Beyond Scintillating Poetry; LIPFEST17 was All That and More!

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On November 4, 2017, the third showing of the Lagos International Poetry Festival, LIPFest17, rolled to a climatic end as guests were treated to a number of readings and performances by poets at the amphitheatre of Freedom Park, Lagos.

LIPFest17 had praise songs in honour of the gatekeepers (poets), love poems, reflective poems, and many dark pieces covering issues like loss, grief, separation and a longing for home. From the Londoners (Yomi Soye, Ruth Sotonye, Theresa Lola), Katie Bonna, Sophie Walker, to Abuja’s finest Dike Chukwumerije, to Ghana’s Sunny Kwaku, to Romeo Oriogun, Ndukwe Onuoha, Dami Ajayi, Titilope Sonuga, and the big masquerade himself, Efe Paul, the closing ceremony was star filled and  like a constellation, the guests poets all took a bow with a loud bang!

Before the closing night however, there had been four days of workshops (poetry and spoken word theatre), panel discussions, a spoken word theatre showcase by workshop participants, as well as other performances including Poetry after dark (love and erotic poetry) – codenamed ‘Poems Apostle must not hear’.

But sometimes the most rousing moments of a festival like LIPFest17 can stem not from the literature, but the conversations around the literature. To this effect, Chris Abani and Okechukwu Ofili may have given some of the most provocative nuggets at this year’s LIPFest.

One panel discussed The Unsexy Business of Publishing, and once Okechukwu Ofili said “We are stuck with the sexiness of writing, without thinking of how to sort the problems in publishing,” the stage was set for what would become a thought provoking session. The founder of Okada books insisted vehemently that literary festivals spend too much time discussing the art of writing to the detriment of the business side of writing. He also urged that writers familiarise themselves simultaneously with a typewriter as well as with a calculator, since no book thrives without marketing.


Isabella Akinseye, RezthaPoet, Okey Ofili, Richard Ali

In agreeing with Ofili, Rez tha poet also said that writers needed to learn how to use Social media to brand themselves. Richard Ali (of Parresia books) bemoaned distribution as a major hindrance to the book business, while looking forward to some more collaboration with online distribution platforms, in addition to platforms like Okada books, in the near future.

There was also the heated panel of culture curators – Dami Ajayi, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, Isabella Akinseye, and Wilfred Okiche (who moderated the session). These young culture writers had a debate around the idea that the young critics are re-inventing themselves, because of an apparent disconnect between today’s critic and an older generation of critics and art writers.

Akinseye would however stand her ground, insisting that as young writers they need not disregard the writing of older critics. In her view, even if those works are not available or accessible on digital spaces, they exist. And besides, there had always been an industry of curating culture in Nigeria.

The former stance as espoused by Dami and Oris, reeked somewhat of hubris, but it is pertinent to note that the two critics harped on the fact that it was near impossible to find reviews of specific music from the 70s and 80s, lamenting that most of the literature available from that time centred around the nightlife of the time; as opposed to critical reviews of the art of the time. In addition these writings are mostly only available as archived content in certain newspaper houses.

Still, Okiche and Akinseye did well to disabuse minds — there are several ways to curate culture, and critical reviews, important as they are, remain only one way.


dami Ajayi, Isabella Akinseye, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo talk ‘Curating Culture’ at the Lagos poetry festival

Okiche threw in an interesting perspective though: What if something happened 50 years hence, and all the digital material so glamorised today was suddenly lost – irretrievable for posterity- would the Damis and Oris’ of today not be accused by young critics of leaving a vacuum, just as they presently accuse the older critics? Interesting food for thought.

The last day was a day for interrogating originality and authenticity. While Prof Remi Raji chose to see Authenticity as more emotive and hinged on a cultural context, Chris Abani expressed his dislike for the word Authenticity, saying it was a weaponised word used to discredit others– just like Immorality. Abani added that he preferred the word ‘Authority’.

The Londoners were not left out in sharing bits of wisdom, as they encouraged collaborations between artists. Theresa Lola in particular emphasised finding Authenticity through telling your own truths.

Chris Abani would go on to dazzle the audience at a special interview session moderated by the brilliant Kola Tubosun. In this session we listened to Abani chant some Ifa verses, and declare himself a Babalawo. Quite impressive — the chant, but this didn’t stop him from veering into Igbo ever so often, nor did it make him lose his infectious wit. Chris Abani proved to be a deep chest of knowledge, an endless box of gifts which kept on giving. The Afikpo man who spoke about growing up tri-cultural, (being bi-racial, and learning pop culture as he grew) further left the audience in awe when he declared that he could recite in Afikpo dialect his lineage up to 500 years back. Such that when he said ‘there is a tree in my father’s compound where my umbilical is buried, there is no metaphor here…’ We knew those lines from SANCTIFICUM were as original and Authentic as it could get.

Abani spoke extensively about his interest in providing workshops for young African writers, his work with the Sillerman prize, and the work he and Kwame Dawes have done for almost a decade with Akashic books to produce box sets of chap books by young African poets. Abani also spoke about work being done on a database of all published African poets – the plan being to digitize these works. Did I say he is an endless box of gifts?

Like an acolyte of the deity that births verse, Abani declared that poetry for him is a chance to have a freer, almost spiritual connection, while essays allow him have arguments, and the novel is where he explores what to him is human. All these are apart from the academic papers that he writes as a full time professor. In his opinion, all the genres exist as a continuum, none is higher than the other. Some people are able to move from one genre to the other, while others settle.

As a friend and I joked afterwards, Chris Abani is more than brilliant, “di man too get sense, and him go dey talk like say all dat book wey him sabi na moin-moin.”

Here are a few tweets that attempt to capture some of his words

Iquo DianaAbasi

Poet, Lover of Life, Student of Life, bursting with all-round Creative juices.

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