Su’eddie Vershima Agema is a poet, editor and literary administrator. He is also a culture promoter. Author of two poetry collections, Bring our Casket Home: Tales one Shouldn’t Tell, and Home Equals Holes: Tale of an Exile, and a short story collection, The Bottom of Another Tale, Agema is the immediate past Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors (Benue State Chapter). He lives in Makurdi where he is the Executive Director at SEVHAGE Publishers and Team Leader of SEVHAGE Literary and Development Initiative.
Uche Peter Umez: There appears to be a burden of tradition for many Nigerian poets to write poetry that tends towards social commitment. How much of this burden applies to your practice?
Su’eddie Vershima Agema: Somehow, we just write into the tradition that is social commitment. The typical African is concerned with everything that happens around him. Our lives are structured around social issues which we live, think, breathe, and yes, discuss, so it is only natural that that which is our basic way of life would seep into our works. That said, I see poetry as an expression of one’s innermost feelings. In a situation where one’s innermost feeling is burdened with several issues arising from the polity – or what is our reality, it is hard not to find such sentiments, issues and provocations falling into one’s verse. I don’t always deliberately set out to fuse social issues into my poetry. In summary, I think I can say that social commitment – is it really a burden? – forms a part of my practice but not its total essence.
Umez: How do you go about writing a poem? For instance, the poem, ‘Bring our casket home’ in your debut poetry collection by the same title. Or the poems, ‘They sigh, wondering why’ and ‘Where to start forms the puzzle’? And what defines a poem as a poem for you?
Agema: I can’t really say how they are formed. Usually though, inspiration hits me or on other occasions, I consciously think up some lines. I usually – not always – put it to paper, then think deep, reflecting on each word and line to ensure that they are representative of what I really want to say. I deliberately read all the words to ensure that they come together to be what I want and more. In essence, there’s usually a concept inspired by a force which I put to paper, then work, refine, and keep refining. Some poems take more than a year to write, with series of revisiting that sometimes changes it entirely from what it once was. One thing I have come to realise at the end of every creative experience is that I can’t really claim the authorship of any poem. There’s something great that works in a poet that uses the ink of our thoughts to construct whatever it is that comes out.
Regarding the definition of a poem, I think it has to speak to me somehow. Now, I do not need to understand a poem for it to speak to me. They just do. For me, there are certain poetic devices that must be present for a poem to be a poem; over here, I think metaphor is king. A poem must also have the wow factor which might be subtle or sharp; there has to be something that will leave me thinking.
Umez: Your second poetry collection, Home Equals Holes opens with a tone of longing, a lament, ‘the ghost of a furnace…/ashes sprinkled in our heart,’ but closes with a glimmer of hope, a reassurance, ‘the ghost would have found fires…/we would have a long lasting laugh.’ What would account for this?
Agema: Home Equals Holes: Tale of an Exile is a collection that deals with our journey on earth; we are all exiles journeying on earth till we find our way home to whatever we shall find in death. The first poem is a lamentation of all that is our existence and I am sure a lot of people will identify with that. It is the starting point for most of us; we long for things and cry over all the troubles that life throws at us. Then, we keep going through so much till we find out in the end that the only way to find the ease of peace is to look unto hope with an expectation that tomorrow will be better. Really, without faith and hope, life loses meaning. Thus, we end our tale there with hope in the belief that we will have a long lasting laugh, amen.
Umez: In Home Equals Holes, I noticed that you juxtaposed the serious with the amorous, the doleful with the playful. This is also evident in the collection, Bring our Casket Home: Tales one shouldn’t tell. What could account for this?
Agema: The two books are tales of life in its various forms and if you check, life isn’t straitjacketed. It is a fusion of so much that I hope has been captured in some format in the books. They are a part of a connecting verse that continues in my next collection, which would be published sometime this year.
Umez: Aside from ‘In the twilight’, particularly inspired by Okigbo and poems such as ‘echoes of stone’, ‘Borders’ and ‘through the mind’s sea’ that echo an aspect of his poetics, how much influence do you draw from him?
