'Poetry has taken me round the world' Two-time BBc Award winner, Folu Agoi

  1. Nigeria’s first generation writings witnessed the emergence of a handful of writers who had acquired a good education and possessed skills in varying quanta. Among whom were poets like John Pepper Clark, Gabriel Okara, and the short-lived but renowned Christopher Okigbo who many in some quarters, say was the best and maybe still is,Africa’s greatest poet. How true? Now that several years have gone past,countless poets have emerged with new,experimental and less obscure writings which altogether constitute a break from the norm and have gone steps further to garner international recognition and win several local and international awards.

Folu Agoi,a two-time ANA (Association of Nigerian Authors,Lagos chapter) president,a two-time BBC poetry award winner, two-time International Society of Poets award winner, a lecturer per excellence and one of Nigeria’s and Africa’s finest poets, bears such resemblance. Discovering his innate ability by providence at a time he least expected,he has crept into the hearts of many and took the world by surprise. In this interview with Oluwayamilenu  Bamgboye, he relives his experiences, achievements and reveals the ordeal of new writers in mainstream publishing in Nigeria. Enjoy.
How was growing up?
Well,it was a mixed part really.There were challenges but it was fun you know,on the whole,I grew up in the family of teachers. My father was a teacher, my mother was too.So,I grew up in the midst of books. It was such that if you had a problem that required some punishment, you knew all you would be asked to do was get your books and by the time you started reading, any mistake you made would earn you some beating. So it was really a form of punishment that also kept you on your toes because if you knew you wanted to be naughty,you should be prepared to be able to read very well. If you read smoothly there was no problem. Such were some of the events that characterised my growing up.
How did all of the things you were asked to do as a kid shape your creative ability?
Well they tended to get me attracted to books,to show me the value of books. My father was a great lover of books. I won’t say he was crazy about books but he was the kind of person who would tell you stories of how many times I had to wash his creative books with soap and water.That was how serious it was with my father. He had books everywhere and since we were aware of both the spoken and written forms of English, we just exploited the opportunity. I was becoming interested in books and it was a natural and an unconscious thing or attraction. I just found myself reading all the time.
When you were growing up,were there signs that made you know you would end up as a writer?
Humm…well,looking back I would say yes. I used to draw a lot because I loved fine art. I used to fill my drawing books with images of policemen or those in agbada or bald headed men and the like. That really became pronounced in my first or second year in secondary school. Many people would see the drawings and would appreciate them and praise me for my artistry and talent. But my father would walk into my room and would flog me for that. He would say ‘why are you wasting time doing all this nonsense instead of reading’. He didn’t see art as anything worth spending time on and that really discouraged me in a way. When I got to form 4 and we were expected to choose our subjects,I knew that I dared not pick fine art as one of them because he wouldn’t just be in support of that.
Wow,you were really scared of him?
No…no. I loved it but he really saw arts as a waist of time. He would want me to do some serious things like physics or chemistry most of which I never passed at anytime anyway. I just didn’t have any aptitude towards sciences.
How did you manoeuvre after secondary school?
Aftet secondary school,I went for my NCE. He influenced that anyway because I wanted to go straight to the university but he insisted that I should have an NCE first because it would be in my own interest. So,I attended Lagos State College of Education now Adeniran Ogunsanya anyway and I studied English and Christain Religious Studies (CRS). After that,I went to Ondo State University where I acquired my B.ed in English Education and then I stayed behind for my masters in management before coming to town.
At a point,art came in when I discovered I had the talent but it was when I least expected it. Back then in 1997 or 1998,at Corona school,I was just a school teacher who loved reading and enjoyed preparing my students for exams and all that. Sometimes,I would look at the literary materials and say I could do the same but I never gave it a serious thought. One day, Mex who was the editor of the school magazine approached me and said he really wanted me to contribute to the next publication.He gave me a deadline and kept pestering me. I knew all the while that I was too restive and couldn’t sit down to write something lengthy and meaningful like an essay.So,when he came around again I just said so jokingly ‘what if I give you poetry?’ then he said anything would do. That was the moment I felt triggered on the inside. So,I wrote a poem ‘The Master Potter’.
What is the poem about?
