Edwin Eriata Oribhabor is a poet with several anthologies to his name, the most recent being ‘Beautiful Poison’ and ‘Crossroads & The Rubicon’. The proponent of standardized pidgin language (Naija Languej) and key poetry promoter in Nigeria speaks about setting up the first poets’ residency in the country, his passion for promoting poetry and the politics of ANA.
You started a poetry residency in the country recently under the auspices of Poets in Nigeria (PIN). It is the first of its kind for poets, can you tell us what motivated you to start this?
Poets in Nigeria’s aim to start the first Poets Residency in Nigeria was to provide a platform for poets, especially the younger ones, to hone their skills in writing, reading and performing poetry. Secondly, and most importantly, to properly position poetry as a veritable tool for reorienting and reordering perspectives of people whilst enhancing the culture of reading in Nigeria.
The challenge of most literary interventions is funding. How is this residency being funded?
PIN’s Poets Residency is a unique one not situated in one place. Wherever it will be held at any time, such facility provides venue while logistics will be handled by Poets in Nigeria. The first Poets Residency in Nigeria was held from February – March, 2016 and was funded by PIN and Virgin Rose Resorts, Lagos. That is why it is called, PIN-Virgin Rose Poets Residency. We had two poets in residence for two weeks. While we are looking forward to the next one, and new partnerships next year, we hope to solicit for support from well-meaning individuals and corporate bodies.
And how exactly did Poets in Nigeria pull this off?
A residency provides needed ambiance for study/learning. The more residencies we have in this country, the more people would begin to allow their facilities for such purpose because it will play the role of promoting the venue as well as the owners. Importantly, such facilities would be put to optimum use. In Nigeria, we have lots of hotels, tourist destinations, and innumerable edifices that are highly under-utilized. Literary promoters should explore and reach out to them for credible partnerships.
You also came up with other interventions. You wanted to standardize the use of pidgin in literature through the ‘Naija Languej’ initiative. You seem to be focusing on other things aside from ‘Naija Languej’ now. Have you shelved the idea or are you letting it mature?
Let me state for the first time that I had already completed a dictionary of pidgin when I met Dr. Macaulay Mowarin, a lecturer of Delta State University, Abraka. Through him, I got information concerning the first conference on Nigerian Pidgin which held in 2009 at the University of Ibadan. Organised by the institute of French Research in Africa in Nigeria (IFRA-NG), the conference had several paper presenters like Professor Francis Egbokhare. It was at that conference that the idea of Naija languej was put forward by Professor Bernard Caron, the then Director at IFRA-NG. Therefore, the Naija languej initiative was that of Bernard Caron but it was adopted at the conference. The initiative is to standardize our pidgin using an experimental autography with inputs from Professor Christine Ofulue and Dr. David Esizimetor respectively. I am only a promoter of the languej using the autography.
Regarding whether I am focusing on other things, you are right. But I haven’t abandoned the initiative. Only recently, I was introduced to JALADA by Richard Ali, the former Publicity Secretary North (Association of Nigerian Authors). I translated an unpublished work of the renowned Kenyan Writer, Ngugu Wa Thong O into pidgin. Furthermore, I have OL FO NAIJA and Promoter of Naija languej on Facebook.
Writers like Odia Ofeimun believe any attempt to standardize pidgin is fraudulent because pidgin should be governed by the streets, not by intellectuals. How do you reconcile these ideological differences?
Odia Ofeimun is not alone in this. Whether he actually used the words fraudulent and governance is another matter I cannot attest to immediately but he is entitled to his opinion, which happily is narrowed to pidgin and not Naija languej (standardized Nigerian pidgin). If pidgin metamorphoses in a standardized format and is rechristened Naija, it doesn’t detract from the fact that it was pidgin that also has a link with English Language. However, as a respected literary figure, one may be taken aback by his perception about pidgin which is certainly not in tune with current realities. Most celebrated languages like French was once pidgin before being standardized. In 2009, estimated speakers of Nigerian pidgin were put at more than 30 million. Today, it is better imagined how many people speak it. If Nigerian pidgin is generally regarded as Nigeria’s unofficial lingual franca, it follows that, it deserves government attention and seal of approval as an official language just like Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba respectively. If Nigerian pidgin is described as the beautiful bride in the comity of pidgins and creoles worldwide, and also being deployed by politicians to campaign for votes across the country, there is more to it than meets subjective eyes.
If top notch personalities, CEOs of blue chip companies and government functionaries would sit and listen to comedy and music rendered in pidgin, what more do promoters of Naija languej need to make a case for the language? If radio and television stations in Nigeria have a programme or two presented in pidgin, what more would you want of one promoting pidgin in a standardized format? Pidgin boils on the streets of Nigeria and is consummated in boardrooms across our land. Pidgin has long gone beyond the streets. Standardization of Nigerian pidgin in Naija languej means a lot for promotion of indigenous languages, delivery of syllabus in the education sector, language translation and translators, job opportunities, tourism and more. Whoever thought of the internet many years ago?
Poetry as a genre has suffered a lot in terms of its commercial value. Traditional publishers are now shying away from publishing poetry. What do poets have to do to regain commercial viability.
