JP Clark, Our JP Clark
By Kunle Ajibade
Professor JP Clark, one of the foremost African writers, died on 13 October, 2020. He was 86. His family followed the instructions in his last Will and Testament that his remains should be interred within three days of his demise at his country home in Funama, near Kiagbodo. No expensive and wasteful burial rites. He just exited simply. JP Clark was a highly gifted writer but notoriously querulous person. He remained so till the very end. For instance, he gave Odia Ofeimun a wide berth since the publication in 1980 of The Poet Lied which the Longman publishers were compelled to withdraw from circulation by Clark’s lawyers. This long poem by Ofeimun, which is very critical of some steps taken by Clark during the Nigeria-Biafra war, and the opinions which Clark expresses clearly and strongly in his Casualties, had earlier been published in the literary journal, Idoto, in 1975. One more instance: he was in court in February this year in a libel case he filed in Lagos against Adewale Maja-Pearce who wrote A Peculiar Tragedy: JP Clark-Bekederemo and the Beginning of Modern Nigerian Literature in English. He had commissioned Adewale Maja-Pearce to write his biography but Maja-Pearce turned in some very insightful readings of Clark’s works, and stinging and unflattering passages which Professor Clark and his lawyers considered libelous. The court was going to sit again the very week that the Lagos High Court was set ablaze by some hoodlums in the wake of the #EndSARS protests. Yes, our JP Clark was generous and kind to some younger writers but he was off-putting to many others who experienced his peevish dispositions.
He knew that he wanted to be a writer very early. He was very active at literary events in Government College Ughelli. In his sophomore year at the University College Ibadan (UCL), he did not only start writing poetry and plays seriously he also edited the UCI Students’ Union journal, The Beacon, and was the founding editor of student’s poetry journal, The Horn. Many of the poems in his first collection, Poems, published by Mbari publications in Ibadan, first appeared in those journals. He was 23 years when he published the best of his early poetry in those magazines. You will immediately notice when you read ”Ivbie” and other poems of this period, that JP Clark had read widely and closely the best of the Euro-American canon. He had internalized his borrowings from the classics. The borrowings were then merged and fused seamlessly with the cadences and lyricisms of the folk songs and parables of Ijaw and Urhobo. T.S. Eliot once said in his essay on Phillip Massinger that ”immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” As a poet in his youth, he was not an immature writer who, to quote Eliot again, ”threw his borrowings into something which has no cohesion.” Very early on, JP Clark showed so much promise. He signaled to the literati in Ibadan and elsewhere that he was going to do much more in the future. It was also during his Ibadan years that he wrote his first published play, Song of a Goat.
Upon his graduation from UCI, he worked as features editor and editorial writer at the Express group of newspapers in Lagos where he met Chief Olabisi Onabanjo (former governor of Ogun State) and Mr JO Dipeolu (former Chief Librarian, University of Ife). In an interview with him published in TheNEWS, Mr Dipeolu paid a glowing tribute to Clark, one of his best friends, for his critical insights and beautiful prose as a journalist. It was JP Clark’s brilliance as a journalist that won him in the 1962/63 academic session the prestigious Parvin Fellowship at Princeton University. But in America, Their America, his memoir of the Parvin days at Princeton, JP Clark is at his truculent best. Every schedule that did not suit him, he bluntly turned down. He disagreed openly with Dr Robert van de Velde, the programme director, who simply took Clark’s intransigence for arrogance and insubordination. Here was a Fellow who was invited to Princeton as an accomplished journalist but who insisted that he must be treated as a major poet and playwright. He did not finish his fellowship term in Princeton before he left for Nigeria or, more accurately, got himself expelled from America. In so many ways, America, Their America is an extraordinary book. It was published in 1964 by Andre Deutsch in association with Heinemann when JP Clark was 29 years. Republished in 2015 by Bankole Olayebi’s BookCraft, his criticisms of racism in America, and the stupidity of many of its racist and white supremacist citizens, which was on full display under President Donald J. Trump, are still spot on. Interestingly, in his old age, Professor Clark took a lot of pride in being a Parvin Fellow at Princeton University—a calm critique, a rebuke even, of his maverick tempers in that Ivy League.
When he returned to Nigeria, he worked between 1963 and 1964 at the University of Ibadan as a Research Fellow. He spent most his time researching and recording frenetically The Ozidi Saga. He was lucky to meet, befriend and marry Ebun Odutola during that time. The couple remained married for 56 years. It is fitting that he dedicated some of his major works to her, and wrote one of his last poems for this wonderful woman who endured and loved him till his last breath. Appointed lecturer in English Department, University of Lagos in 1965, he rose to become a professor in 1972 and retired in 1980. He never stopped writing, producing and teaching. The Nigeria-Biafra war obviously dented his image, for that was when his integrity as a friend and as a writer was tested and questioned. He had to spend many years afterwards removing the stains of betrayal. But, as Kole Omotoso, author of Just Before Dawn and other novels, used to say, you cannot write an epic out of betrayal.
His published poetry collections include: Poems; A Reed in the Tide; Casualties; A Decade of Tongues; State of the Union; Mandela and Other Poems; A Lot from Paradise; Of Sleep and Old Age; and Once Again a Child. His published plays include: Song of a Goat; The Masquerade; The Raft; Ozidi; The Boat; The Return Home; Full Circle; The Wives’ Revolt; and All for Oil. His essays are collected in The Example of Shakespeare and Other Essays. These books, as Toni Morrison would say, were the major sources of his self-regard. Professor JP Clark was honoured, among other awards, with the Nigerian National Order of Merit. Full length books on him include JP Clark by Robert M. Wren published in 1984 by Lagos University Press; JP Clark: A Voyage by Femi Osofisan published in 2011 by BookCraft; and A Peculiar Tragedy: JP Clark-Bekederemo and the Beginning of Modern Nigerian Literature in English by Adewale Maja- Pearce published in 2013 by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
With his strikingly intimate, consistently witty and elegant essay that makes the past vivid and inviting, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka leads a formidable team of other Nigerian writers to paint an intensely personal, lucid, fluent, gripping and illuminating portrait of JP Clark. It is a moving tribute. We hope that this commemorative edition will serve as an invaluable source of information to all those interested in reading Clark’s plays, poems and memoir/travelogue.
Song of a Goat Pepper-Soup –– for JP
By Wole Soyinka
Tempestuous, querulous, petulant, unpredictable….yet I’ve also heard him called ejaaro, that fish which always thrashes back to its turbid depths – and so on and on. All these may hold in parts but of course, there is that contributory side of JP Clark that is closed to many: an unresolved mix of a deep poetic sensibility with an intense political discontent, frustrations from a nation that constantly short-changes itself. Such companion unease tends to manifest itself in inner turbulence that takes vengeance on justly bewildered heads, even without apparent provocation. Those who wish to delve deeper into, or dispute this, should simply remind themselves of his role in the saga of the first military coup in Nigeria, his intimate association with Christopher Okigbo – one of our pioneer ‘literary quartet’ who perished on the war front –constantly punctuated by interspersed lyrics of a compulsive testifier. JP never gave up – check on the series of poems he published in The Guardian during his final years!
It manifested itself in multiple ways – trivial to profound, direct and indirect. For instance, JP would not let me rest until I showed up for one of our lunches in an Amotekun jacket. Only then would he accept that we were “serious” in Ogun State and were not just “talkers” regarding the latest threat to Nigerian existence, the unchecked, marauding herdsmen, about which he raged incessantly. Not forgetting his initiating the visit to the military – Chinua Achebe and myself in tow – in a doomed effort to save the lives of Mamman Vatsa and other condemned coup plotters. Or his obsessive pursuit of the recommendations of the Nobel visitation to the Delta during the outbreak of hostilities by MEND and other militants….few know of this raging commitment of the poet as citizen.
I had to get all that out of the way – this is not intended as a solemn piece, of which there has been more than a befitting deluge. My turn is personal, reminiscent, and I know JP would relish the brief paddle through memory creeks. The trajectory of my relationship with our griot of Ozidi, commencing in the sixties, is what glows most luminously in the mind, igniting lamps along the strange byways of closure in human ruptures. That cycle closed on recaptured effervescent accents on which it had begun six decades earlier, a spontaneous soldering of willful temperaments, now laced with self-mockery, comfortable in self-fulfillment, warm, communing, argumentative, totally devoid of pretence or masks. It even developed into an informal ‘Diners’ Club’ of three, with Sesan Dipeolu, the ex Librarian of Ife university as the third leg of the ‘pepper-soup troika’. Dipeolu was the first to go AWOL. Thereafter we placed a glass for him at the table, and an empty chair. Occasionally we did permit the odd stripling to join – usually when one or the other needed to kill more than one bird with one stone. After spreading our patronage round various restaurants in turn – from Victoria Island to Ikeja – JP somehow manipulated us to accept his The Boat Club as permanent venue, thus installing himself undisputed host, since the club despised payment by non-members. The ambiance of The Boat Club was of course most congenial, and we became part of the recognized furniture.
Unbeknownst to all three, this would play a significant role in the coming tide of Corvid-19 pandemic – by which time, Dipeolu had departed, leaving just the duo. During lockdowns, the Spirit of the Sixties re-asserted itself. The Boat Club was under closure but its restaurant was open for the usual delivery and takeaway services. There was no need for any discussion – it took no more than a nod of understanding and the spring season of maverick youth was revived. JP was locked down in Lagos, teasing out his final poetic bequest, I in Abeokuta, enduring torments from a new work – prose fiction. For several weeks, there was no contact but, finally, the call came through. My only interruptions during those months, I now manfully ‘fess up’, took the form of the occasional drive to Lagos, the roads blissfully empty. (I am a classified, chronic ‘essential services’ exemption – in case anyone tries to call me a lawbreaker – go and check where it matters!) And so, our assignation resumed. I arrived, dutifully masked – with my shoulder bag of selected wines. We collected our takeaway packs, then – sneaked through a side door to the balcony upstairs. The vast space more than matched protocols of ‘social distancing’. There, lulled by the emptiness of that sedate, yet bustling space, we consumed our grilled fish and calamari, fried yam with tepid pepper sauce, in utter tranquility, quaffed our beer and wine, caressed by silence and the generous, lagoon breeze, unpolluted by petroleum fumes, while we debated and solved all the problems of the world. Did the skeleton staff detect our presence? I refuse to compromise the innocent. In any case, how could they fail to identify with the truancy of two geriatrics, accept that certain ‘bending of rules’ sometimes makes the norm tolerable, even piquant. This, after all, was their club poet, migrated from the Delta creeks of the Ijaw to their own Five-Cowrie Creek of the Lagos estuary.
In so many ways the mood was reminiscent of the sixties, far less rumbustious yes, but nonetheless a reprise of that phase when we were steady props and last departing patrons of the live-music night clubs of Ibadan and Lagos. At the end of each night session, JP, to whom anything mechanical was enemy territory anyway, was usually in no condition to drive. Even in broad daylight, JP had a habit of attempting to leap across broad gutters or navigate roads where none existed. So, I would often pick him up in his apartment at Oke Bola, then drive him home afterwards. Such was his attachment to that car however, perhaps the sole Kharman Ghia – a now defunct model – in all of Nigeria, that he would insist I leave my beat-up Land Rover in his place while we invaded the night in that German sports car. I had no objection – it was an exotic car to drive – rapid acceleration and a left-hand drive while the nation was still operating the British traffic code of driving on the right side of the road. That arrangement worked until , not far from my own chalet on campus, the sports car decided to behave just like its owner and attempt to climb up a palm tree – I distinctly recall that it was after late rehearsals of Song of a Goat at Mbari – I must have dozed off at the wheel.
It took weeks to get that frisky vehicle back on its wheels but, during that interlude, I became JP’s driver night and day in my Land Rover. That resulted in even closer interaction, but of course this had its own difficulties. Once his Karman was once more serviceable, I left him to do his own wreckage, which he did with gusto, sozzled or sober. I slaughtered several goats on stage during performances specifically to appease the demons that appeared to make JP – even outside his Karman Ghia – so notoriously prone to accidents. Nothing worked. Finally, I believe he simply gave up on any form of driving altogether and engaged a driver. JP was simply not meant for an era more mechanical than the phase of the canoe with outboard motor!
When I began to direct his plays – Song of a Goat was instant hit of course – JP gave them over to me completely. He refused to interfere in the directing. He would come into rehearsals, watch, sometimes commenting on how words became motion on stage. He enjoyed just sitting in, never offering even one suggestion that I recall – ‘it’s your headache’ he would shrug, ‘I don’t know how you do it’ – and off he went to enjoy himself with friends at the nearest bar. JP’s fascination with theatre led him – inevitably – to found PEC Repertory Theatre at Onikan, with a hands-on involvement with management and creative production – on a sustained level that I did not achieve with my own 1960 MASKS or ORISUN THEATRE. Mind you, what the artistes and other collaborators endured under his regimen was probably another tale, but then, he also had Ebun, his wife, as full partner-in-crime. I strongly suspect that it was the trusted formula of ‘tactical alternation’ – Good Cop, Bad Cop’. Ebun will probably open up on this more authoritatively. What matters is that is worked, lasted years, inaugurated the subscription tradition, enjoyed a stand-alone success. JP was visibly upset when the property was acquired by the Lagos government and torn down for an emerging multi-purpose complex. No, he did not oppose development, JP simply felt – and in very strong, unforgiving language – that PEC should have been left standing, integrated into whatever became of that historic site. I totally empathized with him!
We made plans – twice – to resurrect one of his plays during the editions of the Lagos Black Heritage Festival. Such effort collapsed from the usual logistical problems and of course – budget. However, one of the solid products of the Heritage series would come from the special edition tagged – The Black in the Mediterranean Blue where the poetry section settled for the theme of Migration. Italy was the first landfall on the ‘Blue Mediterranean’ shores, and a volume emerged from a collaboration between Italian and Nigerian poets, a bi-lingual product. JP was my first port of call, and I shall end this act of indulgent recollection with his contribution to that volume.
Now, that poem! I think all the foregoing revelations would remain incomplete if I did not comment on its dedication. It proved a tug-of-war! A minor episode, yet I found it awkward, personally, since this was my project. I was the Chief Editor of the anthology, so I removed it. JP proved to be at his most stubborn. He had delivered it hand-written – it was either the dedication remained or he would withdraw the poem altogether. Nothing I could say would make him shift his position, and my collaborators took his side. Now of course, I am glad that I let him have his way. So, here it is, a substitute for the now moribund Diners’ Club, whose moving spirit has migrated terminally, far beyond Five-Cowrie Creek and Kiagbodo creeks, leaving us however entrancing lines in lyric consolation:
Migration Poem(for Wole)
Visitors from waters far away
Dolphins, on occasion
Came up for air;
In estuaries of the Niger Delta.
That is, before the crude surge;
And men, along the shore
Drawn to them at play
Saw designs, deep-etched as
Among their women.
How many there in the brood
Did not make it back to sea?
-Professor Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. His latest novel, Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth, will be published at the end of this month.
Days of Grace: For J P Clark, Balogun Otolorin of African Literature
By Biodun Jeyifo
When the news reached me of his passing, a deep sadness descended on me, of course, but almost simultaneously, I was suffused by a great feeling of repose, a pervasive sense of equanimity. Only later in the day was I able to understand this reaction to the news of the death of J.P. Clark, the Balogun Otolorin of African Literature. That reaction is what I have tried to capture in the phrase “days of grace” in the title of this tribute. Perhaps I should explain that I am using the word “days” in this phrase to mean, metonymically, years and the word “grace” to specifically imply its modalities that we associate with what we might regard as a secular form of divine favour.
Extending this secular inflection further, I would say that it seemed that in those “days of grace”, the need for J.P. to be always J.P., distant, aloof and mercurial, had gone and he could then relax and allow the good graces of kindness, considerateness and friendliness that surprisingly seemed natural to him define all his relationships and encounters, both public and private. In other words, he seemed intent on doing all he could to erase memories and traces of all the years, all the decades when he had cultivated an outsize ego, a literary and social persona whose insufferableness was barely leavened by the vastness of his talent. Above all else, it was greatly exhilarating to watch him interact easily and graciously with much younger members of the artistic and literary community, something you would never have seen when, as the saying goes, J.P. was still J.P.!
In the very first moment when I got the news of his death, these were the thoughts that came to my mind on the heels of a great sadness. As I became aware of these thoughts, I became thankful that in about the last decade of his life – which coincided with when I and many colleagues in the arts and literary community became close to him –J.P. seemed, to all who came in contact with him, a happy, blessed man precisely because he wanted happiness and blessedness for other men and women. He did not lose his sense of humour and his capacity to respond to the ironic, absurd and tragicomic aspects of life from which he had fashioned the best of his poetry and drama, but in his company, you always encountered a genuine solicitude in both great and small things.
I testify that it is only now that he is gone that all of us of the arts and literary community that were close to him can see that in the J.P. of the “years of grace”, we were witnesses to a transformation the like of which is rare in literary and cultural history. At the risk of oversimplifying the import of this transformation but drawing on some of J.P’s best artistic and scholarly works on heroes and heroism, I would argue that what we have in this transformation is the transition from the Hero obsessed by his heroism to the Hero unburdened of the often treacherous and ambiguous promptings of heroism. Am I suggesting that J.P. became heroically unheroic in his “days of grace”? Probably. I shall return to this subject at the end of this tribute. For now, I must admit that I am haunted by how Bertolt Brecht, the great German Marxist poet and dramatist put this profoundly ambiguous matter in his play, The Life of Galileo: “unhappy is the land that has no heroes; unhappy is the land that has a need for heroes”.
