…Poetry is a demanding mistress
It’s double joy for Su’eddie Vershima Agema from whose stable two collections of poetry make the longlist for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022. He spoke with ANOTE AJELUOROU about his self-exerting creative process and what it means to arrive at this stage with his collection, Memory and the Call of Waters.
Congratulations on making the longlist of The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022. How did it make you feel when you heard the news that out of over 250 poets, you’re among the best 11?
I was not expecting (it) and was having a quiet day when the news came in. I had spoken to my publishing partner and brother, Servio Gbadamosi earlier in the day and we briefly mentioned it. I plugged into work as I had deadlines, then took a snooze. By evening, I got a call from Obinna Udenwe, who was on the shortlist last year, congratulating me on the list. A few tears escaped my eyes because it had been a difficult week, so the news was really timely. I called my wife and my sister, Jennifer and Amara Chimeka. I had to reach out to Iquo DianaAbasi, the author of Coming Undone as Stitches Tighten, who is also on the list and who we published this year. I couldn’t get through immediately but we spoke much later. Indeed, it was lovely getting the news and I thank God for many mercies such as this.
Poetry is reputed to be a difficult genre. How comfortable is it with you writing poetry?
I love poetry, but it is a demanding mistress. There’s no denying that. However, poetry has been kind, giving me most of my writing laurels thus far. I now have three collections of verse in the public domain, all of which have been nominated for or won significant literary prizes locally and internationally. So, in sum, poetry has its challenges, but it has been kind to me.
Memory and the Call of Waters is the title of your collection. What did you focus on? What was your writing process?
The collection explores personal and collective memory with a good dose of contemporary happenings using water as a vehicle. There is a journey across diverse themes from love, family, culture, politics and depression to survival, hope and redemption. Considering it is a collection that took a long time to put together, there is a mix of styles and pieces of me from various phases that come together.
The writing process for the poems was varied, most inspired by meditations on various events from my childhood to life experiences and things happening in the country. Some parts were also inspired by happenings in my life as a scholar in England. The first draft of Memory and the Call of Water was ready by 2016 or 2017. I worked on it with friends including Servio, Innocence Silas Katricia, Aondosoo Labe, Oko Owi Ocho, Torkwase Igbana, Iveren Ayede and a few others. I had to keep working on it because I didn’t feel it was there yet. Along the line, I had a workshop in Oxford with Kwame Dawes, followed by some writing exercises on Haiku that he gave us, which helped bring to birth new poems that came to join the book. I have had fruitful conversations with my literary siblings, Daisy Odey, Debbie Iorliam and Romeo Oriogun – who is also on the list – which helped reshape some of those poems.
There are two collections from the SEVHAGE stable in the longlist which you are also connected as a publisher. You must feel this is your year, isn’t it, or at least, that of SEVHAGE, to bring home the honour?
It is a big honour to have two books on the list, books we are really proud of – Iquo’s book and mine, and we really hope we can clinch the award because we have worked hard. However, the list comprises some outstanding entries of people I love and admire, so if it goes to any of them, no fight. I mean, I know more than half of the people on that list and have a personal relationship with them from Romeo to Saddiq, Obari, Remi Raji and all. All the people are incredibly hardworking and have paid their dues to their craft. No one on that list has been writing for less than ten years! In the end, it is an honour to have our works recognised; we are proud of our books and basking in the moment.
When you look at the longlist, what comes to your mind? Do you think you stand a chance?
Of course! The judges saw something in the book to merit its being on the list, the same as the other books. But like I said earlier, it is an honour to be on the list, and we pray for success not just in this competition but in the significant arena – the hearts of readers because at the end, that is why we really write. Not for the laurels per se, lovely as they are, but to help pass our words to several hearts.
An outstanding 250 plus poets entered their works for this year’s prize contest. That’s huge considering that reading culture in Nigeria is low. Who then are the projected readers? Where should you as a poet find readers to read your work?
