Clark… Celebrating ‘Lyricist of the Riverine Lore’ at 80
By Anote Ajeluorou
Last week Thursday at University of Lagos, friends, colleagues, fellow writers and schoolchildren from various secondary schools thronged the Afe Babalola Auditorium to honour to one of the quartet of Nigerian literature, Emeritus Prof. John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo or simply known as JP Clark.
There were students from Chrisland School, Idimu, Vivian Fowler Memorial High School, Ikeja, Tom Caleb High School, Grace High School, Regan Memorial Girls High School, Redeemer’s High School, Basil International High School, Yabatech Secondary School and Triple Crown College to pay homage to Clark at 80. It was an event put together by Mrs. Yinka Ogunde and designed for the students both to experience Clark and read and perform some of his works for him.
Cutting a birthday cake culminated activities of the morning session. Clark thanked the students for honouring him on his special day and encouraged them not only to learn but to actually start writing as well. The students read poems like ‘Night rain’, ‘Abiku’ among other poems that made Clark famous.
NOBEL Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, is one rare genius. But the audience at University of Lagos, Akoka, Lagos, last week, had two geniuses for the price of one. Indeed, there were multiple geniuses and scholars in attendance inside the Main Auditorium where Soyinka delivered a lecture in honour of his University College, Ibadan, colleague and friend, Prof. JP Clark, with whom he’d become soul brother ever since, at an event put together by Clark’s wife, Prof. Ebun Clark, a linguistic expert of repute.
The role call runs this: Emeritus professor and former Vice Chancellor, Prof. Ayo Banjo, another former University of Ibadan VC, Prof. Tekena Tamuno, Prof. Biodun Jeyifo, eminent poet, Pa Gabriel Okara, novelists, Elechi Amadi and Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo, UNILAG VC, Prof. Rahamon Bello, Delta State Commissioner for Higher Education, Prof. Hope Eghagha, who also represented his state governor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, who donated a faculty block to UNILAG in honour of Clark, who made first by being the first African Professor of English at the same university. Others were Chairman, Guardian Press Ltd, Mrs. Maiden Ibru, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, former and current Presidents of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Dr. Wale Okediran, Prof. Remi Raji-Oyelade among others.
And, there was pin-drop silence all through the one hour 25 minutes Soyinka’s lecture lasted. In a display that marked him out as a master thespian, his voice wove in and out of words in rich cadences that held the audience spellbound, as he deprecated, admonished, lectured, censored, teased and joked his way through the topic of lecture, “Between critic and Censor: The Writer as Genius”.
CORA Arthouse Party for Clark
JP Clark’s 80th birthday, which started on Thursday at University of Lagos, culminated at Freedom Park, Lagos Island on Sunday, with a befitting Committee for Relevant Art’s Arthouse Party in his honour. It turned out a full house inside Freedom Park’s Museum. The outing had some of the usual suspects and more. Clark’s authentic biographer, playwright, poet and theatre scholar, Prof. Femi Osofisan, was in attendance; so, too, was another theatre scholar and playwright, Prof. Ahmed Yerima, who has made a career of distilling issues in Clark’s Niger Delta in his plays, like Hard Ground, which won him The Nigerian Prize for Literature.
But before the event proper started, female soloist, Aduke, strummed her guitar to the accompaniment of some moving folk songs that had the audience, including Clark, in rapt attention. She got a rousing applause for her effort.
There were others including poets, Odia Ofeimun and Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo; painter, Olu Ajayi; filmmaker, Tunde Kelani; Eki Eboigbe; Mr. Bayo Akinpelu, novelist, Kaine Agary, folk performer, Iquo Abasi-Eke and a group of women from Ijaw Monitoring Group in attendance. Clark’s wife, Prof. Ebun Clark and two of their children were also there to honour their husband and father. They all came to pay tribute to Africa’s first professor of English, lyrical poet and one of the finest dramatists to have come out of sub-Sahara Africa.
With the apt theme, ‘’Lyricist of the Riverine Lore’ – Readings and Discussions around New Niger Delta Voices in Honour of JP Clark’, Clark’s birthday celebration turned out a remarkable one both for him and everyone present. In his opening remarks, CORA General Secretary, Mr. Toyin Akinosho, said it was important to celebrate Clark by using emerging voices from the Niger Delta, where his creative vision has been most vivid. He stated like Clark, Prof. Yerima had also engaged with issues of the Niger Delta, especially with his prize-winning play, Hard Ground; the same, too, with Agary, whose prize-winning novella is Yellow Yellow.
He then proceeded to read from Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country an excerpt on the agenda that the first generation writers set for subsequent writers that followed in their wake. He also read an excerpt featuring Clark about the publication of his A Man of the People, and how Clark reacted to the yet-to-be published work as being prophetic in foretelling the first coup in the country in 1966.
On his part, Yerima, narrated how he nearly got into trouble with Clark while directing his play, Song of a Goat, based on sneak review of it. But his wife calmed him down until he actually saw the play on stage and gave him credit for a job well done. He said Clark has had a keen interest in his career path to his current job at Redeemer’s University, where he is Dean, Faculty of Humanity.
