By Sam Akpe
She didn’t display the stone-faced, unsmiling look of a typical poet. If she were a novelist—writing about some romantic issues—or just another author, no one would question her credentials.
But a poet? She looks too simple, harmless, and so ordinary to belong to that tiny kingdom of mystery writers. How did she get here? Who initiated her? These questions rocked my mind as I looked into her babyish face that afternoon.
Apparently stunned by her captivating smiles, I started wondering if we had met before. No! We hadn’t. This was the first time. Then she laughed at my first question: You, a poet? Her laughter had the semblance of a flash of lightening across a dark sky.
We stood there looking at each other—as reconnected old friends often do. I was amazed at her literary boldness. She was amused at my amazement. My eyes kept darting from the books I had in my hands to the audacious author standing in front of me. Let’s see if I can start this story from the beginning.
It was lunch time. I made the announcement, dropped the microphone and walked towards the bookstands. For about three hours, I was the compere—an assignment I did not prepare for; something I’m not in the least qualified for or even good at.
The event was the National Conference of Book Clubs; hosted by the Uyo Book Club, of which I am a member. As I walked into the hall that morning, Dr Martins Akpan thought if I neglected that duty—standing in as a compere—then the event would fail. When all protests were rejected, I obliged.
Books mean a lot to me. It was the great Marcus Tullius Cicero who once said that a room without books is only compared to a body without a soul. Charles W. Elliot captured it in a different way when he opined that “books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.”
So, I went for books; while others went for food. Then I saw a strikingly beautiful smile; radiating from a brilliant, sparkling face, imprinted on a book cover. With a wrist watch on her right arm, I noticed we had something in common—that’s how I wear mine. I went for the volume. The title added to my curiosity: From Trauma To Triumph, Finding Liberty.
Who on earth is this? My eyes went in search of the author’s signature. The name did not ring a bell. I didn’t have to search my brain for a recall. I was sure I had not read her before.
In that picture on the cover of this book, Ubong Bassey wears a red blouse, her hair is set backward, with her jaws tenderly supported with her two raised palms. What a defiant but humble pose!
Almost no information about the author could be found in the book. Then I saw another volume with the title: The Untameable Spirit—a collection of poems splashed across 434 pages, with forward by one of the finest established poets in Nigeria, my friend, Kufre Ekanem.
Then I opened the pages. My eyes went straight to page 170: The Silent Woman. The first few lines read: “The silent woman/The hurting spirit/How she suffers/A time of great sorrow/Seasons of grieving/Tears, her only language….”
Quietly, I moved to other pages. Then I spotted another title on the table: The Uncommon Housewife, another collection of poems. As I opened it, some lines on page 172 smiled at my intellect. I adjusted my glasses and took a deeper look. The poem is entitled, Your Days.
Here is the first verse: “I’m restoring the years you sowed in tears/With harvest so richly endowed to overflow/Taking you to the future you always dreamt of/Your days of laughter are here.”
Then the last verse: “I’m remoulding the flawed image nature gave/With trials set to far above mediocrity to stand tall/Your days of excellence are here.”
Just before I could open the next collection entitled, The Unveiled Treasure, I sensed someone staring at me in silence; closing in. I turned; slowly. Her presence shadowed me with unnerving smiles. I felt she must have been observing my unhidden curiosity in total silence; for several minutes. There was something poetic about her voice, as she introduced herself.
I know that I am not a poet—you can perceive this from a kilometre. I can’t even attempt to be one; because I’ll be easily exposed. So, I hide behind David Carradine’s admonition that “if you cannot be a poet, be the poem.”
But I love poems; especially when they come in simple expressions. Sometimes, I type out some verses; with regular and irregular patterns; expressing some emotions. My mood determines how I write. Surprisingly, some people called to say “that was poetic!” Such comments make me laugh in my dialect.
Every poem has some elements of emotions—be it political or scientific. This must have been what made the great Robert Frost to state that “poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” T. S. Elliot has however argued that poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion…The argument continues.
I regard poets as rare breed of writers. They thrill us with hidden intents. Most times, they hide behind coined words to step on toes; and then walk away with contrived innocence.
They jeer with a smile; and earn applause through skilful use of contemptuous words. You hardly understand poets until they turn the few verses into intelligent prose. Exposed!
What strikes me most about Uboho’s collection, is her simplicity of language. This is equally reflected in her persona. Some people have warned that we should never judge a book by its cover. So, if this is a façade, then she is good at it.
We spent a few fruitful minutes chatting. I asked her more questions than she expected; and got some intelligent answers. They ignited my curiosity.
Then it was time to return to the microphone. I quickly placed an order for four of her books. While taking delivery of them the following day, I decided to explore her mind a little deeper as the reporter in me came alive.
For about an hour, we stood at the car park of the event centre, talking about books, poetry and writing generally. Uboho’s interest in poetry is still difficult to understand. She came naturally made for it.
After her secondary education in 1985, and supported by her parents, she had her sight fixed on a career in the medical field; or what she calls the noble profession. She recorded excellent scores in the sciences; and even won government scholarship to study medicine and surgery in a Russian University.
That dream was however scuttled when her parents reasoned that she was too young, too fragile to stay beyond the shores of Nigeria, alone. She ended up studying microbiology at the University of Calabar, in southern Nigeria. Instead of getting frustrated, she believes that was “a detour process; a realignment towards my gifts and talents.”
She calls it a “becoming,” something akin to growing into the fullness of a passion she had underestimated or overlooked. She sees her entry into the writing world as walking into a path she did not consciously choose. That was how she hit the intellectual expressway to literary addiction.
The implication is that she did not deliberately set out to be a writer. She started by reading books beyond her academic field. Each time she studied a book, she got challenged by the depth of the author’s creativity.
She would end up writing down her thoughts, which were beyond what she was reading at that particular time. Thereafter, she would try to expand and develop such thoughts into something realistic.
She told me, as though in confidence, “I became a writer by practice, by patience, by consistency, by devotion. I felt better each time I translated my thoughts into words, and every time I put my words on paper.”
She felt delighted and got drawn into it deeper and deeper. The more she read other peoples’ work, the more mysterious ideas flowed into her. Suddenly, she encountered deep satisfaction as she kept working on, or rather, taming those raw ideas.
As if revealing a secret, she volunteered, “I have come to understand, over the years, the almost insistent urgings of writing down thoughts, emptying out the contents of my mind, pouring out my imagination, venting my frustrations, exploring every desire, and attempting to capture in words my feelings—and failings.” I noticed that she smiled at this point.
Whenever she fought or tried to supress such deep, unsolicited urge, “it kept me restless until I would yield to its persistent stirring. It became absolute joy for me. It became a saving. Writing offers me healing. Nothing gives me greater joy and fulfilment than writing.”
It was expected that I would ask the question. When it came, she looked at me with undisguised interest in the subject matter. Then she beamed one of those her trademark smiles.
Why would a science-oriented scholar dare the literary terrain reserved for the gods, with such authority and impact? Poetry! What drove her into this literary terrain where even some experts in creative writing try to avoid!
There was a short silence from her end. I refused to rush her. She definitely was not contemplating what to say—but how to say it. She needed to coordinate her thoughts. If this was an interview, it was her first at this level.
But I refused to make it look like one. It was an informal, friendly chat. There was no electronic recorder. I could see that she was quite relaxed and seemed to enjoy the company of this 24-hour out-of-the-blues stranger.
Then she started talking. I listened attentively. Well, her answer will form the second part this piece.
Sam Akpe, an Abuja based Journalist.
To be continued.