That said, I think that we had intimations of this epiphany, this wondrous transformation before it happened. Certainly, it was in the grip of this epiphany that I formally and playfully gave J.P. the chieftaincy title of the “Balogun Otolorin of African Literature”, the other phrase in the title of this tribute through which I had tried to capture the essence of who J.P. was before and after the transformation. Since it is still too early and premature to offer a substantial profile of his achievements and legacy, it is through this trope that I wish to concentrate all that I wish to say in this preliminary tribute to J.P. My central claim is that it was paradoxically with the J.P. who was “doomed” to always be J.P, the Hero who was the besotted object of his own heroism, it was with that J.P. that his best and most memorable works were produced while the J.P. who grew tired of always being J.P., the heroically unheroic J.P. of the “days of grace” never quite matched the brilliance and power of the earlier J.P. Permit me to approach this topic that is the core of this tribute by giving a brief account of how the playful chieftaincy title of the “Balogun Otolorin of African Literature” came into being.
As stated earlier in this tribute, I was the one who gave J.P. this “chieftaincy” title. This happened one unforgettable evening at the Great Auditorium of the University of Lagos, Akoka, when three sets of his collections of poems were being launched. I say unforgettable because for many of us on that occasion, it was the first time ever of our involvement in a public, voluntary celebration of J.P. as a writer who had been enormously important for our generation. We never denied his importance for us but neither were we eager to acknowledge it, let alone celebrate it as we were about to do in Akoka that day. This was because, as is very well-known, J. P. had been very distant, very aloof to us, and indeed to members of his own generation as well. And so, except on rare occasions and in circumstances when we could not ignore him – after all he was one of the illustrious “quartet” of Achebe, WS, Okigbo and J.P. – we in turn kept our social and intellectual distance from him.
As a matter of fact, in certain respects, the matter went beyond distance and aloofness to the dangerous waters of both declared and undeclared literary warfare.For instance, many poems by J.P., especially in the collection Casualties, were thinly veiled in their attacks on easily identifiable fellow writers and literary intellectuals. And famously, J.P. got a dose of this medicine in Odia Ofeimun’s “The Poet Lied”. The one notable exception to this general state of declared and undeclared warfare was Femi Osofisan, this in his widely discussed play, Another Raft, which was an indisputable homage to J.P, even though the play was a robustly critical ideological and thematic rewriting of J.P.’s The Raft. Thus, it was no surprise that it was Osofisan who would eventually write the definitive and authoritative biography of J.P. that led to the reconciliation between J.P. and WS, both of whom formed the axis around which all others positioned themselves in this “war”.
At this point in this tribute, the pertinence of the title that I formally and playfully gave to J.P. on that memorable occasion in Akoka should be fairly obvious. “Balogun” is a chieftaincy title reserved for warrior-leaders and can be translated equivalently into English as “War Commander”, “General “ or “Generalissimo”. “Otolorin”, a given name that also serves as both a patronymic and a nickname, means “He Who Walks Alone”, putatively in social life but also in the journey through life itself. When Toyin Akinoso wrote about that evening at Akoka in “The Guardian”, he translated the title as “The Generalissimo Who Walks Alone”. I am satisfied with that direct rendering but would parse it with some qualifiers that go to the heart of my intent in giving J.P, that title, giving us, “The Generalissimo Who Marches Alone, Athwart His Troops”. What kind of generalissimo marches separately from his troops and yet remains a conquering hero if not a genius, a cranky genius but still a hero?
If readers think that this is pushing metaphor too far in relation to what was, after all, literary warfare and not a real war, readers should remember that our civil war, the Nigeria-Biafra War, was both a circumstantial backdrop and a historical context for the literary warfare. Literary warfare is common and rampant in literary history but rarely does it ever coincide with and become melded into actual war. However, sometimes this happens and when it does – as in our country between 1966 and the early1970s – the literary warfare becomes bitterly divisive as claims and counter-claims become nearly as destructive as they are experienced in real war.That was how things were in the Nigerian post-war literary community for a long time. Thus, we remain forever indebted to Osofisan in his biography of J.P, J.P. Clark: A Voyage” for disentangling the literary warfare from the civil war, without avoiding the bitter truths of that entanglement. This was what made it possible for me to come up with that title, “Balogun Otolorin of African Literature”, in the absolute confidence that it would be understood that I was referring exclusively to the literary warfare.
J.P. was immensely pleased when the meaning and import of the chieftaincy title were explained to him. For months after the event at Akoka he more or less informed everyone of his new title. Until the last time that we spoke by phone, any time that he called me he identified himself as “Balogun Otolorin speaking!”. Needless to say, I was very pleased that he took great delight and had rollicking, good fun in the title. This was, in my opinion, because the title spoke powerfully to him of what he thought – and wanted others to think – of his role, his achievement as one of the leading literary artists of the first generation of modern Nigerian and African literature. Let me express this as succinctly as possible.
By the time that he had willfully created and embraced the reputation of being the ultimate embodiment of quixotic aloofness in the literary community, most people had forgotten that J.P. had played a significant, perhaps even profound role in the emergence of modern Nigerian literature as a community of, not lone geniuses, but a band of convivial fellow travelers. For J.P. it was who collected and edited the first breakthrough volumes of Nigerian Anglophone poetry. Please remember that in this period, all of them were unknown, no one had achieved fame, either at home or abroad. And J.P. it was who coedited with Ulli Beier, the journal Black Orpheus which was second to none in establishing the local and international visibility of homegrown Nigerian literary production and critical discourse. Arguably, there were many others who could have played the role that fell on J.P. in these tasks, for instance someone like the late Abiola Irele who was, as a matter of fact, J.P.’s classmate at Ibadan and collaborated with J.P. in his gestative editorial tasks. What gave J.P. an aura of personal destiny and inevitability was the nature and quality of his literary talent.
I can only write on this subject of J.P.’s talent in a summative vein in this tribute. And here I must admit that my judgment, my opinions on this topic are very personal to me and are so idiosyncratic that in many respects, they are not in agreement with widespread views of other scholars and critics. For instance, most scholars and critics are rather scant in their praise of the epic drama, Ozidi whereas I consider that play one of the most powerful dramatic works of epic and experimental vintage, not only in African drama but in the modern canon of drama and theatre. Only a powerful and irrepressible artistic imagination of the kind that produced Soyinka’s Dance of the Forests and Achebe’s Arrow of God could have written the play. Similarly, I hold that with Soyinka, Fugard and Osofisan, J.P. created the most distinctive and astonishing bodies of plays in modern African drama, most of the plays that earned him this reputation having been written and produced in the very first decade of his writing career.
I must stop here, with apologies. The time will come when these musings will be fleshed out, I promise. Permit me to close with a reiteration of my central thesis. When J,P. produced his best works, he was insufferable in his aloofness, his hauteur. In the years of senescence and “days of grace” when it was a great pleasure to be in his company, the works he produced did not have the fire, the beauty of many of the earlier works. I was extremely fortunate to have seen and experienced that transformation. Thus, woe is me that I am hankering after the works of the earlier incarnation. My only excuse is the certainty that J.P. himself would have appreciated my dilemma. The proof is that he heartily embraced that title of the “Balogun Otolorin of Africa literature” which applies primarily to the earlier period. We have lost one of the greatest of our illustrious predecessors and of the “Quartet” only WS is left now! To him and Emeritus Professor Ebun Clark, condolences.
-Biodun Jeyifo is Professor Emeritus and Research Professor in Comparative Literature in Harvard University, USA. He is a radical critic, scholar and public intellectual. He has also taught at Cornell University, Ithaca, USA and the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Nigeria.
JP: A Difficult Farewell
By Femi Osofisan
The question why we are here at all
On earth, in this of all systems, remains,
Despite the bright lights great guides
Have shed down the ages, one road
Leading all who walk it to a dead end.
JP Clark: “A Father’s Submission”
It still appears unreal, that JP can be gone. Even the tersely worded statement from his family about his departure only seemed to reinforce this impression of a chimeric, theatrical climax. Said the announcement: “The Clark-Fuludu Bekederemo family of Kiagbodo Town, Delta State, wishes to announce that Emeritus Professor of Literature and Renowned Writer, Prof. John Pepper Clark, has finally dropped his pen in the early hours of today, Tuesday, 13 October 2020. Prof J. P. Clark has paddled to the great beyond in comfort of his wife, children and siblings, around him…” That was it: brisk and breviloquent, like a passage from one of his recent drama or indeed, like some of the loveliest lines of his poetry.
It caught me, frankly, by surprise. But perhaps I should have known. He had after all been in the hospital for a while. In fact, the last time I called his number, it was his wife, Sister Ebun, who picked the phone. I had been expecting to hear his voice, with the usual teasing response with which he always greeted me—Yes, kò gbélé, kò gbónò? (That is, for those who don’t speak the language, The One Who Won’t Stay Still At Home Or Abroad”)—the nickname he had managed to pick up, not without some sense of triumph, from his smattering acquaintance with Yoruba and decided was most fitting for me. He couldn’t understand, he continually said, why or how I travelled so much, even though I reminded him that our travelling was a habit, an occupational hazard more or less, that we inherited from his generation of writers.
Sister Ebun had indeed told me that day of JP” s declining condition. But knowing the man, and the number of times in recent years that he had suffered a similar setback, I did not take the information with any trepidation. Indeed, I had come to the conclusion long ago that JP was an irrepressible spirit and survivor, assured that he would always recover and return home again in fine fettle, to come and regale us afterwards with mocking anecdotes about the “hereafter”. Besides, with his elder brothers still alive, though ailing, how could JP” s time not but be several years away yet?
All idle speculation now. Death the Inscrutable has again played us his unpredictable, superior hand. I have read the family’s announcement again and again, many times, but the loss remains something my mind will just not ingest. Nor am I consoled by the fact that, in his penultimate collection, Remains of a Tide, JP himself had told us: “…one day, /… news too will spread:/ [that] JP Clark, poet, dramatist and mascot / For old masters at home, is dead.” [“A Tree in a Grove”].
Out of modesty, and with his customary wry humour when discussing such things, he had also predicted that his transition will come with “no signs/ And comets seen blazing above, / Nor quakes below”. He desired to go quietly, without fanfare. And it seems that on this count at least his wishes have been served.
But the truth, really, is that it was not a good time to die. (But then when, exactly, is the time ever good for a loved one to go away?). The nation, remember, has been in the throes of a double affliction. First was the global pandemic covid-19 which has been on the rampage everywhere, and which, in a place like Lagos in particular, has necessitated an unfortunate, although largely ignored, general lock-down. Physical movements in and across public spaces were restricted, and a curfew imposed.
Furthermore, and perhaps more grievous, was the #EndSARS movement, an unprecedented mass revolt in our nation’s history, spearheaded by the youths, whose expansive reach and power the government could not control. Although powered mainly by the Internet, its arrowhead was located coincidentally at the Lekki toll gate, just about one kilometre away from the hospital where JP breathed his last, and about the same distance away, in another direction, from his Lagos apartment. This insurgence alone was sufficient to subsume the news of individual losses, however prominent.
Could it be said then that JP, ever so self-effacing and crowd-shy, had deliberately chosen his own moment, and in a perfect context too, to steal away unseen from the intrusive public?
He had also requested, [in “My Last Testament”], that he should be buried no later than three days from his death. But how could this wish be fulfilled in the peculiar circumstances—with the roads in and out of Lagos blocked by the protesters, and the whole nation at a virtual standstill?
But the Clarks did not descend from the legendary Ambekederemo of the Old Delta creeks for nothing. Their forbear had risen through grit and inflexible will to become the richest trading partner of the British in the early years of the last century, and they the heirs were not going to be defeated by the challenge of burying their brother according to his wishes. With JP’ s eldest brother, the formidable PANDEF leader Chief Edwin at the helm of affairs, they swung into what could only be described as a saga of human and material mobilization, commanding resources from family, friends, and others in both the private and public sectors. In less than 24 hours—they had no other option if they were to meet the deceased’s request—they conscripted different modes of transportation—from speed boat to helicopter to airplane to road hearse and ferry boat—and moved the body and its accompanying cortege from that Lekki jetty to a VI helipad, and then on to Ikeja Murtala airport, to Asaba, to the Kiagbodo slip, and finally to the Funama promontory. And so, almost incredibly, a half-hour to the time he had given as deadline, JP’ s body was lowered into the space he himself had prepared for his final resting place.
One of the points I am trying to stress in all this narrative, I hope you have noticed, was the convenient absence of a large crowd to see him off, all in keeping with his predilection for isolation and quietude. With the one exception, however, of the people’s brief intercession once the train arrived in Kiagbodo, and the news spread rapidly that it was his hearse arriving home for its last repose. At that point, an impromptu, uncontrollable carnival broke out. The local youths and elite, despite being unprepared and even though it was night already, refused to let the body pass without according it the customary, traditional rites of honour. And it was only after repeated appeals and cajoling that they finally allowed the body onto the boat to Funama, to allow the burial to be carried out before midnight!
JP must have been delighted by all this. But I am not. Everything seemed to have gone well, in conformance with his wishes. According to his nephew, Ambassador Igali, who was present at the ceremony, JP was buried “without any ceremonies, air or formalities. No big family meetings, no jittery government burial committees [or] protocol officers, no visiting dignitaries and delegations, no open air church services, nor big displays of boat regattas nor big aquatic masquerade displays which he himself had so well depicted in both drama and poetry, and not even cannon shots heralding the departure of a champion? None!”
Well, I personally disagree with this procedure. It is certainly one of the occasions, in my opinion, when the living should not have pandered to the wishes of the departed. JP’s request should have been ignored.
I mean, just think of it. In what other period of our history have we been so desperate for positive role models in our country? Everywhere you turn nowadays, the loudest ovation being lavished on scoundrels. In both the traditional and the modern electronic media, the conspicuous figures whom we celebrate, and encourage our youths to emulate, are the charlatans and the harlots, the pimps and parasites and vampires of our upside-down world. The possession of money and its ostentatious display, together with the promotion of a callous and barbarous ideology, have become the overriding cult of contemporary life. We cannot continue along this wasting path and hope to build a happy society.
Every opportunity we have therefore to present an alternative paradigm to the nation and to our youths is, to me, utterly priceless. Clark’s funeral should have been such a valuable occasion, but has been sadly wasted. His life, emblematic as it was of the positive virtues we admire and require—humility and talent, creativity and compassion, humour and integrity—should have been clamorously celebrated. There should have been highly publicised productions of his plays, public readings of his poetry, nation-wide seminars on the place and significance of literature and the intellectual life, and so on.
But we chose to humour him and so, buried him without fanfare. The consolation is that his works are still with us, and will be forever. They will continue to speak to us, whether we like it or not. They will also be waiting to serve, whenever we choose at last to grow wise and embark on the much-needed retrieval of our regenerative powers.
-Femi Osofisan is a renowned playwright. He is currently Professor Emeritus of Theatre Arts at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He was also a Distinguished Professor of Performing Arts at the Kwara State University, Malete. Osofisan was at a time the General Manager of the Nigeria National Theatre and a winner of the Nigeria National Merit Award (NNMA).
JP Clark: Poet, Dramatist and Mascot
By Kolade Mosuro
JP Clark came visiting and it was going to be an overnight stay. I had bought two bottles of wine to stretch the evening. And a third bottle, in case we wanted to go the extra mile. I was reasonably prepared for three – JP, Tolani and I. Tolani, my wife, had gone all out and the dinner table was all laid out with a great spread.
We commenced dinner at about 7.00pm and, in no time, one of the bottles had fallen. Plied by wine, we were having a great time. JP had stories. He had lived in the village, Kiagbodo; in the town, Ughelli; in the city, Ibadan; and in the mega-city, Lagos. He had travelled the world. He had lived and featured in the nation’s interesting periods and kept an encyclopedic memory of the times. Between the cities and the periods, we talked literature and the wine generously flowed. JP was the greatest poet of our time, a raconteur; it was a blessing and special privilege to have him in the house.
Still at the table at 10pm, Tolani wisely left us to continue the conversation. She went to bed. JP and I continued to engage in full force. He had a manuscript in mind that I was going to be publishing. By 11pm, we were on the third bottle and I was hardly on my feet. I was reasonably assured that being in my house, if the stairs suddenly became too steep to climb, or the house began to sway to the breeze of the night, I would find sleep in the sofa in the living room without disturbing any of the artifacts in the house. By about midnight, the third bottle had fallen and I thought that should announce the end of the day. JP then looked at me and asked, ‘Kolade, don’t you have drinks in this house?’I never felt so small despite all my preparation for the evening. I scampered blindly into the store and found a bottle of unfinished whisky. I was not particularly fond of strong liquor; a tot was good enough in good company if the company demanded it. This night, the whisky was a saviour and I whisked it to the table. JP talked more literature which at this point sounded Greek to me. I could barely stay on my feet. When the whisky bottle was empty, I rose with all the little sense left in me to announce that I was going to bed. JP walked sprightly to his room while I staggered, moiling to mine. It was 2.00am and I felt pretty rotten. The next morning, I had a terrible hangover. My head was pounding, my eyes were blood-shot, my feet quaked, and suddenly JP emerged from his room, all dressed up, fresh as a daisy. It was a memorable visit for all the literature we shared and the evening that accompanied it. Mark it, if I can recall this much of the evening, I could not have been totally worse for it. It was a grand evening.
