Last night, between 4-7 pm, the Abuja branch of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) held a poetry reading session to mark the World Poetry Day. I attended the event which held at Harmonia Hotel in Garki, Abuja. And I was glad I did; reason: I was opportune to “catch up” with faces on the Nigerian literary scene I had not seen in months (some in years). They included the two guest poets, Lola Shoneyin and Kabura Zakama, both of whom are upcoming young writers who have since been making waves in the circle of Nigerian writing. There was also frontline poet and scholar, Prof. Remi Raji, head of the Department of English, University ofIbadan, who came specifically to canvass support for his candidature for the presidency of ANA. And there were many others: Ahmed Maiwada, Odoh Diego Okenyodo, Jerry Adesewo, etc. It was a great fraternity.
It was nice for me to see Mrs Shoneyin after so many years. The last time we met was in Ilesha, Osun State, in 1998, during the national convention of ANA. That was the year her first book, a collection of poems with the longish title, “So All The Time I Was Sitting On An Egg,” was published. Her name on the book cover then was Titilola Alexandra Shoneyin. I had gone to last night’s event with a copy of the book, which she autographed for me on October 30, 1998, thinking she was going to read from it. But as it turned out, she read from her newest poetry collection, “For the Love of Flight,” published in 2010 by Cassava Republic, Abuja.
Lola Shoneyin read first, followed by Kabura Zakama. The latter presented poems on his lost love as well as on the state of Nigerian democracy. One poem dealt with his inability to express his love to a particular woman, and another was on the farce called civilian rule in this country. Zakama explained that he began to write “anger poetry” during the military rule of Gen. Sani Abacha.
Shoneyin read four poems: “The Head Story,” “Distance,” “For Kiitan,” and “Jolademi,” the last two being the names of her sons. All the poems she read were autobiographical, and the poetess captivated the audience with giving a background to each of the poem, i.e. why it was written. This opened a window into the poem for the listener. But Maiwada, the poet-novelist, disagreed with this style, telling the audience that a poet should not “guide” the reader towards an understanding of the poem but should rather read it straight away, leaving the listener to their imagination. Shoneyin explained that she did this on purpose, with the audience in mind.
I should argue that Shoneyin may be seen to have matured physically in the last 13 years since I saw her; I am not sure she had gotten married at that time. Now she is a mother of four children. Creativity-wise, if I dare say her poetry has improved, I would be insinuating that “Sitting On An Egg” was less imaginative than “For Love of Flight.” For me, the former is as creative as any other work she has produced in between these years. I have read it several times over and marvelled at not only the frankness with which she skewered my gender but also the well of imagination from which she drew her scintillating verse. (NB: I have not seen her second volume of poetry, “Song of a Riverbird” yet). Arguably, Shoneyin is one of the best poetry-writers in Africa (and elsewhere) whose works I have come across since 1998.
I pray that this woman of letters beat the other 19 nominees to win the Orange Prize for Fiction, for which she was nominated last week with her novel, “The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.” I have not read the book yet, but knowing from which mind it came I have no doubt about its potential for winning a big laurel such as this. (I bought my copy last night during the reading session, together with Shoneyin’s children’s book, “Mayowa and the Masquerades,” which she autographed for my daughter, and which I finished reading as soon as I got back home!).
Both Shoneyin and Prof. Raji will remain in Abuja till tomorrow Monday for the 1st Korea-Nigeria Poetry Feast. Raji is guest poet while Shoneyin, together with Okenyodo and Hajo Isa, will read from their collections. So that’s another opportunity to hear from these wonderful people who labour through their God-given talents to show us the joys and follies of our lives.