By Alex Nderitu
Folu Agoi, President of the Nigerian Centre of PEN International (aka PEN Nigeria), erstwhile Chairman of Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, Lagos Branch (March 13, 2004 – October 13, 2007), winner of BBC Poetry Competition (2001) and several other awards – including Prof Wole Soyinka Award for Literature (2007), Mother Drum Golden Award for Excellence (2012), The Tutuola Palm for Poetry award (by The Delta Book Club; July 23, 2019), and SWANA 2020 Poetry Competition (Nov 7, 2020; SWANA: Southwest Association of Nigerian Authors), is a creative (and academic) writer, poet, critic, literary activist, book editor, publisher and teacher. A lecturer at the Department of English, Lagos State University of Education (LASUED), Lagos, Nigeria, he has attended conferences and performed his poetry in several towns and cities across the world, including Leipzig, Hamburg, Berlin (Federal Republic of Germany), Biel/Bienne (Switzerland), Boston, Cambridge (USA), Durban (South Africa), Blantyre (Malawi), Freetown (Sierra Leone) and Manila (Republic of the Philippines).
Agoi’s poetry, much of which is quite accessible to the ordinary mind, is based mostly on contemporary political, economic and socio-cultural issues, as they affect humanity. His poems, apart from trying to chronicle current events in and around his immediate environment, clamour for social reform. The use of sarcasm and humour is the hallmark of his poetry.
1: Can you tell our readers across the world about your writing journey?
I first became conscious of my literary talent after my graduation from university, when I took up teaching at a high school in Lagos. Though I never failed Literature at any time in high school, I wouldn’t list the subject among my favourite subjects, especially because of poetry, an aspect which many of our Literature teachers taught perfunctorily, without much interest or passion. In fact, it was obvious that some of them lacked a clear understanding of poetry. However, as a teacher of English at Corona Secondary School, when a colleague in charge of the school magazine asked me to contribute an article to an edition of the publication, I decided to write a poem, titled ‘The Master Potter’. The poem is about an old, seasoned teacher who keeps boasting about the achievements of his old students, whereas he is at the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder because of poor and irregular remunerations. Virtually every one of my colleagues that saw the poem made a copy, saying the poem seemed to portray their situation. Within a couple of years, in 2001, I entered two of my poems (‘He Died’ and ‘I Seek a Woman’) in a poetry contest organized by the BBC and both poems won. That was how my writing journey began.
2: Can you tell us about your books and what impact they have made on the lives of readers and you?
Some of my books are: Candid Lyrics – An Anthology of Lyrical Poetry(2000), More Candid Lyrics – Another Anthology of Lyrical Poetry(2001), An Offering of Olive – An Anthology of Peace Literature(which I edited and published in 2004), Service to Fatherland (poetry, 2013), I Know the Smell of My Lover’s Skin – A Spring of Lyrics Powered by Love (poetry, 2017) and Dear Child, Look Closely – A Life Manual (poetry, 2022).I also co-edited a couple of anthologies: Silver Lining – An Anthology of Nigerian Literature (Poems, Short Stories, Drama & Critical Essays), which I co-edited with Prof Akach iAdimora-Ezeigbo (2019) and Of Shadows and Rainbows Musings in Times of Covid – An Anthology of Poems, Plays, Short Stories and Essays published online by Nigerian Centre of PEN International (PEN Nigeria), which I co-edited with Prof Olu Obafemi (2021).
My particular interest, as reflected in my poetry, is in the advocacy for empathy for fellow humans, regardless of race, gender or social status. My books, mostly poetry, seem to have the impact of a mirror showing readers a clear portrait of themselves, and of society, in the hope that some of the works will trigger attitudinal change through education and enlightenment. My poetry, apart from trying to chronicle current events in and around my immediate environment, clamours for social reform through the use of sarcasm and humour.
3: Awards or Readers, what do you think should come first?
Readers come first, not awards. Art comes primarily as an interface – a medium of communication – between the artist and the audience. The artist presents an artistic portrait through which the people perceive their character traits or attributes or culture; and the experience may result in social change, which outweighs awards. A good artistic production is its own award or reward. For instance, it confers immortality on its creator, the artist.
4: We all know that digitalisation has conquered every nook and cranny on the earth, and it has invaded the publishing industry. However, some areas on the earth are slow in embracing digitalisation. How has the digitalisation of the publishing industry affected the African writing community and their readership?
The publishing industry in Africa, particularly Nigeria, has embraced digitalisation as a viable, realistic means of bringing the writing community into contact with their audience or readership. This reflects in the volume of digital publications that seems to engage the reading public, particularly the youth of Africa.
5: Each writer has a unique writing processes, and most of them are influenced by their surroundings, cultures and lifestyles. Can you tell us about your writing process and how Africa has influenced it?
My writing is influenced largely by my environment. My creativity is sustained largely by socio-cultural issues as they affect humanity – for instance, the socio-political and economic topsy-turvy triggered by weak government with which many African countries seem to be cursed.
6: Have you ever encountered writer’s block? How did you manage to deal with it?
I can’t remember ever encountering writer’s block. What I know to be an issue in my writing career is time constraint. The only issue I know is affecting my writing vocation is lack of time. How I wish I could devote my full time and attention to my writing! But that is very difficult with countless bills to pay, especially in a society where a writer can hardly hope to feed off their writing. Most writers in Africa have day jobs. For instance, I teach at a university by day and write by night. Inspiration comes from reading, teaching, daily interactions with colleagues and others and sundry other sources. In an environment like ours it is hard to experience writer’s block.
7: Africa is the cradle of human civilization, and it’s the most diverse continent in the world, home to vibrant cultures. It’s also the mother land of several great personalities in global literature. What is your opinion on Africa’s contribution to global literature, and how we can promote African literature on the world stage?
Africa has contributed immensely to the development of global literature, as reflected in the number of world-acclaimed writers the continent has produced, including winners of Nobel Prize in ;Literature – Wole Soyinka, Naguib Mahfouz, Nadine Gordimer and Abdulrazak Gurnah.
8: We live in a divided world in many dimensions and literature is no exception. We, as authors, still believe that literature can help unite the world and heal the planet. How do you perceive the divisions in our sphere its impact? What are your suggestions on how literature and authors can contribute to restoring unity in this world?
Literature is a powerful tool with which writers can unite and heal our ailing planet. Many writers and writers’ associations, particularly PEN International (International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists) – a worldwide association of writers to which I belong, have been known to play a leading role in promoting literature as a force of global culture, standing for freedom of expression, diversity and inclusivity as well as linguistic rights across the world.
9: As an acclaimed author, what is your message for the budding generation of authors across genres?
My message for the budding generation of authors across genres is to keep writing, and never look back, with an eye on the intrinsic, rather than the extrinsic value of writing. They should give writing their full, undivided attention.
10: What are your parting words to hundreds of thousands of readers of Asian Reviews?
To the readers of Asian Reviews, I’d say: keep connecting with sundry spheres of life on the wings of Asian Reviews, gathering vast knowledge and rich, exciting experiences in various parts of the universe.