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Obii Ifejika’s Multifaceted Use of Poetry in Navigating the Human Experience

Obii Ifejika’s Multifaceted Use of Poetry in Navigating the Human Experience

Obii Ifejika - Afrocritik

“I tend to use poetry to navigate the human experience” _ Obii Ifejika

By Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera 

One day while Obii Ifejika was in junior secondary school, she chanced upon a collection of poetry which belonged to a friend. She borrowed it and began to read. It was an eccentric book from whatever she had been used to at the time. And flipping through the pages as she read, it was as though the book had opened up a new path before her.  “What fascinated me most about the book was that it was in someone’s handwriting”, she told me. After she was done reading the book, she grew a hunger to write her own poems. “The first poem I wrote was titled ‘Tears’ and it was something like a sonnet, or even less than a sonnet when I wrote it. And since then, I began to write and have not looked back.”

Obii has since gone on to become a spoken word poet and storyteller of national repute, with a national competition under her belt. She is also a part of numerous collectives that have organised some of the most important events that celebrate poetry in the country.

Throughout her secondary school days, Obii maintained a dedicated practice of writing poems and filling them in notebooks. From childhood, she had developed a love for books from her father who had a large shelf full of books in their home where she grew up in Lagos. She brought her reading habit into her vocation with poetry. Among the poets she loved were Christina Rosetti, the 19th-century British Romantic, Sohail Ahmed,  the Punjabi poet, and Leopold Sedar Senghor, the Negritude poet. It was their works which she imitated as she filled her notebooks with writing. About why she was writing, she says, “When I wrote those poems then, I did not have any intentions to publish them or anything. I just wrote them because I had this compulsion to do so and when I filled a note, I kept it away.” It wasn’t until the Internet opened up opportunities for creatives in the early 2010s to connect and share their works that she began to share hers. By then her work had improved as a result of reading and practice.

Obii Ifejika - Afrocritik
Obii Ifejika

In 2007, she was a student at the Redeemers University, Asewele, and in addition to reading poetry, she discovered spoken word poetry, especially in the American scene. She would watch many videos online with her friends, from various spoken word channels like Def Jam poetry. One of the spoken word artists she admired was the Nigerian-American poet, Bassey Ikpi. Later that year, it was announced that Ikpi was coming to Nigeria to host the National Poetry Slam competition. Excited by the prospect of meeting Ikpi and the opportunity to share her poetry with the world, Obii entered the competition. Before then she had never performed poetry in public and had only continued to write on the page as she did in her secondary school days. “But by this time, I knew what good poetry sounded like”, she told me, “and I learn best by imitation. So I was able to come up with the poems with which I contested.”

Obii eventually partook in the National Poetry Slam and won it. But what surprised her the most was connecting with the community of spoken word artists in Nigeria. “I never knew spoken word poetry was such a big industry. So the National Poetry Slam provided me with the opportunity to meet some people who I might not have met easily and it became the beginning of a journey.”  

Obii’s newly found fame did not just introduce her to the community of spoken word artists but opened before her a string of opportunities where she was now invited to poetry events to perform her poetry. 

By 2014, Obii joined an eight-man team of poets which included Efe Paul Azino, Titilope Sonuga, Bassey Ikpi, Sheila Ojei, Ndukwe Onuoha, Donna Ogunnaike in a project which was arguably Nigeria’s first poetry theatre to perform a show titled “Finding Home”. The event debuted at Terra Kulture Centre in Lagos, and it was a collaboration between home-based poets and those in the diaspora, in which the poets from the diaspora wrote back, with the aim of telling compelling stories about exile. “Participating in this project helped me realise that I had a love, not just for writing poems, but for narrating poetry…” The dream of the organisers of this project was to have it staged in Nigeria while touring across Africa. They eventually succeeded in taking the show beyond Africa as they performed in Berlin in October 2017, and again in Lagos in 2015. 

Obii Ifejika - Afrocritik

By the mid-2010s, there was a renaissance of poetry in Nigeria, with Nigerian poets meeting and forming collectives to help promote the art. Obii joined a team, led by Efe Paul Azino, to produce the inaugural edition of the Lagos International Poetry Festival (LIPFest) in 2015. She went on to perform in the festival in 2016, 2017 and 2018 and produced Swallow, her first one-woman theatre poetry performance at the Lagos Theatre Festival in 2019. One of her biggest passions is magnifying marginalised voices through her art. “I tend to use poetry to navigate the human experience”, she said, “and it is always a good opportunity to increase the volume of marginalised conversations. And that really is what Swallow is all about. People don’t want to deal with those conversations. Or work towards resolving the problems that arise from not having those conversations. It gives me joy to see that I am somebody’s voice.”

On  New Year’s Eve of 2020, Obii received news that her best friend had died. The news sent her spiralling into a maze of emptiness. “I had no expression to explain the bottom of that grief. And for a time, it had me engaging in a lot of vices just to cope”, she told me. As she tried to recover from grief, she turned to her art. To begin writing again, she joined a group of writers who met weekly on Clubhouse and wrote stories and poems from writing prompts. “I discovered a part of me that loved to write short stories.” 

