“Well, You Know I’m Not A Poetry Person”: Toasting Toyin Akinosho At 60, By Ogaga Ifowodo
Toasting Toyin Akinosho as Geologist, Journalist, Flâneur and More
A contradiction tugs at the heart of this tribute, telescoped by its main title to which I will come at the end of this essay. The word “contradiction” too easily conveys the wrong connotation, so let me be clear: I deploy it here as a sign of sincerity. And, so, of true homage, our subject being nothing if not an honest, plain-speaking man. At any rate, contradiction is the inescapable aspect with which the authors of two tributes paid ten years ago also grappled. Akin Adesokan, who has known the man longer than I, began the piece he wrote to honour Akinosho at fifty years of age with a confession. “It is difficult but inescapable for me,” he said, “to write about Toyin Akinosho, the Lagos-based publisher, geologist, journalist, crowd-gatherer, man-on-the-prowl, self-described ‘cultural enthusiast,’ and grand historian of the Nigerian ‘pepper-soup elite’.” Yet, he went on to do a profile of nearly four thousand words, showing that the difficulty, actually, is a reflection of the complexity of this intriguing individual. Take a look at the list Adesokan gives us of Akinosho’s multi-dimensional life: no one can be all of those things who walks a straight line! Such a person is bound to come very close to Walt Whitman’s self-portrait (as the portrait of America) in his famous poem, “Song of Myself”:
“(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
Let me just add that the modernist French poet, Charles Baudelaire, who inspires my title and will be invoked at some length in this piece, argued strenuously for the right to self-contradiction to be deemed as one of the rights of man canvassed by Thomas Paine.
Which is why I think that contradiction, or complexity, if you like, is precisely the sort of difficulty that Bayo Olupohonda, a much younger admirer, evinces when he says that Akinosho “has the ability to smile and frown at the same time.” It is a “phenomenon” that he can neither “decipher” nor quite understand: “a smile and a deadpan expression on the same face,” given that “when he smiles, it hardly leaves his mouth.” I have not myself observed this admittedly puzzling trait, despite living on and off under the same roof with him for about a year between 2014 and 2015 while relocating back home from the United States and seeking as a poet to prove Shelley wrong by becoming an acknowledged legislator of the republic (I’m sad to report that Shelley won the bet!). Poets, Shelley famously lamented, are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
But that picture of a face frowning and smiling at the same time allows me to return to the contradiction I say dogs every effort to understand the uniqueness of Akinosho in Nigeria’s riotously fecund literary landscape. It goes without saying that he keeps the company of one in that landscape. He is an exotic plant whose branches and leaves stop just short of not resembling each other, never mind any of its neighbouring trees. While it is true that art or any form of cultural practice is, generally speaking, a democratic avocation, Akinosho comes to it from a not altogether strange but nonetheless fascinating combination of paths and by-ways, all distinguished by the fact that none shows him as having ever tried to be an artist. He is not a poet (for a denizen of the Ibadan-Lagos neck of the sprawling Nigerian literary woods once described by no other than Mabel Segun as one in which if you threw a stone in those heady days of the 80s and 90s, it would fall on a poet); not a novelist (for one whose main literary love is fiction); not a playwright nor actor (for one whose entry into the culture scene was through the portals of J. P. Clark’s defunct PEC Repertory Theatre as something of an honorary associate); not a painter nor sculptor (for one who frequents museums and galleries and has even co-curated an exhibition); can’t pluck a guitar (for all of his ardour for, and promotion of, that West African invention, highlife)! And, yet, he proves himself as fully conversant with all the twists and turns, intersections and destinations, even the flora, fauna and perhaps soil structure of the terrain of the many roads he has travelled to becoming a self-described culture enthusiast. What accounts for this self-assurance when he could very easily just betray himself as a dilettante or poseur?
