Henry Akubuiro, Lagos
Barthlomew Akpah holds a PhD from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He has taught English courses at the Department of Languages, English and Literary Studies at McPherson University, Ogun State, and Kola Daisi University, Ibadan, before moving to Liberia where he currently teaches at the Department of Language and Literature, William V.S. Tubman University. HENRY AKUBUIRO chatted with him on his debut poetry volume, The Land of Tales and its variegated imports.
I am fascinated by the title of your debut poetry volume, Land of Tales. In what sense do you see the land and its tales?
Thank you. The “land” literally means the space from which we as humans strive for existence. It is a metaphor for the entity called Nigeria and, by extension, Africa and the global space, generally. The land is, however, stamped with certain sore points – tales which either fascinate you or reveal the burden of pains which many face in their existentialist nature. The title comes to me easily, bearing in mind the legion of narratives which galumph and fill the air so much that what you consider as breaking news an hour ago is eclipsed by myriad of other tales a few seconds later. This, indeed, is the land and the burden of her tales, her pains.
It’s amazing to note that this is your first poetry volume, but you write with certain maturity. Why did the gestation period take so long, and how did you benefit from tutelage, considering reference to Songs of Odamolugbe?
Well, I think growing up and my life history is poetic in a way. But, somehow, poetry has always offered me an ambo to let out my burden. My first experience with poetry was in 2001 when I wrote the poem “Child Abuse”, published in the Punch newspaper. This was followed by several other poems I wrote and submitted to VOA and BBC Africa poetry contests. This was long before I gained admission into the University of Ibadan. After my admission to the University of Ibadan, I joined IndyPress and Union of Campus Journalists (UCJ) in 2004. My interest, thereafter, switched to campus narratives as I became more concerned with events on campus. This continued up to the time I became the Editor-in-Chief of IndyPress.
Hence, I focused more on news writing and editing. As a student in U.I, however, I was so much fascinated by the exposure to poetry courses in the Department of English. I must confess that I was greatly inspired by the tutelage of most of the lecturers who were in charge. Good enough, most of them are also creative writers themselves. This is enough to actuate you into imaginative writing.
For instance, the like of Professors Ademola Dasylva, Remi Raji, Babatunde Omobowale, Nelson Fashina and Adenike Akinjobi have written what I consider critical works which are enough to inspire many students of the department into creative writing. Besides, Professors Remi Oriaku, Ayo Kehinde and Olutoyin Jegede’s teachings and critical unveilings of the aesthetics of creative works help expose students to the understanding of the gymnastics of creative writing. This is why in the poet’s exordium which you alluded to, I made reference to some of their works as homage to them and their afflatus. I must also admit that reading the great works of Ezra Pound, T.S Elliot, Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Charles Bukowski, Pablo Neruda, and our own, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, J.P Clark, Gabriel Okara, Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide, Ezenwa Ohaeto among others, is enough to reawaken your interest in poetry.
On the delay in the gestation period, I would say that perhaps I could have been laughing at myself now if I had rushed to the press. You see, every creative work needs sometime to mature. Along the line, a poem you consider a finished work this month might just look obsolete the following month. Sometimes layers of meaning may pop up, and you’ll be forced to reconsider some lines. To put differently, a poem you see as good enough today may totally look disconnected with what you had in mind when the same poem is revisited again. Sequel to this, too, poems for the public space need to pass through the eyes of many needles; I mean colleagues and eggheads in the field of poetry for critical observation.
Most of the poems in this collection convey the satirical voice of a poet disillusioned with the status quo. How do you factor poetry’s “artistic boorishness against rodents”?
You are right. Most creative works are never disconnected from the reality. Poetry, as you know, beyond the inmost ventilation of the mind or the expression of man’s existentialist thrust, can be used as a medium through which the state of the nation is visited. Is it the corruption or profligacy which plunge most African states into stagnancy or the power play which has snowballed into tribal or religious sentiments that wreak havoc, terrorism and kidnapping, that you want to feign ignorance? The anomalies are overwhelming and sometimes the damage is beyond what many would shed tears for. This is why I resort to masking the pains satirically in some of the poems. Imagine how the nations in Africa, particularly the most densely populated, had remained on the margin of economic and socio-political stability. But for a few, and despite the amplitude of mineral and natural resources, the teeming human resources, the country has been in a state of flux with the masses struggling against enormous human induced impecuniousness. Hence, poetry is deployed to inveigh against rapacious leaders – the rodents who betray the poor masses by preying on the collective wealth of the people. This is what you see in most of the poems listed in “Anthems of State.”
Some of the poems in this collection are concrete poetry, such as “Caprice… Ruptured”, “The land of locusts”, “To what end”, “Allegro”, “Dolour”, “Heart beats”, etcetera. What determines when a poem becomes concrete for you?
