am trying to make poetry accessible to more people.
If you don’t like reading books and you finally get to watch “rainbow”, what I have done is totally different from spoken word poetry; this is actually music. The video of “rainbow” can actually compete with music video. In fact, I am talking to big TV channels to see whether they can accept to play “rainbow” once or twice to Nigerians to also see something slightly different. It is a celebratory poem where the poet-persona begins to actually look at his love from the point of view of the mating of planetary bodies: rainbows and eclipse. Those are things that have lived with humanity forever, which I think we have not tried to explore and extrapolate to say, “Look, when there is a lunar eclipse, with the sun and the moon coming together, an epic love affair compares favourably to it. If you watch that production –you may not like poetry –you will definitely love what you see, and it will prick your interest to read the poem and the poem facing it “eclipse”. We have also done something on “memory of love and lust”. There has been a pronounced effort to make my poems accessible and sweet to listen to as any other music. The difference between mine and other songs is the depth of the lyrics. The basic philosophy being conveyed transcends what you see in a typical music video where people only display flesh and nothing more, and, very soon, we will be tired of seeing nakedness on TV.