I suspect that Akinosho might consider this question to be “solemn rubbish,” as Derek Walcott thought that W. H. Auden would most certainly have said of a post-mortem memorial in his honour at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York where he (Walcott) paid him homage. Only that Akinosho, to return in passing to the contradiction posed by my title, is — well, “not really a poetry person.” Still, from Walcott’s poem, “Eulogy to W. H. Auden,” come a phrase and a line that I find helpful in “deciphering” the phenomenon that puzzled one of his younger admirers. Walcott says that “as maps remember countries, mien/defines a man.” If Akinosho’s mien, according to Olupohonda, is defined by frowning and smiling at the same time, it may either be read as the sign of a confused man or of a mind rivetted by the complexity of the ideas and ideals he is forever pursuing. Or, perhaps, of a man constrained to assume a detached posture the better to observe and reflect on the signal failure of his society to come into its own, squandering every opportunity for self-actualisation with baffling indifference. The banality of it all, the tragi-comedic character of each successive effort at self-sabotage, is bound to lead to the observer not knowing whether to laugh or cry, smile or frown. It is, I suspect, the sort of mien one expects of the flâneur, that symbol of modernity abstracted from the streets of 19th Century Paris by the poet, Charles Baudelaire, particularly in his essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” and by Walter Benjamin in the analysis of the work of Baudelaire and the American writer Edgar Allan Poe. The flâneur is defined by his passivity, his seemingly aimless activity, his simultaneous immersion and yet detachment from his society. He was known to stroll the streets of Paris with the sole aim of being an acutely aware observer of his environment. The picture of the Baudelaire-Benjamin flâneur is as follows: he is a man who could “reap aesthetic meaning from the spectacle of the teeming crowds of the metropolitan environment”; he is distinguished by idleness and acute observation skills, able to read his city as one might read a text. In his article “Forget the Flâneur,” Conor McGarrigle quotes Keith Tester’s view of this modernist figure as “the man of the crowd, rather than the man in the crowd,” for even though “immersed in the crowd, his awareness of this position renders him aloof from it.” On this last characteristic, it might be noted just how much Akinosho too often loves to take the backstage, even at events organised by or for him.
This modernist picture of the flâneur does not, however, quite capture Akinosho. No surprise, as the notion itself has been subjected to scrutiny, in particular by those who think that its constitutive elements, the environment of its creation, have so changed that he is a recognisable but different figure in the post-modern epoch, never mind the post-colonial milieu. For instance, Martina Lauster, writing in the Modern Language Review, argues that Benjamin’s picture of the flâneur was drawn with blinkered vision, the blinkers being his “one-sided understanding of modernity as involving self-loss, alienation, and fetishization.” For his part, McGarrigle, in the essay already mentioned, sets out to re-imagine the “detached, passive male observer” and replace him with the “alternative, more representative model” who is “of necessity engaged” with his society, and is thus a “disruptive activist who does not merely observe, but actively seeks to create alternative narratives and shape outcomes.” McGarrigle chooses for his purpose the cyber flâneur — we live, after all, in the era of hyper-connectivity in a global village, dominated by information technology colossi like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple that bring the world into our bedrooms or wherever we might be, while simultaneously enabling us to bring our bedrooms or any space we might be occupying at any point in time to the world.
