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Poets of West Africa in English

This page is just the site news notification. The workshop is at

Leader: Eumolpus
Moderator(s): Choiri, Drey Hommies

Objectives: Workshop study group: 2 weeks on Wole Soyinka, the most revered poet in the region.

Spend 2 weeks on other popular poets past and present in the region.

Spend 2 weeks in discussion of trends, influence of politics, accent and grammar issues, and publishing possibilities.

Spend last two weeks with participants from the region offering poems about West africa, their specific country, and culture.

Edit AA - further comments are closed as of December 19, 2017


(To introduce this workshop, I though it might be good to start with a famous poem (I think!) by Soyinka, first African to win the Nobel Prize and legendary for 50 years. I have reproduced the poem as written.
Craft-wise, what I like about this poem is the easy access to the poem through a dramatic incident,
but the poet manages to turn what would be a short story/prose poem into a "poem". It has some local language slang, such as "Considerate she was, varying the emphasis"..The poem builds nicely, with humor and satire, and has leaves the reader cheering for the poet. I would love to know if this poem is well known! and your take of it.)

Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka

The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
Off premises. Nothing remained
But self-confession. 'Madam' , I warned,
'I hate a wasted journey - I am African.'
Silence. Silenced transmission of pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was, foully.
'HOW DARK?'...I had not misheard....'ARE YOU LIGHT OR VERY DARK?' Button B. Button A. Stench
Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
Red booth. Red pillar-box. Red double-tiered
Omnibus squelching tar.
It was real! Shamed
By ill-mannered silence, surrender
Pushed dumbfoundment to beg simplification.
Considerate she was, varying the emphasis-
'ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT' Revelation came
'You mean- like plain or milk chocolate?'
Her accent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted
I chose. 'West African sepia'_ and as afterthought.
'Down in my passport.' Silence for spectroscopic
Flight of fancy, till truthfulness chaged her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece 'WHAT'S THAT?' conceding 'DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.' 'Like brunette.'
'Not altogether.
Facially, I am brunette, but madam you should see the rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet.
Are a peroxide blonde. Friction, caused-
Foolishly madam- by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black- One moment madam! - sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears- 'Madam,' I pleaded, 'wouldn't you rather
See for yourself?'

I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance
ee cummings

the poem is well known in Nigeria, and I had read it twice before now.
the poem to me is a little glimpse of the behavior of the Yoruba people, The title reveals the fact that two people are talking on the phone, so the beginning of the poem is on a positive note: The man is searching for a house and the landlady has named a considerable price, and the area where it is located is an impartial and not racially prejudiced. Also the man could enjoy his privacy as the land lady does not live under the same roof. The African man is ready to accept the offer, but maybe there has been a similar incident in his past, for he stops and admits to her that he is black, saying he prefers not to waste the time traveling there if she’s going to refuse him on that bounds.
There is silence at the other end; a silence which the black man thinks is the reluctant result of an inbred sense of politeness. However, he is wrong because when she speaks again, she disregards all formalities and asks him to explain how dark he is. The man first thinks he has misheard but then realizes that that is not true as she repeats her question with a varying emphasis. Feeling as if he has just been reduced to the status of a machine, similar to the telephone in front of him, and asked to choose which button he is, the man is so disgusted that he can literally smell the stench coming from her deceptive words and see red everywhere around him. Ironically he is the one who is ashamed by the tense and awkward silence which follows, and asks for clarification thinking sarcastically that the lady was really helpful by giving him options to choose from. He suddenly understands what she is trying to ask, and repeats her question to her stating if she would like him to compare himself with chocolate, dark or light? She dispassionately answers and his thoughts change as he describes himself as a West African Sepia as it says in his passport. The lady remains quiet for a while, not wanting to admit to her ignorance, but then she gives in to curiosity and asks what that is. He replies that it is similar to brunette and she immediately clarifies that that’s dark.
Now the man has had enough of her insensitiveness. He disregards all constraints of formality and mocks her outright, saying that he isn’t all black, the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands are completely white, but he is foolish enough to sit on his bottom so it has been rubbed black due to friction. But as he senses that she is about to slam the receiver on him, he struggles one last time to make her reconsider, pleading her to at least see for herself; only to have the phone slammed on him.

always remember to make a critique of other poems
using the hoe is not madness for nothing

Wole Soyinka - Biographical as per
The Nobel Foundation 1986
Wole Soyinka was born on 13 July 1934 at Abeokuta, near Ibadan in western Nigeria.
After preparatory university studies in 1954 at Government College in Ibadan, he continued at the University of Leeds, where, later, in 1973, he took his doctorate.
During the six years spent in England, he was a dramaturgist at the Royal Court Theatre in London 1958-1959.
In 1960, he was awarded a Rockefeller bursary and returned to Nigeria to study African drama.
At the same time, he taught drama and literature at various universities in Ibadan, Lagos, and Ife, where, since 1975, he has been professor of comparative literature. In 1960, he founded the theatre group, "The 1960 Masks" and in 1964, the "Orisun Theatre Company", in which he has produced his own plays and taken part as actor.
He has periodically been visiting professor at the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, and Yale.

During the civil war in Nigeria, Soyinka appealed in an article for cease-fire.
For this he was arrested in 1967, accused of conspiring with the Biafra rebels, and was held as a political prisoner for 22 months until 1969. Soyinka has published about 20 works: drama, novels and poetry.
He writes in English and his literary language is marked by great scope and richness of words.

