To continue our series of the interviews with the individuals for whom “culture is too important”, APP is happy to introduce to our readers Efe Paul Azino, the director of Lagos International Poetry Festival, which will be held from October 27 to October 30  under the theme “Paging the Future” (http://lagospoetryfestival.com/).

In the interview, APP is discussing with Efe the things and people that inspired him on his way to realize the dream to hold the 1st West African poetry festival, the role of poetry in Nigeria and how the objects of poetry changed over time.

APP: How was born the idea to organize Lagos International Poetry Festival?

Efe: It stemmed from the need to do a workshop series, one my colleague, Titilope Sonuga, and I, felt was necessary at the time, given the growing interest in poetry across the country and the attending skill gap. We expanded the initial idea to include a panel discussion and an evening of readings and performances and somewhere along the line decided to go the whole hog and create a pan-African and global space in West Africa for the celebration of this hugely important art form.

APP: It is a very high responsibility to hold the 1st international poetry festival in West Africa. What are the main challenges you faced to make your idea come true, and what does inspire you to overcome the obstacles? Who are the people who helped you to organize such an amazing event?

Efe: The primary challenge was funding. We had a problem curtailing our ambitions. To fit what we had conceived within the limits of our personal pockets was not an option for us so we did the illogical; designed a logo, purchased a domain name and put the word out there, staking our entire credibility on a dream our realities, at the time, did not have the capacity to cash. We pitched the idea to the good people at Nigerian Breweries, a forward thinking company that has been at the forefront of promoting the arts in Nigeria, and they agreed to support it. The enthusiasm that greeted the festival from the city’s artistic community was also a huge support. Freedom Park, the old colonial prison, reconfigured into a thriving space of art and culture, became a vital partner.  The urgency of the idea was the major inspiration we had to push it through despite the logistical challenges of holding a festival in a combustive city like Lagos.

APP: How is the Festival organized? What will be part of the program? What surprises do you prepare for the people come to the Festival?

Efe: The festival kicks off with a two day workshop/masterclass and an opening ceremony interspersed with performances about Lagos and welcoming guests to the city. In 2016 we’re curating, directed by the Nobel Laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka, 50 poems from 50 poets on Lagos. The life-sized poems will be unveiled on the opening ceremony and will be spread around the venue. The project is part of the city’s 50th anniversary celebration. Then there are panels and debates on issues ranging from poetry to migration to technology, and a poetry and music concert. This year we are preparing off script events and placing the burden of surprise on the city, allowing it peel back layers of itself that will prove intriguing to visitors and those supposedly familiar with its vagaries.

APP: What is the ambition to organize the Poetry Festival: to change the status of poetry, to change poetry itself, to trigger the artistic creative impulse, or something else?

Efe: For us it’s about bringing poetry into engagement and conversation with society and with itself, an ongoing conversation carried on, of course, outside the realm of a poetry festival, but one which a festival highlights nonetheless. We also hope to create a space that challenges and encourages younger poets, pushes the boundaries of creativity and generates lingering conversations.

APP: How can you characterize the state of poetry in Nigeria? Is poetry becoming a vital part of Nigerian cultural life?

Efe: Poetry has always been an intricate part of Nigerian culture, embedded in its artistic and cultural traditions, manifesting in theater, film and literature. Currently there’s a hazy reconfiguration of the traditional structures that support poetry. There are fewer publishing firms willing to publish collections of poetry due to the perceived decline in readership. But there is also a growing audience for performance poetry and a growing number of spoken word poets rising to meet the demand. This has had the dual effect of bringing poetry to a broader audience on the one hand, and lowering the bar of entry and encouraging a lot of bad poetry, on the other. Then of course there are blogs and social media outlets absent of gatekeepers that provide an outlet for poems and poets. Generally this is good. It’s a good time for poetry. The really relevant poets always float to the surface.

APP: Why, in your view, the last two decades are characterized by “poetry resurgence across the African continent” (http://lagospoetryfestival.com/about-lipf/)?

Efe:  is largely due to the renewed interest in poetry brought on by spoken word poetry and the ubiquity of social media platforms that make it relatively easy to organize poetry centered events, collaborate, and consume poetry from any part of the world. Thrown into this mix are the cultural entrepreneurs, enabled somewhat by technology as well, who create the spaces, prizes and platforms that allow the art form to flourish.

APP: What are the main topics of the poems today? How did the issues the poetry reflect change over the time?

Efe: In Nigeria there has been a slight shift from the postcolonial themes of the first and second generations. There is a lot being said today about trans-border movement and identity, about dislocations occasioned by political and economic upheavals, about cultural assimilation and othering. By and large poets everywhere are still preoccupied, inexhaustibly, with exploring the human condition in all its complexity.

APP: We know that you were one of the participants of the Spier ‘dancing in other words’ International Poetry Festival, held earlier this year in South Africa (http://spierpoetryfestival.co.za/). Could you please share with us your impressions?  

Efe: The Spier International Poetry Festival has a slight tilt toward poets of a certain generation, and travelling the cape in the company of Keoropatse Kgogitsile, James Matthews, and Breyten Breytenbach amongst others was an immersion in wisdom, not to mention the conversations and debates. And the wine. Oh yes, the wine. The Spier Poetry Festival has something special going for it, an experience I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.

APP: Could you please share with us one of your favourite poems? Could you suggest to our readers any names whose works depict the essence of African culture?

Efe: Names whose works depict the essence of African Culture? J.P. Clark’s Ozidi Saga readily comes to mind. Wole Soyinka. Niyi Osundare. Okot p’ Bitek’s Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol. Kofi Awoonor.

For a favorite poem, I have recently been mulling over Audre Lorde’s A Litany For Survival from The Black Unicorn:

For those of us who live at the shoreline

standing upon the constant edges of decision

crucial and alone

for those of us who cannot indulge

the passing dreams of choice

who love in doorways coming and going

in the hours between dawns

looking inward and outward

at once before and after

seeking a now that can breed

futures

like bread in our children’s mouths

so their dreams will not reflect

the death of ours:

For those of us

who were imprinted with fear

like a faint line in the center of our foreheads

learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk

for by this weapon

this illusion of some safety to be found

the heavy-footed hoped to silence us

For all of us

this instant and this triumph

We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid

it might not remain

when the sun sets we are afraid

it might not rise in the morning

when our stomachs are full we are afraid

of indigestion

when our stomachs are empty we are afraid

we may never eat again

when we are loved we are afraid

love will vanish

when we are alone we are afraid

love will never return

and when we speak we are afraid

our words will not be heard

nor welcomed

but when we are silent

we are still afraid

So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive