I was interviewed by Ismail Bala Garba, a poet and lecturer in the Department of English and European Languages, Bayero University, Kano, on the role I played in spawning literary columns in Nigerian newspapers, with focus on poetry. Ismail was working on an academic paper. He sent similar questionnaire to other “literary journalists.” The interview was conducted via email, as follows:
A) What motivated you to start a poetry column?
ANSWER: Mind you, I was the one who created the poetry (or literary) pages in the following newspapers: Sunday Tide; The Reporter; Hotline; New Nigerian; Weekly Trust; Leadership; The Companion, and Public Agenda. Except The Reporter, all the others are still kicking, mostly under the titles I personally created (The Write Stuff, Bookshelf, Bookarts, Books).
Back to your question: I am a bookworm. My interests span a wide array of fields in literature. Poetry happens to be one of them. I have been involved with poetry from my secondary school days when I read the works of great poets from Chaucer to Okara; from Browning to Soyinka, etc. I also read a lot of Hausa poetry. Consequently I experimented with writing poems myself, and I think I have done well. hen when I became a journalist I discovered the power of giving people chance to express themselves in any way they can. Poetry is one of those ways. I realised that many of our people have poetic intuitions, but the lack of space to communicate their poems was hampering their creativity. I have learned, through the efforts of Al-Bishak (who edited a poetry column in the Sunday New Nigerian, to which I contributed every week when I was in secondary school in the early ’80s), that the responsibility of providing such space for our numerous poets lay heavily on me. I had the opportunity, being an editor with clout in all the newspapers where I worked/contributed (Sunday Tide, The Reporter, Hotline, New Nigerian, Weekly Trust, Leadership, Public Agenda). So I created poetry columns (beginning from the Sunday Tide in Port Harcourt in 1990) essentially to give creative minds the chance to express themselves, to try to become Wordsworth. I was motivated by the works of those ancient and contemporary bards that I read with the view to trying to continue with the tradition of poetry-creation, especially on this side of the world.
B) Do you have any idea about the volume of poems you receive from readers?
ANSWER: It depends on the popularity or influence or circulation of the medium through which I communicate. When I was editing the Weekly Trust’s literary pages I received my largest volume of contributions. Probably forty poems a week, out of which five to six could be published. (Don’t forget, poetry is usually given a small corner in the pages – we call it Poet’s Corner, unlike prose, which is given most of the space). But after Trust, i.e. when I went to Leadership and later Public Agenda, the traffic has reduced due to the limited circulation of these newspapers. Other factors are at play, too, because I am sure even the readers’s poetry contributions to Weekly Trust are no longer as copious as they used to be. The economic downturn in the country, which has changed the poet’s mood for the worse, could be one of the reasons.
C) What is the nature of audience reaction to the poems and the column?
ANSWER: Reaction has been positive. That’s why we keep the light one. And you see people telling their friends, “My poems have just been published in the Weekly Trust!” Then you receive more contributions. The beauty of it all is that many of these contributors eventually become published in book form, thus launching themselves to stardom as authors.
D) Do you foresee the development of newspaper poetry? What is its future? Do you think poetry in newspaper is different?
ANSWER: Poetry in newspaper is not different from any other. The audience is bigger than those who buy books due to the poor reading culture in Nigeria. The future is really uncertain. Unless the reading culture is improved, “newspaper poetry” will remain in a cocoon, unable to grow. As I said, the poetry corners in, say, Citizen magazine and Weekly Trust used to be hugely popular. But Citizen died, and contributions to Trust declined. That means the genre is not improving as fast as it should. Recently I launched a ‘Poet of the Week’ corner in the Public Agenda (the type I created in the Weekly Trust years back). I received only two contributions in a month. The column was rested (till further notice). In short, the future is bleak for newspaper poetry in this country. I think one reason is that no one, apart from us the so-called literary journalists, is coordinating the genre. And we are doing it as part of our routine career. Or hobby. Or whatever.