But even if more inclined to see the flâneur in his original suit, he could still be an activist. Some scholars, McGarrigle points out, see elements of activism in him, replacing his passivity with “an overt political and activist agenda which sought not only to observe, but to actively change.” Thus, for David Harvey, the flâneur “maps the city’s terrain and evokes its living qualities,” rendering it “legible for us in a very distinctive way,” a view echoed by Rob Shields who sees the flâneur as a figure of resistance to the “work-a-day pressure of the punch-clock.” In these readings, flânerie becomes a more self-conscious practice aimed at “re-appropriation of the street from the logic of consumerism.” We can more clearly see Akinosho in this picture. Anyone familiar with his ubiquitous footprints in the cultural landscape and the impact he has made on the way we talk about books and the arts, how we create and appreciate them — through his long-standing Artsville column in The Guardian, co-founding and administering the Committee for Relevant Art (known for its quarterly art stampedes), and the Lagos Art and Book Festival, not to mention his attendance of literally every book event — would agree. Whether in keeping with his inclination to be everywhere but not to be the subject of attention or just out of pure coincidence, there is very little written about him. But out of the little there is, the picture of the flâneur as activist for change fits Akinosho nicely down to buba and sokoto and abeti-aja! Does he map the terrain of his city, Lagos, and evoke its living qualities, rendering it legible for us in a very distinctive way, as Harvey says? Oh, yes, he does. Is he disdainful of the work-a-day pressure of the punch-clock, that is of the tedium of office work, even of the high-paying variety? He took early retirement from Chevron, the international oil giant, spurning the security and comfort of a slick paycheck every month for many more years to devote himself to publishing Festac News, a community newspaper (and, also, it must be said, Africa Oil + Gas Report, said to be very highly regarded in the industry, for his bread and butter), and to cultural advocacy and the establishment of structures to power their dreams. But don’t take my word for it: in addition to Adesokan and Olupohonda as witneses, read also “Akinosho, Geologist in love with the arts,” an interview with Chuks Nwanne in The Guardian of 15 January 2017.
So now the matter I began with. I deliberately subsumed it under the general theme of contradiction which, I hope, has been shown in the specific way I mean it. In case you have forgotten, after nearly two thousand words, let me remind you: it is Akinosho’s confession, “Well, you know, I’m not really a poetry person.” I recall the moment very clearly, precisely because it was a surprise to me. My poem, “God Punish You, Lord Lugard,” had just been published, sometime in 1996 or the previous year, in one of the newspapers’ literary pages — The (Daily) Times Review of Literature and Ideas, edited by Afam Akeh, I believe, or maybe somewhere else — and had been warmly received. I had read it at one of the literary gatherings that were a fixture of the Lagos cultural scene at the time. It was on our way back to Mars House, Akinosho’s First Avenue home in Festac Town, crammed in his beaten-up, box-shaped Volvo of those days, that the conversation turned to poetry in the course of our review of the soirée. He had found the poem funny, he liked its humour but, “basically” (and this is a word that peppers Akinosho’s speech, as a connective, place-filler-while-gathering-your-thoughts and signal to no-bullshit opinion), “it is prose chopped into lines.”
I was in a bad place. Literally. No, he would not tell Kingdom, his driver at the time (for a Lagos boy, Akinosho, surprisingly, doesn’t drive), to pull off to the curb and kick me out of his car, but what was I to do? Explain the poem’s prosody and aesthetics to him? Say that poems come in various ways, including the sub-species called prose poems and even the anti-poem? In which case, I would be making an apology for my poem, which in almost every case is distasteful? Well, it is Akinosho, and although I had only begun to know him closely, his reputation as a cultivated man of the arts loomed before my thoughts. So, I said, “Yes, the diction is simple, though not inapt, I hope. But are you equating simplicity with absence of profundity? You do not see anything else, device or technique, at work in the poem?” Not my words verbatim, of course, but to that exact sense and meaning. And that was when he made his confession. And surprised me. I had expected some attempt, however feeble, to justify his claim. And, who knows, I might have got something to compel priceless revision, even if only in the form of a single word or phrase in place of the original now seen to be inapt and ineffective. Over the years, I noticed that I’ve never once seen Akinosho clutching a slim volume, either at home or to a reading, CORA art stampede, LABAF or highlife party, at any of which fora he is known to insist, every so often, on reading to the audience passages from the book that had got him excited.
