Border Less Words… When Poetry Concert Lit Up The Big Stage

South Africa’s Natalia Molebashi (left); Jumoke Verissimo; South Africa’s Lebo Mashile; Botswana’s T.J Dema and moderator, Wana Udobang during the panel discussion on ‘Shifting Tides: Women in Society and Poetry’ at Freedom Park at the maiden edition of Lagos International Poetry Festival 2015; it had ‘Border Less Words’ as theme PHOTOS: ANOTE AJELUORO

South Africa’s Natalia Molebashi (left); Jumoke Verissimo; South Africa’s Lebo Mashile; Botswana’s T.J Dema and moderator, Wana Udobang during the panel discussion on ‘Shifting Tides: Women in Society and Poetry’ at Freedom Park at the maiden edition of Lagos International Poetry Festival 2015; it had ‘Border Less Words’ as theme PHOTOS: ANOTE AJELUORO

NO one could have predicted the innovativeness, the inventiveness and even explosiveness of a Poetry Concert. But when it hit the audience at Agip Recital Hall of MUSON Centre, Onikan, Lagos, it caused quite a stir. In fact, the fee-paying concert far exceeded what you would ordinarily get from a five-star comedy performance. The three and a half-hour long concert kept the audience glued to their seats, as every performance moment was such an enthralling treasure. Remarkably, the poetry festival found a moment to shine with the support of Nigerian Breweries Plc.

It was Friday, October 30 and day-3 of the maiden edition of Lagos International Poetry Festival 2015, and poetry lovers, writers and others at JP Clark Cultural Centre, University of Lagos, had been treated to a conversation with Clark, moderated by Chuma Nwokolo, on sundry issues of literary and polemical concerns.

On the same day other issues of serious concerns had also been discussed at two panels – ‘Witnesses or Legislators: Does Poetry Make Any Difference?’ and ‘Verses in Bits and Bites: How Technology is Changing Art and Poetry’.

With Wana Udobang as anchor, the poetry concert started on a seductive note, with Udobang showing her versatility as a performance poet besides having a great voice as a former radio woman at Inspiration 92.3FM. Her entry piece ‘Hips don’t lie’ was riveting, combined with voluptuous bodily movements that sent round shockwaves of ecstasy. Even when all else fails, hips indeed won’t ever lie in the affirmation between man and woman. Young poets Chika Jones and Ehiz Momodu burst unto the stage with spoken word all their own. Jones’ ‘How can I come to Lagos and not slam’ was as exhilarating and as expansive as the Lagos’ expressive, boundless landscape. Momodu’s ‘I wasn’t a daddy’s boy’ shows the frustration of an imposed manly ego; it cut keenly. Antoinette Okoye added her peppery ‘I love Nigeria my country’ and ‘They think they know me, but…’ to complete a night of budding poets on the ascendancy.

Again, anchor Udobang’s ‘She wears her darkness’ left the audience in the depth of despair, as they inhabited a space only a woman can possibly be. She also performed ‘Love is’ and ‘Dark planet.’ Udobang’s final piece for the night, which came much later, was ‘Catfish’. Here, the lady commonly called Wana-Wana deployed the imagery of the catfish pepper soup delicacy into something poetically explosive and forbidden. It is the life of her mother, the hard, oppressive life she has lived and how desperately she doesn’t want her daughters and granddaughters to live it the way she has done. It is an appeal for them not to be like the catfish which revelers point at randomly as they wriggle helplessly in bowls and cooked and eaten in manic, ravenous tastes!

AUTHOR of I Am Memory and Birth of Illusions, Jumoke Verissimo’s class act came next. She does not belong to the rave spoken word category; she reads from her collection, but it doesn’t appear like reading. She is so fluid, so fast-paced it appears it is all from memory. And the calm cadence of her performance is a marvel. ‘Ajani’ and ‘Hope’ were the two pieces she served at the concert and she stamped her feet as a performer of immense talent. Sage Hassan also came with his own brand of spoken word and he regaled the audience with small, hilarious talk. ‘Breathe,’ ‘Black Jesus’ and ‘Her body’ were the staples he also served an excited audience.

Next was Abuja-based Dike Chukwumerije, whose firebrand performance act is a class of its own. His ‘The revolution has no tribe’ reverberated with unbridled energy and said all the unstated frustrations of the common people at those who have continued to put them down. ‘Devil’ also came with its own energy just as the piece dedicated to late Prof. Chinua Achebe, the sole elephant in the forest of ideas and how his passing is such a huge loss.