In publishing the book that he raised at dinner, we tossed the manuscript back and forth, thirteen times, so much so that my colleagues were beginning to complain that the finesse from JP was excessive. I explained that poetry is a very deliberate and delicate genre. The words have got to be precise, the punctuation has got to sit comfortably for the author was compressing his thoughts into the smallest of space. I remember vividly that on the twelfth editorial exchange, I called him to say that the correction was now final. He disarmed me by sending the manuscript back to me with a poem. The finality of the deadline had stirred something in him, and he wrote a poem as follows:
Note to my Publisher
(Wanting proofs, final)
Alone, outside of faith,
Is final; all our acts on earth
Being, from birth,
By trial and error till that last breath. (Remains of a Tide Pg 64)
When the book was done, I sent him six advance copies. Three days later, he called. He found a couple of commas sitting in the wrong places. He did not want them. We had to destroy the whole lot and reprint a corrected version. Such was JP’s fidelity, his fastidiousness, driving his craft to the ultimate, always in search of excellence. Early in 2019, Prof Femi Osofisan and I honoured a longstanding invitation to visit JP Clark in his village, Kiagbodo. It was Osofisan’s second and my fourth. JP’s residence sits stunningly at the confluence of two flowing rivers with thick vegetation jutting to the river’s edge. Surrounded by water, to get home, JP would summon a boat or a canoe from his residence or have one in wait on anchor at the riverbank. On every canoe ride, I would sweep my hand across the water. It was a soothing balm. I had seen the river at ebb tide and low tide, flowing gently with its unique sound, with fish looping out of the water and dipping in, creating an endless circle of waves. The croaking sound of frogs was everywhere, water lilies made a bed of the river and birds skated on the water, flip-flopping into the air. The air around was free and it opened JP to his innermost thoughts. He returned to Kiagbodo, again and again; for the free expansion of life, he returned home. The serenity of the place always left me breathless and again, it inspired a poem in him.
Again A Note to my Publisher
(who sees a village the haven)
Where is there to run?
From the word go,
Whichever way we turn,
We end in the same embrace,
Breathless (More Remains Pg 105)
I have always observed every time I visited that the villagers, on paddling their canoes past his residence, bowed their heads and paid him respectful homage. His influence and those of his brothers, Edwin Kiagbodo Clark and Blessing Akporode Clark, they knew. For their world, he was beloved to them for his disposition and kindliness. They appreciated him for his lack of airs, his ability to mix with the village like any other helmsman with a paddle under his armpit. They recognized and adored him. These were seafaring folks, going to the farms, markets or the next village, but they knew he had brought honour beyond the sea, far and far away beyond into other lands, another world. They knew they would find him seated on the porch as they paddled in the morning to undertake their daily chores. They would return in the evening and find him there, still moored to the porch, a book in hand or writing away or looking out to the river or just simply gazing, letting his imagination wander. Their hearts were filled with gratitude, just seeing him. He had done them proud. He was as beloved to his community as he was to the literary community for the wealth of his intellect.
For this visit, we knew we would be treated to several fish dishes. Surrounded by water, we knew the fish would come close to play in our hands, but nothing prepared us for the picture he showed us of the catch for our visit. It was a monstrous fish, ejaosan, seven feet long. We had never seen anything like it before. The fish was hacked to be cooked and we were prepared to eat it with garden fork and axe.JP was ready for our visit and we had not come to play. My underlying quest on this visit was simply to observe him, and if possible, dig into the root of his greatness.I kept a pad in hand and an observatory ear to learn. He took us to his ancestral homes, much of which we knew through his poetry. This time, we were in the presence of his heritage. We went to Government College, Ughelli, his alma mater, there we stood by the statue of its founding principal, V.B.V. Powell—Cambridge graduate and former Principal, Government College, Ibadan. The statue bore down on us and JP looked up in awe. JP regaled us with stories of his upbringing, his schooling in the village and at Ughelli, the University of Ibadan, his literary awakening, his foray into journalism and his return to academic life. We followed his life trajectory and my quest was served.
After three days with him, I came to my conclusion. There was love in the house that brought him up and it came from the women, particularly the grandmothers; there was discipline, discipline by parents, particularly a father, who took a tough line; in his father’s house were aspiring minds and JP tagged along with his brothers; Government College Ughelli offered lofty aspirations. He was tutored by teachers who took education with a missionary zeal, and let him loose. He read and read, outside the box, till the very end. Poetry brought him extraordinary joy. He found a marital home that tamed him.
These, to my mind, made his alchemy and remained the heart of his greatness. Poetry took a special place in his works. He found lyricism in everything. At some point, his wife said‘this one’, meaning JP, poetry will kill him. Thereupon, JP responded with a poem.
Fear of Poetry
Poetry, at the rate he is going on,
Will surely kill this one,
My wife tells her doctor friend,
A professor, retired like herself.
She had just lost her husband
Of decades solid beyond gold.
Years after we all put mortar and gown
Aside to sweat it out in town;
This prince of cool airs,
His wife proudly said, would every day
Wake up at five to play golf,
All the eighteen holes of the game;
At home, boardroom and a club, all self.
If art, indeed, as says my wife, was to blame
For the records doctors say
My heart once broke, it almost stopped their own,
What is their more to move her man? (More Remains Pg 23)
His closing days had been spent in Lagos, forced on him by the corona lockdown. Faced with a choice between Apapa and Lekki, he chose to stay in an apartment in Lekki. Apapa was unreachable, unpassable and undrivable.JP was full of lamentations and so he wrote.
All others closed down already,
They can’t clear their way to the one port of entry;
Yet each claims control of a country (More Remains Pg 80)
His last publication, More Remains, was scheduled to be launched in March and we aligned the presentation with stars, with Wole Soyinka as chairman. Then we put it forward till May because of the coronavirus pandemic; still, the virus was raging and everywhere was on lockdown. Since then we have not been able to gather physically to celebrate anything, much less literature. JP had a habit of calling me twice a week, just to chat and the chat invariably led to one poem or the other. When I did not hear from him after two weeks, I called and was assured that though under the weather, his health was in good control. And then one day a call came in and it was JP. No, it was his daughter passing one of his last instructions to me. I insisted that JP wouldn’t speak to me through a proxy. I had to talk to him. The phone was handed over to him and he labored to talk to me. He had written that when the call comes, the news will spread, he wrote:
JP Clark, poet, dramatist and mascot
For old masters at home, is dead… and now at the gate of peace.
The great poet, perhaps the most luminous of them all.
When he died, Prof Ebun Clark, his wife, called and she said, you know, Kolade, JP was such a simple man. I replied that that indeed was his greatest attribute. It is not easy to be simple.
-Kolade Mosuro is the owner and Managing Director of The Booksellers in Ibadan.
J.P. Clark: A Cultural Pearl to be Treasured Endlessly
By G.G. Darah
J.P. Clark is one of the foremost African writers in English language in the last fifty years. This judgement is based on his prolific output, the multi-genre spread of the works, the depth and profundity of the themes he explored as well as the aesthetic elegance of his language. He belongs to the pioneer generation of African literary artists and scholars produced at the University of Ibadan in the 1950s and 1960s. Clark, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka constitute the three-personed pantheon of creative geniuses whose works defined the content, significance and trajectory of written African literature in the 20th century. Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the first African to achieve the feat; but each of them merited the Nobel laurel several times over.
J.P., as he was fondly known, wrote over a dozen volumes of poetry, seminal books on theory and criticism, numerous essays, and a travel memoir (“America, their America”). Above all, he recorded, transcribed and translated the monumental Ijaw oral epic, The Ozidi Saga, a work adjudged by oral literature scholars as the most exemplary of the epic genre in the contemporary world. He did the field recording in the early 1960s, he produced a film and published a play from the material. The intellectual and technical rigour involved in this extraordinary artistic enterprise can also be appreciated when we consider that it took Clark 15 years to complete the translation and editing of The Ozidi Saga.
J.P. describes the Ozidi saga as the performance of an Ijaw epic drama, “told and acted in seven nights to dance, music, mime and ritual.” He adds that the work is “a composite art, a multi-faceted piece whose other integral parts are the visual, representing the dramatic character of the work; the ritual representing its religious significance; and … the music, vocal as well as instrumental, impregnating the work from the beginning to the end.” The seven-day performance was executed by an unlettered bard, Okabou Ojobolo from Esama in western Ijaw division. The published version in Ijaw and English stretches to 455 pages.
The Ozidi story relates the life and career of a posthumous hero. His father, Ozidi Senior, is a general in the ancient army of Orua in the Tarakiri sub-group of the Ijaw. Following a conflict arising from a succession of rulers in Orua, the general is assassinated by his envious colleagues, an act that cries for justice and restitution to restore peace to the troubled land. Ozidi Junior is born after his father’s death, he is raised by the grandmother, Oreame, a compound of metaphysical powers. At an appropriate age, Oreame leads the lad to Orua to seek vengeance; he fights and defeats all the assassins and does more, including the killing of innocent women and children. Eventually, the great warrior is struck down by smallpox and is saved almost miraculously when his mother, Orea, applies medicinal herbs obtained from the orchard. In defiance of the grandmother’s urging, Ozidi rests his lethal weapons and declares a farewell to fighting and bloodshed in order to begin the humanistic work of reconstruction and renewal.
The first edition of the Ozidi epic was published simultaneously in 1977 by the University of Ibadan Press and Oxford University Press. Howard University in the United States of America published an edition in 1991 with an introductory essay by Professor Isidore Okpewho, the most distinguished scholar of African oral literature from the 1970s – 2016. Another edition was issued in 2006 by the Pec Repertory Theatre, Lagos and Funama, Kiagbodo, Delta State. Pec is acronym for Pepper and Ebun Clark, a theatre and publication outfit established in the 1980s by J.P. and his wife Ebun, also an eminent professor of drama.In 2014, Rutgers University in the United States published Okpewho’s book-length study of the Ozidi, Blood on the Tides: The Ozidi Saga and Oral Epic Narratology. The Ozidi story is authentically Ijaw in ambience, but its thematic, philosophical and ideological thrust epitomises the experience of all people fighting and questing for justice, peace and identity in a hostile and turbulent setting.
I have focused on The Ozidi Saga because the work encompasses the best traditions of folklore and oral literature in which J.P. was distinguished as researcher, translator, poet, dramatist, and theorist. My generation of folklorists and oral literature scholars voyaged with J.P for nearly half a century. In our secondary school encounter with written African poetry in the 1960s, we enjoyed and memorized his delightful stories and lyric voice in poems like “Night Rain”, “Streamside Exchange”, “Abiku”, and “Ibadan”. Clark portrays Ibadan as “the running splash of rust and gold, flung and scattered among seven hills like broken china in the sun”. In later years, J.P, David Okpako, Tanure Ojaide and I were co-explorers of the riches and depths of the oral poetry and performance arts of the Niger Delta. J.P. was versatile in Ijaw and Urhobo languages and traditions and he creatively utilised this dual heritage to produce some of his classic works of modern literature. “Two Hands a Man Has” is his poem that pays homage to his Ijaw and Urhobo roots. He did more.
In their childhood, the three eminent brothers – Edwin Kiagbodo, Blessing Akporode, and John Pepper – were taken by their father to live with their maternal grandmother in the Urhobo Community of Erhuwaren, near Kiagbodo on the Okpare Creek, off the Forcados tributary of the River Niger. It was at Erhuwaren in Ughievwen district of Urhobo that the three brothers grew up, attended elementary school and learned to speak Urhobo. J.P. pays tribute to these years of acculturation in his play, The Wives’ Revolt that explores the subject of an all-women uprising against male domination in an oil-rich but impoverished rural community. No Nigerian writer of his generation had this unique background of cultural osmosis, and it shows in his versatile and hugely delectable art.
J.P. is not only one of the greatest African men of letters; he is also the greatest Ijaw-Urhobo intellectual and creative artists of all time. The dramatic and theatrical elements of his works derived principally from Ijaw, the most water-nourished cultural ecology in Africa. The Ijaw riverine territory stretches 600kms from Akwa Ibom in the east to Ondo and Ijebu (Ogun)in the west. The area hosts the highest number of rivers and waterways is Africa, making the Ijaw and their Itsekiri and Urhobo neighbours some of the most accomplished navigators in the world. The Ijaw are the masters of masquerade art. It is instructive that J.P. and Ebun (Ijebu) merged naturally in matrimony because the Ijebu Yoruba are also experienced explorers of water, the first and most ubiquitous feature that evolved from the “Big Bang” that resulted in our universe. The musical and ornate delicacy of his J.P.’spoetry draws from the wellspring of Urhobo song-poetry art embodied elegantly in the Udje tradition. (J.P. inaugurated the academic study on Udje in 1965 with the essay “Poetry of the Urhobo Dance Udje” in the Nigeria Magazine. He invented the concept, “song-poetry” to designate Udje as the type of oral poetry that combines the features of oratorical cadence with musical lyricism. In his words, Udje “is topical poetry of social comment and inter-community competition composed by the seasons. But it is topical poetry saved from obscurity and turned into common currency for the immediate public as well as for the stranger from outside by reason of it having been masterfully minted from particular ores to an alloy of fluid meaning and function.”
This essay was the spark that engendered further scholarly inquiry into this form of African oral poetry. I read the essay at Ibadan in the early 1970s and completed a doctoral research on Udje in 1982. Ojaide joined the field work hunt with collection, translation, interpretation and creative utilization of themes and theatrical resources in his volumes of poetry. Professor David T. Okpako (1936-2020) deepened the discourse with perspectives on ethics, morality and spiritual cleansing as well as wellness for community and individuals. Okpako’s insights came from pharmacology and traditional African medicine. He illustrated his theoretical innovation with stories and passage of Udje. The references are in his book, Kpeha’s Song: Ethics and Culture in Urhobo Udje Poetry (2011). Peter Omoko’s Ph.D. thesis in Abraka in 2018 is the latest harvest from the Udje vineyard first opened by J.P. In the past few years, J.P. was editing a large volume of classical Udje songs he recorded from accomplished composers and performers of Ughievwen, including Memerume and Oloya acknowledged as the greatest exponents of the form. The four of us were convinced that, considering the diversity of themes, idiomatic and metaphorical density as well as musicality and lyric flow, Udje of the Urhobo is one of the classical traditions of oral literature in Africa. The academic work done on this poetic in the five decades is part of the heritage of J.P.
J.P. was of a quiet and self-effacing personality but his stout frame encased the fire and ferocity of a giant and hippopotamus provoked by reckless and uncaring humans and co-tenants of the aquatic maze. It was suiting therefore that his last days witnessed the tempest of universal youth uprising against police brutality. As he grew older and closer to the transitional tunnel of entry to his ancestral cosmos, J.P. became wearied of the turbulence of Lagos, Africa’s most populous city and another “running splash of rust and gold” as he cryptically captured Ibadan in the 1960s. He visited Kiagbodo more frequently and whenever he touched down at the Osubi Airport near Effurun, he would summon me and others in Urhobo and Nigerian literature to meet him at the Funama serene villa where we would exchange banter and views on art and decaying Nigeria that he portrayed in his All for Oil play as a “night market” built by the British colonial predators to confuse and control the ethnic groups in the Niger Delta. J.P. employed the image of “night market” to depict a nation where confusion reigns supreme, where the rules of socio-political transaction are warped and capricious, and where those with hegemonic powers exploit and impoverish sections that are resource-endowed.
In his writing and public views, J.P. was adamantly and militantly committed to the emancipation of the Niger Delta from the yoke of hegemonic ruling elite of the beleaguered raft called Nigeria. I recall a moment in December, 1998, when he drove to The Guardian premises in Isolo area of Lagos to hand-deliver to Andrew Akporugo a copy of the “Kaiama Declaration” of the Ijaw Youth Council, a manifesto of resource control constructed at Isaac Adaka Boro’s birth place of Kaiama on the River Nun in Bayelsa State. As expected, The Guardian published the entire document that exposed the brutality and barbarism of the Nigerian state and its oil company accomplices in the Niger Delta. Thereolutionary jeremiad in the “Kaiama Declaration” has defined the idiom of resistance against local colonial oppression in the Niger Delta for three decades. Yet, his tongue and writing did not spare the indigenous comprador bourgeoisie of the region who always seek to be compromised loyalists of the domineering ethno-national power blocs in the country. Always self-reliant and fiercely egalitarian in temperament, J.P. suffered no fools in assessing the native bourgeoisie who, in the immortal words of Frantz Fanon, have found nothing better to do than turn their lands to brothels of exploiters. This Ozidic spirit for self-determination and autonomy stirred J.P. all through his earthly voyage and, for this too, posterity will remember him for sharing affinity with the Niger Delta “wretched of the earth”.
In a cruelly and badly governed country like Nigeria, we are all casualties, says, J.P. From the 1950s his generation enjoyed sound education and support for those who toiled excelled; those were years when, according to Achebe “there was a country”. For the generation that followed, life became more hazardous, anomic and more debilitating from the 1980s as Nigeria careered from crisis to crisis. Thinking, creating, writing, even argument became endangered as various vampire military regimes plundered and under-developed Nigeria while her peers elsewhere stabilized and prospered.
J.P. never curried publicity, but his associates and the global community knew he was a cultural pearl that deserved to be celebrated endlessly. In March 2017, the University of Lagos Faculty of Arts honoured him and I was guest lecturer. I spoke on the subject of “The Humanities and the Redemption of Africa”. J.P. and Ebun nodded frequently as I lamented the opium of cultural and mental alienation we have dignified for centuries as European knowledge system. J.P. inspired us to be wary of Euro-American education that enslaves the mind. His America, their America bears witness. In July, 2018, Professor Oty-Agbajoh-Laoye of Monmouth University in the US collaborated with the University of Lagos English Department to organize J.P. Clark International Conference. Later that year, the Port Harcourt Literary Society planned to mark his 85th birthday with a conference. The plan did not materialise. In 2019, I “plotted” with other J.P. scholars and admirers in Nigeria and abroad to celebrate his 86th birthday with the “Ozidi Festival and International Conference”. It was to be co-hosted by the Bayelsa Council for Arts and Culture and the University of Africa, Toru-Orua, the home of the Ozidi Saga. About 30 scholars of oral literature and folklore were expected from overseas. All planning was perfected, but the tides of partisan politics in Bayelsa punctured the sails of the effort. Now that J.P. is on the side of the deep river and free from the ravages of night rains, it is hoped that the Ozidi Festival and Conference will take place to salute the warrior of the arts and letters whose creative genius uplifted the Ijaw and the Niger Delta from relative obscurity to the broadways of global recognition and honour.