The success of her participation in the writing prompts awoke in her, a pulsing enthusiasm to continue to express herself. “Afterwards, I did not want another day to pass that I did not know how to express myself. And I decided I was going to keep it going.” She began a newsletter/podcast on Substack which she named, “Sober Sundays”. Every Sunday, she posts both the text and audio recording of either a poem or a short story for the week. “I wanted it to be in such a way that if people just wanted to read, they could. And if they just wanted to sit back and listen, they could too.”

Just as she wrote poems in her secondary school days with the primary motivation of being herself, the process of writing from prompts and modifying them for her “Sober Sundays” became a means of meditation and self-discovery. On Substack, her newsletter slowly found its tribe of subscribers, many of whom have given much positive feedback. Her website has also been recommended by alternative therapy practitioners, including Dana Leigh Lyons, a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine, who added her podcast to a list of essential podcasts to listen to for the wellness of the mind.

Sober Sundays is a podcast for stories and poems posted every Sunday. The poems and stories appear in text and are recorded in audio. And although they are written from prompts, they always exude ironical wisdom, steeped in imaginative vigour. These qualities are demonstrated in her poems. In the poem titled, “I don’t want anyone”, Obii’s ironical lens of looking at life, and mourning the double-edged tragedy that it can sometimes be, is demonstrated in these lines, “I don’t want roses if all they become/ is a blanket of petals for graves dug too early/ I don’t want prayers if we only sing/ because we are two hymns shy of an empty tabernacle/… I don’t want laughter if our rib cages/ are so soundproof that we can’t hear the anguish too…” In the poem, she juxtaposes the binary of hope and despair that life can sometimes be, where often the former masks the latter. The poet, being idealistic, tries to demand from life conditions whose supposed hopefulness also echoes its anguish. Conditions that are not characterised by ecstasies masking the anguish of life.

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In another poem titled, “How to Swim”, she points out that the lessons of surviving in life are in the ironies, “You never learned how to swim/Every pool is an ocean to panic/ Your breath fights to escape being trapped in your lungs/ Your arms and feet think “land” and imitate running/The first thing they teach in swim class is/ How surrender is the survival you seek/ But faced with survival you forget the lesson”. These poems, which represent the intricate ironies of life, show a poet seeking language that navigates some of life’s most intricate struggles. She also demonstrates this in her stories. In “A Good Whiff”, a woman discovers her husband has cheated, having no desire for her after he returns from work. The main element which drives the story is the sensation of the main character’s observation, which begins with the change in how her husband makes love to her. This is a storytelling skill where prose is expressed in poetry, and the unuttered is spoken. In “Say ‘no thank you’”, she writes about a crown which reminisces about the baggage it has put on kings and queens since history and the illusion people have of royalty.

Sober Sundays has been an integral part of Obii’s development as an artist in the past couple of years, which is why she has kept it a largely personal project. Like the poems she wrote in junior secondary school, the pieces she publishes on Sober Sundays, are a personal reflection. “Some of my listeners have suggested that I bring in some other poets as guests in the podcast, but I have never envisioned it going that way. This is something I do for myself. A personal project. A way to continue to be who I am.”

Obii Ifejika - Afrocritik

Sober Sundays is more like a revolutionary trail on the path of Obii’s artistry. Her poetry has garnered popularity for its quality of advocacy which lends itself to the arc of self-expression and speaking out on social issues. Through her poetry she has helped raise awareness in various aspects that promote a sense of belonging; in 2019, she collaborated with Heritage Bank and wrote a poem on the Nigerian heritage; commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation, she wrote a poem raising awareness for credible elections in Nigeria; and her theatre performances have been a way to interact with her audiences through poetry. But Sober Sundays has been a means of self-reinvention, by which she also connects to the outside world. And it connects the worlds of the written and oral poetry both of which she delves into.

Obii is influenced by a medley of spoken word and page poets from Bassey Ikpi, one of the earliest spoken word poets of Nigerian descent to have inspired her, Suhier Hammad, who she credits for encouraging and coaching her when she was about to compete at the Nigerian National Poetry Slam, Dominique Cristina, a poet she always watches and looks after, and the American playwright, Anna Deavere Smith, who she credits as her biggest inspiration when it came to stage theatre work. For the page poets she reads, Christina Rosetti, the British Romantic poet who was one of her early inspirations, the Nobel laureate, Wislawa Szymborska, and contemporaries like Kechi Nomu, Romeo Oriogun, and Ocean Vuong, whose style she aspires to. She has also been inspired by young artists who love their work, and whose works have a multidisciplinary direction, a bent which they introduce to their writing. “One such person is Ofem Ubi. He combines filmmaking, photography and poetry. Even if it is just poetry, he tends to be very experimental. And I think what that does is widen your perspective and just gives you more room for creative exploration, really.”

In 2024, Obii is bringing herself back to the stage. And she is looking forward to working in collaborative systems which help forward the cause of poets. “I am leaning more into systems and supporting systems that teach poetry, and, Swallow, my one-woman show is coming back this year,” she told me. Her artistic oeuvre itself takes after many of the artists she admires and dabbles between the page and the stage. Although this is Obii’s first production in five years, she doesn’t really see it as a return to the stage even though she agrees it is technically correct. “I just don’t go to the stage except I have new things to say. And I am coming this time with fresh and new perspectives in my art.”

Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera is a writer and freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @Chukwuderaedozi.

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