I did not set out to make a living via writing — Eriata Oribhabor



In this interview with Paul Liam, Eriata Oribhabor, Poet, Philanthropist, Culture activist, Civil Servant, former Chairman of ANA Abuja, and Founder of Poets In Nigeria (PIN), shares his thoughts on what inspired him into writing and other topical issues. He also speaks for the first time about his breakup with the 100Thousand Poets for Change organization, and what led to his founding of PIN. Read on.

Besides your well known reputation as a promoter of poetry and young creatives in Nigeria, many people do not actually know your background, do you mind letting us in on who Mr. Eriata Oribhabor is?

Eriata Oribhabor is a staff of the Federal Government, born and raised in Warri, Nigeria. He has a degree in Political Science from the University of Abuja. He moved from Warri on official transfer to Kaduna in 1996 and lived there till 2005 when same transfer took him to Abuja where he was to work till 2014 before moving to Lagos. Today, he is a resident of the city, Nigeria's commercial hub.

At what point in your life did you develop the consciousness for writing?

I developed the consciousness for writing in my secondary school days in Uwheru Grammar School, Uwheru in the then Ughelli Local Government Area of now Delta State. While a student, I was my school's Library Prefect and later President of the School's Literary and Debating Society. Then, I managed the Press Club's Board where articles and different forms of writings were pasted for all to read. More so I was a great fan of radio and newspapers.

What are those particular triggers that you noticed while growing up that instilled in you the love for the written word?

Talking about triggers as demanded may not be as simple as it seems but let me simply say that for me words in their deliveries inspire me when sharp and witty. When they come in this mould, I am hard put decoding them my way. Thus, eliciting lines on marble. They are innumerable.

Why poetry? Why not prose or play? What is special about poetry?

Following on the last question, the underlining key in writing poetry is delivering message packs of brevity. In my book Random Thoughts on Poetry, I said inter alia, that poetry writing speaks of the capacity to write worlds into bottles without experiencing explosions. Poetry is the soul and foundation of literature. Any writer with the gift of poetic writing, has an edge over others who write what I will simple call "plain writes". This is not in any way talking down on any genre of literature. No. This is why in Poets In Nigeria which I curate, we have Poetically Written Prose as one of our Initiatives. Via poetry, we promote Drama in another Initiative called Collaborative Poetry Performance. I am for all genres of literature but drive same with poetry or poetically if you like. Meanwhile, I actually started from the stage doing drama with a drama group in Warri.

You just turned 57 and there were hundreds of goodwill messages by young and older Nigerian writers. What does it mean to you to add another year to your already fruitful years as a writer?

The goodwill messages tell me that more people are seeing and identifying with my works and activities via Poets In Nigeria Initiative. That more of the messages were from younger ones is encouraging in every sense of the word and a signpost to a brighter future for literature and poetry to be specific, a genre hitherto not given much attention in the overall scheme of things.

You have written quite an impressive number of books and edited or co-edited several anthologies as well, could you share with us some of your works and your experience as a published writer?

My works are several as observed. More are due for unveiling post Covid-19. Mentioning them may take space but all are being packaged for my website: www.eriata.com from which everyone could assess. My experience has been thrilling and fulfilling especially for the underlying fact that I didn't set out to make a living via writing. I have always wanted to use poetry and writing in general to make and leave positive impacts for man and society. Every day has been fun and lively living via a passion that's already an obsession - writing and promotion of poetry writing.

As one who attended a Grammar school, it would be assumed that studying English and Literature would have being your natural fort, but you ended up studying political science. Is there a particular reason why you didn’t study English or literature in the university?

The words Grammar School may be what were in vogue then. Because it was so addressed didn't mean other subjects aside English and Literature in English was taught. No. All subjects inclusive of sciences were offered. I studied Political Science because as a social science, it offered me the opportunity of appreciating politics in a balanced perspective.

Often, many aspiring writers from academic backgrounds other than English and Literature have wondered whether not studying English or Literature has any implication for their proficiency as creative writers. As one who has become known for critical exploits in the literary space, what has been the experience like for you coming from a different background?

