POETRY READING AT BRITAIN’S LEEDS UNIVERSITY
By Lisa J Long
Tuesday, December 14, 2010.
Chinua Achebe appeared at Leeds University on the evening of 22nd November, to give a poetry reading and Q&A session. One of only two readings by the professor on his visit to England, Leeds was honoured to receive him. Achebe packed the Rupert Becket theatre with people from a diverse range of ages and ethnic backgrounds with an overflow room set aside connected by video link.
Achebe was accompanied by his wife who sat beside him as he read six pieces from ‘ Beware Soul Brother’ an anthology first published in 1972 and the winner of the Commonwealth prize. Before reading the title poem Achebe related a story of when he attended an award ceremony to receive the Commonwealth poem prize for the anthology and was asked by the queen if she could read some of his poetry, Achebe joked that he now only reads ‘Soul Brother’ as an opportunity for name dropping
Most of Achebe’s poetry was penned during the Nigeria/Biafra war, and he recognised the impact of witnessing this event on his choice of genre within the subsequent Q&A session
Mother in a Refugee Camp and A wake for Okigbo were the two readings which impacted the most on me:
Mother in a refugee camp creates a haunting image of a child ravaged by famine ‘The air was heavy with odours of diarrhoea, Of unwashed children with washed-out ribs, And dried-up bottoms waddling in laboured steps, Behind blown-empty bellies’. The poem reflects on a single act by one mother, when all the others had given up. The simple act of combing a child’s hair takes on the significance of a departing caress ‘She took from their bundle of possessions, A broken comb and combed, The rust-coloured hair left on his skull’ knowing it was perhaps the final time ‘now she did it, Like putting flowers on a tiny grave’. The audience held their breath to hear every word of Achebe’s low tones as the impact of the unfolding scene was felt in the room.
A wake for Okigbo, a work first written in Igbo, is a poem dedicated to Christopher Okigbo, a great friend of Achebe and he described him as ‘one of the great poets killed in the civil war’. ‘Achebe read the poem in English first and then a second time in Igbo. Achebe was most animated when reading this work and the passion for the subject was projected in the interjectory call ‘Nzomalizo’ between each verse. The meaning of the word did not need to be elucidated with explanations in English, the emotion in the word spoke. The second reading in Igbo held the audience in its rhythm even those who didn’t understand the language understood the depth of emotion expressed.
The reading concluded with a question and answer session with Professor Jane Plastow, announcing her nervousness she declared it is a “Dangerous thing to meet your heroes’.
Appearing to shy away from any political debate Achebe said that as a young writer he was speaking his mind as strongly as he felt the feeling. He recognised the significant weigh given to his novels as opposed to his poetry expressing; ‘We don’t give significant weight in our thinking to the value of poetry. Poetry is personal and short comparatively to novels. We tend to think that what is short is not as important as what is long’.
Asked about his choice of genre during the civil war in Nigeria Achebe recalled a meeting of the society of Nigerian authors. When a colleague came rushing in and pronounced ‘Chinua you know you are a prophet everything in this book has happened apart from a coup’. With a wry sense of irony Achebe related that this was one of the strangest things that happened in his writing life as overnight there was a coup and the country woke up to civil war.
Achebe comes alive when he gets the opportunity to tell a story and in his own words he expressed the importance of stories ‘Ancestors invented stories to amuse children obviously but they also wanted societies to be strong and firm’. Achebe seemed weary of academic debate and the rawness present in his work is no longer outwardly present in the man. He presents a mellower persona than might be expected, but he is an eighty year old man, with a lifetime of achievements of which to be proud, including being credited with defining modern African literature. The fire may have burnt but its legacy remains, the glowing embers brightening with every anecdotal exchange.
I was not as familiar as I should have been with Chinua Achebe’s poetry, being more acquainted with his novels; the reading inspired within me a new appreciation of Chinua Achebe the poet and a desire to read this Achebe.
Leeds University was clearly honoured to host this reading and the audience showed its appreciation with thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
Lisa J. Long lives in Harrogate, England.