The poem was born out of the experiences I had gathered as a school teacher and it was my first attempt at poetry. I showed it to a colleague,an old Ghanian,he liked it and requested for a copy.It is centered on the wretchedness of a bald-headed old senior teacher who is always happy in telling people about his products and how most of them have become very successful and highly placed in the society whereas,he lives in the shafts. He is old and he has lost one eye. His wife has even left him.Funny enough,the copy my Ghanian colleague took home was seized by a neighbour who felt insulted. That really told me how relative the poem was and further informed me that I could really do it successfully. So subsequently,I wrote so many things that were published in various national dalies.
You are a record breaker if you let me,winning two notable awards within a short space of time–BBC poetry award and Prof Wole Soyinka poetry award. How did you achieve this?
Well,none of this was pre-planned. It just happened that I stumbled on a programme on BBC and there was a particular poetry competition advert that was being aired and every week,a winner emerged. I submitted two poems ‘He Died’ and ‘I Seek a Woman’ at two different times and I was really surprised that both won on those occasions.I was really happy at the news and those around me celebrated me.That for me is a record because people rarely experience that. The experience also told me in clear terms that I had some poetic talent. Before then,people had started referring to me as a poet and really thought my style was unique unlike most writers who ape these days.I’ll also say that I was able to avoid aping because I concentrated more on me. I avoided familiarizing with established writers so I could be me.The award gave me an edge and a name because I was mentioned in the news at intervals of four hours for some days and my poems were read.
No cash?
No cash (laughs).I got parcels you know. Their branded t-shirts and all that.The thing about serious writers is that they don’t think of the extrinsic value of their works. The intrinsic value is what matters to them. No serious writer thinks or writes for monetary benefits but in our clime, poverty has really brought that to fore. Once you start thinking of money,you tend to loose your originality, you want to satisfy some people and won’t want to write to offend a set of people. If you want to be yourself,your business like Earnest Hemingway said, should be to tell the truth the way it is without minding the repercussion.
Publishers around here have an attitude towards poetry,why is that?
It’s because poetry doesn’t sell. Not only in Nigeria really but particularly in Nigeria. Nigeria is not really a reading society and that is a sad reality. And then when you say you are a poet,it’s as if you are just wasting your time on something that is not profitable. From experience,when you give your publication to rich or highly educated people;those in the ministries and maybe politicians,they might love your work and even give you some complementary remarks for the complementary copy but won’t want to contribute a penny to your work. People who write poetry in Nigeria must be commended for their commitment to the art. If you have a novel,there is a way in which you could push your novel to schools or people and make sales but not poetry. With the prize,I had more impetus to keep writing poetry. Infact,I just wrote some before you came today and I had gone to print out a couple of poems I would be sending to a publishing house in Germany requesting for my work with an honourarium of 25 Euros per page. Four thousand copies would be printed and distributed across Germany and each library would have a copy and that for me is huge. So,poetry isn’t something that is done to pastime. This is what some of us have done and have made headway. I think it is also in line with the portion of the Bible that talks about diligence. When you keep at it,your talent will definitely pave way for you.
When you started writing,did it ever cross your mind to go to any of the publishing outfits to get your work published?
Uhm… I’ll just tell you no,no because of the experiences of a lot of my peers in the hands of mainstream publishing outfits. When you submit your manuscript,it could be with them for about a year or two and the next thing they tell you is that they are sorry,they can’t publish your work and that has been the plight of so many aspiring writers who have not become an Achebe or Soyinka to get the big contracts from Longman or Heinneman. You know I heard so many of these experiences and told myself I was not going to be a victim or fall into that category. So,I started my own publishing oufit Flag Pulication. I also thought that if an old friend Helon Habila could self-publish ‘Waiting for an Angel’ to win a prestigious international award– Britain’s Caine prize for African writing– and attracting about E10,000, I felt there was no need loitering around the big publishers while one’s talent was ebbing away in frustration. For poetry,it is even terrible.Some publishers concentrate on textbooks while some concentrate on novels. None of them really concentrates on poetry.I once had a discussion with the owner of Literamed, Lawal Solarin,on the publication of poetry. He said he was into publishing to make money and he knew that poetry doesn’t sell. All of that was a challenge for me and by 1999,I already had a manuscript of full collection of poems and a textbook that was ready for the press–‘Towards Effective Use of English’. I thought of which should come first and after studying the terrain,I decided to publish the textbook which made so much money and in that same year,I published my first anthology of poetry ‘Candid Lyrics’. The response I got from that really encouraged me and the following year,I released ‘More Candid Lyrics’.
