On Friday, September 22, 2017, I met and spoke with, for the first time, Ikeogu Oke, one of three poets shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature the same year. Others were Ogaga Ifowodo and Tanure Ojaide. Three of them were, out of a hundred and so entries submitted for poetry category, angling to become poet laureate of Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas, the company that endowed and has sponsored the award for nearly a decade and half with a cash prize of $100, 000.
Venue was the brightly lit and white-painted Opal Suite of Eko Hotel & Suites on Victoria Island. It was early afternoon, and there were half a dozen or so journalists to interview, by turns, the three poets separately. I had Oke first.
If, as they say, first impressions count, it was so with Oke at a glance. His sartorial choice got you right on: a traditional Abiriba warrior garb, complete with short woven wrapper, ogbuefi woolen, Santa Claus-type striped bobble hat and white and black goat skin on both biceps. For me, it was a remarkable interview for many reasons. And it was not for his get-up alone.
I began my interview with a quote by a renowned seventeenth century English writer and critic. The poet not only completed the quote: “Of all those arts in which the wise excel, nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well,” but named the English writer, John Sheffield, promptly, thus preempting me by several seconds. I remember pausing and looking at him for a while before continuing the interview.
There he was in his uniquely distinct outfit, filling up a black leather swivel chair, bespectacled, both hands folded across his stomach and casually responding to my questions in a deep, measured voice resonating from a big chest partly concealed by a spotless, white singlet around which curly black hair sprouted.
On that day in question, NLNG had brought Ifowodo, Ojaide and Oke together to face the press, sort of getting the public acquainted with their works before a winner would be announced on Monday, October 9.
After the interview, Oke thanked me and then insisted that we have a drink later. I could not, regrettably so now, because I still had Ifowodo and Ojaide to speak with. On that note we parted.
Then the following day, I was settling for the last lap of sleep when a message beeped on my cell phone. It was 4:40am: “Good morning Jimoh,” the message began. “I thank you for yesterday’s special interview and for paying critical attention to The Heresiad.” It was signed Ikeogu Oke.
On Sunday, October 8 my interview with Ifowodo, Ojaide and Oke was published in the arts pages of THISDAY under the headline “Three Bards in Search of a Prize.” Barely 24 hours later, Oke won the prize. The following Sunday, October 15 in the same arts pages of the newspaper where my interview appeared, another was published by a friend and colleague, Okey Uwaezuoke. The title, “Prize and Prejudice,” could only have been inspired by the muse but I didn’t feel so about the content.
The core of Uwaezuoke’s piece was something to the effect that my report was prejudiced, biased against Oke winning the prize. His premise was based on an interview I granted Odia Ofeimun who, according to Uwaezuoke, rooted for a particular candidate in his evaluation of Ifowodo, Ojaide and Oke. It was very clear, from Uwaezuoke’s assertion, that Oke was not the person Ofeimun had in his sightline to become LNG’s new laureate.
To be sure, there was a bit of journalistic negligence on my part, being that, rather than interviewing two, three or more poets/writers to assess the three entries – A Good Mourning by Ifowodo, Song of Myself: A Quartet by Ojaide and The Heresiad by Oke – I settled on the author of The Poet Lied alone. And then, Uwaezuoke found more ammunition to lob at Ofeimun when the latter attributed the title of an essay to Longfellow instead of Wordsworth.
It seemed like a classic case of thou shall not throw stones if you live in a glass house, made more so by Oke trouncing his two contenders in the end. On the same day and after Uwaezuoke’s story was published, friends and colleagues called urging me to respond. I thought it was pointless, regardless who Ofeimun plumped for or what Uwaezuoke thought my opinions were in the said publication.
Published only hours before announcing the winner, there was no way, I reasoned then, and I still do now, the Nigerian judges and external adjudicator would have been persuaded to change their minds on a matter they would have long resolved. Besides, in the history of the Nigeria Prize for Literature, the judges have never been known to be swayed or influenced by an independent opinion on who should be a laureate over a prize they oversee.
I have met Oke twice since the interview last September, once at an arty restaurant and bar on Maitama Sule Street, Ikoyi, where he had a reading as an NLNG laureate with JP Clark sharing the podium. Making a valid case for writers, Oke insisted that Nigerian writers should be accorded more respect and treated like national treasures as it was done in England where their greatest writers were interred in Westminster Abbey.
The last time I saw Oke was at the public presentation of the Literature Prize at Muson Centre, Onikan late last year. On both occasions, he was dressed in what had become his signature Abiriba outfit. On both occasions, too, his person had not changed a bit, despite a plumper bank account. Of course, he had become popular by then but, in Peter Quennell’s very apt phrase, Oke “had nothing of the fatuous bloom, the glossy patina of self-approval that goes frequently with public fame.”
I myself I am not a poet, not having written a line or two of verse ever. But I have, in the line of duty, come to know quite a number of Nigerian poets both in person and through their works. One day two or three years ago, Ofeimun, who I was living with in Oregun then, requested that I help deliver a parcel of books to someone in Abuja. They were books on poetry.
I wasn’t party to Ofeimun’s correspondence with the receiver in the Federal Capital Territory. But I can fairly do a reconstruct of what transpired between them. The person in Abuja wanted some publications on and about poetry and a few collections, as well. I took the parcel to the cargo services of ABC Transport Company at Fadeyi from where it would be delivered in Abuja. The books were duly sent – to Ikeogu Oke.
On Saturday, November 24, family, friends and sundry guests were at the 75th birthday party of Mr. Louis Zuluonye Onwordi, father of Toni Kan, poet, novelist and public relations man. Of course, a number of TK’s friends – the Lagos literati and journalists – were on hand, as well. There was, for instance, Toyin Akinosho, editor of Africa Oil & Gas, Victor Ehikhamenor, Terh Agbedeh, Anote Ajeluoro, Dami Ajayi, some of who interviewed Oke a little more than a year ago at the press meet.
Unknown to them, Oke was expiring at that very moment in a hospital in Abuja. News came later through Uzor Maxim Uzoatu’s Facebook account that Oke had died. It was pancreatic cancer that got him.
Ever since, the literary establishment has been in mourning. Condolence messages have poured forth from thousands of Nigerians, home and abroad, with President Muhammadu Buhari himself condoling with Oke’s family early this week.
It is now common knowledge, something that will be part of literary lore in understanding Oke, that he wrote on his Facebook account on September 16, 2018 his own epitaph. It reads thus:
“Here lies a man who loved virtue and art,
And gave to both his fortunes and his heart.”
-Jimoh sent in this piece from Lagos