The first thing poets should do to encourage poetry reading and writing is to write poetry that people could read and connect with, which was my reason for first writing poetry in Pidgin as standardized in Naija languej. My poetry speaks of my experiences largely drawn from my milieu. I write for myself and my people. Accordingly, traditional publishers should encourage easy access to poetry. Meanwhile, writing poems that could be accessed doesn’t mean writing watery poems. Every poem should meet standard of poetic features. Who says when good poetry equals write in high sounding words that make meaning to the poet who wrote it? For me, it’s self-glorification writing poetry without communicating. Poets have unique roles in social orientation and re-engineering. Therefore, it’s “sinful’’ writing poetry for poetry sake.
You have been running the Eriata Oribhabor Poetry prize for a few years now. Can you tell us how you came about the idea of the prize?
In terms of running or management, Eriata Oribhabor Poetry Prize is in its fifth year and is being managed by Samson Kukugho’s Words Rhymes and Rythms (WRR). The idea of the prize is to immortalise my late dad Prince Eriata Idoni Oribhabor, who didn’t go to school but was so much in love with education. From his meagre income, he ensured that all his children were educated. He did menial jobs to see us through school with active support of my mum. He worked as a labourer in the then Warri Urban District Council. He did night and day watch man (security guard) in those days. He used to say his biggest challenge was not being literate. He caused many who were not his kids to go to school and see the light as it were.
Most of your previous publications have been in Naija Languej. Yet your two latest offerings ‘Beautiful Poison’ and ‘Crossroads & The Rubicon’ are in standard English. What statement are you trying to make with the language you write in?
The only statement I set out to make and duly make is that, I could write in both languages and any one could do same. If you are good in your traditional language, and you trust you could express yourself via it for literary reasons, go ahead. This is a positive statement for languages of immediate communities in Nigeria. I am Esan by tribe from Edo State. If I had been deeply exposed to the language, I would write in it.
When did you decide to become a poet?
I have always loved poetry from when I was in secondary school. My first ever publication should have been on features of poetry, written immediately I completed my school, but lost the manuscript. So, I have always been a poet. The decision to become a poet to be taken seriously was when I came to Abuja in 2005. I heard people read poems that sounded vague but the audience would clap notwithstanding. From then, I began to imagine the resounding applause/attention poems in pidgin – a language majority could connect with, would be. This inspired me to write my first collection of poems (Abuja na Kpangba – 2011) published by IFRA & Oribhabor. The first time I would read Abuja na kpangba at Abuja Literary Society was like a book launch. The presentation of my other book “IF YU HIE SE A DE PRIZIN” – 2012 (Edited) was awesome.
When you sit down to write poetry, what is the most important thing on your mind: style or content?
The most important thing is content and what it will likely do to the minds or orientations of readers. Style may unconsciously or consciously be given attention to as the case may be, but content is always paramount.
Because of your vivacious promotion of poetry, you are seen as a sort of godfather of poetry. What drives this passion to see that poetry excels?
What drives my passion of promoting poetry is a burning desire to inform and reorient people for positive causes towards the overall good of societies.
However, I strongly abhor the term, godfather or godfatherism even though most younger ones see me in that mould. I simply want to be seen and addressed as a poet like them. Godfatherism places the godfather as one who would most likely want to determine what is poetry or what is not poetry. He is also tempted to assume the position of the one who anoints any poetry writer as poet or what have you. So, if a godfather doesn’t like you for your kind of poetry, he doesn’t accept you as a poet. Some godfathers of poetry once wrote me off for using pidgin. Even when I veered into English Language as a mode of expressing myself poetically, some still live in their world thinking I have to write poems like them or poems people wouldn’t read. As you know, proponents of traditional poetry revel in weird lines and are content so doing. Even though a poet may say, the moon is inside the sun or the mountain walks around the orbit, choice of words matter. In whatever way a poet chooses to write, he/she should always consider the reader and make meaning therefrom.
Having interacted with so many poets, both young and old, what are your thoughts on the state of poetry in Nigeria?
There is a growing affection for poetry in Nigeria. Importantly, younger ones write stunning poems that would make any older one appreciate that, more beautiful poems are being written now than ever before. Therefore, we now have lots of people who are not poets reading poetry. In those days, hardly would you find non-poets read poetry. Most people were only compelled to read it at school but drop it after they must have left school. With lots of younger ones organising poetry slams, performance poetry or spoken word events across the country, a situation would arise when every event planner would have a space created for poetry reading or performance. The height of this would be that, high profile events would have the esteemed signature of a poet or poets to formally kick start it.
You were the chairman of ANA Abuja for two years (one tenure). With the benefit of hindsight, what would you say your experience was like?
Being chairman of ANA Abuja (2012-2014) was an opportunity to serve and would always remain fresh in my memory for several reasons. During the period of my service, I actively built on the achievements of the previous team of Exco to the extent that the Abuja branch of ANA became a reference point to other chapters. We set the tone in many ways especially in the area of making reading sessions lively and attractive, hosted authors monthly and ensured that they were promoted on social and regular media at no cost to them. Also, we established an arm of ANA Abuja at the FCT College of Education, Zuba called Junior ANA. We encouraged members to pay their dues and were happy to see how the contributions were judiciously put to use. After organizing one of the best local conventions ever in the chapter, we handed over to another team.
On the flip side, my tenure exposed me to the much talked about dirty politics in ANA. Rather than use writing to promote creativity and excellence, some members who had turned themselves into tin gods created a bad taste in our mouths. But they were successfully checked. While the association loses goodwill from private and corporate bodies, they walk around, content with bearing titles.
If given that opportunity again, what would you do differently?
If given the opportunity to serve in any capacity, I will go the extra mile to prove that what I and my team did in ANA Abuja wasn’t a fluke.