Who will win the 2017 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

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[Analyses]–This year’s shortlisted poets for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize are not in the least surprising.

Despite being perhaps the most unpredictable literary prize on the continent, the caliber of the poets who made the list cannot possible be undermined. From one-time winner, Nick Makoha to co-founder of Jalada Africa, Richard Oduor Oduku, it boasts of the best talents Africa has to offer in the poetic trade.

However, predicting the winner is a little difficult here. It always is. Last year, no one could have foreseen Mary Alice-Daniel’s experimental work of beauty or Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s redefinition of what poetry can and should be losing to Gbenga Adesina’s and Chekwube O. Danladi’s equally immersive but certainly less stylistically ambitious poems.

Despite the near-impossibility of predicting the winner for sure, it certainly could not hurt. The chances that the winner will emerge from Nigeria are extremely high considering such factors as the fact that four of the nine finalists are Nigerians and since 2015, the prize has been split between two winners. It is highly improbable that when the victor(s) is/are announced, at least one Nigerian name will not be heard.

Nich Makoha can be written off totally here. However, this is not due to any lack in proficiency. In fact, it could be the opposite of that. Being a previous winner, his emergence might lead to another PR problem for Africa Book Fund – a controversy which they do not want repeated after Tope Folarin made the shortlist for the Caine Prize (which he had already won before) in 2016 led to the “WeNeedNewCaines” hashtag.

Also, Sahro Ali’s erotic take on what it means to be an African girl living in the diaspora is a little too reminiscent of what one-time winner, Warsan Shire’s work is focused on. Expect the judges to go for something fresh this time.

Yalie Kamara’s ode to identity crisis fails to deliver the kind of radical urgency expected of an African poet living in the heightened political reality of America. Though the final lines of her poem, “I Ask My Brother Jonathan to Write About Oakland, and He Describes His Room” is haunting:

Jonathan is creating a new town, where a young Black man lives in a garden. Where his body is unfettered by the terror of others’ imagination: when he hugs his own flesh, the “X” his arms make across his chest is not mistaken for a target.

It is certainly not enough to make her run away with the cash prize. Though deft at her craft, she does not deal with the themes with as much depth and valor as the BUAPP judges often fancy. Her approach is brilliant but in context, it is also inadequate.

Richard Oduor Oduku’s “Psychogeographer” reminds one of Safia Elhilo’s poignant “asmarani does psychogeography” but it does not have the same element of likeable brevity which is the major appeal of the latter. His power of description is grand:

to live here is to perfect the flexibility of a tadpole, to master old arts: witchcraft and night running, to teleport into transparence. We drift into the city’s boroughs, constantly bumping into ourselves, crouching under tiny little dank places to puff slim joints

but poems about existential displacement are not likely to cart away the prize this year. Also, political maneuvering might work against Oduku as prizes such are these are meant to deliver utmost publicity to the winners and help improve their status in the African literary world. But Oduku is hardly a new face in need of recognition and if this fact is considered, you can expect a snub for him.

Kayo Chingonyi might also suffer from this same fate. His bio reads:  “Kayo has been invited to read from his work around the world and his poems have been translated into Spanish, German and Swedish. He was awarded the 2012 Geoffrey Dearmer Prize and served as Associate Poet at the Institute of Contemporary Arts from Autumn 2015 to Spring 2016.” Besides, his featured poems do not possess any uniqueness that raise them above the shimmering brilliance of others’ works. He does not exactly stick out like the sore thumb needed if this award is to be his. Perhaps his most jarring work, The Colour of James Brown’s Scream, contains a flamboyant mellifluousness that could occasionally delve into being saccharin but it risks its musicality (pun unintended but unavoidable due to the poet’s truly musical ode) overshadowing its meaning.

That leaves us with the four horsemen – the Nigerians. Let us examine their chances, shall we?

Romeo Oriogun

Oriogun’s truly grabbing and superbly brave spin on the realistic life of an imagined gay man will definitely resonate with the judges. In the history of the BUAPP, no poet with such daring and liberal convictions has ever made it to the shortlist. Considering the polarizing and criminalized nature of the LGBT activism is Nigeria, it will only make the judges more impressed with Oriogun’s choice to delve into the fearful jungle of expressing an unpopular opinion. Consistent with the kind of emotional core exhibited in his Praxis Magazine-published chapbook, “Burnt Men” the poems in this shortlist reveal a true giant of perception and manipulation. He taps into the element of humanness to break through the barrier of religious-cum-social bias. No matter how strong your homophobia is, Oriogun forces you to see the human side of the average queer man and feel pity, at least fleetingly, for his plight. Only Oriogun can do that.

