(OLU OBAFEMI) Spectator Literary Series
"For me, commited art is like a golden knife" Interview with Remi Raji
Q: You are one of the leading poetic voices of your generation. What is your source of creative imagination?
A: Thank you, Prof. I keep wondering at what particular time I got such recognition as one of the leading voices of my generation, but I must thank you for the acknowledgement. My source of creative imagination? I think it goes back to the desire for self-expression, and with it, an intense desire to speak on behalf of others, to express things differently, to invoke or query things that puzzle me as an observer and participant…
Q: You have followed the tradition of some of us—a set of writers that include Niyi Osundare, Okinba Launko (Femi Osofisan), Funso Aiyejina, myself and others—who have opted to use the media to reach the popular audiences with their poetry and fiction. What in your view is the advantage of creating art through the newspaper medium? Can that kind of art be profound?
A: Of course the art of tabloid poetry and prose writing in Nigeria is as young as the country itself, notable and more recently embraced just about a little over two decades ago, usefully put to service in the early 1980s as part of a rapid creative response to the ideas, events, matters and personalities that defined the national and regional terrains of the country in recent memory. Writing creatively on the pages of the newspaper was and still is a matter inevitable if you lived in Nigeria of the early 1980s, if you had the uncomfortable germ, the inspiration to query things gone awry, and in a situation where standard publishing wouldn’t come easy to the potential author. Of course this isn’t the only reason why the art medium flourished. It was for some an avenue to try a forthcoming collection of stories or poems for size. They wrote both for social engagement and to test for critical reception. As I saw it, it was the most creative thing to engage the real world through fiction, using the refinement and freedom that the fictional imagination allows to laugh or frown at things. My own first attempt in tabloid poetry was in late 1983, when I sent in a very long piece to The Guardiannewspapers in which I “predicted” the fall of the Second Republic; that poem was eventually published a day or two after the Buhari-Idiagbon military takeover. A number of other poems, earlier written either in Niyi Osundare’s Creative Writing class or for the University’s Poetry Club, eventually got published years after. Yes, it is great experience, it affords further training, testing, experimentation, and also it challenges the writer to come up with something fresh at regular intervals. Can it be profound? I ask why not? The author of tabloid poetry, I mean the one who is aware of its purpose, will always compose with a larger and wider mixture of audience in mind, so the style and the language might be less tight; but the same heart that forges the metaphors and imagery of tabloid poetry is no more different from the mind that imagines other poems as collected in standard book publishing. In fact, it often happens that these compositions for “popular” consumption always almost end up as collected poems or stories.
Q: You are also one of the writers of your generation that is both a creative writer and a literary scholar. Is the inter-textual link between creativity and scholarship an advantage or a hindrance, from both perspectives?
A: I think that the link should be an advantage rather than a hindrance. In Dan Izevbaye’s introduction to criticism class, the first thing you’re reminded of is that “creativity” and “scholarship” are two sides of the same coin. Personally, the advantage has served me well; I have been able to subject my own writing to close scrutiny, almost tending to be my own niggling, fault-finding critic; I also enjoyed the critical awareness of literary histories, particular perspectives, moments, movements, schools, and the unconscious/conscious anxieties of influences, all the kinds of theoretical details that the next-door creative writer is wont to easily overlook. Indeed, this constant act of self-critique and intense negation of one’s own subjectivity could be sometimes counter-productive. When you are alone, and you take a hard, dispassionate look at the figure standing before you across the mirror, early in the morning, you are likely to find the ugly groove, the dirty log in the eye. This, for me, has been helpful, but it has also cost me the personal rejection and removal of what I consider as uninspiring lines, and even the stepping down or revision of entire poems in my work.
Q: You have a very strong tendency in your poetry to centralize performance. What essentially is the artistic and ideological purpose of performance poetry?
A: I will say that the centralization of performance in poetry came to me at a later stage in my writing, although I started precisely as a “performer” – leader of an amateur boys’ band and reciter/chanter of traditional poetry rather than reader of poetry at an early age. But I understand what you mean by “performance poetry” here. Apart from a number of public appearances in international circles, I did not consider myself as a “performance poet” the way you will define it in places like South Africa, or in the avant-garde communities of artists in the US, Canada and the UK. My claim to “performance poetry” was encouraged by a professional, brotherly advice by the Ghanaian poet and scholar, Kofi Anyidoho, after I gave a transliterative reading of a poem at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre in Durban, South Africa, in May 2001. I tried with other poems and improved on it with the publication of my fourth book of poetry, Lovesong for my wasteland(Bookcraft, 2005). Years before that publication, I sought to produce a long-breadth poem with a soul of dance and dialogue. I wanted to do a choreo-poem of sorts, something that will come alive on stage. I dwelt on the Anyidoho encounter and profited from it. And that’s what my friend, Chuks Okoye, realized on stage, twice before the eventual publication of the book. For me, a great poem should be able to stand either as a read, chanted or performed material. I will not exchange the elegance of metaphors for the sheer embodiment or modulation of voice. When properly realized, performance poetry combines all the finery of the genres and other arts. Its purpose is to reach close to the infinity and intensity of the word, to make the word come alive as a figure, a dynamic painting, a moving sculpted image, or as a thousand pictures on limbs of fire, something that can consume the entire sensory imagination of the audience/reader. That is what I will assume as the ideology behind the medium that thrives on other media.
Q: Who are your influences—if any and what is your point of departure from them?