I have invoked Walcott and in that same eulogy to Auden, he has this interesting couplet: “But you, who left each feast at nine / knew war, like free verse, is a sign of awful manners.” That evening, I had thought Akinosho was accusing me of bad poetic manners, so I was eager for him to give reason. He had none, alas, other than a hunch, but being a man of strong opinions, he expressed it with the confidence of one who knows not just what good poetry is but also forms and prosody. After reading Adesokan’s tribute to Akinosho at fifty, I knew better. Akinosho, says Adesokan who knows him better than anyone else — with the possible exception of Jahman Anikulapo — is a strongly “opinionated” man, a man who is “totally cultivated in the habit of speaking his mind.” An admirable quality, no doubt — the importance of being earnest, as Oscar Wilde put it. But then Adesokan notes that Akinosho is “a reader of trends . . . quick to see a pattern in a huge mass of facts and data and draw conclusions.” Only that “No one can say if those conclusions are sound, but in the spirit of ‘Act Like You Know’, such judgments are important while some are still trying to figure things out.” It is not clear if the bluff “Act Like You Know” was uttered by Akinosho, as some sort of personal motto. So, then, Akinosho had not merely backed out of an argument that evening, a rare thing indeed for him, but had actually only tried to act like he knew what a good poem is. Even now, I’m not quite sure if he was being sincere or absurd, for twenty-three years later, he was among the first to arrive for a reading from A Good Mourning, my last book of poems, at Patabah Bookshop in Surulere, Lagos.
Why do I bring this up, running the risk of being seen as a slighted poet bearing a two-decades-and-a-half grudge? Let me disavow any such feeling, if for nothing else then for the simple reason that “God Punish You, Lord Lugard” got the kind of validation a poet hankers after: not only audiences’ response to it at readings but also informed readers and critics’ too, including its selection for a special edition of Poetry International (7/8, 2003-4). I dare to bring up this incident because for all of Akinosho’s quick wit and his indubitable contributions to the enrichment of our cultural life, one can’t escape the niggling thought that perhaps he is a man of too many parts. He “bubbles with ideas, opinions, and designs, and since some of these ideas are often too contradictory or incompatible with one another to be held and expressed by one person at the same, he simply invents multiple structures, personalities, or entities to claim them,” Adesokan reports, but then poses the question: “Should one person do all of these things?” But maybe the difficulty Adesokan and Olupohonda grappled with can be more easily resolved by seeing Akinosho, once again with Baudelairean eyes in “The Painter of Modern Life,” not as an “artist” but as “a man of the world”— the former restricted and the latter broad in meaning. By the latter, says Baudelaire, “I mean a man of the whole world, a man who understands the world and mysteries and lawful reasons for all its uses,” and by the former “a specialist, a man wedded to his palette like the serf to the soil.”
Clearly, not many can expect to be taken seriously if they strive to do all things, if they profess to be generalists rather than specialists; that is, if they choose to “delight in universal life.” Yet, it is in the nature of the flâneur, driven primarily by curiosity, to see a great many things as he strolls his city, all of them seemingly connected since they reflect the life of a people in a community, yet unarguably disparate. No one can know everything, but why should that stop one from having an opinion about what one sees or experiences? In time, one will figure out what one does not know now—if that becomes necessary. Perhaps, then, better to have an opinion than not at all. And we can all agree: we would rather have the opinionated Akinosho than a reticent or taciturn geologist whose views lie buried in the seams of subterranean rocks! Our literary landscape, the entire cultural scene of Nigeria, Lagos in particular, would be the poorer for it. Once again, here’s the picture Adesokan paints of the man: “publisher, geologist, journalist, crowd-gatherer, man-on-the-prowl, self-described ‘cultural enthusiast,’ and grand historian of the Nigerian ‘pepper-soup elite.” To which I add, flâneur, given to us by Baudelaire, thus:
“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world — impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are — or are not — to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy.”
Here’s to Akinosho at three happy scores. Wishing him three more happy and ever strongly opinionated scores in his beloved city!
Ogaga Ifowodo is a lawyer, poet, activist and columnist.