Yerima, like many others, could not forget the sublime feeling such poems as Clark’s ‘Night Rain’ and ‘Overflow’ had on him, and simply said, “You’ve touched our lives, sir. Just your touch made us green”.
There were readings from the audience. Mabiaku and Rontiola read ‘When a madman dies’ and ‘JP by JP’; A.J. Dagga Tolar also read an excerpt from Ozidi and a poem from Clark’s Mandela and Other Poems while Agary and Eke read excerpts from Song of a Goat. Also to join the chorus of tributes for the octogenarian was Zmirage Multimedia boss, Mr. Teju Kareem, who said Clark helped him to horn his skills in technical theatre, as he and others drew inspiration from “your writing to shape our careers”.
IN setting the tone for the discussion, which had such panelists as Kelani, Tolar, Eke, Agary and Ifowodo, Osofisan gave a background to his biography of Clark, J P Clark: A Voyage and the first two generations of writers to which he and Clark belonged respectively and the ferment that made them thick. He said what he did with Clark’s biography was unusual as he did not actually set out to write a biography but a journey through Clark’s poetry.
He noted, “I did an unusual biography; I didn’t set out to write a biography. I wanted to write about his poetry. Well, I’m happy he likes it. Clark just came out with four new plays to celebrate himself; it shows how he has continued to produce. I personally have interesting relationship with Clark. I belong to the second generation of writers and we had a different agenda”.
Osofisan explained that while the first generation of writers was preoccupied with deconstructing colonialism and affirming authentic African cultural values, which colonialism had eroded. He said a large part of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is strictly anthropological but for Achebe’s great storytelling skills. So that while the first generation focused on contesting colonial hegemony, the second generation he belongs focused on Africa’s tottering political leadership.
But he stated, “We changed focus. After about 10 years, older writers began to concentrate on current issues like us on political leadership. Older writers responded to our criticism and also joined us on issues of leadership”.
Osofisan conceded that about 60 per cent of Nigerian writers of his generation were from the Niger Delta like Clark.
Winner of the 2008 The Nigeria Prize for Literature, Agary, who grew up in Port Harcourt, said she was a true Niger Delta woman, with two of her parents coming from the Ijaw and the Isoko nations. As a youth growing up, she noted that the likes of the historian, Prof. J O Alagoa and Clark were household names they admired. Like many others, she said she often wondered at Clark’s name, John Pepper Clark!
She also wondered in much the same vein what would happen to Ijaw culture by the time the likes of Clark exited the stage, adding, “This generation doesn’t know what Ijaw is. So, I thought to promote a female voice, as the stage was dominated by male voices, to discuss political issues of the Niger Delta, and making it cool to be Ijaw. It was a big thing sharing Ijaw, relating to Ebiere (the female character in Clark’s Song of a Goat) and knowing what that character is”.
On whether there is too much Ijawness in the face of readers of Clark’s works, Tolar stated, “When writers of the first generation wrote, Nigeria was very big in their mind. Look at the two ‘Abiku’ poems by Soyinka and Clark – there’s no defence of any ethnic region, especially Clark’s ‘Abiku’, it’s about a mother’s passionate concern for her daughter to stay. Clark doesn’t appear to be defending Ijaw. At no time is this victim being put out as Ijaw; Ozidi is just a tale of a return to the roots”.
Filmmaker, Kelani, who has made films out of some Nigeria’s literary texts, shared his concern about Nollywood not recognising the importance of literature to the cinema in the country in its filmic practice, noting, “I want to thank the Clarks for what they have done for us. Nollywood refuses to respect literature and it refuse to use it as source material. It’s sad the film industry doesn’t recognise literature. I have used literature texts in my films. The literature we have in this country is unbelievable. It’s very exciting for me to be here. Young people should go back to literature to make a success of their cinema”.
For Eke, Clark’s writing “is so beautiful the way he comes across. It gives me the strength that with simplicity you can still send messages across”.
Also for Ifowodo, who stood up to speak in apparent deference to his older colleague, “What Clark taught me and the others is natural attention to language; the writing is not forced; that ease of expression, the naturalness in images. No deliberate attempt to impress; that mastery of language is in the natural attention. Take ‘So drunken, like ancient walls/We crumble in heaps at your feet’ in the poem, ‘Olokun’. I’m forever startled by the freshness of that image”.
Also, Ifowodo alluded to another of Clark’s image, an irreverence image, in that same poem, ‘I am jealous and passionate/Like Jehovah, God of the Jews’, saying, “Irreverence is a sourly needed ingredient in a poem if not used needlessly; there comes a time when our language will reflect our doubt in our search, as we seek for truths”. He, then, read excerpts from his collection, Oil Lamp. After Ifowodo, Israel Adejobi and Segun Balogun read their poems, ‘When I think of Africa’ and ‘I emerge’ respectively.