More of the people that would suffer from this thinking fall among the younger ones who didn't have the kind of syllabus we had that deliberately promoted and encouraged the study of English and Literature in English. Nowadays, lots of people didn't study Literature and the English many were exposed to, lacks depth. In those days, the story was different and better. Having rigorously studied both subjects, it is less likely not to perform well on the literary turf. I don't see myself coming from another background except if I want to teach Literature in English or English. In terms of writing and expressing myself, I am on a familiar ground. And some of the best writers as you can testify, didn't have to belong to the background you mentioned. I love creative writing and plans to upgrade in this regard.

Let us talk about the Poets In Nigeria initiative, how did you come about this Initiative?

The initiative of Poets In Nigeria dawned on me when efforts at convincing one of the founders of 100Thousand Poets for Change to agree to new ideas in expanding the activities in Nigeria wasn't acceded to. This is the first time I would be saying this in public. It was in 2015. Haven successfully managed this foreign Initiative in Abuja, my arrival in Lagos automatically announced the need for driving the activities of the mentioned organization from Lagos with Abuja alongside. Importantly, opening new chapters. But the owner of the organization totally disagreed. So, the words - POETS IN NIGERIA dropped. If you recall, I once self-sponsored myself to Salerno, Italy in 2015 to attend a conference of Poets organized by the organization. Not accepting my suggestions, turned out a blessing for which I thank him and God.

Beyond the promotion of poetry and young writers, is there a covert agenda that you seek to perpetuate with PIN?

Other than the vision and missions of PIN, I have nothing more. However, what I personally want for PIN is to have a legacy that will outlive me and others driving the Initiatives that make up PIN.

PIN has several connect centres across the length and breadth of Nigeria, how many connect centres do you have so far and how has it been working with these younger people?

Yes, we have several connect centres but not all should be so classified when judged from the point of functionality. Having realized this, we have ceased listing some as connect centres otherwise, it would seem we have a motive for keeping and flaunting their numbers. PIN is driven by the philosophy of poetry for service. In Rotary, it is Service Above Self. In PIN, it is Poetry for Service which underscores the overriding place of poetry in society. Unfortunately, whenever this is stressed on social media platforms or as being stated here, not many think it is possible to selflessly run organizations talk more of a literary one. So, some who joined saw a reality they couldn't cope with but still prefer hanging on and out without service as it were. This year, we are categorically delisting connect centres to give room for persons who may want to start anew to take up the responsibility of doing so as PIN LEAD Reps or Ambassadors.

Among the several initiatives of PIN, Festival Poetry Calabar seems to stand out. Tell us about the idea behind the festival and why it is particularly dear to your heart?

PIN is a basket of Initiatives - all are dear to me and everyone in the family. Festival Poetry Calabar (FPC) happens to be the last event of the year and as one taking place during Yuletide, it appears to attract lots of attention. Prior to it, we carry out different activities on different initiatives. Like FPC, the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize (NSPP) is also popular among students. We consciously give all Initiatives equal attention towards the ultimate goal of making each stand out as a brand. The FPC offers a golden opportunity to poet-tourists, literary cum culture advocates wishing to attend the event to "kill two birds" with a proverbial stone. Meaning, on attending the festival you could as well stay back to be part of the famous Calabar Carnival.

Another major programme of PIN is the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize, what influenced the decision to found a Nigerian students poetry prize?

NSPP is an Initiative of PIN as earlier mentioned. It was founded to promote poetry reading, writing and performance amongst undergraduates in tertiary institutions in Nigeria. Interestingly, Nigerian students in the Diaspora also participate. What it does for the participants is stimulating their intellectual parts with specific focus for creative intellectualism.

How do you fund your activities looking at the huge financial obligations required for the execution of these initiatives? Is there a secret grant donor somewhere?

PIN is primarily funded by me and members of the PIN family from the Central Network to the Connect Centre. This is made possible by the underlying philosophy of poetry for service. PIN doesn't have the opportunity of a Grant Donor as you stated. We are lucky having few personalities who recognize and identify with what we are doing and do lend their supports. In 2018 our host Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu and Aunty Talatu Reads owned by Teresa Ameh sponsored us. In 2019, our hosts Niger Delta University, Amassoma (Wilberforce Island) and two very good friends who are themselves poets, Sandison Jombo and friend supported us. From abroad, we have a passionate follower and supporter of PIN named Mrs. Dupe Sekoni Mccarthy. We appreciate them and others.

Have you explored partnership opportunities with local and international donor organization?

We have tried the best we could with the local only. The luck so far lies in the mentioned. We are using this medium in soliciting supports or leads to grants, donors, etc.

