I Find Christopher Okigbo Guilty Of Going To War As Charged, Says JP Clark
After the maiden edition of Lagos International Poetry Festival 2015 opened on Wednesday, October 28 at the Penthouse of Freedom Park, with a cocktail session and music, attention shifted to the JP Clark Centre, Faculty of Arts, University of Lagos, Akoka, for the centre-piece event, Conversation with JP Clark, anchored by fellow poet and prose humourist, Mr. Chuma Nwokolo.
The interactive session featured centered on Clark’s poems and experiences as a poet and a writer. A magazine with the first issues of poems written by JP Clark was presented to the audience.
There were also spoken word performances by poets present such as Natalie Molebatsi, AJ Dagga Tolar, Inua Ellams and a host of others. Excerpts:
One keeps wondering about Christopher Okigbo; as you know, there was a book about him, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo by kenyan’s late Prof. Ali Mazrui, which criticised his deep involvement in politics to the extent of taking up arms and dying in the process.
Your poem The Casualties is also very political. So, do you find Okigbo guilty as charged?
Personally, when the Americans first landed on the moon, Neil Armstrong and his partner, I thought they would find my friend there. He was more effective and useful as a poet. Out of anger he went for suicide war and he became a waste. I find him guilty as charged. What makes and is related to society was where his duty laid, not picking up a rifle and going off to war. Chris went there thinking it was a game, that after fighting and killing 100, he would come back. So, for me, till the end of my life, I would say my friend wasted his life as a soldier, but he would live on as a poet who related to society, who knew what society was doing and what was going to come to society at that point. His writings would always be remembered.
Do you think that people should follow their poetic conviction onto the street? This question is in relation to the issue with fuel subsidy three years ago, when people revolted against the government. So, do you support the poets amongst us that went into the street to petition and revolt?
Yes, I do. We were people, after all, before we were poets. In fact, at the UNESCO World Book Capital in Port Harcourt, in one of the conferences, I said it looks as if my friends were right after all, those who get involved in the political running of the government. However, we should make a distinction between the military action and political action because it is what the politicians do that affects all of us. So I began to wonder, the poet, the artiste and the artist are not clearly separated from action in the society, not military, but involvement.
Chinua Achebe came back from the war and wanted to be remembered as a poet. That is why poets should take themselves seriously. Poetry is at the top of literary arts, it teaches language. It is beyond newspaper reporting, beyond editorials, beyond lectures; it is where the sensibility of a people anywhere and anytime in the world has that ‘felt’ experience. Therefore, it should be taken seriously; it is not something you just toss off.
Poetry doesn’t just come; you make drafts. Today, I can work on one poem of some lines and have 20 drafts of the same poem and I work on that poem till I’m satisfied I have placed my words in the right order and chosen the correct things to be there and not any order. The poet with the poem is seeking affection, as the painter with his brush, as the sculpture with his tools.
I would like to follow the trend where you spoke of conviction and action. Sometime in the 1980s, you intervened in what happened in South Africa about South African poetry not having its essence, as there was prolonged Apartheid. Okigbo went to war following his conviction; Soyinka and many others went after their convictions. However, when it came to the Niger Delta, one would have expected you to tow that line. Is it right to say Ken Saro-Wiwa took your place?
Let’s not mix things up. You still don’t understand that poetry is something totally different from warfare, that is, military action. You train to be a non-commissioned or commissioned soldier. You go through training; you choose it. There have been poets who went to war before Okigbo. They went and some came back after they had gotten to the trenches because they knew, after they were drafted, that they weren’t supposed to be there. That’s what we refer to as a waste of war.
Because, after all, Biafra came and went; the people who orchestrated the war declared peace – no victors no vanquished. Ojukwu and Gowon were shaking hands. There is no main reason why we should go to war; war is waste. The old men who declare it always survive the young men whom they send there. And they get peace while the young men who died in the cause of war are forgotten and are only remembered on Remembrance Day and their families left to grieve. War is the last thing to be fought by professionals like my friend Okigbo did. One thing people forget is that one life is not more valuable than another. Ken Saro-Wiwa didn’t take my place at all; he sat on his own sit. I would never leave my role to go to war!
There is an explosion of spoken word poetry today. Do you see any strong connection or inheritance from our folklores, folksongs or traditional tales, particularly since the poets of now did not have that grounding?
The performer may carry away the audience, but a recorded or written translation is equally as necessary. Most times, when you ask for a collection where you could read those poems you find none.
But our traditional folklores also tow the line of performance and were not recorded. They were delivered fresh from the poet…
Those traditional poems not recorded were presented in our language and performers are losing their languages and therefore there is no collection or recorded draft of any sort. So, before you break the rules, knows them.
So would you give the spoken word a pass mark and urge them to do new things?
Many of you don’t know home, that is, contemporary spoken word poets. You work only in English language, but we worked and grew up in the traditional poetry during the colonial period. Some that came to remember after the war and colonial period told of the story of the state, of the fallen war comrades and I cannot remember a better story which portrayed that period than the ones that were written then and traditionally grounded. For most youths, the point of the whole thing in artistic performance is festivals where people judge their work and some would succeed because what is good would last, what is not would go away.
So, when people perform poetry it can be put inside books, in lyrics; so all these poems when needed for educational purposes can be accessed. I work with books. However, I am also thrilled that poetry is alive and is not just in the books and I record poems and translate them. Oral literature would survive but a book is necessary, very necessary. A book in its original sense is something the internet can replace, but unrecorded or documented poems cannot be replaced.
As poets we should read and read and read.
Do you feel any sense of disappointment in the level of appreciation that comes out of Nigeria for your works and for other contemporary writers’ works?
If we have a premiere of a play in England or the United States of America, it is not unusual to hear a member of the royal family, a minister or prime minister was at such an event because these people actually come from the same stream as poets and artists. I would not say they are literate people; we have gone to the same schools, universities and same military academy. We don’t go and meet in congress or in parliament without the knowledge of history; they are educated and where they don’t know they find out. Our problem now is that there is a disassociation between the politicians and the poets. It didn’t start out like that earlier; these are people who were very aware of the power of the poet, they were around during the colonial period and were afraid that writers were revolutionaries. So, there was no exact freedom. So this disconnected the political people from the poet.
You and I and many other poets are anti-war but however, what do we do in the face of injustice?
Of course, that is where the poets come in. Most movie lines for the Second World War were written by poets which depict us as the inspiring and revolutionary ones. Even the national anthem of France, written by a poet, was written as a form of revolution. Poets, as I said, are professionals. Amateurs have no business going to fight until they are trained. Chris just got up one day unprepared and went to war. War is not the business of untrained poets who is useful in his own area. Without music or anthem, a soldier cannot march. So, we are useful but before we go to war there ought to have been no other choice but that one.
However, the business of war is a total waste. After all, the Japanese and Americans have become allies and friends, the starters of the war, while the millions of young men and women have been forgotten dead in the field.
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