I do not think the reading culture in Nigeria is poor. We have a vibrant reading culture and I say that even for poetry. Kabura Zakama, the author of the poetry collection, Chant of the Angry, posted on Facebook recently that he went searching for Umar Sidi’s poetry collection, Like Butterflies Scattered About by Art Rascals in bookshops in Abuja but found they were sold out! I mean, this book came out only this month! (As a side note, Umar is doing amazing things for poetry in this country and it is interesting that most of it isn’t in the news). My friend, Ever Obi had his first print run sold out. Goes to say, we have a vibrant reading culture that can be harnessed if directed right through deliberate action. So, the question is really not where but how. Easy answer and it is in the last two sentences. Deliberate action. The buyers will come if we play our cards right, write well, and sell ourselves. I can say this with conviction, because we are in press for another print run of Memory and the Call of Waters.
Your collection’s title mimicks Lindsay Barrett’s collection of 2009, A Memory of Rivers, the year the poetry prize was not awarded. Is there any interconnectedness between the two collections?
I have not read Linday’s collection (which is strange since I thought I had read the collections on the list that year), so I cannot say if there are any. The world is a strange place, so who knows? I will search for the book.
What’s your impression of the organisation of The Nigeria Prize for Literature? What more would you expect of the managers of the prize to do?
The prize is a prestigious prize that anyone would be proud of. Like most Nigerian writers, I really wish that the sponsors of The Nigeria Prize for Literature, Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) Limited will work towards promoting the books on the list by perhaps organising readings – more than one – where the readers can read, possibly sponsoring a tour and picking copies of the books of the 11 longlisted writers. If the prize also concentrates on promoting the winners, it will do a lot of good for everyone. Case in point is that of some deceased winners whose works you almost cannot find anywhere. Of all the winners, the few people whose books are readily accessible everywhere are Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Season of Crimson Blossoms), Jude Idada (Boom Boom) and Cheluchi Onyemelukwe (The Son of the House). The availability is largely due to the hard work of the authors and their publishers. Thus, it will be great if the management considers putting in funds to promote the works of their winners.
Furthermore, it might help to also give those on the shortlist something to take home, no matter how little. But, overall, it is the prerogative of NLNG to do as they wish with their funds and up to us, everyone else, to find ways to support them. Nothing stops us from helping promote the works of the winners and long- and shortlisted writers.
You organise a literary festival, Benue Book and Arts Festival. Do you think yours and related bodies are doing enough to deepen book culture in the country? What gap is there yet to be filled? Indeed, what gap is Benue Book and Arts Festival filling?
We are not doing enough to deepen the book culture, but we are doing our best. We need more policies to do this, more hands, and more resources. Several people are doing a lot – from Chuma Nwokolo, Azafi Omoluabi with her Parresia, Amara Chimeka with PurpleShelves, Servio with Sankofa Initiative, Kukogho Iruesiri Samson with Authorpedia, Eriata Oribhabor with his Poets in Nigeria, Ismail Bala, Adedayo Agarau, Paul Liam, Odoh Diego Okenyodo, Bizuum Yadok, Othuke Omniabohs, Uchenna Emelife, Lola Shoneyin, Baba Aminu Abdulkareem, Jerry Adesewo, Oko Owi Ocho and the Benue Poetry Troupe, Salamatu Sule, B. M. Dzukogi, Hadiza El-Rufai, Dr. Eunice Ortom, Richard Ali, Umar Yogiza, Halima Aliyu, Dike Chukwumerije, Regina Achie-Nege, Unoma Azuah, Adaeze Nwadike, Emman Shehu, Jahman Anikulapo, Bash Amuneni, Efe Paul Azino, Kabura Zakama, the Association of Nigerian Authors, even you – Anote Ajeluorou – among many many others. But, we can still do more.
The Benue Book and Arts Festival is creating more rooms for literary engagements and discourse, deepening the art culture, and, importantly, changing narratives for sustainable development while building minds. These are gaps that we will never get tired of filling.
Should you win the prize, who or what will you dedicate it to and what literary programme/project will you devote part of the prize money?
There are too many projects we are working on, from aspects of traditional publishing to even the Benue Book and Arts Festival you mentioned. The truth is, there is a lot to be done and SEVHAGE will keep devoting its strength – financial and otherwise – to ensuring we build the literary and development space in Nigeria and Africa, whether we win that money or not.
Are you looking forward to the CORA Book Party on August 7?
Yes, I am! Being at literary events and reuniting with friends is always fun. So, yes, I greatly look forward to it.