23 June: Pictures from Nduka Otiono's reading at the Waterloo Gallery, London, on Wednesday 18th June. Click on images for larger views. [Words to follow...]
Update 6 July: And now to a few words about poet Nduka Otiono’s London reading from almost a month ago. 18th of June to be exact, and Otiono was performing in London for the first time in many years, in an evening of music and poetry presented by Eastern Light. The event was at the Waterloo Gallery and I had arrived fairly early to find Aletia, who was providing the music on the night, putting her guitar and vocal cords through tuneful paces in last minute rehearsals. When I had seen ‘Aletia Upstairs’ on the event flyer, I assumed she would be playing on an upper level - upstairs! - while we would listen to poetry down below. But we were all on one level, and Aletia Upstairs – I would later learn – is the full stage name of the musician. Apparently it’s quite the done thing in her native South Africa for an artist to adopt a basic everyday word for a second name.
Soon Nduka Otiono arrived with the organiser and master of ceremonies, Nnorom Azuonye, who would also serve as the opening act. Greetings and introductions while we set up (there was timefor an impromptu singing and dancing session involving Otiono and Aletia, the former jiggling a tambourine) and the event proper started. In what would later be referred to as a “modest international event”, there were 2 Nollywood filmmakers present (Obi Emelonye and George Kelly Toghanro), Osita Mba (of the Freedom of Information Coalition) and Chikwe Ihekweazu (who blogs with Ike Anya at Nigeria Health Watch).
Nnorom Azuonye opened the proceedings by reading 3 poems (Liberty, Isikwuato and Isikwuato II) from his book, ‘The Bridge Selection’. Aletia Upstairs then accompanied herself on her guitar as she sang songs including ‘I Dream of African Skies’ and the famous ‘Malaika’.
Then it was time for the headliner. Nduka Otiono did not want to “choke” the evening with political poems and so he would read a love poem, or several. “Now that I’m in Canada I find myself writing lots of love poems,” he told the audience. First was a poem he wrote for his late paternal grandmother. “It took my relocating to Canada to begin to see my grandma again. Not many like to think that women who smoke much on the continent, but I knew one woman who smoked heavily. She was my grandma.” So he read the poem ‘Grandma’s Pipe’, punctuating his delivery with a tambourine he acquired from his recent visit to Italy (to attend a conference of the International Society of Oral Literature in Africa – ISOLA). More love poems followed: Love and Incense, Lovesick, Chatting (a commentary on online chatting) and another one in honour of a woman, this time the poet’s recently departed mother-in-law, For Mama Kweke.
The poet then looked back to older work, reading ‘For Ken, For Nigeria’ (from Otiono’s first collection, ‘Voices in the Rainbow’) – written around the time of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s hanging. Asked about the title of his new book – why Love and Nightmares? – Otiono said, “I think it’s a metaphor that describes what will one of the most powerful experiences, but one which is intertwined with pain. Love presents a very interesting metaphor – sometimes it’s a woman who is my country. I continue to find ways of dealing with this pain.”
Love “encompasses the paradox of my homeland, the deep-seated hurt I feel about the conditions in Africa.” So many of the poems in Love In A Time of Nightmares are an attempt to transfer the despair, the pain – to domesticate the political.
Another musical interlude by Aletia Upstairs, and Otiono took the stage again. He read ‘Swansong’ (from the anthology Camouflage) written in memory of the late poet and critic Sesan Ajayi, who in Otiono’s words, “left without a farewell.” He rounded off the performance with newer work from Love in a Time of Nightmares, reading ‘Rooms We Live In’ and Lonely Room At Christmas (“sometimes I am obsessed with rooms,” he explained, citing the womb as the very first ‘room’ in a person’s life journey.
There were more poems, but things got a bit blurred for this blogger when she was called up to read with Otiono on the poem, ‘Oil and Guns’. He read the Man’s voice while I read the Woman’s. Here’s a stanza from the Woman’s voice:
You shall know them
by the badges of rape on
their shoulders, soldiers
from Odi and other
war zones in the Delta
And what is oil without guns?
What is petrodollar without blood?
So I guess it wasn’t all about love after all.