– G.G. Darah was chairman of the Editorial Board of The Guardian Newspapers. Before then, he taught at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife and was a Professor of English and Oral Literature at the Delta State University, Abraka. He is at the moment Professor of English at the University of Africa, Toru Arua, Bayelsa State.
For JP Clark-Bekederemo
By Niyi Osundare
. . . We row life’s boat
With the paddle of your words*
Tell me now
Before the boatman arrives
Tell me true; tell me full
Tell me the tale in wind and water
The bird that sings the endless song
Where is he gone; where is he?
The Bard who built a raft of songs and fables
Where is he and his famous reed?
We have combed the coast
We have searched the creeks
We have asked the kingly Kiagbodo
For silent footsteps of the Titan of the Tides
The Kiagbodo asked us to ask the sea
The Sea asked us to ask the moon
The Moon asked us to ask the sky
The sky asked us to ask . . . .
The Wind is the town crier
The eaves never fail to tell the roofs
The market square divines his absence
From its string of coral beads
The Bard who built a raft of songs and fables
Where is he gone; where is he
Tell me now
Before the boatman arrives
He was born
With a paddle in one hand
And a pen in the other
With both he ploughed life’s river
Arriving with boatloads of songs
And unforgettable stories
His voice was fresh
His vision frequently precocious
Pepper famous for a spice and sting
Which rattled the slumbrous tongue
He lived sometimes dangerously in
The grey zone between hard truth and seductive fiction
He traced the native tree to its root
Berated the slavish folly
Of prodigals who throw out our household gods
To appease the arrogance of foreign faiths
He dug deep into the Delta soil
And its magic rewarded his muse.
His lines frothed like fresh-tapped palmwine
His words leapt like mud skippers across the page
Where is he gone; where is he
Tell me now
Before the boatman arrives
Bound to a country which abused his Muse
He spent his days in the risk-fraught
Entanglements of its tortuous history
The casualties, oh so many, and cruelly uncanny
The insatiable graveyard of the hopes
Of a nation enthralled by avoidable death
But how does one pluck dainty fruit
From a tree so persistently bitter
How snatch victory from such unspeakable rout?
Ask the poet’s ceaseless quarrel
With a country which refuses to become a nation
That inscrutable monster that preys on its own brood
The bitter aftermath of a war without winners
Its corrosive partialities, its fatal blindnesses
Its mass, unburied dead, the vapid proclamations
Of a state that never lives beyond the map. . . .
Master-rower on this raft, but alas, his paddle
Never landed him on a saner shore
But he was here
Man of his time and other times
He tilled our tears and leveraged our laughters
In his many and varied songs
We learn that the beauty we seek abroad
Lives so painfully unseen in our backyard
Where is he gone; where is he
Tell me now
Before the boatman arrives
*From ‘Gabriel Okara’, Early Birds, Book Three, 2004, p. 76.
-Niyi Osundare is a foremost African poet and scholar. He was Professor and Head of Department of English at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and Distinguished Professor of English at the University of New Orleans, USA. He is a Nigeria National Merit Award Winner (NNMA).
J.P. Clark: A Literary Hero and Inspirer
By Olu Obafemi
This short tribute is to the enduring memory of our departing ancestor, undisputable hero and key inspirer of African literature J.P. Clark, whom I will continue to refer to, in my self –denial of the actuality of his passing, in the present continuous tense for a very long time to come. True, his final rite of passage has been carried out in his chosen resting destination on his lonesome house on the Kiagbodo river but the impact of his friendship and intimate acquaintance which I have been most gratefully privileged to enjoy, along with some of my friends, in the last two decades or so, remains un-diminishable.
For a very long period of his chequered life, talks abound of Prof Clark’s proverbial enigmatic and complex personality, creating the impression of a great but aloof, inaccessible and quaintly distant man from the literary crowd of Nigeria. You wonder why this could be so for one of the few architects of that literature (founding editor of a literary magazine, The Horn at the university College Ibadan, where some members of his generation, including Soyinka, Achebe and Amadi had their publishing debut in the late fifties. Black Orpheus the first literary journal to be published in Nigeria, if not Africa, was later edited by him, after Ulli Beier, the man who founded it and also founded Mbari Publications where Song of a Goat, the first three plays of Soyinka and the first key outings of the first generation of African writers, including Alex La Guma, Ezekiel Mphahlele and Denis Brutus, were first published. The Mbari Club in Ibadan, the writers’/ artist elite haven of the sixties, had Clark as a boisterous founding member. True, some of his friends attested to his abrasive and iconoclastic disposition; his forthrightness and frankness; his no-nonsense nature and his indignation with Western parentalism and racist, white supremacist image of America over Africa, featured largely in his memoir America, Their America. This earned him both Western and local flaks. The memoir itself received sparse and mainly negative critiques, as did the author. Ironically, these are character highpoints of an African and Nigerian patriot for which he scored low marks from home and abroad.
Some commentators found Clark the least approachable among his peers, especially the prominent foursome, notable erectors of the essential literary tradition of Nigeria—Achebe, Soyinka, Okigbo and Clark himself, on account of his adjudged media-shearing (for a man who started life as a journalist!), slim public turn-out, if at all, and his so-called exclusive commitment to artistic purism to the detriment of political engagement. (This last penchant he is said to share with the late Christopher Okigbo who would not read his poems to non-poets, but who eventually lost his life on the battle-field, as a result of overt political partisanship at the beginning of the Nigerian- Biafran fratricidal bloodbath. All this constituted a chunk of the literary criticism of the poet-dramatist whose life I have found, radiate kindness, compassion and generosity and whose art I discovered in my encounter, as reachable, ostensibly simple, undeniably lucid and enduringly memorable. Some of his early poems like ‘Abiku’ and ‘Night Rain’ can be taken along with Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Soyinka’s ‘Telephone Conversation’ as exemplars/classics of simple writing—aspects of which have become work-a-day usages, oft-quoted, paraphrased, turned on their heads and parodied. Take the powerful assonance in the poem ‘Ibadan’ to contrast the urban and rustic parts of the city of Ibadan’s ‘Running plash of rust/And gold-flung and scattered /among seven hills like / broken china in the sun. The image painted, in fact, leaves memorable permanence on the mind. The lines are on the lips of people who may be barely lettered! Many of the commentators ‘read’ the rumour on the man than reading either the man or his art or both!
Some of the evidences of his enigma and seeming inscrutability may have been gleaned from some of Clark’s own statements at various stages of his life, especially after the Civil War during which there had been reportedly marked disagreements, even tension, among the great literary icons/patriarchs due to their alleged, different roles in the Nigerian-Biafran war. Clark’s insistence on not committing his art to politics—that a writer has no business involving himself in political acts; ‘I am not at all impressed with the social and political life a poet leads outside of his profession if he doesn’t write poems (1970)—may have been from the trauma of war and its process, especially his and his colleagues’ mediatory engagements with the war. Paradoxically, they were essentially enabled to make these autonomous interventions in the public life of the country mainly on account of their influences in society as renowned artists. His critique of the political engagements of some of his colleagues who actually dropped their pens for physical involvement in doing battle or trying to find options to battle—‘some of my own kind [who] do not seem to be satisfied with their own role of writing and would rather become soldiers and politicians’ (1970), may have enhanced the tension that grew among the patriarchs after the war. It is gratifying that most of these great men (then in their late thirties)returned to their original ‘love’ and intimate friendship, long before their departures from this shore (including with Soyinka who is the only one among them alive today).
My serious encounters with J.P. Clark began long before I met him in person. At the university in A.B.U. Zaria in the early seventies, our literature curriculum was sparse on African Literature. Indeed, there was just one course offered per Semester on African Literature with a long reading list of authors to choose from and engage with. One could only pick a few poems of Clark to illustrate his thematic and technical engagements during the course. My silent protest against that literature curriculum, which was predominantly Western, informed my choice of topic for my MA Dissertation later on the Nigerian Writers and the Nigerian Civil War on the subject of anguish, commitment and catharsis, at the University of Sheffield. That was my first real academic encounter with the poetry of J.P. Clark. Before that point, in 1977, there had been some unfavourable criticism of his post war poetry, basically on alleged inadequate social relevance in that volume of poetry. I had to consider his poetry in its entirety, up to that point and had myself aligned, somewhat, with the proposition of lean combat muscle in his poetry.
Yet, even at that stage, I found a contradiction in the perception of the work of a poet whose product, even the ones that had been discerned as concerned mainly with aesthetics, technical fineness and finish, had been informed and mediated by the political currents of the early sixties. While poems like ‘Ibadan’, ‘Easter’ and ‘The Imprisonment of Obatala’ from, A Reed in the Tide offer some justification of a poetic devotion to form, internal organization and structure, rather than politics, other poems written at about the same period evolved out of materials taken straight from the social events in Nigeria. Let me rapidly illustrate. I have mentioned the significance of setting and descriptive details in ‘Ibadan.’ The poem ‘Easter’, for instance, is an experiment in the sonnet tradition. You find observable echoes of Donne, Yeats and Hopkins in some of these poems. ‘Ibadan Dawn’ reveals a deployment of Hopkin’s style of sprung rhythms which tends to obstruct clear access to statement. Witness the form in these lines from the poem: ‘Mist hung curtains, addrizzled—damp draw fall/Apart, spring a forward catch in the sky.’. But read more carefully, meaning is discernible in the poem, even when the central preoccupation is with form; patterning, rhythmic sounds (alliteration) and literariness. All of these, as I found out later, may be the aesthetic rendering of a poet’s work whose evolving art is fundamentally rooted in the cultural sub-soil of his Izon culture, the rhythm, the ebb and flow of the ‘river’of their consciousness as well as the ruptured and fractured socio-economic life of the Nigerian nation to which he was, all his life, implacably and inviolably devoted to reconstructing through his art.
The later part of this proposition is firmed up in Clark’s other poems written at the same period (early/ mid -sixties) which express commitment to and about political events that would lead Nigeria to the cataclysm that deteriorated into bloodbath (1967-70). Such poems as ‘His Excellency the Masquerader’, ‘Emergency Commission and ‘The Leader’ must definitely have been sociologically inspired by the political crisis in the Action Group Party of 1962. The upheaval which resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency in Western Nigeria received from Clark’s nib the metaphor of a storm which ‘howls on/Heads, rocks and roots adrift’(A Reed in the Tide,22). Look at the clear reference in the poem ‘The Leader’ to Obafemi Awolowo and the irony drawn of a situation in which a foremost political nationalist like him was imprisoned so soon after the independence which he fought for and on charges of treason! Even in the poems in Casualties about which the charge of his political neutrality was loudest, you find that when he opted out of fabulist and allegorical artistic construct, and spoke in his own voice, his political commitment to the collective experience in the war-torn Nigeria was unmistakable. His voice in poems like ‘July Wake’ pierced through the cloak of fables to give a powerful evocative expression to the general violence; the sound of ‘grenades’, ‘mortar’ and ‘glint of SMG’. As I came to hear from him much later in life, especially in our conversation at Kiagbodo in 2008, the pain he suffered from the loss of some of his best friends like Ifeajuna and Okigbo, and the scars excruciating and unremovable. You will find in his other works of poetry and drama, in later years, the perennial stride of a writer to transcend the plane of anguish and disillusion, wrought on the nation since independence and especially the war, to sow the seed of social and spiritual regeneration in the society, following years of disorientation, incoherence and dislocation. From Decade of Tongues, through Mandela and Other Poems, A Lust for Paradise, Of Sleep and Old Age, to Once Again a Child, Full Tide(poetry); In his later drama, after Song of a Goat, The Masquerade, The Raft, Ozidi, we encounter this search for catharsis from trauma and apocalypse in The Boat, The Return Home, Full Circle, The Smile, The Hiss, All for Oil, The Wives’ Revolt.
All these were still in the domains of textual encounter. In 1978, at the beginning of my doctoral work, I had traveled from Leeds on a research trip to interview some of my principal authors—playwrights and theatre practitioners– which included J.P. Clark. Unfortunately, I missed him but I was treated to memorable hospitality and a robust, two hours interview with his graceful and most charismatic wife, herself a leading theatre scholar and practitioner—now Emeritus Professor Ebun Odutola-Clark, on the plays and dramatic criticism of her husband’s works. That was the beginning of a long period of an enduring relationship with the Clarks (Ebun and J.P.) which I shall continue to cherish.
My engagement with Clark’s drama has been, since 1978, with the reconstruction of the critical perception of his dramatic vision and dramaturgy. Only a summary is possible here. I have tried to deflect the critical lenses from an exclusive Greek and modern European viewpoint of his theatre by many critics—the tendency to limit the scope of dramatic discourse to the Aristotelian base line of apprehension. I have focused investigation on the influence of indigenous traditional festival performance idiom, exemplified in The Ozidi Saga—especially its totalist nature, short-handed or recreated in the play Ozidi. His later plays explore the neo-colonial and postcolonial, eco-political and gender issues of the day, finding solutions to the more more realistic socio-economic decades of Nigeria. As I averred, the ‘overriding vision’ here and in all his dramatic works, has been the essence of social and spiritual regeneration of people and the communities through a movement from transgression to purification and from cleansing to social transformation.,’ (Obafemi, 2011).I confirmed some of this elements of his artistic visison in my mini-‘voyage’ in the memorable company of Femi Osofisan, visiting the Ambekederemo-Fuludu-Clark huge clan and homestead. The lineages of Ogein, Fuludu, Umukoro from which this great macro- voyager, who often paddled his own great canoe (wooden and speedboat), literally and metaphorically, came to epiphanic light. We heard from some of this ancients the informing sensibilities of JP’s creative compendium. I saw many of the great Izon compulsively industrious women paddling in the shallow coastlines of the great Kiagbodo river literally, celebrating their heroic son who defines the best and most intimate landmarks of their work or fish-a-day lives.
I had hoped that I would be able to return to Kiagbodo to absorb more of those allure of nature and nurture, from where one of those patriarchs who etched and honed the essential modern literature of Nigeria; who wrote until his last breath and commanded the path to the future, John Pepper Clark hailed from and has finally returned to. I must add this: It is truly a great relief that Femi Osofisan crafted into a wholesome, all-encompassing narrative, the story and inter-story of his life in JP Clark: A Voyage (2011). I have often shied away from commenting on and about the book, the circumstances of its writing in the life of such a great mind, a lion of letters, simply because of Osofisan’s generous and gracious, totally undeserved and unearned, inclusion of my person in the book, which I consider, with all sense of seriousness, as the subject’s (J.P. Clark) monument without walls. In a nation where biographies of literary heroes are in scant supply or merchandized, Osifisan’s book is the immortal testament, according to JP Clark.
And so, then, good night, for now, great elder, patriarch, inspirer and friend, JP.
–-Olu Obafemi, until recently, was a Professor of English at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria. He is a poet, playwright and newspaper columnist, and was at different times President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and the Nigerian Academy of Letters (NAL). He is also a winner of the Nigeria National Merit Award (NNMA)
Who Am I To Meet The Mighty J.P. Clark?
By Kole Omotoso
Even how to begin this piece is difficult: Who met whom first? The British Council held a reception for the American novelist and short story writer, John Updike. I couldn’t place him, yet JP had written a book, America , Their America.
Tired already? I want you to come and see me in the Department of English, University of Lagos. I’m sending you to Iowa. I drove to Lagos the following week to meet Professor JP Clark. I gave him my details and returned to Ibadan. In no time at all the department told the university that they were ready to release me to work on a novel l entitled “The Widows of Allah” about abandoned drifting flotsam of humanity at natural borders as well as non-borders. The American embassy arranged everything including Meg joining me in Iowa. The Iowa writers structure was not to my liking. The idea of 30 writers from 30 countries obsessed with their reputation did not appeal to me. Once Meg was around, I’d introduced her as my friend, we began to plan driving all the way to New York. Some of the writers discovered that we were married. How could I introduce her as my friend? Really?
Meg and I left Iowa and drove away. America was too big to take in one trip. Get books this time. Next time society. I never reported back to JP. It is not as if I reported to Wole Soyinka either. The bias to the Russian alternative I had caught at Kings College in Lagos stayed with me. Years later I made an eight week trip to the Soviet Union. Here ends episode one in the JP saga.
Longman published Odia Ofeimun’s collection of poems entitled “The Poet Lied”. It was rumoured the the Mighty JP had persuaded Longman not to distribute the title in Nigeria. I happened to be seeing my parents-in-law in Barbados in the Caribbean and having a family holiday with the children. I visited the various bookshops on the Island. In one I found six copies of “The Poet Lied”. I bought all of them. Odia Ofeimun was family and no big man was going to punish him for his artistic prowess. I had begun a column in WEST AFRICA, the London-based Nigerian government owned weekly political, economic and social weekly journal. The column was entitled “A Writer’s Diary”. It gave me not only a Nigerian and west African audience; it gave an international audience. Here I wrote two columns on the title poem about the poet who lied. Who can the poet be? Why is it him? JP threatened to sue me and WEST AFRICA. I encouraged him to go ahead and sue. He never did. The rest as they say, is a minor literary history. Which ends episode two of the JP saga.
Akin Omotoso was researching into the circumstance of the killing of General Mamman Vatsa. He sought to interview JP for the project in February, 2020. JP refused to grant him the interview.