As a self-publisher,have you encountered any marketing challenges?
Yes,that’s the difference between mainstream publishing and vanishing publishing and that’s why people go to mainstream publishers to get their works published because of their marketing network. You know they are connected all over the world and they have their contacts here and there.If you are doing it all alone,you won’t be able to print more than a thousand or two copies and go beyond a few friends and people unlike those companies that have their tentacles all over the world  and can publish 10,000 copies and more and circulate them all over the world.
If you weigh the two,you definitely know that mainstream publishing is better even with fame. But these days,the fortune isn’t always present because of piracy. I remember either in 1998 or 1999 when Ayi Kwei Armah came to Nigeria,he told us how he had been having problems with Heinneman,publisher of ‘The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born’. He said he knew the book was all over the world and was used in several universities and by different examination bodies but all of that wasn’t fetching him so much. So,he had a serious long-drawn legal battle with his publisher and eventually had to start his own publishing outfit through a collective. It’s also the same with what happens in the entertainment industry and that’s why every artiste wants to be his own label,marketer and all that.
In a sense,you encourage young writers to go into self-publishing?
Well,self-publishing is just an alternative to mainstream publishing and it’s what people do because of the failure of mainstream publishing. In a normal setting,mainstream publishing is the way to go. Mainstream publishers have different departments like the editorial,marketing,printing and the like where professionals work on the received manuscripts and see to its success. But when you self-publish,you are your own editor or a friend who is not well grounded in English,your own proofreader,marketer and all that. So,self-publishing is always the last resort to keep hope alive.
Have you recorded any significant success as a self-publisher?
Uhmmm…yes,I’ll say yes. Though I am really not too pleased with myself because of my attitude towards my own works. That’s the reality of it. My books are really in hot demand especially ‘Towards  Effective Use of English’ which is no more in circulation for some years now. People have been demanding for it even universities. For instance, UNILAG book store is still owing me some money because I have not met their supply demand. So,if I was a serious publisher or serious with my own works,I wouldn’t have really needed any employment especially with the textbook and maybe not poetry. But I will say I enjoy creative writing more than writing textbooks. Definitely,what makes you an author is not writing textbooks but creative writing where someone plays god,creates an environment or action together with human beings and even decides to kill one at will for known or unknown reasons;that’s creativity. Creativity is not going to the library to gather different textbooks to select points to form your own textbook. I enjoy creative writing more but it’s textbooks that fetch money. In relation to fame,I think art gives you a bigger name. I have had to travel to different countries on the grounds of my being a poet. To that extent,I’ll say I am satisfied as a self-publisher but the only thing is that I am not too serious about it.
Do you ascribe this unseriousness to time factor?
Yes I do. In a saner environment,writers don’t meddle with the business of publishing. The business of a writer is just to write. A writer is that person that is engaged to write and he has his full attention on writing. Once he’s done,he pushes it to the next stage to be handled by professionals. Infact,he has a manager who goes about scouting for writing contracts and all that.
So,if a writer gets engaged in all the business of publishing,what time does he now have to go back to prepare for the next publication? So,if you have inspiration to write,what time do you have to start pushing your published work and all that? Besides in Nigeria,you can’t live on writing alone. You have to be engaged in other things to meet up with financial challenges. It’s even worse off when you tell people you are writer and the next thing they say is ‘ok,but what do you really do for a living?’ (laughs) because they think it’s what you do to pastime.I can’t really remember the last time I sat to watch television,it must have been maybe eight or ten years…there is no time. I have an addiction which is music. In my phone,I have about eight hundred songs but I can’t remember the last time I listened to five or six songs at a stretch. And it’s because I can’t listen to songs or watch television and still concentrate on writing.
Have your works and achievements drawn you closer to the big shots in the literary community?
Well,I am not only a writer,I am also a literary activist. I have been the chairman of ANA (Association of Nigerian Authors) Lagos branch for four years (two terms) and presently,I am the vice president of Nigerian Circle of Pen which is a worldwide body of poets,dramatists,novelists,essayists and as an administrator in the creative community,I’ll say yes.When I was president of ANA Lagos, Prof Soyinka turned 70 and out of the various events that were held in his honour,he came to ours. And I deliberately didn’t invite him personally because I was told he wasn’t going to be in town. I just told his son Makin to come and represent him but surprisingly,Soyinka showed up with some with people some minutes into the show. In 2006,we also went to Ife to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Prof Soyinka’s nobel award and in that hall,someone introduced me and mentioned my name immediately he did that,Prof Biodun Jeyiofo who came from Havard University mentioned a poem that I wrote ‘The August Chief’ and I was really surprised. That was my first time of meeting him one on one. That really told me that my work has gone places and endeared me to people.