As dramatist, Soyinka has been influenced by, among others, the Irish writer, J.M. Synge, but links up with the traditional popular African theatre with its combination of dance, music, and action.
He bases his writing on the mythology of his own tribe-the Yoruba-with Ogun, the god of iron and war, at the centre.
He wrote his first plays during his time in London, The Swamp Dwellers and The Lion and the Jewel (a light comedy), which were performed at Ibadan in 1958 and 1959 and were published in 1963. Later, satirical comedies are The Trial of Brother Jero (performed in 1960, publ. 1963) with its sequel, Jero's Metamorphosis (performed 1974, publ. 1973), A Dance of the Forests (performed 1960, publ.1963), Kongi's Harvest (performed 1965, publ. 1967) and Madmen and Specialists (performed 1970, publ. 1971).
Among Soyinka's serious philosophic plays are (apart from "The Swamp Dwellers") The Strong Breed (performed 1966, publ. 1963), The Road ( 1965) and Death and the King's Horseman (performed 1976, publ. 1975). In The Bacchae of Euripides (1973), he has rewritten the Bacchae for the African stage and in Opera Wonyosi (performed 1977, publ. 1981), bases himself on John Gay's Beggar's Opera and Brecht's The Threepenny Opera. Soyinka's latest dramatic works are A Play of Giants (1984) and Requiem for a Futurologist (1985).

Soyinka has written two novels, The Interpreters (1965), narratively, a complicated work which has been compared to Joyce's and Faulkner's, in which six Nigerian intellectuals discuss and interpret their African experiences, and Season of Anomy (1973) which is based on the writer's thoughts during his imprisonment and confronts the Orpheus and Euridice myth with the mythology of the Yoruba. Purely autobiographical are The Man Died: Prison Notes (1972) and the account of his childhood, Aké ( 1981), in which the parents' warmth and interest in their son are prominent. Literary essays are collected in, among others, Myth, Literature and the African World (1975).

Soyinka's poems, which show a close connection to his plays, are collected in Idanre, and Other Poems (1967), Poems from Prison (1969), A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972) the long poem Ogun Abibiman (1976) and Mandela's Earth and Other Poems (1988).
From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1986, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1987
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.

This is the biography of the poet, just for reference,
Yours Ian.T

Give critique to help keep Neopoet great.
Unconditional love to you all.
"Learn to love yourself first"
Yours as always, Ian.T, Sparrow, and Yenti

For your in depth research. Wole is 83, apparently is dealing with prostate cancer, and still very active. His white hair and beard frame his beautiful face. His speaking is very available on Youtube, and his voice resonates beautifully. He is fluent in Yoruba language, but reading him we immediately are aware of his rich vocabulary in English.
Any thoughts on this poem?

I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance
ee cummings

According to Yoruba mythology, Abiku refers to a child who dies repeatedly before puberty. It means ‘predestined to death’. Influenced by some spiritual deities a child dies prematurely leaving the mother miserable. Once the mother gives birth again and the child has the same physical features as the previous one, she puts a mark on the chest, back or face of the child. The parents then consult the oracle and appeases the spirit family of the child, if it is confirmed that it is from there.

Abiku’s are spirits who may have families in the spiritual world. The myth is that those spirits are hungry as no one offers sacrifices to them. In anger, they come to the physical world to eat and provide food for their spiritual family and at the peak of happiness in the home, they die. Such happiness may include marriage ceremony, coronation and wealth. This is a pure act of revenge as the cry of a mother excites the Abiku spirit.

The poem's persona, Abiku mocks the object used to confine him to earth. The bangles and charmed circles cannot refrain him from dying. He asserts proudly ‘I am Abiku calling for the first and repeated time’. From the tone of Abiku we know that he is addressing his parents.

He tells them that they are wasting their time by trying to make him stay. This poem vividly portrays the futility of life, meaning that man’s effort to avoid death is futile and man is a vain person. The dominant mood of the poem is pride. The language is simple with complex meaning. Its complexity is achieved by the use of metaphor and imagery.

what is your view on this poem, do things like this happen over there

In vain your bangles cast
Charmed circles at my feet;
I am Abiku, calling for the first
And the repeated time.

Must I weep for goats and cowries
For palm oil and the sprinkled ash?
Yams do not sprout in amulets
To earth Abiku's limbs.

So when the snail is burnt in his shell
Whet the heated fragments, brand me
Deeply on the breast. You must know him
When Abiku calls again.

I am the squirrel teeth, cracked
The riddle of the palm. Remember
This, and dig me deeper still into
The god's swollen foot.

Once and the repeated time, ageless
Though I puke. And when you pour
Libations, each finger points me near
The way I came, where

The ground is wet with mourning
White dew suckles flesh-birds
Evening befriends the spider, trapping
Flies in wind-froth;

Night, and Abiku sucks the oil
From lamps. Mother! I'll be the
Supplicant snake coiled on the doorstep
Yours the killing cry.

The ripes fruit was saddest;
Where I crept, the warmth was cloying.
In the silence of webs, Abiku moans, shaping
Mounds from the yolk.

always remember to make a critique of other poems
using the hoe is not madness for nothing

This is not the workshop page, this is the site news I posted to promote it. Got to nip this in the bud or people will get really confused and the workshop splintered.
The workshop is at

I might be able to change the title on the site news to link to the workshop instead but for now, Mark, Chiori and Ian you should repost everything so far to the workshop page and edit your comments here to just the link

This is not just bureaucratic silliness, workshop pages are built to handle posting poems separately but linked so the discussion thread doesn't become unmanageable.

Sorry for the misunderstanding.

A new workshop on the most important element of poetry-
'Rhythm and Meter in Poetry'

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