In conclusion, JP was generous to me for which I’m grateful. He advanced my career for which I can only be grateful. He injured the career of someone close to me for which I cannot but be hurt. All the same as we say in South African parlance: HAMBA KAHLE JP. GO WELL INTO THE GREAT BEYOND.
-Professor Kole Omotoso has taught Literature and Dramatic Arts at the Universities of Ibadan, Obafemi Awolowo, Ile-Ife, Cape Town, and Elizade in Ilara Mokin. He is the author of Just Before Dawn.
Celebrating the Literary World of JP Clark
By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha
The poetic boat of Professor John Pepper Clark, teacher, writer, critic, cultural activist, poet, dramatist, oral historian and story teller and university professor, sailed into the ancestral world recently after some eighty-six long years on the waters of the world. His transition was as dramatic as his swift return-to-earth ceremonies if ceremonies we could classify them. For, in one of his poetic creations, he had instructed that his body be returned to earth within three days of his death. So it was that before we could assimilate the sad news of his passing, he was already resting in the bowels of earth beside River Kiagbodo where he spent memorable days in the twilight of his dramatic life!
It is within the context of a poignant, profound, and perhaps arcane ritual imagination that we encounter JP in his literary world as evidenced by the evocative power of his primal poetic and dramatic compositions. Especially so are some of the early works such as Song of a Goat through Ozidi, the ‘middle’ The Boat, The Return Home, Full Circle, Casualties, and the later Remains of a Tide. His only known work of prose the semi-autobiographical and bitingly sarcastic America their America, at once immediate in content and prophetic in thematic concern exists outside this ontology of ritual and the mythic imagination. Almost to the letter (or depth) of contemporary effusions from Trumpian America, this work captures the supercilious arrogance of white America and victims of racial disharmony narrated after a personal encounter with the programmed academy of American culture, capitalism and sociology which our young and bristling JP had found condescending and utterly restrictive. And he wasted no words in expressing his thoughts on this sensitive matter even as a guest of that beautifully captivating American world!
His appropriation of language in his literary work highly symbolic and imagistic interrogates the water-world of riverine communities whose precarious existence is often dictated by the uncertainties and unpredictability of the tide and, of course, the obtrusive black gold which came in 1958. Here we encounter free verse forms presented within the African, indeed Izon and Urhobo idioms and cadences. If this appropriation serves the overriding purpose of literature, it is because language of the local, different from the global, is often a reflection of the natural dynamics of one’s social and cultural environment. For, long before it became fashionable to frontline the environmental degradation that has become the Niger Delta, his literary imagination had created a platform for apprehending the dilemma of the beleaguered region. What, we may inquire, is our prognosis on the apparently simple poem ‘Night Rain’ which teenagers encountered in the West African School Certificate Examinations way back in the 1970s?
How then, we may ask, did the work, or has the work of JP escaped the level of attention that he richly deserved both in literary scholarship and public acclaim? Can this be attributed to his near-legendary avoidance of the media to project his person? What are the ethical implications of self-projection in the world of writers? Are we commanded to leave blowing of the trumpet to external forces over which we have no control?
To be sure, the world of his literary work is not exclusive of the modern or the contemporary. The contemporary we can argue is projected at two levels – the level of metaphor and the level of a physical and realistic presentation. While, for example, Ozidi is set in a pristine environment its message and purview capture the world of contemporary politicians, in terms of power grab, vendetta, corruption, treachery, assassinations and fatal betrayals. All for Oil moves in time and to the Nigerian State after the discovery of oil in commercial quantity.
If JP has written for all time, for the pristine past and the rambunctious society we currently live in, if his work is an embodiment of genuine creativity and profound thinking, if he along with Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe form the original triumvirate of Nigeria’s literary pantheon of artistic deities, if the academy of creative writing has swollen in size and depth through his literary oeuvre why has he escaped universal critical attention?
It was against this background that the Department of English University of Lagos and Monmouth University in the United States decided to co-host an international conference to honour this reticent and self-effacing genius son of the Delta in the second week of July 2018. It is an irony that the seed for the conference was sown by a Nigerian academic sojourning in Trump country, Dr. Oty Agbajoh-Laoye, an academic who cut her teeth in the foremost university in Nigeria, the University of Ibadan. Perhaps her long stay from the hustling environment that is Nigeria detached her enough to conceive of a conference to honour JP.
Fittingly, the keynote was delivered by a contemporary of JP’s from the halcyon days of University College Ibadan, Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka, who indeed was very generous with his time and rigorous intellect. His lecture OTHELLO’S LAMENT: The MIGRANT RUES The WAVES provided a bridge between history and contemporary experiences by an excursion through history and geography. In full attendance were the majestic living ancestors of English studies in Nigeria. Where Emeritus Professor Ayo Banjo, Professor Wole Soyinka, Professor Dan Izevbaye, Professor Niyi Osundare are gathered, we can with confidence say that the tribe of English studies is well represented. Uncle Sam Amuka-Pemu, a profound man of letters, publisher of The Vanguard was in attendance as Special Guest. Professors Femi Osofisan, G.G. Darah, and Biodun Jeyifo sent in their apologies on account of previous commitments. The new generation was represented by Tade Ipadeola and the NLNG literature laureate for 2017 and the late NLNG literature winner, Oke Ikeogu. The feast was ready, and the objects of sacrifice were in abundance. But this dance and poetry was not for seven days and nights in the famed plot of ritual celebration of completeness! It was a two-day fiesta with activities of a lifetime crammed into 48 hours! JP was grateful that no unforeseen circumstances thwarted our efforts to conference his literary output! It was an honour for us to have made him happy and exultant, with his friend of the first generation of African writers Professor Soyinka sitting by his side! The group photograph the duo took with staff of Department of English University of Lagos is a collector’s item!
This therefore is a fitting salute to and celebration of the life and times of our own distinguished JP, of the famed Bekederemo family of Kiagbodo Delta State, first Professor of English, of the University of Lagos, the famed writer and poet. The final boat of his earthly voyage has taken off and though he lies peacefully in the belly of the earth, we shall have a perpetual feast on the literary fecundity of this poetic genius- his books! As we pay tribute to JP, who just sailed into ancestry, we honour our pantheon of creative writers who have placed Nigeria on the foremost rung of the international ladder in the world of literature.
-Hope Eghagha is a member of the Editorial Board of The Guardian and once served as Commissioner for Higher Education in Delta State, Nigeria. He is currently Professor of English at the University of Lagos, Nigeria.
The Quintessential JP Clark
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
The living legend, Emeritus Professor John Pepper Clark, universally known as JP Clark, passed away in the early hours of Tuesday, October 13, aged 85. Tributes have poured in from across the globe in celebration of the iconic poet, dramatist and folklorist. JP Clark belonged to the troika of Nigeria’s literary greats alongside Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. He was the poet in the midst while Achebe was the novelist, with the dramatist Soyinka now the only one still alive on the terra firma. The celebrated poet Christopher Okigbo who would have shared company with them died too early in the Biafra war. JP Clark was born in 1935 in Kiagbodo of the present-day Delta State to an Ijaw father and an Urhobo mother. He had his early education at Native Authority School, Okrika, Burutu before attending the famous Government College, Ughelli. He then capped his education foray at the University College, Ibadan.
Clark was among the prime-movers of the literary club, Mbari in Ibadan, alongside Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. A highly gifted poet from the very beginning, Clark published his first collection of poems entitled Poems in 1961 under the Mbari imprint. He then forged ahead to publish other collections such as A Reed in the Tide, Casualties, A Decade of Tongues, State of the Union, Mandela and other Poems, Fulltide etc. Over the years and decades, Clark’s much-anthologized poems like “Night Rain”, “Abiku”, “Streamside Exchange”, “Ibadan”, “Casualties” etc. have been studied extensively for the West African School Certificate (WASC) examinations.
As a distinguished playwright, Clark published and staged Song of a Goat, The Masquerade, The Raft, Ozidi, The Boat, The Wives’ Revolt etc. His irreverent account of his fellowship spell in the United States entitled America, their America was quite controversial. Clark’s recording of the seven-day “Ozidi saga” of his native Ijaw people belongs to the topmost ranks of folklore studies in Africa. JP Clark made history as Africa’s first Professor of English, a coveted feat he achieved at the University of Lagos, Akoka. In life, Clark did have his differences with his bosom friend Chinua Achebe because of the Civil War in which both writers were on opposing sides. Achebe withdrew his dedication of his 1966 novel, A Man of the People, to Clark but the novelist restored the dedication when the poet invited Achebe to be the external examiner at the University of Lagos after the war. Incidentally, it was to JP Clark that Okigbo had given the manuscript of his poems “Path of Thunder” before he was killed in the Biafra war, and Clark duly published the poems posthumously in the magazine Black Orpheus.
Clark and his wife, Prof Ebun Clark, set up the PEC Repertory Theatre in Onikan, Lagos after his retirement from the University of Lagos in 1980. The story of JP and Ebun Clark was a classic love story. A daughter of Alhaji Jimoh Odutola the multi-millionaire magnate, Ebun was sent abroad at the age of nine by his father to study. When she eventually returned to teach at University College, Ibadan, she met JP Clark who was a research fellow there. They fell in love. Ebun’s father was totally against the inter-ethnic marriage. The two lovebirds eloped to Benin Republic where they got married and drove back to Nigeria. Ebun’s father refused to talk to her daughter for an entire year, but the marriage blossomed until “death do us part”. The marriage was blessed with three daughters and a son.
A crucial humane aspect of JP Clark’s life can be seen from when he initiated a move for Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and him “to plead with the Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, to spare the lives of the soldier-poet Major General Mamman Vatsa and his colleagues over the alleged military coup plot of 1986. According to JP Clark in “The Burden Not Lifted”, his Nigerian National Order of Merit Award Winner’s Lecture, delivered in Abuja on December 5, 2001, he got in contact with Achebe “surprisingly on my first telephone call to Nsukka.”
As had been written earlier here, Clark and Achebe had made up soon after the war when the poet invited the novelist to serve as his external examiner at the University of Lagos, Akoka. However, in the case of Wole Soyinka, Clark reveals: “I had seen only once, and that’s in Dar es Salaam, since he asked me to his publisher’s office in London to show me page proofs of The Man Died in which he libelled me. I told him then I would take him to court which I did, and there were quite a few people waiting for the fight.” As Clark needed to see Soyinka in the bid to save Mamman Vatsa, he wondered on how to reach the playwright “with his roving style.” Someone gave a suggestion to Clark to try Soyinka’s man, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, at The Guardian newspaper offices in Lagos. Clark made the contact with Dr. Ogunbiyi and got directions to Soyinka’s home in Abeokuta. He dashed off straight to the place.
In the words of Clark, “Wole was away hunting somewhere in the forest of a thousand and one demons. So I sat waiting for him at his neighbour’s flat. Of course, I was the last person he expected to see at his doorstep. I cannot remember whether he came back with a kill and what kind. All I know, we had a great recognition scene of it, and then good host that he is, he cooked us a great meal. Of course, like Chinua, he was a prophet needing no preaching to.” Eventually, the three great authors put their heads together at Clark’s place at the University of Lagos “to send our petition to the power that was and some say still is and shall be.” Clark continued thusly: “Wole did the drafting, Chinua and I teasing him he had had more practice at making pronouncements than either of us.” The case of the mystery gunman who made the pirate broadcast over Western Nigeria radio cannot be forgotten in a jiffy!
It happened that, according to Clark, “word had got to General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida all right, and he was not one to be done out of a show. Three distinguished world-acclaimed writers wanted to see him on a national matter of urgency – how could he refuse seeing them? He duly received us at Dodan Barracks the next day, and was his charming self and all attention. A difficult case, he told us. Some junior officers were the problem, but not to worry. He would take care of it. So we left, walked straight into the arms of the press, and on to a restaurant to toast and treat ourselves to a lunch we all thought we thoroughly deserved.”
Clark concluded the story on a sad note thus: “We were still savouring our wine, when that same afternoon General Domkat Bali, Chief of Defence Staff, came on air, announcing Vatsa and the other accused had already been executed. As a matter of fact, the execution did not take place until well into the night that day.” Clark’s Mamman Vatsa intervention is the quintessential measure of the man. Clark was a true fighter for whatever he believed in, and he joined the ancestors in the wee hours of Tuesday, October 13, leaving us a “final” poem entitled “My Last Testament” in his collection Full Tide:
This to my family
Do not take me to a mortuary,
Do not take me to a church,
Whether I die in or out of town,
But take me to my own, and
To lines and tunes, tasted on the waves
Of time, let me lie in my place
On the Kiagbodo River.
If Moslems do it in a day,
You certainly can do it in three,
Avoiding blood and waste,
And whatever you do after,
My three daughters and my son
By the only wife I have,
Do not fight over anything
I may be pleased to leave behind.
-Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is a playwright, poet and journalist. His works include Doctor of Football, Satan’s Story, A Play of Ghosts and God of Poetry.
JP Clark, the Elucidator
By Okejoto Gochua
I had lamented our inability to celebrate Uncle JP Clark when he turned 85. Uncle JP kept revising his date of birth, claiming that he had newer information that places his birth to around 1930. This was debatable though because as at the time he was admitted into Government College Ughelli, he couldn’t have been more than 12 years old — give and take. Else the white men who ran the college would not have admitted him for being too old!
We had gone into elaborate planning with a JP at 85 Committee chaired by the indefatigable Prof G.G. Darah. With Chijioke Amu- Nnamdi the resident Poet of the Port Harcourt Literary Society (PHSL) driving the process, we planned to honor Uncle JP at 85. We failed. Uncle JP was not an easy celebrant, at one point he ordered us to stop all actions on the fiesta. I hinged our failure to do this on discrepancy of dates by the poet himself. But I lied to myself. The bottom line I must confess was that we couldn’t raise the funds required to host such a befitting fiesta. This experience brought to the fore our empty platitudes about not allowing our heroes past to have toiled in vain. A simple birthday for an illustrious son of the Niger Delta could not be bankrolled by the NDDC or NLNG. Shame!
The moment Uncle JP’s niece, Mrs Rebecca Okorodudu (EK Clark’s eldest daughter) introduced me to her uncle as a friend from Owhrode, an Urhobo community not far from JP’s mother’s place, my relationship with Uncle JP changed from that of an acolyte (student of literature who had studied JP for his degree in English & Literary Studies- A Decade of Tongues, The Ozidi Saga etc etc) to an adopted nephew. The stories we heard about JP as students of literature were that of a difficult and egotistical man of letters, but as an adopted nephew I had the singular honor and privilege of knowing Uncle JP as a father full of humility, a simplifier and an elucidator!
I had the singular honor and privilege of being told stories in an episodic narrative mode by the poet himself. He told me the stories of how he attended the elite Government College Ughelli and his struggles to attend a Standard Elementary School which would enable him to take the Standard 6 exam, how he left his Frukama, a Western Ijaw village where he was doing his elementary school studies, how he took a boat ride home to Kiagbodo and informed the original Papa Clark of his intention to switch schools, Papa Clark who, using the Izon traditional wrestling method, smashed the fledgling JP on the ground, and he fainted. He told me he would have died!
We would’ve lost the bard but for providence who smiled on both father and son ; stories he shared with me about his mother’s community Eruwharen an Urhobo community where JP was born etc so like the ancient Mariner he ensnared me with these narratives. And in truth over a period of five years I was a true devotee of Uncle JP the very private but contented man , a proud Ijaw man who loved the Niger Delta region and worked assiduously for the unity of Nigeria in his literary vineyard .
Early in 2016 JP spent a total of over 3 days in visits to the Corporate Headquarters of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC ), one of the big men had commissioned him to do a combo of play/film on the Niger Delta to conscientize and reorient the youths of the Niger Delta Region, in the usual creative people’s way he had done his research on what the film was going to be like and he came back to this big man for funding , that was at the point I and Chijioke Amu-Nnamdi got recruited into assisting. Unfortunately he never got to receive the promised funding.
I was given a front seat at the fountain of knowledge by this very simple self- effacing man of letters. But thank God his family did not fail in honoring his last will and testament, not minding the logistics nightmare of airlifting the body by chopper from Victoria Island to the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos, to freighting him aboard an aircraft to Asaba, the Delta State capital & driving him in an ambulance for over 3 hrs to his beloved Kiagbodo & ferrying him in a boat to his island home, his final resting place. The Clark-Bekeredemo family rose solidly for Uncle JP in 3days flat!
– Gochua is the writer of Choruses from the Waterfront and other poems. He retired from NDDC in June this year as a director.
JP Clark, Child of Olokun
By Wumi Raji
J.P. Clark represents one of those through whose works I got introduced to literature. To be sure, when we were in Modern School, an intermediate school system which the government of the old Western Region copied from the British system of education, we read abridged versions of classics of English fiction including Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Ivanhoe, Treasure Island, Gulliver’s Travels, King Solomon’s Mines and Robinson Crusoe. For some strange reason, we never really understood these works, talk less of appreciating them as works of great literature. In any case, only five subjects were compulsory in Modern School and literature was not one of them. We never therefore felt we were missing anything.
It wasn’t until I got to St. Andrews’ College, an elementary teacher training college originally established in Oyo by the Anglican missionaries in 1896, that I began to apprehend what literature is really about. The play texts that we studied during the three – year programme, if I remember correctly, included Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth, Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero and The Lion and the Jewel and Ola Rotimi’s The Gods are not to Blame. Works of prose fiction included Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Weep not, Child, and the abridged versions of Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist and John Drinkwater’s The Thirty Nine Steps, It was in the selection of poetry that J.P. Clark’s name came up and it did so quite strongly. Hardly was there any term when at least one poem or the other of his would not be included in the list of the two or three selected for study. Along with Gabriel Okara’s “Piano and Drum”, Kofi Awoonor’s “Songs of Sorrow”, Kwesi Brew’s “A Plea for Mercy”, Leopold Sedar Senghor’s “I will Pronounce your Name”, Augustinho Neto’s “Night” and Joe de Graft’s “Akosua Nowa” , I can remember we read and treated at least five poems of J.P. Clark. They are “Ibadan”, “Abiku”, “Streamside Exchange”, “Night Rain”, and “Olokun”. It was a marvel to us, students, that just one man – and a Nigerian at that – could write so many poems.