Agema: Whatever influence I might have picked from Okigbo would be largely subconscious. So, I can’t honestly say how much. Christopher Okigbo is a poet who changed the face of poetry for good and I think most poets owe him a great deal, directly or indirectly. For instance, one of my best poets and one who has influenced me a lot, Hyginus Ekwuazi, is someone who has greatly been inspired by Okigbo. If Ekwuazi is a father of sorts to me, then can Okigbo be said to be my Grandpa? I might deny him in some quarters but if I were to talk of influences, I would mention Hyginus Ekwuazi more than anyone else.
Umez: Besides Ekwuazi, what other poets were important to you when you first started writing poetry?
Agema: My teachers, Moses Tsenongu, Andrew Aba, and Maria Ajima were all important to me in my early writings. It was great to have nationally renowned writers who I could look up to at close quarters and learn from. Of course, I read Shakespeare, Shelley, Pope, Dryden, and most of the classical writers. I think I read far more of African poetry; you know the Diops, Mtshali, Achebe, Soyinka, Clark, Unoma Azuah, Harry Garuba, Catherine Acholonu and the like. Still, without any doubt, Hyginus Ekwuazi has remained one of my most important poets.
Umez: Grief and death recur in much of Home Equals Holes. What insights have you gained in addressing these themes in poems such as ‘The elephants march’, ‘lost rhythm’, ‘the sun was with us’, ‘tolling bells’, ‘an anthem of pain’, ‘lost’, etc?
Agema: Death and grief are things that remain with me. It formed the core of Bring our casket home (inspired by the death of some close ones around me, particularly my foster father, Mr. Charles Ayede) and somehow those themes decided to find their way into Home Equals Holes. I thought that I had exhausted them and found some insight but death comes again, grief revisits and I discover that I am left thinking more, writing new lines and wondering at so much.
Umez: The poem, ‘An Anthem of Pain’, is so graphic it reminds me of the images I saw of the massacre at Agatu in Benue state where you are from. How much can poetry do in a time like this? Is there a way poetry can help in healing such a stricken community?
Agema: Poetry expresses our deepest feelings and gives us release. Sometimes we write to find some ease especially when there’s little else we can do. At other times, it is our added contribution to whatever support we give. So, poetry can do a lot. It brings healing to us the writers and to victims too. When we write, we release negative energies. We find peace, not totally, but we find some release. Victims who read the words of such poems know they are not alone and are made stronger. Sometimes, the poems become rallying songs that unite.
Poetry also helps to spread the word about the evils that are happening. I should mention that our non-profit, SEVHAGE Literary and Development Initiative in collaboration with some others had a candlelight reading in honour of the victims, who are not just in Agatu but the whole of Benue. Our state is under a dangerous invasion. But talking of spreading the word, South African apartheid comes to mind here. I remember how most of us were informed of the situation through the writings of Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Dennis Brutus, Mazisi Kunene, Ingrid Jonker, Mzwakhe Mbuli, and many others. So, I believe poetry records these events telling the world of what is happening at the moment, calling for support against the torment. When time ages and becomes history, the words of poetry become a testament to that time so that it is not forgotten.
Umez: I liked the lilting cadence of ‘Buruku’s River’, the way the poem’s sprightly tone masked its solemn theme. What is the story behind the poem?
Agema: There is more than one tale to that poem but part of it is that there’s a spirit of the popular sayings, ‘every disappointment is a blessing’ and ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’ invoked there. Certain people don’t get the dividends of democracy till some accident happens. For instance, once there were no access roads in my mother’s village, not far from Adikpo in Kwande LGA of Benue. There was a plane crash in the Ikyogen hills and government officials had to come to inspect the site. Instantly, a road appeared and the journey which used to take some two or so hours now takes twenty minutes. The air crash was a blessing to my mother’s people. Thus, you see that when the big man has a disaster, it turns out to be a dividend for us. There are a few other tales, like I said, but I guess this should suffice for now.
Umez: Reading the poem, ‘New Year Tales of Subsidy’ in Bring our Casket Home, I am reminded of the current pervasive fuel scarcity. It is telling that you penned it during the Occupy Nigeria moment. How might a poet engage the political moment of a nation as conflicted and intractable as Nigeria?
Agema: I think it is somewhat easy; we just let the anger that comes from deep within form the ink of our thoughts with which we would pour our hearts to paper.