A: My influences are so many that it won’t be easy to count them all. There were the influences of the age of innocence; there were those who influenced you because they were there for you in the age of knowledge; and there were those in the period of becoming, in the age of experience, those who influenced you because they were not so close and you imagined and dreamt to walk in their famous shoes. All of these are teachers by nature: my mothers, the local praise-singers who visited my father on regular days and evenings, and the many unnamed, unlettered poets who populated my adolescent years; then the one who first taught me higher school Literature the memorable way, Ebinyo Ogbowei; very early in my education, I claimed the vision and style of the English Romantics, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats especially; after innocence, there were Sesan Ajayi, Niyi Osundare, Harry Garuba, Isidore Okpewho, Bode Sowande, and Femi Osofisan, all who congregated, luckily for me, within same space and time at the University of Ibadan; and beyond the encounters, other virtual influences included Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Pablo Neruda, Cesar Valejo, Ai Qing, Mahmoud Darwish, Amichai Yehuda, and Czeslaw Milosz. For a number of these writers, I have several points of departures, preferably, exits and entrances. But beyond all these names, I will add that my environment, with its many untapped narratives, remains the major influence and the sustenance of my poetry.
Q: You are a male writer that has shown tremendous interest in the works of female writers—especially from the northern part of Nigeria. What is your motivation and what have you found out?
A: I wonder myself, but I can say that it may have to do with the history of my development and training. Two of my teachers at the university of Ibadan are strong and motivational women – Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, and Chikwenye Okonjo-Ogunyemi. Now I can say, using the scout master’s jargon, that Ogunyemi spotted me very early in the Department of English. She offered me unconditional entry into her office of books, a mini-library of sorts where all the books that mattered then in literary theory, women’s writing, and African American literature could be found. I am not sure if it was deliberate, but she virtually prepared me for the work of gynocriticism at a time the term was less fanciful. Taking a look at that experience, I think Ogunyemi caused my great interest in women’s writing. Dating back to the late 1990s, I have done research and produced essays on women’s writing in Nigeria, South Africa and the United States. I continue to search and research. Some of my findings are contained in essays published in journals and books. First, I found that the discourse of genre is as important as the discourse of gender. A commitment to the history of women’s writing will recognize the pioneering efforts of such authors as Mabel Segun, Phebean Ogundipe, Flora Nwapa and Zulu Sofola. By the mid-1980s, a second wave of women’s writing had occurred with such significant names as Catherine Acholonu, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie…and Iyabo Fagbulu. This developmental rise, in both quantity and quality, of women’s writings reached a crucial peak, actually an explosion of voices and perspectives which saw Chika Unigwe, Emilienne Motaze, Ogochukwu Promise and Toyin Adewale emerge as early birds. It was also in the momentous 1990s that Anglophone writings by women in Northern Nigeria became very noticeable… I opted to research “Northern Nigerian women’s poetry” out of a genuine curiosity to know what many have ignored. I have fed that curiosity enough materials that some of my conclusions have become the basis of other essays and interpretations. To be sure, the chart is a convenient calendar, something which is provided to aid understanding of the literary terrain and the critical maze. No longer would the reasons of absence, sparse publication and invisibility be tenable in the appreciation of the national literature. In concluding a presentation I gave at the University of Stockholm, I suggested that the “genderization” of Nigerian literature was inevitable but “the concern of the Nigerian/African female writer is by no means in entire opposition to the concern of her male counterpart even in her strategic device of re-writing or re-visioning…” [although] “she is perhaps more excavatory, introspective, and therefore possibly more involved in the revelations of the self, a self that has been previously forgotten, repressed, or made invisible.”
Q: Unlike the generation before you who were decidedly ideologically bent and focused in the creative enterprise, I notice that anger and creative directness feature prominently in the literature of your generation. Is this observation tenable?
A: I think we need to qualify this observation with a particular difference. Let me note first that not all of your generation’s works are decidedly ideologically bent. It is too much of a generalization to adduce the style or content of anger and directness to a whole generation, by which I mean the third generation of Nigerian writing, a generation whose beginning and apogee can be dated but whose terminal date is yet to be qualified. Precisely I consider myself as part of the first wave of third generation writing, and in the works of those who belong in the circle – majority of authors who graduated from the Ibadan-Ife and Nsukka schools of writing during the long, dark decade of military rule (1983 through 1993), there is indeed a certain kind of anger, an anger that dances towards the edge of outrage, an anger that is beyond disillusionment, the anger of wonder. But I don’t think that the suggestion of a creative directness is exact. It might be true for those who choose it, but it is not a defining characteristic of the generation that I know. The way it is used here, “creative directness” might just be an euphemism for the lack of literary inventiveness and originality; if so, then I better say that the observation is not tenable but only tentative.
Q: What is the relevance of literature to democracy? Should art be didactic and political? Does committed art sacrifice enduring aesthetics?
A: I think that art for art’s sakeis possible as long as it serves the purpose. You see, that’s the irony of the idea because art serves a purpose, of either edification, or hedonism, either it uplifts the soul or it feeds the material body. When it performs both functions - that of educating and entertaining – literature becomes literature, something that enlightens in a beautiful way. Art is therefore a political act, from the very first moment a writer opts to be a writer and not a tyre tycoon, from the moment a painter chooses the canvass and the brush over the weapon of war, from the moment the dancer or the musician chooses a particular form or tenor over and above other considerations. Yes, literature is relevant to democracy; and good literature is one which expresses itself magically, for a purpose. Good literature must transcend that state where the subject or message and the aesthetics of rendering, are defined as insular poles that do not meet. The enforcement of that kind of polarity generally makes the “committed” art work less enjoyable, overly political and therefore tendentious. For me, committed art is like a golden knife…; it is not plastic yet it is not crooked; it does its job, of either carving or cutting, creating or destroying; it enforces the job without losing its seductive appeal. I don’t think that a committed art needs to sacrifice its own immortality or quality on the door of aesthetic mediocrity. A committed art should be able to contain the truth or argument of its producer in the finery of the chosen (linguistic) medium, without losing focus or momentum.