One major cause of our astonishment during this period lay in the fact of our complete unfamiliarity with the kind of poetry we were now being made to study. All of us were local students coming in contact with poetry of European language expression for the first time and we felt mesmerized by what we were reading and studying. And, while it was the case that almost all of us had at one time or the other heard of Romantic poets and Shakespearean sonnets or even included quotes from John Donne’s poetry in our juvenile love letters, we were far from having any real understanding of them. Of course, traditional songs and chants and performances were regular features of the different local communities from which we came; and, as a matter of fact, many of us had, at different times, participated in them. To us however, they were just performances that we enjoyed. There was no way we could have linked those communal performances with the arcane, individually authored, contemplative pieces that even our teachers labored to understand. Sitting down in class, analyzing them, pointing out alliterations and rhymes, similes and metaphors, paradoxes and personifications, ironies and synecdoches, and all the rest of them was not the most enjoyable thing in the world. Discovering that there were Africans who now produced such works was fantastic and knowing that a fellow Nigerian has authored as many as we now had was wonderful. We speculated no end on how they came about their special abilities. Of course, we felt titillated by poems like “Akosua Nowa”, where the persona, whose “manhood” has been “touched” by his female target goes to load his “gun”, threatening that “no matter how hidden deep her treasure”, he will “shoot my way to it this day”. (Soyinka (ed.): Poems of Black Africa, 238). The last line of the poem, “There is liquid fire in my gun”, soon became popular among us, students, in the all-male school. We all loved it. We threw it about, with each person twisting it to suit the type of mischief that he wanted to make at a particular point in time. We also genuinely believed that Kofi Awoonor’s (then known as George Awoonor-Williams) “Songs of Sorrow” was truly a lament by a man who had been overtaken, literally, by calamity: “Something has happened to me/The things so great that I cannot weep;/I have no sons to fire the gun when I die/And no daughters to wail when I close my mouth.” (Donatus I. Nwoga (ed.): West African Verse: An Anthology, 74); They are the first four lines of the poem, and they resonated well with what we were accustomed to, how the affected reacted whenever something of tragic proportion happened to him/her/them.
Even in spite of this, we never stopped wondering how the poets came about what they wrote. In response to one such question in class, the teacher talked about inspiration and talents. Another teacher – may be the same person actually – I am no longer sure – gave us the definition by William Wordsworth; poetry, that is, as a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, recollected in tranquility.” In the absence of a competent definition of the word “inspiration”, or an explanation of the Wordsworth definition, we worked out our own conclusion. Consistent with what we had come to believe about D.O. Fagunwa on the sources of his stories, we asserted that the poets must have come by their works through spiritual revelation, received either through dreams or via semi conscious communion with supernatural agencies. We found ample evidences to support our position in the poems. Take the opening lines of Gabriel Okara’s “Piano and Drums”: “When at break of day at a riverside/I hear jungle drums telegraphing/the mystic rhythm, urgent, raw/like bleeding flesh, speaking of/primal youth and the beginning.” (West African Verse, 36-37). Now, let me make it clear that we did not dispute what we were taught to be the theme of the poem. We saw the culture clash, and the metaphor of the “mystic rhythm” which was set against that of the “wailing piano.” What we could not fathom was what the poet was doing by the riverside, and where the “jungle drums” that were “telegraphing” came from. When we treated Kwesi Brew’s “A Plea for Mercy,” we took it as a direct, literal invocation of a god. With Augustinho Neto’s “Night”, the last stanza was what clinched it for us, what made it clear that the poet received his inspiration directly from a ghost. Lets take a look: “I walk lurching/through the unlit/unknown streets crowded/with mystery and terror,/I, arm in arm with ghosts,/And the night too is dark.” (Poems of Black Africa, 119)
But of all of the poets, J.P. Clark was by far the one about whom we felt the greatest sense of wonder. We marveled at how his poems kept on coming up term after term, year after year. Or almost. It wasn’t more than five or six of his poems, to be sure, that we treated throughout the three – year programme, but that for us was already a lot. In addition, and as limited as we were in poetry, we believed somehow that there was something distinct about the quality of his poetry. Take “Ibadan” for instance: the appropriate word, simply, with which to capture what J.P. Clark did in that poem was “audacity”. The city of Ibadan, the subject of the poem, as we were taught by our Geography teacher, was the largest metropolis in West Africa, and the second largest in the entire continent after Cairo. Yet, our man simply reduced it to a poem of five short lines, employing a total of nineteen words. And he produced a most vivid picture. We imagined a splash of water, flung wide and far, spreading continuously and we saw Ibadan. The persona said it was “scattered/among seven hills” and we saw a city rising and falling in an undulating terrain. How even did he know that there were precisely seven hills in Ibadan, we asked.
Now to “Night Rain”. Many of us saw ourselves in that poem. As children, in the different communities where we lived, we knew how it was with tropical rain. We knew it was always heavy, sustained, and now and again accompanied by strong winds and/or lightning and thunder storm. We had all had the experience of being jerked awake from deep sleep in the middle of the night by the insistent “droning” of the rain in the middle of the night. Most of us knew first-hand how it was with leaking roofs, how our parents – our mothers mostly – went about moving things out of the reach of water, and deploying containers to the precise points of the rain’s contacts with the floor. We thought of ourselves as the persona in the poem and we marveled.
On its own, “Abiku” resonates with our belief in spirit child, one who would die and return through the same woman, then die again to return through the same woman. We all believed in it. We believed that a new born baby, an abiku, could bear the scars of the cuts inflicted on him/her when s/he decided to “return” the last time s/he came. We could almost hear the agonising cry of the parents, even as abiku dies yet again: “Coming and going these several seasons,/Do stay out on the baobab tree,/Follow where you please your kindred spirits/If indoors is not enough for you.” (West African Verse, 61) The lines convey vividly the condition of living of the personas, the abject poverty, the determination to keep going in spite of the hardship. Then came the final plea: “Then step in, step in and stay/For her body is tired,/Tired, her milk going sour.” (West African Verse, 61). Everything is so familiar, yet so astounding. We wondered where J.P. Clark got them all from, how he got them. We thought he was not an ordinary person.
Then came one of our teachers with an explanation which agreed with what we had been looking for. He told us J.P. Clark was a “heathen”, that all the other writers whose works we had been studying, including Wole Soyinka, Ola Rotimi, Chinua Achebe, were also heathens. He said they were all cultists and that they fraternized with evil spirits. We thought he was right. We believed him. So when the following term, the poem “Olokun” was included in our reading list, we thought we now had a clear evidence of Clark’s crime. By this time, we had also learned that he was from a riverine area, and we now thought we knew the reason why the image of water was always recurring in his poem. “So drunken, like ancient walls/We crumble in heaps at your feet;/And as the good maid of the sea,/Full of rich bounties for men,/You lift us all beggars to your breast.” (West African Verse, 58). That is the last stanza of the poem, “Olokun”. What further proof would anybody need to know that J.P. Clark was a devotee of Olokun, or believe that the goddess of the sea was his source of inspiration?
It happened that when I went to the University, my course of study was English. What this meant was that I would have to read many more works of these people that my teacher at the elementary teachers’ college had described as heathens or cultists, and works of several other writers like them. As for Clark, I discovered that even though he had published several books of poetry, he was better known as a dramatist, was in fact a Professor of Drama. I discovered that in addition to several volumes of poetry, he had published several plays as well. So in addition to the poetry, I also sought out his plays and read them. As to the question of what makes a poet – or playwright or novelist – I discovered that even though talent or inspiration mattered, what mattered most was steel determination and a spirit of hard work. Whoever must be a writer must be ready to spend time at his desk – not at any shrine – must be ready to read widely, think hard, then write, write, and re-write. That was what J.P. Clark did. It was what other writers who have distinguished themselves did also. Thank you, J.P. Clark, for all you did. Rest well in the bosom of Olokun.
-Wumi Raji has taught at the Universities of Ilorin and Benin, Nigeria, and the University of The Gambia. He has, among others, been an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow at the University of Bayreuth, Germany and Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge, UK. He is currently a Professor of Drama at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife.
By Sam Omatseye
There were a few but poignant moments of unfinished business with the bard, John Pepper Clark when he died recently at 85. It pertained to our dialogue over a poser on Facebook about Nigerian classic poems. Writer and columnist Mike Awoyinfa wanted Nigerians to pick what gems still whispered to us. J.P. Clark led the polls with such offerings as Abiku, Ibadan and Night Rain.
J.P. Clark was not aware of the Facebook buzz. He was not on Facebook, I reckoned. He did not seem surprised at the fan preference. His voice reflected a quiet gratitude. After a pause, he told me his much awaited new collection, More Remains, was out.
“You can get a copy in the market now,” he announced. He told me where to get it. I had badgered him about it, and he was glad to put me out of my misery of expectation. He, too, sighed. He was out of my hook. Then I ordered a copy. When it arrived, I called to let him know. He did not pick. He called me back, I did not know. When I called back, he did not pick. He called again; I was not with my phone. I decided not to worry the old man. I decided I was going to surprise him with my review of his volume.
Then I saw a note from a fellow old boy of Government College, Ughelli, Okosubide Mozimo, that Nigeria’s preeminent poet had passed on. It left an ache. I didn’t pass on my word before the icy prosecutor. Death had its last word first, a cold, preemptive jolt. I did not have the chance to write my review. Like Ozidi who could not reach his murdered father, it is a futile quest. Especially for a man like Clark, who never bowed to gods or observe a rite.
Not writing the review for him will be an eternal ache, the sort that will visit me each time I remember his voice. Each time his poems are recited, when poetry levitates, on night rains and when I roam the shadows of Ibadan, also when I have dialogues with people immersed in the philosophical excitement of a streamside exchange, I will meet Clark. It is non-corporeal engagement, a guarantee without flesh and blood.
The other unfinished business was his fascination with my series of poems on Leah Sharibu. He asked me to gather the volume so far written, and he wanted to let me know his opinion. I had gathered over 30 poems, short beauties, about a girl in captivity as mirror of a nation in the dark glow of self-immolation. I did not send it when I heard he was ill, and hospitalized. When we spoke, he was a little testy, and I prayed for him. When he came to, he said he was ready to read them. But just then, he lost his younger brother who was a general. All the Clark brothers, including Ambassador Clark who just turned 90, and his eldest brother the political leader, E.K. Clark headed home to pay their respect. J.P. Clark and Ambassador are old boys of GCU but could not attend our annual dinner. After they mourned their brother, he returned to Lagos, and I thought I had time to accumulate more poems. He often reminded me, but I said I was compiling the poems, and I diverted attention to his own work. I read his Remains of a Tide, a volume I collected from fellow Columnist Segun Ayobolu. The volume is a lugubrious beauty. The poems are touching in their deathly flavor, defiance and anticipation of the final call, musing on the passing of others, the use of withering images of leaves and blossoms as well as eternal ones of seas and trees and their capacity to devour human fragilities. Hear these lines from the poem, A Tree in a Grove:
…news too will spread:
J. P. Clark, poet, dramatist and mascot
For old masters at home, is dead
When I saw those lines, I thought it was still far off. He was 85, and his older brother just made the turn at 90. E.K. Clark had scorned death by planting himself at the departure lounge. The sap of both brothers was still alive. He had time yet. But he had begun to complain of old age, and he did not seem interested in anything. When the Covid-19 lockdown came, it caught him in Apapa. He told me he wanted to go to his village in Kiagbodo. He was tied down at home. He sounded claustrophobic. There was an almost child-like lament to the captivity. He said his wife had told him he had not walked out of the door into the yard in many weeks. He was like the sedentary bird in the poem Streamside Exchange. “River bird, river bird, sitting all day long…” He was reincarnating the bird. He was the wistful bard in repose. It was as though he was reliving the story of the bird he wrote decades ago. He was a sort of casualty of his muse.
I had another unfinished business. I wanted to interview him. I wanted his voice for the ages on my television show. He kept putting it off, sometimes telling me he had said everything. I recalled the words of U.S President Richard Nixon on Watergate, when he said he was not ready to relive the past. “Remember Lots wife,” said Nixon, “never turn back.” Clark was looking forward, to the place of the mascot of old masters.
I wanted him to talk on his plays. I wanted him to speak about the play, The Raft, a wrought affair of a picaresque disaster. What did the four characters represent, the four big tribes of Nigeria, including his Izon? He had said it was just about life. Who were the two who seemed to survive? Did they survive having ploughed into the fog? Was it a prediction of the Nigeria to come? He wrote it in the heady days of the young nation? Was it about our civil war, the throes of ethnic division, the fragility of our union, the journey of a nation adrift?
Drama critics have argued that The Raft could not be staged because of the narratives of storms and raft and ship, etc. That was then. But technology has vindicated the play. If it predicted the country, he also predicted its stage-ability. In today’s stagecraft, nothing can escape the technology. Karl Popper said we cannot predict the future because we cannot predict technology. His critics saw fog when Clark saw a lively stage. The Raft has triumphed today as a work of a visionary craftsman.
Let us not forget the play, The song of the Goat, a tragedy about filial betrayal and remorse. Tapping from Old Testament and Greek tragedies, Clark wove a story of impotence and failure of virility, a projection of a nation where ritual and bloodhounds of ego fail.
I have wanted to find out why Clark, a preeminent poet, did not catch the attention in the world he deserves. I saw some of the poems of Louise Gluck, the American who just won the Nobel Prize, and her lines might have been written by Clark, their spare elegance and imaginative omission. Maybe he was just not lucky. He was never marketed well outside, like Soyinka and Achebe, or Chimamanda today. He probably never needed it. He was such a contended man. He once told me poems are not popular but poets have small but special audiences.
In his last collection, More Remains, was his last latchkey to memory. He ends it fittingly with the poem, Hope Alive. A sort of sad cheer runs through it. It is on that note I see him as coming alive often like Abiku. He will look less like the Abiku he wrote but the defiant one of Soyinka. He would play warrior in the words of Senghor’s paean to his ancestors in In Memoriam. He wrote, “O dead, who have always refused to die.” As we read and stage him, he will remain before our eyes. It is not his remains we shall contemplate because he remains.
– Sam Omatseye, who has won many prizes for his journalism, is the Chairman, Editorial Board of The Nation
The Example of J. P. Clark
By Ogaga Ifowodo
On 14 December 2019, which is ten months ago, I had one of those chance encounters that seem too propitious not to memorialise. So I made the following post, together with photos, on WhatsApp and Facebook, entitled Setting out for Lagos with Prof. J. P. Clark-Bekederemo: “I entered the VIP lounge at the Osubi-Warri Airstrip to catch the morning flight for Lagos then took a seat before looking around. And there was JP, its lone occupant, sitting in a corner, contemplative. I went to greet him — in Isoko, his grandma was from Iyede, as he never fails to tell me. He tapped the seat next to him and bid me sit down. Poet, playwright, memoirist and elder statesman of Nigerian letters. Showed me a new volume of poems to be out next year. Hurray, he is still writing! I started my morning with a Master!”
What I did not add was that I felt shamed by the fact that at eighty-five, John Pepper Clark— he would compound his last name with Bekederemo many years after his fame had been firmly established (but simply JP as he was endearingly known) — had completed yet another manuscript of poems, not mentioning his many plays, while I was still ruminating about just my fifth volume. I swore that day to set to work right away. On the midlife book in which I return to my childhood, hoping to conjure some of the magic of place(s), faces and experiences that shaped my primitive heart, to be captured in fifty-five sections of varying lengths. I’m happy to announce that I have written thirty of them, with seven already accepted for publication in magazines in the UK and Germany. I had hoped to present a copy of the published volume to him in Kiagbodowhen I visited as he had bid me do during that airport lounge meeting. “You are in Warri. Kiagbodo is nearby. Come and see me,” he had said.And now my regret: I didn’t. So spry he looked at four-score-and-four that I could never have thought his raft would sail beyond our earthly shores a mere ten months after! I wanted to be sure to have something to show him, like a proper Delta son going home to see his father, taking with me not just a bottle of Schnapps (or cognac) but also the manuscriptof the new book, at the very least, just like he had shown me his at the airport.
When JP turned eighty, I was in Kiagbodo. And there I said that he taught many of us much younger Nigerian poets how to write. Not literally, of course, but by what — adapting the title of his famous essay, “The Example of Shakespeare” — we might call “The Example of J. P. Clark.” With Wole Soyinka, the fledgling poet is bound to feel not a little intimidated: the sheer density and complexity of thought and diction, syntax and semantics, might easily make him or her think that poetry was perhaps a dream too far. And with Christopher Okigbo, his lyricism would be so seductive that the would-be poet would rush to crank out lines that she would soon learn will not and cannot do:Okigbo’s learnedness and sophistication writ large in his far-ranging allusions and even direct appropriations carefully camouflaged by his inimitable sleights-of-hand will soon suggest that it is not even midnight yet, never mind morning, for him on creation day! But with JP, and I must add, Gabriel Okara, the aspiring poet can try. I mean, you can teach a whole poetry workshop on what poetry is, and how to write it—image, metaphor, concision, figurative language — with nineteen words and adash, as in the universally acclaimed poem,
running splash of rust
and gold—flung and scattered
among seven hills like broken
china in the sun.