For me, there should be a connection between the structure, title of a poem and its interpretation. If you look at George Herbert’s “Easter Wing”, the physicality of the poem helps the mind to derive some meanings in the poem. We see this, too, in some of Niyi Osundare’s poetry. However, in Land of Tales, apart from a few poems whose physical structure renders meaning to the poems, I try to invent or experiment a kind of linguistic scrapping of the end lines of some poems as a way of projecting another poem from same. I think we see this often in novels where the writer presents a story within a story. What I did in those poems is to help the average reader to see another poem within same and in some ways, re-emphasise the subject matter or thematic thrust.
A section of your poetry volume is entitled “Anthems of Fame”. Is fame here sanctimonious or otherwise?
It depends on how you view it. One of the beauties of literature is its ability to yield meanings in many ways. However, some of the poems listed in “Anthems of Fame” have condemnatory undertones. For instance, in the poem, “Reflections I”, you could see that man and his destructive instinct is tossed in a bid to objurgate wanton killings and mass destruction of fellow beings. The poem, however, ends with a rhetorical poser which raises serious concern on the aftermath of man’s killer instinct. Likewise, in the poems “Land of locusts… pang”, we see a disapprobation of avaricious agents of the land who rode on the back of the nation’s resources to become infamous and whose actions and inactions have further brought dishonour, and disintegration to the people of the land. In this angle, such poems can be seen as sanctimonious. But when you read the poem “On the Street of Dream”, you’ll probably notice that “fame’” cannot be said to be sanctimonious. The poem throws up a moralistic or philosophical perspective on becoming famous by dint of hardwork. The juxtaposition of eagle and bat, two animal images in a conversation is an attempt to acknowledge the visionary prowess of those, who against the odds, work hard in the attainment of their dreams as represented by the Eagle, and excoriate indolence and lack of vision by those who admire greatness but lack the initiative to achieve their goals.
Song is a leitmotif that runs through your poetry, often conveyed through personal lyrics. Why the fascination?
This is true. You know, music and poetry are like plain stitch. In addition to weaving your lines, selecting your words and locating them in their best order, it is necessary, though not mandatory, that you spend time examining the musicality of a poem. This, however, does not mean that it must adhere to certain metrical pattern as we see in sonnets and other lyrical poetry. I must admit, however, that as a chorister then with St. Cecilia Students’ Choir, Seat of Wisdom, University of Ibadan, sometimes the personal lyrics naturally fall on the poems. It is such that all I need is to make little adjustments for balance and order.
You coined the word “Parrymentarians”, to describe Nigerian lawmakers. Why did you come about the coinage and how does it qualify the lawmakers?
The poem “Parrymentarians”, for me, goes beyond a description of the Nigerian lawmakers. There are a number of African and western parliaments that the poem adumbrates. If you watched the house sittings of South Africa and Ugandan parliaments, for instance, you would see a manifestation of commotion and all kinds of drama in the name of lawmaking. The coinage is a morphological blending of parry and parliament. It sketches the misplaced priority and excesses of lawmakers who, ordinary, are the eyes and mouths of the people. Having said this, one may be right that Nigerian lawmakers are at the centre of the poem, though we must admit that there are a couple of gentlemen and ladies in those chambers who diligently perform their task as the peoples’ voice.
You have a “Letter to Mr. President” and a perceived response from Aso Rock. How useful do you think humour is in epistolary parody?
The use of humour in both poems is deliberate; it is meant to infuse laughter, tickle the reader while exploring issues of serious concern which affect the nation. The poem parodies the preference for foreign medical trip by African leaders, especially those who should look back home and fructify the health sector.
The use of dialogue through the voices of the poetic personae is deliberate as each persona helps to magnify the complexity of a nation and the elusive search for that dream land. The beauty of literature is the deployment of certain literary devices, such as parody, to play down issues of grievous concern by situating them within the ambit of humour and sometimes satire while, at the same time, take a swipe on those who are insensitive to the gains of good governance, and act as canis dingo against our common patrimony.
What are you doing in Liberia at the moment?
I am a faculty (lecturer) employed by one of Liberia’s state universities – William V.S Tubman University –to teach English courses at the Department of Languages and Literature, College of Arts and Sciences. Before my departure, I had taught at the University of Ibadan, MacPherson University and KolaDaisi University, Nigeria. My experience in Liberia, so far, has shown that the land is very fertile for poetry and other literary engagements. Interestingly, my students have demonstrated positive inclination towards literary creativity; my interest now is to help them grow academically – improve their writing skills and polish their creative instincts in imaginative writing.