You are also an active member of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Lagos Branch. The Association has been embroiled in crisis for months now, what is really the problem with ANA?

The Association had a botched elections in Enugu during her last Annual Convention last year. The election should have ushered in a new national Exco. Unfortunately, there is an impasse. Lots of behind the scene efforts are ongoing towards restoration of normalcy.

Do you think that writers, beyond creating art have some moral obligation to the society in terms of setting an agenda for the political class or do you like many others believe that writers have no special role in the society?

The moral obligation of the writer is the deployment of the gift of writing in societal reordering for the ultimate good of humanity. This cannot be achieved by writing and allowing the writings voice the messages they bear. It is within the purview of writers to routinely gauge the impact of their writings to man and society via the authorities. Therefore, writers may not set agenda for the political class but should state their collective view on key policy issues, pointing ways forward in all. The role of the writer in society as stated, is given.

You are also one of the few writers who have gone beyond textual activism to practically supporting the art and material needs of several young people across the country. Where did this passion for the less privilege come from?

It is natural. Can't say more. Importantly, to lend hands of support. We all need a form of lift or the other. We only do the little that may make huge differences.

Is there a personal angle to your philanthropic endeavours or is it just a normal part of your life?

It is normal, but born from the fact of socially relating with people of all groups. The more you know people and feelings, you sometimes develop capacities to read them. To know their needs that may just be minor.

Why do you think that older successful writers should support the less privilege ones especially the young ones amongst them?

It is incumbent on the older ones to support the younger ones deserving of their support and supports must not necessarily be cash. I know lots of older ones are doing this. Unfortunately, many younger ones are either impatient or prefer looking very far for what they could get aplenty in their immediate environment.

What are some of the heights and lows for you as a writer and philanthropist?

How do I respond now? I have always seen highs. What could have been lows were converted to highs. Except you have me answer differently.

And considering that you are a civil servant, where do you find the time to do all the things that you do? Doesn’t the pursuit of passion conflict with your official responsibilities?

Creative effusions are not candidates to be confined. In this regard, I write at every opportunity. Time has never been a challenge. This baffles my colleagues. Pursuant of my passion has never conflicted especially for the fact that, I have been very lucky to have understanding bosses.

As the ‘merchant of poetry’, how would you assess the quality, direction and ideology of the works of the newer Nigerian poets?

Based on reports/comments of past judges of Nigerian Students Poetry Prize (NSPP) majority are very good poets but need to take interest in the grammar of English. The common tenses and more. As for direction and ideology, most of our competitions were not themed but my overall rating says, they have direction and passion to do more for society via poetry.

As a critical stakeholder in Nigerian art and culture sector, how can the government and corporate organizations further improve the fortunes of creatives in Nigeria?

A major way the Federal and State Governments could directly support creatives is to have all major groups listed and fund them via grants. The usage would be monitored. All funds should go through a special funding system. Refurbishment of all theatres and building of well equipped community theatres. Organizations like National Council for Arts and Culture should be supervisors not directly organizing events. Unfortunately, they are underfunded. The educational sector should be well funded to attract professionals to go back to schools and impact the younger ones.

And finally, what would be your advice to young writers and poets who seem desperate to make it big and to the Nigerian literati in general?

In the absence of governmental or corporate supports, it is incumbent on creatives to be united towards creatively charting paths to greater heights.

Comments

  1. Wow!

    This id amazing...

    Full of information, eduction and experience of Merchant of Poetry. More wisdom to you. Sir Eriata...

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  2. Thank you for creating a paradise for poets which is called PIN. Every disappointment is a blessing

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  3. All in all, thank you for all your initiatives that made young poets like me relevant

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  4. Well said!! Amazing Man!!
    We love you!!!!!!!!!!
    Thanks for all you've done and still doing for Us. May God in his infinite mercy grant you everything good life can offer and most importantly bless you for being a blessing sir

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  5. Personally i love, all you do and represent in the art industry, especially the poetry side of it. You have evoked the spirit and zeal and continuous tenacity in us, masterminding all initiatives that got us to improve and glow in the art of poetry, performance poetry, as well as written poetry . More blessings sir, Eriatar Oribhabor.

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  6. This is breath-taking. More heights .

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  7. In Chinua Achebe words, "you came almost fully made"

    A wonderful read; I enjoyed every part of it.

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  8. Well said Mr Eriata!!!! Bravo.

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