When I made my claim in Kiagbodo, I had not known that the departed doyen of literary criticismin Nigeria, Prof. Abiola Irele, had expressed a similar sentiment. JP’s work, says Irele, “assumed a specific historic significance in the evolution of Nigerian, and indeed, African poetry in English, for it is indisputable that his early efforts were central to both the thematic re-orientation and profound transformation of idiom that led to the decisive advance that the new poetry came to represent.”Speaking of the crucialrole played in the constitution of Nigerian and African literature byJP’s early poems in The Horn, the literary magazine JP edited in its first year at the University College, Ibadan, Irele says they weremarked by their “originality” and “a radical departure in relation to the previous efforts at producing African poetry in English.” Closer to my point, however, was his conclusion. JP’s poetry, Ireleasserted, “provided the sounding board against which the new generation of Nigerian writers who came after him, especially those who have emerged since the Nigerian Civil War, have sounded their voices and thus found the confidence of their own expression.” Again, needless to say, not literally, for even where “no conscious debt to him can be traced in the work of younger poets such as Odia Ofeimun, NiyiOsundare, Harry Garuba, TanureOjaide, and Femi Osofisan, they have had of necessity to look to the foreground of Nigerian literature occupied by Clark-Bekederemo and other major writers in order to find their own space.”
I can think of no higher tribute to pay the third of the Fabulous Four of modern Nigerian literature. Christopher Okigbo was firstto depart, leaving painfully too soon, consumed by a war he could not bear to merely watch and beating his iron bell into a gun went and joined it. And then Chinua Achebe, who tarried agreeably longer but, alas, while confined in his last three decades to a wheelchair as Nigeria’s treacherous roads tried but failed to kill him in an accident just after being celebrated on his 60th anniversary. May the ancestors preserve the life of Wole Soyinka, the lone lion left in that literary lair of Nigeria’s eternal glory!
-Ogaga Ifowodo is the author of several collections of poetry. He studied Law at the University of Benin, Nigeria and Creative Writing and Literature at Cornell University, Ithaca, USA. He was until recently a member of the Board of the Niger Delta development Commission (NDDC).
J. P. Clark: Streamside Exchange
By Tade Ipadeola
Over the course of his long and rich life (he was older than the almanac disclosed), Professor Johnson Pepper Clark wrote some of the more poignant works that gave character and extension to modern African Literature. His plays and his prose, his scholarship and his translations, his journalism and his criticism all breathed intelligence and kept a stance of mind that never wavered till the end. His poetry, by far the easiest to access of the poetry of his generation, had a lyrical abundance, a wealth of poetic poise and cadence, a cache of thought and play that today is hard to find except in the works of the very best working the poetic vein, Afam Akeh and the late Harry Garuba perhaps.
I was only eleven when my father introduced me to the vocable world that J.P. Clark had terra-formed. It was a world at once familiar and strange because it rained in it and because Fulani cattle roamed on it and because votaries danced in it and because the streamside in it could be the stage for settling existential questions. Yet it was a world that was unlike anything a child such as I was in 1981 had ever encountered except perhaps in the pithy exchanges my grandmother had in the Yoruba language with her friends. In this new world, which my father made me recite into his tape recorder, dance is worked out with a precision that is almost mathematical, a place called Agbor and another place called Ibadan would gain a form of transcendence approaching the status of transfiguration and weighty questions would find final answers such that even a child could experience epiphany therein.
It would be many years, a couple of decades actually, before I would begin to understand why not everyone who is called a writer can achieve the same effects as J.P. Clark using the same tool, the English language. It is a question of control, an internal mechanism for weighing words and for pouring them into the mixer for effect. The gift of gravity, which J.P. Clark had in his writing in every genre, needed to coexist with a facility for buoyancy as well if the writing is to achieve its end without tiring the writer or the reader. At the height of his powers as a writer, J.P. Clark had the equation for permanence in his output and that is not something that any degrees can confer on a writer. Reading Ozidi, the play, as a man in my forties, I became aware that I was reading the work as a poem, conscious that every word, every order of word, mattered. I’d realized earlier on that I could speed-read many writers but J.P. Clark was not a writer to be speed-read. There is such a thing as a work of literature that has its own pace. In the same way that the Japanese No plays cannot be accelerated for consumption, the works of J.P. Clark cannot be hurried along. They are what they are. I finally found out why they struck me the way they did on the day I encountered an Izon ensemble of figurines from the 18th century at the magnificent Detroit Museum. I remember broaching my discovery over long distance telephone with J.P. Clark himself and I distinctly remember him saying to me “We’ll talk about it when you come back…” but we never got to it before the final curtain call for J.P. Clark.
What happened, instead, was that Professor Clark asked me to join him and his friend, Professor Wole Soyinka, at the Boat Club for lunch one sunny afternoon the week before the country went into lockdown for Covid-19. Lagos traffic had held up Professor Soyinka at some point and Professor Clark would call to know about progress through the traffic “Kogbelekogbona, where are you now?” And thus it went until finally Professor Soyinka arrived and I watched the two old men talk about things old men talk about as they both tackled their glasses of beer. The talk that late afternoon was worth journeying in from Ibadan to listen to. Most pertinently, they talked about literature – both men had new works planned for publication later in the year and that is always worth knowing. Lunch over, both old men made it to their feet and I remember Professor J.P. Clark saying “You want to be this old but you don’t know what you’re asking for.” To which Professor Soyinka smiled a little wry smile, remembering to pick up his bottle of wine for later.
What also happened was that I had followed Professor Clark home where his wife, Professor Ebun Clark, made my visit very pleasant. It was in the presence of his wife that J.P. Clark asked me to set aside the hat of the writer (I was writing a monograph on J.P. Clark) and to put on the lawyer’s habit. He wanted me to scrutinize his will before sending it off to his lawyers for due formalities. I did. And what strikes me now is how natural it all was. I know men who would not dare discuss their wills in the presence of their wives, not J.P. Clark. I joked that they were the power couple of Nigerian literature and he lit up with a smile. “I like that” he said.
It is not easy to impress J.P. Clark. If Shakespeare scarcely managed it then you should know just what kind of mind it is that J.P. Clark possessed. He read everything. When, finally, I thought I had something to show him in The Sahara Testaments, he asked me to bring it. We spoke about Mbari and Ibadan late into the night and drank a bottle of French champagne. I bade him good night at about midnight and went to sleep. When I got up at about 5:30am in the morning, there he was on his chair reading and close to the end of The Sahara Testaments. “How long did it take you to write this?” Eight years, I replied. He nodded and said words that to this day I dare not believe “This is what I wanted to do. This is what all the poets of my generation wanted to do.” Then he repeated the same words publicly. He was generous that way.
They say that we’ll forget many things but not how people made us feel. Now that J.P. Clark has gone to join the ancestors, I remember all these things about his towering life. I remember getting home to my village and telling my father who was then on his last legs that J.P. Clark approved of my work. I saw my father fill with pride. These were probably the two men hardest to please that I knew. I told my father that J.P Clark said I never had to write to form again. Professor Niyi Osundare said the same thing. It had to be true. I remember a man whose will was the most literary I had ever read and who, most importantly, knew he had a friend for life in his wife. I remember a man whose poems for his wife moved me beyond anything from Robert Browning to Elizabeth Browning, a man I could joke with about life and death. I remember a man who wouldn’t let me drive to Kiagbodo as I would have, had he not been so stern. “I don’t let my son drive that route, why should I let you?”
I remember a man who was courted by the most prestigious museums and centers of literature around the world for his handwritten papers but who decided when it mattered most that his papers would remain among his own people, knowing full well that that very decision risked everything. I remember the man who cast his lot with his people in their hour of need and in their seasons of plenty and whose sense of sufficiency in all things overflowed so luminously into his lasting creations.
–Tade Ipadeola is a solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. He is a poet and winner of the NLNG Literature Prize.
The Gift of a Poet
By Jumoke Verissimo
Some time ago in August, I requested a copy of JP Clark’s Poems from the library. I had been working on my Ph.D. research and wanted to read poetry that, as I described to a friend, “could rinse my soul”. My university’s copy of JP’s poetry collection with its abstract cover design and illustrations by Suzanne Wenger, was published by Mbari in 1962. As I flipped through the book, reading poems like “Abiku”, “Olokun”, “Return of the Fishermen”, “Empathy” “Fulani Cattle” and the famous “Ibadan”, I again acknowledged how this master poet wrote only accomplished poetry. The sense of accomplishment that I refer to here is in the way his poems evoke a resurgence of beauty in the ordinary. The far-reaching ability of JP’s poems is that they do not make the error of obscuring the easiness of the mundane. It is difficult to ignore this subtle power of the poet’s simplicity, which nurtures in the reader an authenticity that many poets lose either in leaning too much on ornate words or the lack of percipience and acuity which creates memorable poetry. I have reflected on how present JP Clark would remain in our lives, as he has left us a rare gift: poems that provide companionship.
Like his poetry, I met JP Clark in the ordinary course of life. In 2006, my friend Kafayat Quadri started a poetry magazine, Poetry Digest and asked if I could take part in the editorial process. She distributed the magazine as far as she could across the country. I do not know how JP Clark got a copy, but I know he sent a message through one of the distributors asking that the editors should contact him. Perhaps out of shock or elation, I did not send him a message as I spent half the time daydreaming about our meeting. I found it difficult to believe that he sent the note with some kind words of encouragement. I eventually met JP Clark at a Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA) event, and he mentioned our small poetry magazine and asked what plans we had for it. At the time I met JP, Kafayat had stopped publishing the magazine because of the increasing difficulties of bearing the sole cost of publishing. My memory of our brief conversation on that day was to connect the devotion of his poems to the man standing before me, whose eyes were introspective and focused behind the glasses. His speech, deliberate and seeking attention that requested you listen carefully or return to them again; the same way you needed to return to his poems again and again.
One of JP’s poems that I always return to his “Streamside Exchange” in a fluorescent green book of West African poems—I cannot remember the name now—that I inherited from my elder brother. There is this emotional affect of reading this particular poem as a nine-year-old and having a clarity of life’s fragility, written in a lucid language. I will encounter the meaning of this poem, moving through life in different ways. The first five lines of the poem always stir my thoughts to grow roots. The lyrical poem for whatever reason created quiet inside of me. It was reassuring and pacified my anxieties about departure and arrivals. I remember that this was one poem that I read again and again as a child. The poem became a place from which my thoughts took flight.
River bird, river bird
Sitting all day long
On hook over grass,
River bird, river bird.
Sing to me a song
Of all that pass
Will mother come back today?
You cannot know
And should not bother
Tide and market come and go
And so shall you mother.
Later on, as a student in the university in 2002, living in a tenement bungalow with a zinc roof caved in like thatch, the roof’s nearness to the ground, brought the sound of rain closer to me and my roommates so that we could hear it drumming hard that we sometimes found it difficult to sleep. On these nights, there was a way my mind would return to the first five lines of “Night Rain”. This same poem resonated with me in 1997 when my father had just returned from the orthopedic hospital where he had been for a-year-and-a-half recuperating from an accident that almost took his life. I was mostly his companion in the nights, as we both waited for other members of the family. I usually dozed off and would wake in the middle of the night to a quietness, where my thought became a companion. Those first five lines from “Night Rain” would again pop into my mind—rain or not.
What time of night it is
I do not know
Except that like some fish
Doped out of the deep
I have bobbed up bellywise
From stream of sleep
And no cocks crow.
In recent times, JP Clark’s poem “The Casualties” is where I return to, not only for my current preoccupation as a Ph.D. student examining the Nigeria-Biafra war but for its aptness in the political predicament of the Nigerian nation-state. There is a profundity in the poems of JP Clark’s poem that recognizes the ordinariness of our life, so much that it makes us better aware of the absence of our inattentiveness.
I have spent most of my life an absent-minded melancholic, tumbling through life and seeking an understanding of the world around me. So, I consider it a privilege to have recognized the poetry of JP Clark as a negotiating point, which I never was openly aware of until I had to write about him. Maybe I recognized it when I wrote in the poem dedicated to him of how he would remain a season, always celebrated, never forgotten. I am grateful for how his poems reached into a vulnerability and undressed what before many were closely shielded and hidden. There is this way his poem becomes so familiar, so you need JP Clark’s very concise poem “Ibadan” to describe the city in full. JP Clark was a gift, and we will always remember that.
-Jumoke Verissimo is a poet, essayist, and novelist. Her most recent novel is A Small Silence (Cassava Republic, 2019).
JP Clark: The Poet and the Colour of His Times
By Nehru Odeh
His life reads like the rhythm of a lyrical poem. Small wonder there is no distinguishing his life from poetry and, of course, the undulating waves in the Niger Delta. Not only did he pattern his career on time and tides, he painted the colour of the environment in which he was born and bred and spoke to the collective experience of his people.
Welcome to J.P. Clark, the poet who loved his people so much that his poetic oeuvre revolves around them. He proved that when he decided to identify with them by hyphenating his name, adding Bekeredemo to it at a later stage of his literary career. But we all knew him as JP. That was the name we grew up with. That was the name associated with his legendary status. That was the name we were fond of.
Still how do I respond to J.P. Clark as a poet? How did I come in contact with this poet who held me in thrall on reading him the first time and since then have never doubted his lyrical power? What stands him out as poet in spite of the complex simplicity of his poems? What uncanny similarity seems to bind us together?
I first encountered JP as a teenager in high school. At the time two of his poems, Night Rain and Abiku were some of the poems I had to read and master as a student of Literature. In spite of the simplicity of his poems compared to those of others, they seemed to have a pull on me because I could relate to them. Night Rain, for instance spoke to me so well at the time because of its strange familiarity, its connectedness to me, and as someone born and bred in the Niger Delta, I shared the same experiences with the poet. Lines such as: What time of night it is/ I do not know/ Except that like some fish/ Doped out of the deep/ I have bobbed up bellywise/ From stream of sleep are so familiar to not only me but also to Niger Deltans and those living in the creeks who have experienced – and still experience – flooding. The lyric strength of that poem can be seen in the way the lines undulate like waves.
I was enthralled not just by the complex simplicity of his lines but also by his vivid imageries, the cinematic flash of a portrait of a city such as in the poem, Ibadan: Ibadan /running splash of dust/and gold flung and scattered/among seven hills like broken /China in the sun. That indeed was the first time I embarked on a mental voyage to Ibadan, the city I later fell in love with and haven’t been able to wean myself off its enchantments. And by the time I got to Ibadan as a university undergraduate I saw those rusted red roofs that JP had defamiliarized (a la the Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky) and celebrated in his famous poem. That poem still resonates with me till date. I haven’t been able to wean myself off the lure of that city.
Having been weaned on his poetry at a very young age, and on further reading other poets after I had decided to take writing as a career, I saw some similarity between his poetry and those of Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and W.B. Yeats in terms of their simplicity and lyricism. But beyond those he shared an affinity with Yeats in term of both cultural patriotism and deep love for the myths and lore of his people. However, one striking thing about JP’s literary career is that his trajectory as a writer is in congruence with the signs and colour of his times. His poetry seemed to have an uncanny connection with his own growth and development so much so that as he aged and as times changed so did the colour of his poetry changed. Little wonder in one of his simple but complex poems, Streamside Exchange, he says “Tide and market come and go.” That poem also shows the connectedness between man and nature, a motif that dotes JP’s works. Of course, nature still speaks to use even though we choose to pay deaf ears to it.
Though critics have noted three stages in JP’s career in terms of style and technique, what fascinates me is his thematic concerns, the difference in texture and themes between different stages of his development as a poet. When one reads his earliest poems, for instance A Reed in the Tide, one could see his preoccupation with the beauty of nature and its landscape. But as Nigeria began to grapple with political turmoil in the late 60s, his attention changed to politics, and that explains why violence and protest are themes that run through Casualties. State of the Union is majorly about his fears concerning political events in Nigeria as a nation and deals with themes such as institutional corruption, justice, patriotism and integrity. While Mandela and other Poems deals with humanity of the human race and the perennial problems of aging and death.
When one reads through those collections and situates them in the times they were published, one would see how J.P. Clark not only changed his themes as times changed but also how he portrayed the colour of his times based on what he felt was expedient at the time. That for me is something unique about the poet who not gave his all to his craft but was unapologetic about it. Perhaps that also explains why, when he was sharply criticized for writing Casualties, the poem which, for me, remains one of his finest in terms of lyrical power, he rose to his own defence by saying “he merely portrayed events as he saw them.” Still, the controversy that that poem stirred notwithstanding, it speaks to us yet 50 years after it was published and will continue to tug at our consciences until things are done right in our country.
It is also significant enough that the highly celebrated poet chose to exit the stage exactly 50 years after that poem was published, and sadly with the state of things in our country still remaining parlous. That the poet chose to depart now is a clear message to us all. “We are all casualties,” as the poem continues to tell us. Indeed, the casualties are not only those who are dead/ They are well out of it/ The casualties are not only those who are dead/ Though they await burial by instalments…
Let me conclude by saying that 50 years after the Nigerian civil war, as the poet says, we still cannot hear each other speak. And that is why we are all casualties of the war still raging.
The drums overwhelm the guns
Caught in the clash of counter
Claims and charges
When not in the niche others left,
All casualties of the war
Because we cannot hear each other speak.
– Nehru Odeh, journalist and writer, is the author of The Patience of an Embattled Storyteller, a book that foresaw the adoption, rape and murder of females by terrorists in Nigeria. He writes for TheNEWS.
Dad Was My Best Friend, Confidant and Protector – Ema Clark
Ema Clark, the third daughter of Professors JP and Ebun Clark ( the two others: Dr Ebiere Clark and Dr. Hephzibah Egede), is a graduate of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, The Nigerian Law School, University College London and The London School of Economics and Political Science. She was a Chevening scholar. Ema has worked in Bond Bank, Intercontinental Bank and Zenith Bank for close to ten years, handling diverse portfolios in branch management, marketing, sales, etc. She spoke to Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor/ Director of TheNEWS and PM NEWS, via email, on her father.
