The recently concluded Lagos International Poetry Festival (LIPFest 17) was indeed a feast of conversations and much more. The workshops and panel discussions addressed issues ranging from the erasure of female voices in Nigerian poetry to the restrictions placed on female poets in this day and age. In the workshop, ‘Where are the women?’ facilitated by Ruth Sutoye and Theresa Lola, participants explored the forgotten voices of Nigerian women poets like Molara Ogundipe. Ogundipe is a leading scholar, writer, educator, poet, literary critic, feminist and activist. Apart from numerous academic and general publications, Ogundipe is the author of a poetry collection, Sew the Old Days and Other Poems, published in 1985. However, for a woman whose work is greatly dedicated to critiquing masculine excesses and patriarchy, the disregard for her poetry seems almost deliberate. I see no reason why Ogundipe’s poems are not at the forefront of literary intellectual discourse like those of her male peers.
The poetry masterclass with acclaimed novelist and poet, Chris Abani, was quite insightful and enriching. Whether or not you are a writer of poetry, what Abani shared with attendees were literary nuggets that can be applied to writing prose and poetry. Abani advised that writers strive for emotional honesty and contrary to popular opinion, take on subject matters that they know little or nothing about, something Abani is recognized for. “Don’t abide by creative writing aphorisms like, ‘write what you know’, said Abani. Why would you do that? It’s boring already. The question is, what don’t you know about what you thought you knew?”
The panel discussion, Healing in its wing, which featured Titilope Sonuga, Koleka Putuma, Sabrina Mahfouz, Sophia Walker and Wana Udobang, was timely and enlightening. It brought afore the challenges faced by female writers, performers and poets around the world; how they are predisposed to stereotype and prejudice within the creative space with people dictating what issues their works should address, how it should be addressed and what character form they ought to take. And also how the burden of responsibility to show or restore humanity to the world has fallen on the female artist.
“If I had a penny for every time I was taken aside by someone and told to calm down, be a bit more gentle, or wear a skirt to become more successful in my career …” – Sophia Walker
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the word, angry, or aggressive [used to describe my work] … and it’s like [people are asking] where are your poems about butterflies and pink things?” – Koleka Putuma
“I’ve had experiences where I have been called to perform and there’s a prescription on what I should deliver [like] I’m not supposed to go outside of that.” – Wana Udobang
LIPFest 17 also featured a workshop on performance poetry with Dike Chukwumerije, Katie Bonna and Sophia Walker; an Uncensored panel discussion on representation and sexuality in African literature with Romeo Oriogun, Chibuihe Obi, and Kola Tubosun; and exciting sessions like poetry after dark, performance poetry showcase and a closing concert dubbed, Jollof verses and palm wine music.
LIPFest was a fellowship of truth tellers for truth tellers, a haven for uncensored, unapologetic discourse, and a sanctum of sanity for lost and wandering poetic souls in this clime. For writers and lovers of poetry like me, it was home; a place where we came alive. When founder and director of LIPFest, Efe Paul Azino said the festival was going to be “very exciting”, he was absolutely right. Events like LIPFest are super significant in Nigeria’s literary space to spur conversations, welcomed and unwelcomed, and to push ‘unpopular’ genres of literature like poetry into our collective consciousness.