You said you focused more on you as a writer and avoided other writers’ works. Do you still engage in this practice?
Yes I did at the early stage the early stages of my writing career to avoid aping but now,I don’t. You know aping affects so many writers and  Oscar Wilde too had that problem. He was a very talented Irish writer. When he started,his first publication was a collection of poems and he gave some copies to his alma mata Oxford and they sent him a letter,accusing him of plagiarizing Shakespeare’s poems because of his expressions and choice of language. That comment was something and you can imagine what such would do to an aspiring writer. When you get too familiar with other works,their imprint could reflect in yours when you write. A particular guy around here too who is a very good poet had that problem too. When he released his first publication,it didn’t take too much time for people to start pointing out some plagiarized expressions in the poems. In a way too, people say Remi Raji writes like Niyi Osundare and Remi Raji doesn’t like being portrayed as someone aping his old teacher at UI (University of Ibadan).
So,I wanted to be original. When I read a poem Junkman,a former lecturer at UNIBEN wrote and published in a national daily,I was so touched by the simplicity which negated the notion of obscurity by the likes of Soyinka when they were still hooked on European modernism,to be adjudged a good poet. The Osundares came and took poetry to the market place. So when I saw Junkman’s poem,I was inspired by the simplicity because I am of simplicity. I was also thrilled by the simplicity of an American writer,Robert Frost. His poems are simple and have fluidity. So,I started out as me and over time,I have evovled. Anything I write now just comes so naturally without having to force anything–the rhymes,fluidity,musicality and all that. Now,it is very difficult for anyone to sayI write like A or B.
Still on your style of writing;your language could be simple but your message sometimes isn’t always simple. How do you achieve that?
Yeah,that’s true. My language is simple but my presentation is something else. I think imagery is at the bottom of it. You know like Ezra Pound would say,a creative writer should write like one and not like a linguist and he brought the idea of imagery into poetry. So,for good comprehension of my poems,people just need to read between the lines and the different layers of meaning intended and portrayed. Naturally,I am a man of few words and poetry doesn’t allow you to throw words around. So,every word used in poetry must perform a function towards the development of that work. I think it’s imagery that just allows me achieve that and then the images I use are a bit shocking. I think that also gives me an edge.
You don’t use end rhymes like some writers,why?
End rhymes have a way of killing or affecting ones message. If you want to express something shocking or serious,the musicality of end rhymes will disrupt the effect of the seriousness. Even when they do,they sometimes get stock while trying to fix lines and end up using words that don’t really rhyme to qualify as eye rhyme. I don’t believe in that. I like to be free. Freedom should be the basis of creativity and creativity is the main thing. Like Ezra Pound would say,keep it fresh.
King Frankinstein is about your longest poem which spans between sixteen pages. It’s kind of epic,maybe mock-epic. What exactly is it about?
Well,you’ll remember that the introduction says it’s the story of a stone age king that is told upside down and that is a bit confusing. Confusion is also an element of poetry anyway. It’s a fictional story of a society that is populated by hypocritical characters. The society needs a king and the king makers who scout for one sees a man that is not refined,not educated,has nothing to loose by a graveside and decide to make him king because they feel he is perfect for them because they feel he’ll be subservient and loyal to them. He eventually becomes a monster and attacks his supposed masters.
It’s a general belief that politicians have anyway;crowning someone that is less qualified for subservience. It was also the idea the British introduced to India during colonialism and Nigeria too. So,it’s an allegorical story of that society that don’t even know what’s right and wrong and even cheer at everything. So in a sense,it’s a story that is based on the author’s experience of his immediate environment.
How did you sustain the suspense in the poem that long?