Please, accept our condolences, once again, on the passing of your father. For how long was ill? What was the cause of his death? Were there signs that he would not survive the illness? What was his attitude towards death and life- after-death?
He took ill 33 days before his final passing. He died at 86 years and ten months, and I must say this as most of the publications about his death claimed he was 85. My father was born on December 6 1933 as the April 4, 1935 date which many in the literary world are more familiar with, was his school age. He officially corrected this during his 80th birthday celebrations in 2013 and I would just like to reiterate it. He was briefly ill and died in a top hospital in Lagos, after living a very fulfilled life; He prepared for his death ahead of time, as he had constructed his grave years ago and let us know how and when he wanted to be buried. These clear instructions guided us and enabled us to bury him within his specified time of three days. My father was always very articulate and specific about what he wanted and how he wanted things to be done as there were never any grey areas with him.
What would you miss most about him?
My father was not just my Dad as he was my best friend, confidant and protector. I feel like a part of me has been taken away, but we thank God because we know he is a Father to those who are fatherless. One of the last things he said to me three weeks before he died was: “I have held your hand all your life. This is how your mum and I brought you up”. He left it at that and it was later that I realised that he was sounding a warning to me that he would not be with me soon.
Apart from what he said in his Will and Testament concerning a simple burial and you not fighting over his possessions are there any other things he told you about his will, not made public, that you would like to share with us?
Those things remain personal
You were raised by a reputable Yoruba mother and a notable Ijaw father. In what ways did this upbringing help your appreciation of the two cultures?
Ethnic division is a waste of time as I have found from the experience of coming from mixed parentage that there is strength in diversity. I see people for who they are and for me it is not about where they come from. I have friends and do business with people across the country. I also believe that growing up in a multicultural home has made me very sensitive to and respectful of other people’s cultures and values.
How would you describe him as a father?
He was a hands-on dad who always took interest in the welfare and progress of his wife and children and he maintained this approach till the day he died. He would literally take a bullet for you if he had to and protect you from any danger he felt could harm you. He was not controlling, though, as his approach was to give you a lot of rational advice that he hoped would help to guide you. Sometimes I resisted his advice but I often found that refusing his counsel ended up being to my detriment. To show you what a dedicated father he was, my father single handedly looked after my siblings and I when we were very young, during the year my mum had to go to do her MPhil in Leeds.
In most cases girls are closer and sometimes indulged by their fathers while boys tend to be favourites of their mothers. How has that played out in your family? Was he tough or soft on you at home?
My father was close to all his children. He emphasised to us his girls that we must be strong and never afraid to show that strength. He was also a strong proponent of gender diversity as he made us understand that we had the capacity to compete with anybody, whether male or female. He also encouraged us constantly to develop ourselves mentally and academically and to work very hard. He was extremely kind to us but I don’t think he ever indulged us as even if he wanted to, my mum would never allow that as strict discipline was a hallmark of our upbringing. He had an exceptional relationship with all his girls and his only son.
In what ways did he impact your lives? How did his huge status affect you? Did he ever influence your choice of careers?
He was instrumental to my decision to study law and was not too happy with me when I decided not to practise as initially I took up a career in banking. He never liked the fact that I went into banking but left me alone to do what I wanted. When I decided to leave the industry and become an entrepreneur veering into HR, he was also very supportive. I think my father’s simple approach to life will always guide my life. My father had an extremely simple lifestyle as he eschewed flamboyance and excess. He also had very strong uncompromising values, especially about being blunt, honest and straightforward with people. He was also very supportive and loyal to his friends. If my dad was your friend he was there for you.
Your parents were obviously very close–happily married for 56 years. What would you say kept them going? How did they settle their quarrels?
A very deep friendship which was strengthened by the ability of both parties to always forgive each other, no matter what. My father and mother were like an inseparable team and we always knew that it was unwise to ever attempt to get in between both of them as if you attempted to fight one person you would end up fighting both of them as they always supported and defended each other. We saw this play out till the day he died.
Which of his works–plays, essays, poems, memoirs– is your favourite and why?
The collections titled “of sleep and old age” and “once upon a child” as in those collections my father talks a lot about himself.
How would you describe him as a writer? What were his writing schedules like? Did he ever wake up early or sleep late while working on a book? What were his moods like when a creative work was on the boil?
He was a prolific writer who was able to channel his life experience into his work. He wrote whenever the inspiration came and kept writing till a few days before he died. When he became too sick to hold a pen, he dictated instead and he read out three poems to my brother to write down, while on his hospital bed, two weeks before he died.
Was he ever in the habit of sharing his thoughts on literature, other writers, politics, life, etc., etc., with you and your mum? Could you recall some of his views? What, for instance, was his view on political activism? Did he feel fulfilled as a writer? Could you share with me some of his criticisms of Nigeria, Africa and the world?
He was very fulfilled as a writer, as writing was his passion all his life, especially writing poetry. He shared most of his thoughts about his work with my mum more than anyone else as she was his backbone and most important critic. We talked about Nigeria and global affairs in general as he was very interested in local and global happenings. He was very saddened by socioeconomic and political conditions in Nigeria and wrote about this frequently. He was disappointed that the country had not fulfilled its potential since independence, but he understood that compared to other advanced countries it was a young country and should be given its time to grow. He was a Nigerian to the core as he believed in the country and its indivisibility and he was not ashamed of his nationality and where he belonged. Fundamentally, he was an Ijaw nationalist and proud of his Niger Delta roots and this is why his beloved Ijaw ancestry played a central aspect of his writings throughout his life; he made us proud to be Ijaw and from a young age made us conscious of who we are, ensuring that we went home to Kiagbodo not only to visit our grandparents but also to get familiar with our ancestral roots. Nevertheless, he also insisted that we must be familiar with our Yoruba side and made sure that we also had constant contact with our Yoruba grandparents and family.
Is there any of you taking after him as a writer, an academic and scholar?
My sister Dr. Hepzibah Egede, is currently the academic in the family. She lives in Cardiff where she is currently the pioneer LLB Programme Director at Cardiff Metropolitan University.He was extremely proud of her and her achievements. I have a passion for writing but I have never really developed this skill re literary scholarship.
When he retired as Professor of English in 1980, he established and ran Pec Repertory Theatre at Onikan in Lagos. Were there any other businesses he engaged in? What kind of businessman was he?
My father was not a businessman as he devoted his life mainly to academia, writing his plays and poems and to documenting things about his beloved Niger Delta. Nevertheless he made key investments in property early in his life that allowed him to live a modest but comfortable life in his retirement. I believe details of these investments and how he got the funds to invest were made available in his biography titled JP Clark: A Voyage, written by Professor Femi Osofisan, his official biographer
How did he relate to his siblings? And what sense of family–nuclear or extended–did you learn from him?
He was especially close to his two elder siblings, Chief E.K. Clark and Ambassador B.A. Clark; when they were together they always ate from the same bowl of food and when they were apart they made sure they spoke to each other every day. He was also very close to his younger sister and brother Mrs. Koshare Clark-Udo Udoye and Dr. C.C. Clark. Uncle C.C. Clark was instrumental in caring for him when he fell ill, while Uncle EK and Uncle BA literally took care of his burial. Aunty Koshare, like her brothers, was inconsolable when he died and we pray that like us, God will strengthen all of them and provide them with comfort. He was known for being the one to coordinate and look after everyone and this is why his death deeply touched his siblings. He comes from a large extended prominent Ijaw family and it was heartwarming to see the love and care shared by his other siblings and nieces and nephews when he died showing how much he had touched everyone’s life. I’ve learnt through this how important family is as they are all that’s left at the end of the day.
Tell me about his social life? He was a member of The Ikoyi Boat Club. Was he a member of any other clubs?
My Dad did not like pomp and pageantry when it came to marking events in his life but that didn’t stop him from celebrating events with his friends and family as he was certainly not an introvert though he could be as reserved as he was outgoing. I wouldn’t say he was a socialite, but he did enjoy going on outings with his close friends and family; apart from his membership at the Lagos Motor Boat Club, which he took because of his love for water and because it gave him an opportunity to socialise with his friends in a sterling and ambient environment, he was not a member of any other clubs.
Who were his close friends?
He had many good friends and they are too many to count but I will mention the ones I know very well: Emeritus Prof Wole Soyinka, Chief Bruce Onaprakpeya, Professor Dele Kasunmu, Uncle Sam Amuka-Pemu, late Uncle Gabriel Okara, Late Uncle Sesan Dipeolu, Chief Akin Disu, late Prof Abiola Irele, Emeritus Prof Ayo Banjo and Emeritus Prof E.J. Alagoa and Uncle Peter Enahoro
Between Lagos and Kiagbodo which of them did he prefer and why?
Definitely Funama, Kiagbodo otherwise known as the house of books which is the small settlement by the water that he built from his blood and sweat 41 years ago; but he also did not mind Lagos because this was where my mum lived. He also did not mind Lagos because he had great love and respect for his Yoruba In-laws as he admired their industry and conscientiousness. He particularly had great admiration for his late father-in-law Alhaji J.O. Odutola, the renowned industrialist, his late mother-in-law Madam Olusola Ogunbanjo and his Uncle-in-law Chief Dr C.O. Ogunbanjo CON also a renowned industrialist and father of commercial law in Nigeria. He was particularly close to his mother-in-law who was a great supporter of his till the day she died.
He was not travelling much outside of Nigeria. Was there any reason for that?
In the last decade of my father’s life, his desire was to spend more time in his country home settlement in the Niger Delta, where he was eventually buried. He had no desire to travel as he felt he had seen all he needed to see after travelling to several countries around the world during his lifetime. He felt international travel was an unnecessary frivolity and strain on his life. In the last two years of his life he spent more time in Funama, than Lagos and this was only disrupted by the Covid-19 lockdown which made him remain in Lagos, where he passed on. We thank God for this, though, as at least when he took ill my father was surrounded by his family who showered him with love and complete dedication, never leaving his side till the day he died.
In what ways are you planning to honour and preserve his legacy?
We are discussing this right now as a family as my father had many things he wanted us to do to preserve his legacy. We will let the public know once we decide on what it is that we are going to do.
My Father Respected My Mother Greatly – Elaye Clark
Elaye Clark, 42, is the last child and only son of Professors JP and Ebun Clark. He is a graduate of Mass Communication and Computer Science. He has been away in the UK for over 20 years but now spends most of his time in Nigeria. He spoke to Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor/Director of TheNEWS and PM NEWS, via email, on his father.
Please, accept our condolences, once again, on the passing of your father. For how long was ill? What was the cause of his death? Were there signs that he would not survive the illness? What was his attitude towards death and life- after-death?
Forgive me sir, but I won’t be answering any question relating to his illness or the nature of his passing. Rest assured, he did not die of Covid-19.
What would you miss most about him? Apart from what he said in his Will and Testament concerning a simple burial and you not fighting over his possessions are there any other things he told you about his will, not made public, that you would like to share with us?
What I’m going to miss most of all is his presence in my life. No matter where I was in the world, my father was always a phone call away. He was always there, always had a story or a piece of advice, and an opinion. He listened and respected my opinions, even if he did not always agree with them. He was a man of integrity, even if it sometimes put him at a disadvantage. He was a man who believed in family and cared so much about the wellbeing and welfare of his children and his wife, not to mention his extended family. He was also a man of great humour (sometimes mischievous), with a loud bellowing laugh which captured any room he was in. These are some of the things I miss.
You were raised by a reputable Yoruba mother and a notable Ijaw father. In what ways did this upbringing help your appreciation of the two cultures?
My appreciation of my upbringing is based on respect and a strong sense of identity. My father was a proud Ijaw man, but he respected my mother’s culture. There were no open clashes concerning ethnicity. My father’s main desire in relation to culture, was that we know who we are, and respect our joint identities and roots. One of the last things he apparently told my mother to remind me during one of their discussions, was that I should remember that I inherit or I am blessed with two cultures.
How would you describe him as a father? In most cases girls are closer and sometimes indulged by their fathers while boys tend to be favourites of their mothers. How has that played out in your family? Was he tough or soft on you at home? In what ways did he impact your lives? How did his huge status affect you? Did he ever influence your choice of careers?
My father was an authority figure when I was growing up. He wasn’t a scary ogre figure, we just couldn’t relate to each other. I didn’t really have a close relationship with him in my early years. I was obviously closer to my mother. In fact, when it came to explaining his works for example for a school assignment, it was my mother, another Professor of English in the house, I would turn to. However, as I grew older, in my later teens, my father and I developed a closer relationship which only got stronger the older I became. We were able to relate more and I guess talk about and discuss more mature topics or issues. He understood me more and I better understood and appreciated him. I also learnt I could approach him directly on a man to man basis. I didn’t have to anymore go through my mother.
Your parents were obviously very close–happily married for 56 years. What would you say kept them going? How did they settle their quarrels?
What kept them going all these years was God’s grace, and good old fashion love and respect. They were a team, who operated on the strengths of each other. The weaknesses of one would be covered by the strength of the other. My father greatly respected my mother, and would defend her no matter what. There was no micromanagement, they trusted and relied on each other for most things. Their quarrels could be legendary, even in old age. But as quickly as the quarrels came, they normally went away just as fast.
Which of his works–plays, essays, poems, memoirs– is your favourite and why? How would you describe him as a writer? What were his writing schedules like? Did he ever wake up early or sleep late while working on a book? What were his moods like when a creative work was on the boil?
My father till his passing would tease me that I did not know, appreciate, or understand his works, especially his poetry, which he considered the highest form of literature. I would usually roll my eyes in a dramatic manner in response. It was a game I liked playing with him. I enjoy reading his works, especially in a casual manner. I don’t particularly have a favourite, but when I read Night Rain or Casualties, they elicit strong emotions of the past – my growing up. My father was still writing to the very end. He had his pen and notebooks always close by. My father would work whenever the inspiration hit, whether in the early hours of the morning or late at night. In the last few years, he would share his creations with me before they were published, seeking my (untrained) opinion. In fact, one of the things I take pride in is that in the last couple of years, I helped my dad type some of his poems. My father was never afraid to revise or rework a poem till it felt right. It was an honour to be involved in his creative process. Before he passed, he wrote four poems which I typed out for him by his hospital bed. One of them was for my mother, which I believe has been a great comfort to her.
Was he ever in the habit of sharing his thoughts on literature, other writers, politics, life, etc., etc., with you and your mum? Could you recall some of his views? What, for instance, was his view on political activism?
My father had an opinion on most things, but did not pretend to be an expert on things he was not familiar with. He respected writers who understood the history of their craft. That was the main advice he would give an aspiring writer – hone your style, know the history of your craft. We discussed almost every topic, including politics. He wanted more for and from our country, and I think he felt his generation in a lot of cases had failed Nigeria. I think he would have been quite impressed with the #Endsars movement and the commitment of young people to a common cause.
Did he feel fulfilled as a writer? Could you share with me some of his criticisms of Nigeria, Africa and the world?
I believe my father was very fulfilled as a writer, in that he was able to draw out what was inside him and create literary works which are enjoyed and are an inspiration to many. His criticisms about most things including Nigeria was the failure to not fulfill the promise and potential expected or required.
Is there any of you taking after him as a writer, an academic and scholar?
His second born, my sister, is an academic in the UK. She is a senior lecturer in law and programme director at Cardiff Metropolitan University. I believe as children of both my dad and mum, we all feel we have a budding writer trying to claw itself out of us.
When he retired as Professor of English in 1980, he established and ran Pec Repertory Theatre at Onikan in Lagos. Were there any other businesses he engaged in? What kind of businessman was he?
My father was not a businessman and did not pretend to be one. He was however quite capable in most things he took an interest in. My father managed the construction of a number of houses in his lifetime, for his immediate and extended family. I always joked that he should have been a property developer in another life.
How did he relate to his siblings? And what sense of family–nuclear or extended–did you learn from him?
He was very close to his siblings, especially his two older brothers, Chief E.K. Clark and Ambassador B.A. Clark. I always enjoyed the times when I was fortunate to join three of them for a meal. They would always make fun of me for eating Banga and Starch with a fork and knife. The stories they would tell were always enjoyable, and I would leave feeling a bit smarter and better informed after spending time with them. I know they all miss my dad, their brother very dearly. The effort they all put into ensuring my father was buried at our home in the village within three days as he wanted showed how much they loved him.
Tell me about his social life? He was a member of The Ikoyi Boat Club. Was he a member of any other clubs?
My father was very social. He enjoyed good company, liked meeting interesting people regardless of age or background. As much as he enjoyed being with people, my father also enjoyed his own company, especially in the last few years when he retired to his house in the village. He was a member of the Lagos Motor Boat Club for 44 years, and enjoyed going there because the water reminded him of being at home in the village.
Between Lagos and Kiagbodo which of them did he prefer and why?
In the last few years of his life, my father preferred to be in his own settlement which he called Funama, a house of books, near Kiagbodo. He preferred it because it was home, and he enjoyed the tranquility and being beside water.
He was not travelling much outside of Nigeria. Was there any reason for that?
My father lost the taste for travel outside Nigeria years ago. He just loved being in Nigeria, and hated the cold. It was one of the reasons in the last few years that motivated me to start spending more time in Nigeria. It was the only way I would have the opportunity of seeing him.
In what ways are you planning to honour and preserve his legacy?
We intend to ensure his works remain in print and circulation, and are performed as often as possible. My father’s works are timeless and relevant, especially now, touching on various issues like gender equality and cultural identity. We hope newer generations are exposed to his works.