Then came the turn of the South African Natalia Molebashi; she performed ‘The mute also speak,’ ‘Now’ and Adam’s ribs’ which highlighted feminine issues and women’s relationship with men. Molebashi described herself a feminist who would not be caged in the ribs of Adams (men). She also read ‘I wish you happiness’ written to commemorate the International Day of Happiness. Her great voice carried well in a song she sang. Also, London-based Ugandan, Nick Makoha, came next with ‘Watchman,’ ‘Resurrection man,’ ‘Kingdom of gravity’ and ‘The dark’.

With Nwokolo, poetry assumed another dynamism and charged energy. Like Verissimo, Nwokolo performed from the pages of his collection. But even at that, it is poetry from a different plane. His piece from The Final Testament from a Minor God, also his collection, regaled the audience with the protest of Sopono who refuses the role he is cast among the pantheon of Yoruba gods. He also performed ‘Mourning after’ and ‘Neocolonial njakiri.’ But it was in ‘Oga at the top’ that Nwokolo outdid even himself and got the audience soaked in poetic mischief. It is the prayer of a thieving politician in the firebrand, Pentecostal tradition asking everyone to bow to his maniacal excesses and not be questioned for his misdeeds.

Cuba-based Falana strummed her guitar as she sang in a musical interlude before her soul mate Titilope Sonuga came on and literally brought the roof down with the sheer seduction of her delivery. From ‘I open my mouth and found Amen’ to ‘Memory’, Sonuga mesmerized with her layered imagery and the fluidity of her unique performance. Like she said, her performance is a collage of images, of meanings, like ocean waves rolling one onto another. The serenity and expressiveness of her spoken performance was so enthralling, and when she finished, the hall exploded in standing ovation.

Obii Ifejika dedicated her first piece to fellow poets and writers; her second was ‘Love gone sour’ before she performed her stirring piece on lost ones including kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls. London-based Nigerian, Inua Ellams, roused the audience with his stirring pieces while petite Botswana’s TJ Dema rocked with ‘Dreams,’ ‘Just because,’ ‘Our man in Gaborone’ and ‘Bread for the birds’. Hers was solid poetry performance. South Africa’s Lebo Mashile also did her stuff. Her historical piece put in perspective Africa’s peculiar convoluted history that is sometimes great and most times gross.

Port-Harcourt-based Amu-Nnadi also impressed with his long narrative piece that had the accompaniment of two violinists with Molebashi ululating along. The night did not end without Festival Director for Lagos International Poetry Festival Mr. Efe Paul Azino capping it all with his electrifying piece, ‘Storyteller’. And so at 11.35, a poetry concert came to a rousing close.

Truly, the makeup of the poets, their performances, and impact aptly bore out the festival’s theme ‘Border-fewer Words.’

THE first-panel discussion at Freedom Park on day-4, Saturday, October 31, 2015, ‘Shifting Tides: Women in Society and Poetry,’ had Botswana’s Dema, South Africa’s Mashile and Molebashi and Nigeria’s Verissimo, with Udobang moderating. For Verissimo, it is an incredible journey being a woman poet and writer, as it gives her a platform to codify her experiences and explain her society to herself and others.

Verissimo said, “I’m told I write on topics that belong to men. This because of the men I relate with. The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) meetings I used to attend were always on political issues. I wanted to write as a woman, but my influences are otherwise. I’ve moved with distractions; now I want to listen and walk along, that I’m a woman. I’ve always wanted to be immersed in the political. I’m concerned about the political, how the future will be for my daughter”.

For Molebashi, the image of womanhood in most parts of Africa is warped. Coming from black South African background, Molebashi said growing up black and poor isn’t the best experience.

“Growing up in a township, black and poor, you get to know somebody can just break into your body. Those kinds of experiences craft what you write. We live in a society that has profound hatred for women – that is true. The atrocity I can’t get used to is, a girl getting raped and beaten up. I need to always affirm my being as a human being. We live in a space designed to hate women, abuse them; we have to change all that. We have to get to a place where no woman has to be conquered. So, until we have women in positions of power to change things, I will write the way I write, in defence of women”.

Dema said the personal stories rather than the so-called big political issues always resonate in her writing just as they also reflect her political side, noting, “The personal is automatically inherently very political. My poetry is very personal and accessible. If it’s important to you, if it matters to you, then it’s part of your experience; then it’s political. My politics is sometimes under radar”.

Mashile said, “Men don’t know how to affirm women; such things, if ever said, are said behind women’s back, never in front of them. The challenge is to speak my affirmation, to declare it. If I create that language for myself, then I can amplify it. My society doesn’t allow emotional language, which is masculine. Being homophobic and misogynist is not being manly. I’m always being accused of being emotional. The men I feel drawn to are feminist. Women’s issues and voices were mrginalised during Apartheid. But it’s beginning to rise now. The story of black women artists was not always easy”.

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