FESTIVAL POETRY CALABAR 2016 (KEYNOTE ADDRESS): Poetry and the Environment| by Mallam Denja Abdullahi



Denja Abdullahi

Mallam Denja Abdullahi
National President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA)

Being a Keynote Speech Delivered at the Festival Poetry Calabar under the theme “Poetry and Cross River’s Clean and Green Initiative” on the 27th of December, 2016

Of Homage Paying and Libation Pouring

It is important we set today’s gathering against a backdrop of what has gone before. It is necessary we recognize that things do not just happen, they are caused to happen by someone and great occurrences are often paved by someone’s anonymous sacrifices. The someone in this unfolding tale is Eriata Oribhabor, the convener of this gathering, if I can call him that, who has over the years extended the art and act of poetry to multiple dimensions. He started by domesticating and garbing the poetic imagination in the texture of a street-wise lingual franca; joined hands with other poets all over the world in using poetry to dare change the world for the better; went on to create pockets of avenues for rewarding poets laboring in the vineyards of words; related, in several schemes, the abstract world of poetry to food, .photography, places and monuments; and he finally established a network of poets with tentacles spread across this diverse country of ours. Eriata Oribhabor is a phenomenal and an ardent promoter of poetry in our space today and it is befitting I end this segment with a poem I wrote for him a few years back on one of his birthday celebrations:

Cauldron of Dreams

 Who should be crowned as king?

Is it the one with the itchy fingers

foraging into the communal barn?

Do you garland the scrawny shoulders

of a person blind to the bloom in others?

No, let us unite in holding aloft

the one whose scalp is toughened

bearing the cauldron of dreams.

Let us herald the dispenser of joy and gaiety

with the frenetic beats of the bata drums.

Let us lead his steps to more service

with the heady throb of the gbedu and the boom of kakaaki.

Eriata, wearer of the danshiki of mirth

and the battle ready sokoto of adventure,

tell me, where is our next haunt?

Of primal poetry and environmental Beginnings

Now that we are done with paying homage to the “King of Contemporary Poetry in Nigeria,” who long replied me that our next haunt is the carnivalesque ambience of Calabar, it is necessary we take a brief look at poetry and the environment to affirm the theme of this gathering which seeks to relate the art of poetry to the worthy project of cleaning and greening Cross River State.

If we could hazard a study into what led to the writing and declamation of the first poem in human history, it will be discovered to be the environment. Nature in its splendor and horror must have moved that first poet to chant, imbibe and later recollect his or her ‘emotions in tranquility’ to use the Wordsworthian definition of poetry. If we are to take a tour de force of poetry chanting or writing in the world, from the pre-writing era to today of writing with digital instruments, we will discover that the environment has always been central to the poetic enterprise.

The environment either inspires poetry or becomes the ubiquitous subject of poetry. Our local lore, songs, folktales and proverbs heavily derive their metaphors and rhythms from the environment. Poets from the forested, hilly, Sahelian, Savannah or aquatic regions find appropriate tropes in their environment to weave into their poetry. As such, we find a Gabriel Okara giving us a poem such as that totem poem, ‘The call of the River Nun” and someone like Wole Soyinka writing a whole collection inspired by Idanre Hills entitled Idanre and other poems. We can also add the example of J.P Clark’s ‘Night Rain” where he captures the hazards of living in the rain forests of the Niger Delta with all its deprivations. The examples are legion and we can conveniently declare that some of the greatest poems that have been written in world’s poetic history have been that based on the environment or which have been inspired by either natural or man-made environment.

In the beginnings and in the periods in which man was yet to completely tame the natural environment for his use, good or bad, we see more of poetry contemplating the environment or relating its awesomeness and quirks to the existential concerns of living and finding meaning to life on earth. That relationship of poetry to the environment, suffused with the over-carriage of powerful nature-inspired emotions (Wordsworth again!) in stanzas, , couplets ,quatrains, sonnets and lines, has given way, with the painful progress made by man over the environment, to a relationship of poetry bewailing the despoliation of the environment or calling attention to the preservation of its beauties.
Poetry in the age of environmental degradation and reclamation

