Writing Is A Process Of Interrogation | The LipFest Experience | Tolu Daniel
By Tolu Daniel
“Never trust your mind, interrogate your thoughts to the point that your actual voice is resounding clearly in the work. Challenge the idea of the things you think you know.”
These were parts of many incredible nuggets that Chris Abani shared on the first day of his Master-class at the Lagos Poetry Festival. It was a dry and sunny late Thursday morning, I had just driven into Lagos and wasn’t optimistic about my chances of being on time but luck had pitched on my side as I walked into the Goethe Institute in Lagos Island just at the time the master-class was about to begin.
I have always thought about what writing meant to me in the sense of questions and I have found myself often trashing many works of fiction and poetry on the basis of this, especially once the work fails my test of reason. How does engaging this particular subject make me feel as a person and does my narrative in any portion interrogate the subject matter at the levels that I intend it to?
About two weeks prior, in conversation with my friend Socrates Mbamalu over an essay I had just written and shared with him. I remember him saying Tolu, this essay isn’t vulnerable enough. It still feels as if you are trying very hard, the narrative isn’t honestly nuanced, everything still seems a little vague. We would go back and forth on this topic for about three days but eventually I figured it out, that vulnerability in the place of writing helps your readers to be able to share in that experience that has touched your emotional core. And it was interesting that Chris Abani’s poetry master-class would touch strongly on this point.
About two years ago, I met Chris Abani at the Ake Books and Arts Festival in Abeokuta where he was a guest and I remember what that meeting did to my writing. It was during that informal master-class which was not sanctioned by the organizers of the festival that I found out that a narrative can be a sequence of insights, so when Mr. Abani himself made this reference during this particular master-class while talking up James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, I couldn’t resist the air of nostalgia that washed over me in the moment.
I felt privileged to have been invited to the poetry master-class through the largesse of the festival director, Efe Paul and it was even more interesting that Mr. Abani didn’t limit the scope of the master-class to just poetry. Asides this, I also had the privilege of attending the master-class with my friends Romeo Oriogun and Chibuihe Obi who were guests of the festival and Roli Afinotan, Jessica Bitrus, Joshua Omena, Ademola Adefolami and Victor Adewale, friends I had not seen in almost a year.
The first day of the master-class also doubled as my first at the festival, having missed the energy and the boisterousness of the opening ceremony at Freedom Park the previous night. So I promised myself that I would make the most of the rest of the festival. After the master-class with Chris ended, Romeo Oriogun invited me to attend the second master-class of the day so that after then we could engage in some rascality with beer filled bottles since we had not seen each other in a bit. This master-class was to be facilitated by the very brilliant and stylish Theresa Lola and Ruth Sutoye, both United Kingdom based poets whose works I wasn’t particularly familiar with, at one of the halls in Freedom Park which was a few blocks from the Goethe Institute venue of the master-class with Chris Abani. As it would happen, the decision to attend the master-class wasn’t wasted.
During the class, flanked by Ademola and Romeo on my left and right, I found myself learning how to navigate and analyze poetry of the old and now from an interesting viewpoint. The most interesting bit however was when having to write a poem from a prompt, my stomach squeezing into tens of irresolvable knots because I had never had to produce poetry in such an impromptu condition before except one considers those shits I write on Facebook as poetry.
Later that evening, it was time for Literary Crossroads with the theme Healing in its Wings: Changing the World One Verse at a Time with Koleka Putuma, Sophia Walker, Sabrina Mahfouz, Titilope Sonuga and Wana Udobang as moderator. The panel was the first of the festival and the questions ranging from the kinds of conversations women were supposed to create and the perceived prescriptive-ness of women literature were discussed.
Activities for the day crescendo-ed at Bogobiri for Collective Amnesia, the evening was passively foreign at the pub styled art museum. I had never been at a barroom with that much crowd before and I remember the feeling of strangeness that numbed me as time dragged the atmosphere dark. I was pleasantly surprised to get hit on by two random pretty ladies. We flirted to stinkers from people in the pub who were trying to filter the noise to a stop before both ladies claiming to be flirting drunkenness insisted that they were leaving and so I escorted them to their vehicles. I reentered the pub to witness an eclectic Sabrina Mahfouz poetry recital.
