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Poetry, Language Of The Gods
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, a freelance writer, journalist, poet, novelist and The New Gong writer is interviewed by The Guardian's Uduma Kalu. Excerpts:
Childhood And Literature: Like Brother Jero would say in Wole Soyinka's The Trials of Brother Jero, I am a poet by birth and by inclination. I can't exactly say when people started calling me The Poet, except that, even very early in life, if my Romeo friends wanted fine lines for ravishing Juliets, girls they wanted to kill for the moment, they always contacted me! I was born into a long line of teachers; my parents, all my mothers brothers and sisters etc. At age six, just before the civil war, I was shipped out to my uncle, a great linguist, Job Okwuoma Aginam, who taught at Christ the King College (CKC), Onitsha, though I did not have my secondary school education in the school. Mr Aginam, famously known as Anglo, was the man who brought me up and I was always surrounded by literature, whether in the house or at the general library in Onitsha. Books that influenced me early on were Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn through which I learnt that one must always add some “style” in whatever one does. Of course the Biafra War was a major influence in my development. We had to leave Onitsha, and I stayed with my parents in the rural town of Umualaoma in the present-day Imo State. We ate lizards and rats during the war. One day, I was hunting rats with an older friend and had managed to kill only one rat before my younger brother, Isidore Emeka, joined the rat chase. When it came to the sharing of the one rat, I asked my friend if I should share it into three to accommodate my brother only for the older fellow to scream: “Divide it into two!” Such early childhood experiences were ready grist to the mill of my art.
Education And Foray Into Writing: Juvenilia came in the shape of early contributions of poetry and short stories to the school magazine at St Peter's College, Achina in Aguata LGA, Anambra State. I once got into trouble when a letter was sent to the school principal warning him to prepare for anarchy should he refuse to change the list of prefects. The principal somewhat concluded that I wrote the letter, and the students started calling me “Anarchy”, a word most of them had not heard! At a point, the authorities accused me of plotting a coup and named me “Young Dimka!” It was the life of activism and literature that eventually led me to the then University of Ife, to the Dramatic Arts department, where dons like Wole Soyinka, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Kole Omotosho, Carol Dawes, Femi Euba etc fostered uncommon intellectual ferment. But it was the Ugandan poet Okot p'Bitek, author of Song of Lawino, who took over my life at Ife. Okot saw me as his fellow poet and said I should not be wasting my time in class with “the lizards of Ife”. He promised to take me to Makerere University in his native Uganda. In fact when I was writing my GNS1 “Use of English” exam, Okot chased me out of the exam hall, and I had to follow him to buy meat at the Leventis Stores, after which we settled to drinking beer and whisky while my mates were writing the exam!
Creative Influences At Ife University: We had total education back then, from Marxism to Humanism and Aesthetics. We could argue with the teachers, and Wole Soyinka did so much to bring out the fire in us. Actually, I was more interested in teaching my own course known as Borojah 101 than in attending classes. Both lecturers and students had to pass Borojah 101 or they were thrown out of the university via Road 1. Borojah 101 was a poetic course that had no known definition; not even to the head of department and only lecturer who happens to be yours truly. Ife was a place of joy and romance and exuberance. We watched current films everyday at Oduduwa Hall, and the best girls belonged to the best poets. The most beautiful girl in the country, Miss Nigeria, Helen Prest was a student at Ife, and we did compose a poem for her: “Helen Ples, let me ples ya bles!” It was a time to share the language of the gods: poetry.
Literature, Civil And Literary Activities: Leaving the university, I tried my hands at directing a rural peasant theatre, save that I spent more time drinking palmwine with the villagers until my money ran out. I ran to Lagos, to Sonala Olumhense at The Guardian, who took me to Andy Akporugo and Ted Iwere who had just recruited the pioneer staff for the African Guardian magazine. I was given the test to write on the Commonwealth Conference, and I was surprised to see the thing I wrote in the preview issue of the magazine. I thus started work as a journalist. I had from even before the university been working on a novel I mischievously gave the working title The Great African Novel. Actually I am in no particular hurry to achieve any success or complete the novel. Actually my buddy Jane Bryce once advised me to do the novel before thinking of getting married. Well, I have since married and sired four kids and the novel is still in abeyance. I did take a break from the major novel to write and publish two others, Satan's Story and The Missing Link. But the truth is that until I publish the original novel I cannot in good conscience push the other two. I guess that one day I'll be sufficiently annoyed or angry or mad or whatever, and I'll just complete the novel in a matter of a handful of days. That is my way.