A lady in the audience sought to know why none of Clark’s works have been translated into Ijaw language. This sparked off a debate about the dearth of translation prevalent in the works of great African writers of which Nigeria fares far worse. Ofeimun, while congratulating Clark on his 80th, also raised the translation issue. He said, “If you have read Ozidi you would realise it was done for the Izon. The trouble with us is how our literature in English must relate to our Nigerian languages. Until we start moving into the language we speak the better we will understand ourselves.
“It’s a shame we don’t have our poets translated into our languages. Somebody else ought to do the translation job. It’s important that we allow that link between English and our indigenous languages. That is my quarrel with Clark”. He said while Achebe’s Things Fall Apart has a Yoruba translation, it was yet to have an Igbo one.
Ofeimun expressed his unhappiness with the educational system that has stopped helping to deepen school children’s knowledge in the writings of such eminent poets and writers like Clark, noting, “Children should be forced to engage with the literature of their own country so we have better interface with our own country. Poetry does make things happen, as in ‘Night rain’ and ‘Abiku’ – these are the lots that make us who we are. Their absence is what has made us into what we are today!”
Ofeimun recalled how he was asked to read his poem in his native Esan, and thereby, forced to make a hasty translation of one of his poems into Esan in Israel before he could read it. He said it was symbolic, and obviously the best way to go to help preserve local languages since it was only the bible that texts of most local languages in the country can be found.
Ofeimun’s insistence that Clark’s and many of his fellow travellers in the literary road be translated was hard to resist, arguing, “Kiagbodo (Clark’s home town in Delta State) has given us our own Homer (one of Greek’s great poets). It’s important that Clarks works have to be translated into Ijaw; it will do the Ijaw language enormous good, especially now when we still have many good Ijaw speakers. In fact, forcing ourselves to translate our works is the best way to go; right now, the bible is probably the best text of most of our local languages”.
Tolar’s intervention was to the effect that although Nigerian writers were in the school syllabus, it had become minimal, with a balance of poetry from Africa and Europe. He, however, said the problem was with teachers saddled with teaching poetry, who don’t understand poetry in the first place and so cannot teach students well. The result is that they end up making students dread poetry, as being incomprehensible.
Ifowodo argued that the problem with translation of works of the master artists was with the level of literacy in the country, which he said had become dreadful, especially in recent years. He posited, “We haven’t even understood the language of literature, of poetry, the highest point of linguistic expression, before translating it. We need to understand the medium of writing. English as medium is lacking in the country”.
Ifowodo also bemoaned the poor usage of English in such mass communication medium as the media in the country.
A linguistic expert and wife of Clark, Prof. Ebun Clark’s intervention was definitive in its summation of the language problem with Nigerians. She said with the country’s over 500 indigenous languages coupled together by colonialism, it has become difficult to shake off that colonial linguistic incubus, adding, “We are dealing with the tragedy of colonisation, which merged many separate peoples together. India has more indigenous languages, but they settled for English. So, it’s not a matter of incompetence; we are totally illiterate in our mother tongues.
“I don’t think we can have a successful translation of our works. We don’t exist in our mother tongues; that is the tragedy of colonialisation. Some of us grew up in that tragedy!”
In responding to all the submissions, Clark, who had been sipping his beer all through the session, simply said, “Your reading of the poems is your own understanding of the poems. I really don’t mind what people say of my works. It’s free-thinking. And it’s not like science that you must have the facts to be right. I will leave your criticism to yourselves; I leave criticism to critics”.
On the latest book of his late friend and colleague, Achebe, There was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, Clark corrected two historical errors. First was that the first generation writers – Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Onuorah Nzekwu, Michael Crowder, Clark - used to meet at Nigeria Magazine office on Marina overlooking the lagoon, as against Achebe’s contrary claim, saying, “We didn’t meet on Kingsway Road; it didn’t overlook the lagoon”.
Another error Clark corrected was that Achebe attributed editorship of Black Orpheus to Soyinka instead of him, whereas Soyinka was editor of Transition in faraway Ghana at the time.
He also disclosed that before the Nigerian Civil War on which he and Achebe were on either side as emissaries of sorts, they had formed Society of Nigerian Authors (SONA). But he was surprised to see Achebe after the war proposing Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) to him; he didn’t buy it and so didn’t belong to it.
The erudite scholar and lyrical poet pointed out that he and writers of his generation like Okigbo, Achebe and Soyinka (otherwise referred to as the quartet of Nigerian literature) were lucky to have reaslised themselves very early in their career, as writers and expressed gratitude to millions of their admirers around the world. He noted that when they started out in their early days as writers in the 1960s, they hadn’t realised how far they would go, but that he was glad where they were.
He stated, “We didn’t set out to be taught in schools or be subjects of examinations. We reaslised what we were quite early. We were lucky we reaslised ourselves very early. We are very grateful, if I can speak as a group. Our time was right. Talent and time find each other, as they did to us. I leave criticism to critics”.