Who is afraid of Chimalum Nwankwo?
I was in London in 2010 on vacation. My hotel room TV was on early in the morning. A British Literary critic was being interviewed on the poetry scene of African-American poetry. I listened intently as a lover of poetry, and to my surprise, the critic remarked that one of the most significant books of poetry that year was Of The Deepest Shadows And The Prisons Of Fire, then a new book by Nigerian-born Chimalum Nwankwo! Then, Nwankwo was the chairman of the Department of English and Speech at the North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro, USA. On my return home, I called Chimalum Nwankwo to inform him about this. He simply laughed, and made one of his weird, humorous jokes about his being the ‘Jesus Christ’ of modern African poetry and about selective persecution in Nigeria. Explain sir, I pursued him, and he added laughing that I should know he is ‘Spirit (Ndimuo).’ So, I let him be. But from then on, I developed deep interest in the poetry of Chimalum Nwankwo.
Later, I browsed the Internet and found so many superlative comments about the poet and that new book and his other works. Published outside the shores of Nigeria. Of the Deepest Shadows and the Prisons of Fire. The roughly 200 pages of dense lyrical poetry had been referred to as a ‘magnum opus’ by Ikeogu Oke. The London Africa Book Centre called the book an ‘epic narrative.’ His 2002 ANA-CADBURY prize-winning volume, The Womb In The Heart is on special reserve on a campus library of The University of West Indies, and marked a ‘must read’ in African poetry. Nnorom Azuonye of the London Sentinel Poetry Magazine had also referred to Nwankwo as ‘by far, easily, the strongest voice in modern African poetry today.’ Nwankwo, a 2010 guest of the University of London Pinter International Centre of the Arts, was referred to by the late distinguished Professor Okpewho as ‘a genius in full control of his art.’ I could go on and on with my discoveries about Nwankwo’s poetry, but let me stop here and disclose some of the immediate reasons for this write-up.
The first, is that Of The Deepest Shadows And The Prisons Of Fire was shut down and removed from the ANA-CADBURY PRIZE competition when it was entered that year. One of the courageous, irate and indignant judges called the New York publishers of Nwankwo’s work to complain in sadness and disappointment. According to the judge, he was instructed by the prize committee to ignore Nwankwo’s work because of his fiery criticism of the work of the late Christopher Okigbo. In other words, Nwankwo was being punished for his disparaging comments about the originality of Okigbo’s poetry. Later, when Nwankwo was interviewed by Ikeogu Oke for NEXT, the public found out very sadly that Nwankwo’s fine critique of Okigbo’s work had very clear merit and justification. (all due respect for Okigbo). Many of those who were rude about Nwankwo’s remarks had since apologised to him, but the damage had been done by the likes the late Professor Obumselu who saw or still see Nwankwo as an ‘intolerant and severe critic.’
In the 2013 run of the LNG Poetry Prize, Nwankwo’s same massive and high flying poetry internationally respected by critics around the globe was not in the long list of the competition. When I spoke to Nwankwo about this, he laughed characteristically, and waved the whole thing aside, and asked me a rhetorical question about the integrity and probity of those who claimed to be critics and judges of Nigerian Literary works. ‘One of the Judges of the last LNG Prize, Professor XYZ, who hardly ever socialised with Nwankwo called him to inform him that She/ He was a judge of the LNG PRIZE. Nwankwo was probed for conversation, but he was not willing to toe such an unethical line just for the sake of a prize. I do not believe Soyinka was called by the Swedes before he was awarded the Nobel Prize. What was that judge calling Professor Nwankwo for …?’ Chimalum Nwankwo was then Writer-in-Residence and Professor of English and World Literatures at the Turkish University, Abuja, where I was a senior lecturer on Sabbatical leave at the same time.
The LNG 2017 PRIZE committee has published their long list. Once again, Nwankwo’s work is not in the list. This is a bizarre mystery, which the LNG PRIZE sponsors must carefully investigate and explain to the Nigerian public or bring that honorable and prestigious enterprise to undeserved disrepute. I smell something unspeakable. Nwankwo’s entry, is trade mark work of pure genius if you understand and appreciate fine and refined poetry. Check the volume out at Enugu’s Abic Publishers on Edozien Street…Lovesong For Julian Assange And Poems From Love Mountain. I purchased my own copy there, as soon as it was released. I may understand a short list oversight, but not a long list omission or exclusion. If you are a poet or critic or just a lover of smooth riding poetry loaded with the finest tricks of the business, you will weep and hide your face in shame for the Nigerian judges. I was more mystified by the fact that the eminent and intellectually savvy and impeccable Professor Emenyonu is one of the judges.
Something is wrong somewhere. Please note that I am exercising the subjectivity I am entitled to exercise as a lover of the arts and as a dramatist who understands performance and who stands at the crossroads of poetry and drama as performance.
• Greg N. N. Mbajiorgu, Nuresdef Laureate Exponent of Eco/Monodrama, Senior Lecturer in Dramatic Arts and Film Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.