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Zari Tokunbo Caine – On Reading Poetry

Zari Tokunbo Caine – On Reading Poetry

To the Instagram and Snapchat generation, Poetry is a dirty word. At best it (hopefully) sparks memories of Queens Primer recitals and nursery rhymes in primary school, at worst it’s what your dad claims he employed to woo your mum, much like Facebook, he says. But Facebook with pen and paper and a heart full of ‘pretty pink and blue thoughts.’

‘Pretty pink and blue thoughts?’ you say. ‘What’s that?’

‘Poetry.’ He replies. ‘Poetry.’

It was Book Day all over the world thursday last week and on our social media we celebrated it by asking our followers, predominantly made up of young Africans, what poetry book they recently read. We received some interesting feedback, top of the lot was the guy who responded simply with “Naruto”.  

Is Poetry losing its identity amongst young Africans?

“Poetry may see like a dying art, however, it is not. Poetry is everywhere you look. Poetry is in music, advertising, plays, shows, the playground, in hospital and even at death. Poetry is like the seed left in the soil and forgotten until it pops up above the dirt to produce something newer than it was. Poetry is NOT a dying art in the slightest. In fact, poetry is so alive that the earth produces her own in us all. We are poems in the making.”

Answers Zari Tokunbo Caine, an accomplished Performance poet based in London, who is also our feature guest this week.

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Zari’s background is as colorful as his name, which means ‘Beauty’ in Swahili. Born in the UK, he moved to Nigeria with his parents, a yoruba father with strong family ties to the Benin kingdom and a Jamaican mother with Irish-German ancestry. Witnessing first-hand the debilitating effects of extreme dictatorship during the dark days of the military era and the rise of ‘protest art’ during those times, did this affect his decision to become a poet?

“That’s a loaded question to ask. I ask myself that on a daily basis. Well, i am inclined to admit that l am a lover of words and the sound of the human voice. But to be simple l am not what l do. I am divinity in form. This may sound ethereal to a reader, however, this is me as the truth seeker that i know myself to be.”

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In a recent poll, more than 80% of people below 21 found most Poetry ‘confusing’. Lots of millennials see poetry as completely inaccessible. If your initial exposure to the genre leaves you feeling baffled (or even excluded), then it makes sense that you might be reluctant to give it another shot. A good portion of poetry’s potential audience has been pushed away by some sort of negative experience. A lot of this boils down to style of writing. People don’t want to feel excluded, They want to be included.

A few years ago, I pondered on what my writing style was. I asked a few friends who read my writings what they surmised my style was and with a unanimous vote of confidence, they gave me a series of flavours of what my writings brought in them. I was informed that as they read they heard my voice conversing with them. In that moment, l accepted that l write with a conversational style with a diminutive poetic aroma. Poetry is my first love. My style of poetry is conversationalist. I write with a storytellers function. I can also admit that l compose with a simplicity that borders on the abstract and the obvious in one clean swoop. I write from the soul as l hear. No subject matter is alien to me. I love poetry because it handles complex issues in a few well thought out and chosen worded lines. My style is mine but l can’t completely own it as such. There are others. That being said, People find it hard to read any more. You can’t read poetry diagonally the way you read a newspaper.”

Perhaps the most dramatic development in poetry is the growing influence of performance. Traditionally, the poem on the page has been accorded more reverence than the poem on the stage, but that’s changing. I’ve spoken to quite a few poets. Many agree that the really successful poets in the digital age are the ones crossing the lines between written poetry and performance poetry. Performance poetry stands a higher chance of acceptance than the written version, mainly because of its ability to engage. Do you agree?

Written poetry and Performance poetry are one and the same but for that which is vocal in delivery. I love both incarnations. One is the deep founding of the poem and the other is the verbal expression of the same. It’s awesome. I cannot choose one over the other. I see it as two sides of a coin. They are legal tender in the world of poetry making. The new poetry is now performed than read. It’s a new day in the magical kingdom of poetry.”

It’s hard to encourage young people to become poets. It lacks fame and popularity, which is ironic because Poets in the ancient days were the rock stars of their age. The image of a poet now is that a forlorn figure by a room window waiting for words to come to him. Lonely and lonesome. Not an appealing image for many. But for the ones who still long for it, how do you justify it? How and when can you say you’ve made it as a poet?

“Making it as a poet is a fallacy. I don’t mean the accolades, awards and notoriety of being recognised by society. I mean the difference it makes to me as a poet. It was when l accepted to myself with the statement ‘I am a poet” that was the moment l truly ‘made it. Maturing cleared that up for me. Outside approval no longer governs me.”

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Let’s talk about the internet. And back to that discussion of Written Poetry vs Performance Poetry. At a recent Poetry Jam in Lagos, we interviewed a young spoken word poet who says the internet doesn’t know the difference between rap and spoken word and he took advantage of this by including mainstream beats and slangs and lyrics into his delivery. He managed to rack up the following and will be publishing his ‘Poetry Album’ in a few weeks. Another one ‘sings’ her poetry. It’s obvious lines are being blurred and genres are mutating. Thanks to the internet.

“l don’t think, l know that the internet has improved the poetry genre slash culture in Nigeria especially now that African Writers in general and Nigerian Writers are in ascendancy. I know that it’s been a welcome boost to those who may not be able to afford physical books. The internet is replete with free forms of stories, writing and expression from around the world and at the touch of a keyboard key. My ebooks are on Amazon. At present, l am working on a compilation of my blog posts on Facebook. I have a blog on Tumblr called ‘The Wisdom Guide’. I am a social commentator, Wisdom Guide and LifeStyle Facilitator through these mediums. I can be found on social media if l am sought. I may not be the loudest voice but l am present in my unique way and this is what matters. A poet is as good as the tools he uses to disseminate his art.”

I remember this one time I got caught trying to steal a booklet of Godwin Okigbo’s poems from a bookstore in University. I couldn’t afford it on my meagre allowance and I had spent hours trying to memorize the lines of the poem but it just didn’t stick. Unable to control myself, I slipped it into my pocket and as I was about to leave, the attendant stopped me. The Head Librarian let me go with a stern warning. The next day, I was back there. This time armed with a pen and paper and while the attendant wasn’t looking I wrote out the poem. Godwin Okigbo’s poems were that powerful, at once gay and lively and full of terror. His style has influenced me for years. Who are your greatest influences?

l do not have favourites in anything at all. I love the eclecticism of enjoying all genres without competition. In answer to your question though, l would say off the top of my head, the late and incomparable Ken Saro-Wiwa, the enigmatic Wole Soyinka, the tiger himself, the late Chinua Achebe, the breathy Toyin Adewale-Gabriel and my second mother, the phenomenal African-American poet the late Maya Angelou. Yes, she was African before she was American. Africa is replete with poets like a melon is filled with more seeds than its present state. We are powerful beyond measure.

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It’s been great to have you on Farabale Weekly. Any parting words for aspiring poets?

It’s a joy for me to observe aspiring writers as they take their first tentative steps in the direction of their craft. I still consider myself an aspiring writer. Funny to hear myself say that but it is true. My advice to my fellow aspiring writers is to listen to your heart, write from there, and let your true self attract the stories you believe in. Keep it simple and enjoy the processes.

You can follow Zari’s thoughts on his blog the-wisdom-guide.tumblr.com / You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter @ZariTheInkwell

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