The radio said, a father shot his son for loving another man.
Marvin Gaye lives in the heart of a black drag queen
and to be a song of pebbles and water is to run into a city of light
and surrender your throat to the song of a bird.

In the most touching of the lines in “Elegy for a Burnt Friend”, he describes watching a gay man being lynched:

There was mockery on the spot
where your hand touched the blood on your shirt,
the voice said, you are fallen ashes, a mirror
of something unnatural, the dark side of God.
This was the point my mouth should have poured water
over your burning skin.

You do not write like that and fail to come out on top.

Chances: 4.5/5

Kechi Nomu

Nomu’s biggest problem is also her biggest strength. The same element to her poetry which got her on the shortlist will keep her from joining Warsan Shire, Nick Makoha, Safia Elhilo and Gbenga Adesina on the honour’s list.

With words arranged scantily for effect in both “Note to the Boy Kicking Stone” and “Old Bones Seeking Wooden Crosses”, she radiates with the kind of energy that is almost avant garde in style. Her wealth of imagination here is unmatched.

Once or twice,
you
see
the bones
of his
vertebrae
become
hills

Here, a story begins
rises, falls
and ends
in
ghosts.

Despite this, we can deduce from the quality of the shortlists that this is the year theme triumphs over style. And Nomu lags behind in that aspect in comparison to her counterparts.

Chances: 2/5

Saddiq Dzukogi

Dzukogi’s mastery of the art of metaphor is the highlight of his entries. His figurative description of a family of betrayals is as colourful as they come. His keen eye for observation is the soul of his art and this is the light which illuminates his words, transmogrifying them from mere lines into starry paths to the home of truth. He writes in “father’s demise”:

my father’s brother looks like he is hiding
his schemes intimate like a lonely wife & her pillow

he has always held what is father’s
in the same way a best man

looks at the bride he is secretly in love with
my mother once told her friend

he had come to her tiptoeing
wanting to wear my father’s shoes

but later found my mother’s body
a room too big for his foot

However, the absence of a central thematic knot tying his poems together into a coherent singularity of purpose may be his biggest disadvantage. Dzukogi’s poems are incredible, no doubt. But do not expect a handful of separately distinct poems lacking in uniformity to take away this prize.

Chances: 2.5/5

Rasaq Malik

Malik is the kind of poet who knows how to handle the blandest of themes with the grandeur of a scribbler-god. So, what happens when such a poet delves into the huge themes? You create magic, a collection of literary gems which find their way onto the prestigious shortlist for the 2017 BUAPP.

What happens when Malik decided to write about war and displacement? You get “We Don’t Know Where We Belong”, a testament to the growing unease with the state of affairs in Nigeria. The poem tackles the insurgency all over Nigeria. It does not care about delivering hope. No! This poem will leave you destroyed. It will burn every fibre of your being till all that is left of you is your flaming soul in search of a tongue of water. And is that not the point? To make us face the harsh reality of our existence without feigning an impractical hopefulness is exactly what art exists for. Malik’s poems do not shy away from expressing many Nigerians’ disillusionment with the failure of Africa’s most populous nation.

Here is an excerpt from one of the poems:

Because war is the only song we hear whenever
people hide under their cupboards, in their
bathrooms, under the beds. Because if death
comes or not
, my children will still ask
me the time we will leave this country,
the time we will pack our luggage and
say, thank you, city of smoke and bones.

Malik reaches into the reader’s heart and wrenches it with an intentional villainy with the poem, “Being a Mother in the North”. He takes the position of one of the most emotionally resonant figures in nature – the mother – and from such perspective, narrates the crippling turbulence that goes through her mind at the thought of her children’s safety.

If that does not make the judges fall in love with Malik, nothing else will.

Chances: 4.5/5

Final Verdict

This is going to be a draw. Malik’s deeply urgent spin on war and terrosim, so well-done that it makes it all the more refreshing, will go head-to-head with Oriogun’s very radical exploration of the violence faced by queers in Nigeria. With many of the judges being liberal-minded, expect both poets to have a high stake of popularity with them.

In the end, may the best man win.




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