Umez: The Bottom of Another Tale is your debut work of short fiction, published the same year as Home Equals Holes. Do you remember the circumstances that decided your being a prose writer?
Agema: I come from a line of literary enthusiasts. My siblings Taver, Gabriel, Sever and Theodora were active writers and comic artists. I grew up in their shadow wanting to finish most of the comics and writings which they never finished. It was frustrating. They would start fine tales then leave them hanging. In secondary school, I had a teacher, Mr. Mbatsavde Emmanuel who would give me titles to write stories on. This was in addition to my being an active comic artist alongside my friend, Tardoo Ayua. I guess the stories kept pouring till I got into the university where by good fortune, I got a better handling of what has come to be my offering of prose. I should mention that poetry comes to me easier and even when writing prose, I think in poetry. I can’t explain why, though.
Umez: In the three works you have published so far, I could not help but notice that the word ‘tale’ appeared in each title. Was it deliberate or something coincidental?
Agema: It was deliberate. Quite deliberate. Would it be a spoiler if I said my next two poetry collections and my short story collection are also going to join the tale gang?
Umez: Tanure Ojaide once branded the new generation of Nigerian poets as ‘copycats.’ Do you agree that the current generation lacks originality and ideological depth?
Agema: I strongly disagree and we have amazing poets to prove this across the various forms. I have to only mention names like Aondosoo Labe, Servio Gbadamosi, Dike Chukwumerije, Agatha Aduro, Innocence Silas, Sewe Leah Anyo, Bash Amuneni, Iquo Eke, Dami Ajayi, David Ishaya Osu, Ehizogie Iyeoman, Saddiq Dzukogi, Aidee Erhime, Sibbyl Whyte, Jumoke Verissimo, Oreshade Adewale, Hauwa Shafii, Romeo Oriogun amongst a galaxy of other beautiful writers to prove this. We also have writers who are helping create styles that others might find issues with but which speak a lot if you pay attention. You have the likes of Kukogho Iruesiri Samson, T. S. Baki, and Tolu Akinyemi amongst others to think about here.
Take the poetry of any of these ones and you would find great beauty, depth, originality and soul. The problem with most of our older writers and critics is that they don’t read the works of younger writers or perhaps they are impatient with our poetry? A good number of them have negative preconceived ideas which they hold on to without any realistic basis for such sentiments. Some judge my generation based on Facebook alone. Facebook is what the writing pad once was to older poets who would write and show to friends for criticism. We write our drafts and put them out there for our friends to edit while we tweak, refining our verse till it reaches greater beauty. Now, with the various issues we pursue one might think that we have no ideological depth. But we have a voice.
Indeed, every generation writes for itself and we have a voice of our own; a chorus of beauty brought together in the potpourri of our diverse themes that we sing without a single focus on one thing like previous generations.
I daresay that I have issues with the writings of many older writers too, including Professor Tanure Ojaide but I guess we have to rather write papers in full to show our discontent than give blanket statements, yes?
Umez: Perhaps, then, you may want to say more about the current state of poetry in Nigeria?
Agema: Poetry is evolving and reaching new heights. It has gotten more popular with the whole craze for spoken words that Sage Hasson, Efe Paul Azino, Bash Amuneni, Graciano Enwerem, Celina Kile, Ene Odaba, and the like have made. Facebook, blogs and the general social media have also given a wider platform to poetry and poets. However, there are a great number of people, old and young, who think that poetry is simply a breaking of lines into stanzas. They string words together, break them and put them into books declaring them verse, to the horror of several readers and practitioners alike. The interesting thing is we live in times where poets have wider platforms where they can meet, collaborate, better themselves and project their work (for criticism). Thus, most poets don’t stay the same but evolve somehow. Poetry in contemporary Nigeria is fun any way you look at it.
Umez: Finally, what are you working on at the moment?
Agema: I am working on a poetry collection and a collection of short stories. This is in addition to working with some colleagues to build vibrant platforms to generally better our poetry and those whom we have the good fortune of leading.
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike writes poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and stories for children. He is a Board Member, Ebedi International Writer’s Residency and a Mentor at the Ibadan Poetry Foundation.