South African bestselling poet, Koleka Putuma arrested attentions that had earlier been shared with cigarette, pints of beer and glasses of wine with lovely renditions from her book and after many improvisations from random Lagos musicians at the pub, the night called us into a bus that ferried us back to the hotel. I slept my first night of the festival thinking of Chris Abani’s call for vulnerability in every piece of art that we create and reading Dami Ajayi’s new poetry collection, A Woman’s Body is a Country.
I began the second day at the festival the same way I started the first, sitting, listening and taking notes to the endless nuggets Chris Abani was giving. Precision of language is what helps poetry. When the language is able to precisely convey emotions, the poem is halfway to success. A poem is about guiding people through a series of emotions even when they are not essentially interested in it.
As artists, we have a burden to be accessible, a burden to be understood in the terms to which we present ourselves. It is true that sometimes accessibility may be confused with ease, but it has also been said that language has the power to change the way a work is interpreted. When the temptation to claim that our art is better than that of others come, we must find a way to resist it because all art forms can feed into each other.
I remember attending an event earlier this year and meeting with this documentary photographer who claimed to me that she wanted to start a movement of artists in Ogun State and after asking me what sort of art I created and I told her that I am a culture critic and a creative writer. There was a way she looked at me as if I wasn’t born of a woman, like I was one of the photographs she’d taken and discarded because I wasn’t good enough.
It is the same way, which some poets believe that poetry is better than fiction, not concerning themselves with the possibility of the symbiosis that can exist between both art forms. Personally I don’t believe I will ever write a book of poetry in this life, but intentionally I put more effort in trying to understand the nuances that make poetry what it is because I believe in the possibility that my sentences can become even stronger if I had a working knowledge of the art form.
Of the many panel sessions I was looking forward to attending at the festival, it was the panel session titled Uncensored that I looked forward to the most. Listening to Romeo Oriogun and Chibuihe Obi say their versions of the truth with regards to queer literature and the perception of people towards them in our very homophobic country was very emotional. Having been a fan of Romeo Oriogun’s work for over a year, I found his reactions and responses on issues regarding safety and violence really illuminating. It was interesting that both he and Chibuihe had, at differing instances been threatened with death on the basis of the opinions and views they held. The response from members of the audiences went from sighs to brave.
After the panel session, I moved from the hall to grab myself a cup of smoothies from one of the vendors at freedom park, since my arrival the day before, my stomach had sort of locked itself up to food, so when my legs started growing weary, I figured I should get something to fuel myself before my face meets the floor involuntarily. While on my wait, I met the incredibly talented Afope Ojo of Arts & Africa and sat with her discussing writing and everything in between till the order was ready. As the smoothie made its way down my throat, I felt my muscles relax. There was a Panel session going on at that moment about the unsexy business of publishing and asides the obvious fact of my brain shutting down, I wasn’t entirely interested and besides I was in good company, so I stayed under the shade of the umbrellas at the food-court of the freedom park till I felt better.
After a bit, Afope and I made our way to the hall and joined the panel session about Culture and Curating History which featured Dami Ajayi, Isabella Akinseye, Oris Aigbokhaevolo and Wilfred Okichie. Attending their session was mostly worth it for me, asides the argument that broke about whether or not there have been culture critics in the mold of those we have now in the past. I found myself cringing at some perceptions that I heard Isabelle make about what makes a good work of cultural criticism. It seemed to me that she had a bias against prose that was well researched and written in a cliché-less language because she made a point about not being impressed with prose that was being needlessly verbose which sent an applause of murmur in the audience.
But then again, I do see the point she was trying to make, I believe there is only bad prose and good prose and prose that denies its audience accessibility in favor of extreme jargon really does not deserve a seat at the table.
The panel ended to a rousing applause as the sun went behind the clouds to herald time for lunch. I went to the book stand outside the venue and purchased a poetry collection by Saddiq Dzukogi while browsing the rest of the books and thinking about how broke I was that I couldn’t afford them. The next event after lunch was the Spoken Word showcase which featured the incredible Dike Chukwumereje, Sophia Walker and Katie Borna at the amphitheatre of the freedom park. The showcase also featured some of the guys who attended the Spoken word master-class the previous day and they performed the piece that they had created during the class. The most notable performance came from Mathew Blaise who was able to deliver in verse and performance, something worthy of the resounding applause that accompanied the crescendo of his performance.
Few hours after then, it was time for Poetry after Dark on the rooftop of the Lagos City Hall, the building that housed the Goethe Institute. With glowing headphones tuned to different frequencies of music and poetry, the night kicked off to incredible renditions that were essentially graphical to the ears and ended with most of us dancing like mad people.