Poet, scholar and public intellectual, Professor Niyi Osundare was in his elements on the evening of Sunday, February 20, when he read from his poetry collections, ‘GREEN: Sighs of Our Ailing Planet’ and ‘Snapsongs: Homegroans and Foreignflares’ at Roving Heights Bookstores, Victoria Island, Lagos.
Though the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), which jointly organized the session with Roving Heights, had announced that the multiple award-winner would only read from ‘GREEN’, the poet gave a double treat by also reading from ‘Snapsongs’ that his Nigerian publisher, University Press Plc released before the event.
For about 105 minutes, it was vintage Osundare as the Ikere-Ekiti born-bard performed and explained the circumstances that birthed some of the poems. But trust him to also throw in generous commentaries about happenings in the country and globally.
Before the poet took the stage, Secretary-General of CORA, Toyin Akinosho, explained the gathering’s origins and the organization’s plans for the year. Akinosho, who read Osundare’s ‘For Tai Solarin’, explained that the readings began at the 7th Lagos Book and Art Festival as an extension service to take the book to the community.
The Emeritus Distinguished Professor of English at the University of New Orleans, US, began his reading by appreciating his two publishers, University Press and Black Widow Press, US, for their conscientious efforts in getting the collections out. He also acknowledged his parents and how his storytelling background instilled a love of music in him. Osundare, whose poems are musical, won’t read without singing and did just that on occasion. His first was a call and response number, ‘Aremo Sunloye’; he sang others before the curtains fell.
His first set of poems were from ‘Snapsongs’ because, according to him, “charity begins at home.” He gave a brief history of each before reading/performing them. He also disclosed the history of ‘Snapsongs’, first published in the Nigerian Tribune in 1983 and has since been published on other platforms.
“I983, there was an election, and it was rigged, as usual. Nothing new is happening in our country, just that we are getting worse. FEDECO (Federal Electoral Commission), it was called organized it, and I found it difficult to sleep. The rigging was so brazen, so I decided to do a series of satires about the situation in my office. My former student Sina Odugbemi came in; he worked at the Tribune and saw the poems. He said Oga, a malo eleyi (we will publish these). I said no, I’m just … he took them away. Wednesday, the following week, I was teaching at the Department of English. When I finished and got to my office, I saw that the whole place was dripping with short notes from students, people all over campus. ‘Thank you. You’ve spoken our mind’. Some of them mentioned to me; it’s in the Tribune today. I went to the newsstand to get a copy of the Tribune, and it was close to what Americans call a teachable moment; it was so symbolic.
“So, it was possible for a poem published in a newspaper to have this kind of impact. Before then, I had published by the numbers in academic journals without getting any response. A full page and all this response? I said it was worth it. 1983 I started, and there was a pause. 1985 was when I began this iteration. Felix Adenaike was Managing Director of the Tribune, and Folu Olamiti was Editor, Sunday Tribune. I give them credit. They and their staff; there was no internet, no telephone. When I finished and couldn’t go to see them at Imalefalafia, they would send someone to come and pick it up from UI. And they paid me a princely sum of N250. It was a lot of money in those days.”
He added that poems under the ‘Snapsongs’ banner included in the collection had since been published in The Guardian, Punch, Sahara Reporters and Premium Times, among others. He read ‘Wonderland’ inspired by Akeem Lasisi’s same-titled collection. He prefaced his reading of ‘Third Term Blues’ with an appreciation of Nigerian journalists and their courage in troubled times.
“We had a president who…; we couldn’t remember whether it was a democratic president or an imperial majesty. Sometime towards the end of his second term, he wanted a third term. Although he has denied it, many people have confirmed it. I wondered what to do, and I sent it to the then Editor of The Guardian on Sunday [Jahman Anikulapo]. What did he do? O la mo (slammed it on the page). I later learnt there were one or two calls from the presidency. We have to give credit to the Nigerian press. From my little knowledge of this continent, the Nigerian press is about the most robust from the Cape to Cairo. The role they played during the military era should not be forgotten. Without those sacrifices, Nigeria won’t be where we are today.”
Prof Osundare read his famous poem about corruption in the Nigerian judiciary, ‘My Lord, Tell me Where to Keep Your Bribe’ and ‘Black and Blue’ about how ex-President Donald Trump almost turned the US to a banana republic.
He spoke with feeling about the ‘Japa movement’ and Nigerian writers seeking validation from abroad before he read ‘Mainstreamed’, the last poem he took from ‘Snapsongs’. Prof Osundare said although several Nigerians have lost faith in the country and wish to leave, relocating abroad is not a bed of roses.
“Four out of every five young men and women I meet in this country are trying to find their way out. They send their poem, and you say this is ok. The next one is, ‘please, find me a place in your university’. Everybody’s trying to run away!! Do I blame them? Not at all. People who rule us don’t care, and I daresay they don’t love this country. We are bleeding from every spot. Our best are leaving. Our writers, too, have lost faith in this country. ‘Find me a publisher abroad. Nobody will buy my books; I will die in poverty. Then you tell them the Diaspora is not as good as people think. I’m in a position to know. The Diaspora is not relocation; I call it dislocation. You have to be there; the streets of America, France or Britain are not paved with gold, waiting for you to come and pick. No.
“And as an artist, as a sensitive artist, you also know this. You write what you think is your best, give it to the Editor. The Editor would read it and, as Pope would say, damn it with faint praise. This is good, but the American audience might find it difficult. What is often rejected is what people want most in Africa. I don’t blame them; publishing is business. Why does Africa not read books? A country of 22O million people! If only a million read and buy books, we will have our prizes without depending on anybody. Our people won’t need to go abroad to import fame and recognition. But the mainstream, that’s what it’s called. We must get to the mainstream.”
He then moved to ‘GREEN…’, reflective poems on climate change and the imminent environmental disasters if humanity doesn’t retrace its actions. He described the collection as a redevelopment of his famous collection, ‘The Eye of the Earth’ and further disclosed his concerns for the environment.
“The situation has become worse. I think I’m more passionate about the world than I was at that time because our world is disappearing, and the lies and denials bother me. People still say there’s nothing like climate change; it’s just the seasons reorganizing themselves. When [Hurricane] Katrina nearly killed me, Prof Soyinka sent me an email. ‘Ayorunbo, barika…I just drove by Ahmadu Bello Way, and I’m wondering when we will have our own Katrina.’ It was typical Soyinka. Water has memory; it has patience. You may cheat it, but it has a way of coming back. It does not forget. It comes back to reclaim what you took away from it. That’s what happened in New Orleans. The sea came to my house.”
He added that ‘GREEN…’ divided into nine parts was ready two years ago. A fire in the Amazon, the planet’s lungs, made him call his publisher to stop while he added more poems.
The poems he read from the collection include ‘Amazon Burning’, ‘Kaningo’, ‘Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa’, ‘For Greta Thunberg’, ‘For World Food Day’, ‘Stubborn Hope’ and ‘Still We Think’. Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi and his wife, culture journalist and artist Ben Tomoloju, actress Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, CORA Board member, Kayode Aderinokun, Chair, Editorial Board of The Nation, Sam Omatseye, Pascal Otis and Layiwola Adeniji were at the event. Founder, AJ House of Poetry, Dagga Tolar and poet Akeem Lasisi, who did his latest ‘Ada Ada’ and ‘Omo abo’ dedicated to Osundare from his earlier album, ‘Eleleture’ performed at the occasion. An interaction session and book signing concluded the beautiful evening. Sunday Tribune