May 20, 2018

Who is afraid of Chimalum Nwankwo? -Greg Mbajiorgu

Who is afraid of Chimalum Nwankwo? -Greg Mbajiorgu

I was in London in 2010 on vacation. My hotel room TV was on early in the morning. A British Literary critic was being interviewed on the poetry scene of African-American poetry. I listened intently as a lover of poetry, and to my surprise, the critic remarked that one of the most significant books of poetry that year was OF THE DEEPEST SHADOWS AND THE PRISONS OF FIRE, a new book by Nigerian born Chimalum Nwankwo ! Then, Nwankwo was the Chairman of the Department of English and speech at the North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, USA. Later, on my return home, I called Chimalum Nwankwo to inform him about this. He simply laughed, and made one of his weird, humorous jokes about his being the Jesus Christ of modern African poetry and about selective persecution in Nigeria. Explain sir, I pursued him, and he added laughing that I should know he is the “Spirit”, “Ndimuo”.So… I let him be.  But from then on, I developed deep interest in the poetry of Chimalum Nwankwo.

Later, I browsed the internet and found so many superlative comments about the poet and that new book and his other works.  Published outside the shores of Nigeria. Of the Deepest Shadows and the Prisons of Fire. The roughly 200 pages of dense lyrical poetry had been referred to as a “magnum opus” by IkeoguOke. The London Africa Book Center called the book an “epic narrative”. His 2002 ANA-CADBURY prize winning volume, THE WOMB IN THE HEART is on special reserve on a campus library of The University of West Indies, and marked a “must read” in African poetry. Nnorom Azuonye of the London Sentinel Poetry magazine had also referred to Nwankwo as “by far, easily, the strongest voice in modern African poetry today.” Nwankwo, a 2010 guest of the University of London Pinter international Center of the Arts, was referred to by the late distinguished Professor Okpewho as “a genius in full control of his art.” I could go on and on with my discoveries about Nwankwo’s poetry but let me stop here and disclose some of the immediate reasons for this write-up.

The first one is that OF THE DEEPEST SHADOWS AND THE PRISONS OF FIRE was shut down and removed from the ANA-CADBURY PRIZE competition when it was entered that year. One of the courageous, irate, and indignant judges called the New York publishers of Nwankwo’s  work to complain in sadness and disappointment. According to the judge, he was instructed by the prize committee to ignore Nwankwo’s work because of his fiery criticism of the work of the late Christopher Okigbo. In other words, Nwankwo was being punished for his disparaging comments about the originality of Okigbo’s poetry. Later when Nwankwo was interviewed by IkeoguOke for NEXT, the public found out very sadly that Nwankwo’s fine critique of Okigbo’s work had very clear merit and justification. (all due respect for Okigbo)  Many of those who were rude about Nwankwo’s remarks had since apologized to him, but the damage had been done by those like late Professor Obumselu who saw or still see Nwankwo as an “intolerant and severe critic “.

In the 2013  run of the LNG Poetry PRIZE, Nwankwo’s same massive and high flying poetry internationally respected by critics around the globe was not in the long list of the competition. When I spoke to Nwankwo about this, he laughed characteristically, and waved the whole thing aside, and asked me a rhetorical question about the integrity and probity of those who claimed to be critics and judges of Nigerian Literary works. “One of the Judges of the last LNG Prize, Professor XYZ, who hardly ever socialized with Nwankwo called him to inform him that She/ He was a judge of the LNG PRIZE.  Nwankwo was probed for conversation but he was not willing to toe such an unethical line just for the sake of a prize. I do not believe Soyinka was called by the Swedes before he was awarded the Nobel Prize. What was that judge calling Professor  Nwankwo for …?”  Chimalum Nwankwo was then Writer-in-Residence and professor of English and World literatures at the Turkish University at Abuja. Where I was a senior lecturer on Sabbatical leave at the same time.

The LNG 2017 PRIZE committee has published their long list. Once again, Nwankwo’s work is not in the long list. This is a bizarre mystery which the LNG PRIZE sponsors must carefully investigate and explain to the Nigerian public or bring that honorable and prestigious enterprise to undeserved disrepute. I smell  something unspeakable. Nwankwo’s entry, is trade mark work of pure genius if you understand and appreciate fine and refined poetry. Check the volume out at ENUGU’s ABIC Publishers on Edozien Street…LOVESONG FOR JULIAN ASSANGE AND POEMS FROM LOVE MOUNTAIN. I purchased my own copy there as soon as it was released. I may understand a short list oversight but not a long list omission or exclusion. If you are a poet or critic or just a lover of smooth riding poetry loaded with the finest tricks of the business, you will weep and hide your face in shame for the Nigerian judges. I was more mystified by the fact that the eminent and intellectually savvy and impeccable Professor Emenyonu is one of the judges. Something is wrong somewhere. Please note that I am exercising the subjectivity I am entitled to exercise as a lover of the arts and as a dramatist who understands performance and who stands at the crossroads of poetry and drama as performance.Carefully examine the circumstances above, and you would be wounded like me by contemplating like me what drives this article. And you may also be inclined to muse like a voice from Nwankwo’s ignored fascinating volume …

Israel may remember Zion and moan for vengeance

But may the thing inside the Atlantic lie still and quiet

And may the quiet X in the wounded soul of Malcolm x

Stay buried and quiet with the secrets of the deep seas…

LOVESONG… is street-wise myth and folklore and modernity and raw beauty rolling with black history in general and Nigerian history and private memory in a tantalizing and hypnotic lyrical mode. Dedicated to his mother, Professor Dubem Okafor and Professor Emmanuel Obiechina, the global political ambience, topical immediacy and relevance and thrust of the work  alsoconstitute something that everybody would find quite intriguing, exciting, and captivating.At least, I do. Not just as a dramatist of repute but equally as the world’s first editor of Anthology of poetry on water.

It is possible that Nwankwo’s poetic style, avant-garde in his insistence that because poetry is an  oral driven art, he writes with little punctuation in all his works. This may disorganize some readers or critics, especially unexposed readers. With all due respect to the long listed prize candidates, generally, I do not know any blemish/es that are of so much weight that this great Nigerian poet and his always important and very sophisticated output is excluded from any long lists of Nigerian poetry competitions. My inclination is therefore to ask with some darkest suspicion…Who is afraid of Chimalum Nwankwo? As former national P.R.O of Associations of Nigerian authors, former social secretary of society of Nigeria theatre artistes and one who has attended all stakeholders forum of the LNG Literature prize,  I am of a strong view that is not right for past laureate of the LNG  Literature prize   to  be appointed into the adjudication panel  of this prestigious international prize. Authors should face their career as authors and leave the burden of literary criticism and adjudication for critics and renowned literary scholars to avoid this kind of gruesome error in future.


  • G.N.N.Mbajiorgu is  Nuresdef Laureate, Exponent of  Eco/monodrama & Senior Lecturer in  Dramatic Arts and Film Studies at University of Nigeria, Nsukka.



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