img_20161226_1500341If not anywhere else, but in our own world, poetry has lost its innocence. We are a world away from the chanting of “the salute to the Colobus monkey”, “Salute to the Elephant” and we can no longer hear the “call of the River Nun.” The environment which has sustained man and poetry for centuries has been despoiled by the rapacity of man in search of fortune and hitherto unheard of destructive natural occurrences have become the normal fare of the world. This sudden switch from the contemplation of the grandeur of nature through poetry to the bemoaning of a degraded environment in poetry is best exemplified by the poets of the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. The serene world of the early poetry of Pa Gabriel Okara has given way to the poisoned atmosphere of the poetry of Tanure Ojiade, Nnimmo Bassey, Ogaga Ifowodo, Ebi Yeibo, G’ Ebinyo Ogbowei , Obari Gomba, Eriata Oribhabor(in his Beautiful Poisons) and many more. This phase has been so insistent that when we mention the Niger Delta, all we think about regarding literature is protest against the despoliation of the environment in form and content. This dogged commitment to the environment in literature has given rise to the flourishing of a critical paradigm called eco-criticism. This is the new tool with which literary critics “eats” the poetry produced in the environmental ferment of the Niger Delta and other places where the politics of the environments find its way into literary texts.

The world today talks about climate change and the need to reclaim our environment from the corrosive grip of man in his materialistic elements. The Niger Delta poets have done a lot in their expose of the despoliation of the Niger Delta environment by multinational oil companies and their local collaborators. We may by now be entering another phase in which poetry will have to be put in the service of preserving the still “untainted “ environment or be used to imagine an ideal environment into being!


Poetry and the Cross River State’s Clean and Green Initiative

Cross River State has thrown up an example that the environment can be a resource that can be used to better the fortune and image of a people without recourse to mindless exploitation. Cross River State is adjudged throughout Nigeria as having the cleanest State Capital , the most hospitable people , the ever intriguing culinary dexterity and home to inspiring natural and cultural landscapes. Travelers and fun seekers have made the State their destination with these myths and legends in mind and they always get affirmation on experiencing the State. The people and the successive governments of the State, including the present administration, have done quite well in devising schemes and strategies to sustain the salubrious image of the State as a place to see before dying (See Calabar and die!). It is incumbent therefore on us poets gathered here today on the bank of the river, at the Marina Resort, to drop our inhibition and sing in our poems the wonders of nature as preserved and protected by the people and government of Cross River State. The example of Calabar and Cross River State is possible everywhere in our nation; that should be the texture of our songs. I embarked on this kind of exercise many years ago when I held a workshop on ‘Creative Writers for Tourism” at the foot of Zuma Rock in Madalla- Zuba in 2004 and another exercise later focusing on ‘ Creative Writing for Leisure and Tourism” which held in IBB University Lapai in 2007. My friend Eriata Oribhabor also pulled us together to do same around Wushapa hill overlooking the Usuma Lake in Abuja in 2013. We poets can lend our art to call attention to our environment and show people we can imagine first a better environment and we can also work away from the pages of the book to realise that same environment which we have earlier imagined.

It is in this light that I hereby lend my voice to that of the communities and conservationists calling for the shelving of a planned 260km superhighway to be constructed through some protected forest reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and parks in Cross River State that are habitats to rare and endangered animals and ecosystem. While we agree that constructions of economically viable infrastructures must go on, they also must be carried out with the overriding preservation of the natural environment in mind. Development goes hand in hand with the preservation of the rare ecosystem in saner climes and the Cross River State government must not degrade the defining features of the State’s unique ecosystem for a road that may lead metaphorically nowhere at the end of the day.

Receding to sing Again

A little away from the beginning of this speech we entered into a song paying homage to a promoter of poetry. It is apt if we recede like the tidal wave of the Niger Delta singing another song, this time, coming from a collection of an octogenarian poetic recollection of a childhood of that River forked into the Niger Delta as it flows into the sea. His Royal Highness Christian Otobotekere says in his book My River (2014) in a poem entitled “Sibilant River” thus:

When in sight of

This sibilant river

With stirring reeds

Let free your mind

And you will find

Issues of the day

Drifting easily away

As easily as

A belated lettuce in swift drift ……..

Let us now drift into the world of imagination and its infinite possibilities egged on by the serenity of the Marina.

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