The secret of a good writing is commitment and sacrifice. I just told you that I don’t watch television and hardly listen to radio apart from the early morning news and that’s it. I sleep for few hours and wake up to write all through the night. When you do all this,you are able to concentrate fully on your writing. It’s not a pleasant experience really. I deny myself all that. I don’t do what most people do like drinking even though I have nothing against it. Pastors too drink. I don’t drink because if I do,it’ll affect my writing activity in the night and I’ll sleep all through. Some writers write under that influence but I just choose to be different without any influence. Well denying myself a lot of things could be a bit of fun but those around me that see it that way. There was a time I heard my kids say ‘we don’t even know when daddy is at home. He doesn’t watch tv,he doesn’t even play with us. If there is light,he’ll be typing and if there is no light,he’ll be reading,’ and that’s not a good thing to say of a father. So attention and hardwork really matter. The attention you give to a work really determines the quality of the art else,you will become a mediocre writer who only writes at his spare time after paying too much attention to family and all that.
Have you ever tried your hands on any other genre?
Yes.I have not really written a play maybe when I was in the university anyway but they were not serious plays. I have written some prose works. I have written a couple of stories. There is one entitled ‘Innocence’ published by New Gong and edited by Adewale Maja-Pearce who used to be an editor with Heinneman. And I have writen a full-fledged novel of about 350 pages which I have refused to publish yet due to some factors. So, i am just keeping that for now. The reason I stick to poetry more is because of its continuity.
Do you have a manager?
No,I don’t have a manager.
So how do you get international connections and engagements?
Well,I travel from time to time. I was in Germany in December last year. I have also been to Boston in the U.S and Quebec in Canada. I am supposed to go back to Canada in December but I have other engagements. You know…serious writers are like gold fish and there is no hiding place for a gold fish,you get known wherever you go because your works announce you. So,the person that contacted me talked about my profile , the poems I have written and said she was thrilled.
People who see you could mistake you for the lowly. Is it that you are not fashionable or you just love to look this way?
(Laughs) Well,I think I just love to keep things simple. Naturally,I am not flambouyant. So many years back,I think it was around 2006 or so,we were planning an event for Chinwezu Ibekwe,the critic. I was the chairman of ANA Lagos then. My wife had bought a lace material which she went to sew without my knowledge to present as a surprise. Because it was going to be a grand occasion at Muson and all that,I decided to wear it. But when I looked at myself in the mirror,I didn’t really recognize myself;I looked like a politician. I didn’t know my wife was behind me watching the drama.So when I changed the clothe;she asked why and I said I was sorry I couldn’t wear it. I love to be anonymous wherever I go so that I’ll be able to keep my sanity. I really need to concentrate and reman focused. I don’t really enjoy it when so much noise is made about me because it doesn’t give me the liberty that I need. I want to be free. I also think that people that have substance are not so crazy about dresses and fashion. I don’t even have a comb and that’s why I scrape my hair every two weeks. I know an old neighbour who would spend up to one hour combing his hair and that’s joblessness.
Do you have a passion to help up and coming writers?
Of course. I have always helped push young people  who interested in writing,in coming into the literary community. I have always been doing that by giving them inspiration and encouragement. At least,if you are close to ANA (Association of Nigerian Authors),you’ll see a lot of young people that have benefitted from my little contribution. Some of them will even ascribe their becoming writers to me and the efforts I made. When I was the president and very active in the association,I organized a two-day literary event in LASU’s main campus Ojo and I was able to drag notable poets and authors like Professor Niyi Osundare down to the event.
The first day of the event,which was sponsored by the VC Professor Hussein,witnessed a large turn out and was a blast. I remember that there was an aspect of the event that focused on poetry competition and I also remember that one of the candidates had been in LASU on that very day for some documentation in relation to his result and he was being frustrated. In a bid to ease off,he took a stroll and saw our gathering. He came in and sat down. So,when the time came,he competed and won surprisingly. Infact,Niyi Osundare got two or three lines of his poems that were memorable. I can as well remember some of his lines too. You can say his frustration earned him the award but we gave him the platform and that’s a plus for me. If you’ve heard of Uche Nwagu or something,that’s how he started and now, he’s a strong voice in the literary world and has published two books by now.
There are so many of such talents that we’ve really discovered and helped to grow.I also remember that at a particular event,which I went with my wife, at the national theatre,my wife was surprised people rushed at her and asking her to thank me for what I have done and all that. At LASU main campus, I was also the one who helped them establish their creative society which is still thriving. The basic thing is that I don’t ever look back. When I see somebody who is really in need of any kind of encouragement or assistance regarding the way to go as a writer,I just do what I can to help.

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