Su’eddie Vershima Agema
Researcher, Poet, Editor and Development Worker, Chevening Alumni, David C Pollock Scholar 2022
(Winner ANA Prize for Poetry 2014 & 2022; Winner, Mandela Day Short Story Prize 2016; Finalist, NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022; Nominee, Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature 2018. Listed on Nigerian Writers Award 100 Most Influential Nigerian Writers Under 40 (2017 & 2018)
[M.A International Education and Development, University of Sussex, UK; M. Sc Development Studies – Geography, Benue State University, Nigeria; B.A English [and Literature] Benue State University, Nigeria]
http://sueddie.wordpress.com/about Social Media: @sueddieagema
Haneefah: Thank you for granting me this interview. In a recent interview with Afro Reader, when you were asked to talk about yourself, you simply said, “ I am your regular neighbourhood writer and development consultant with love for the craft, community and making a difference”. I am sure people will love to know more about you, so can you tell us about you in more details?
I am Su’ur Su’eddie Vershima Agema. I am a husband to the phenomenal Agatha. I am a father, brother, cousin, and then other things. I am a multi-genre writer who also writes – for children. I have about six multiple award-winning books published across genres, while I co-edited a critical text on education and development in 2021. I have also edited several other critical creative works.
I am a Chevening alum from the University of Sussex and Benue State University. I also belong to various writing groups, including Sussex Writes, the Association of Nigerian Authors (where I was Benue state chairman almost ten years ago), Abuja Literary Society, Abuja Writers Forum, and a few others. I founded the African Writers Society at the University of Sussex where I was also Curator, Black History Month. I am currently a David C. Pollock scholar of the Families in Global Transition movement.
Importantly, I’m a development consultant because I believe the writer’s role should be to write, get into the community, and effect change. It’s more than just writing; it is more than talking because talking is cheap. Talk and do is what we should do. So, I’m also a development consultant and a development worker who goes into the community to do various things, from maternal health to menstrual health hygiene to governance, education, environment, activism, and several other things. Last thing I would add is I am currently the Managing Editor for Konya Shamsrumi, an African poetry collective that is working hard to spread the gospel of poetry across the continent and beyond. It is a wonderful collective founded by Richard Ali, Umar Sidi Abubakar, Funmi Gaji and Rasaq Malik Gbolahan. My current team includes Carl Terver, Mohammed Diko and Zakkiyah Dzukogi. Another organisation I lead is SEVHAGE, and we are also an arts plus education advancing group, pursuing development through these means. On that side, I work with fantastic people like Oko Owi Ocho, Iveren Ayede, Agatha Atagher, Debbie Iorliam, Agatha Agema, Jennifer Aduro, Nathaniel Aduro, Deborah Oluniran, and many others. We started the Benue Book and Arts Festival in 2019 and have continued it to this year. We have enjoyed support from several people on that front, including Tine Agernor, Otene Ogwuche, H. E. Eunice Ortom, Dr. Charles Iornumbe, Servio Gbadamosi, Sam Ogabidu, Bash Amuneni, Sanusi Sanusi, Andrea Vanen Kwen, Ephraim Chigba, Adakole Stephen, Mrs Jeiyol Elizabeth, Chuma Nwokolo, Dul Johnson, Biachi Ndidi, Luper Aluga, Adoka Samuel, Adaji Victor, Iorember Abayol, Aondosoo Labe, Peculiar Ene, Torkwase Igbana, Martha Okenyi, the Benue chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors, the University of Sussex, and many many more people. For any more detail, you might have to find me in real life or do your research. (Smiles)
Haneefah: You are the creator and editor of your writing and you do an excellent job in both fields which is evident seeing the awards you have won including being part of the 2022 NLNG Prize Shortlist and being the winner of the 2022 ANA Prize for Poetry. What is the process of writing and editing like for you?
I do not have a strict writing regimen and different works, whether poems, fiction, non-fiction or play scripts, come to me in various forms. Sometimes, I start my writing in my head. I play with words, juggle scenarios and do crazy things, then begin to put it to paper at some point. Often, the words on paper are different from my original thoughts because, as Hyginus Ekwuazi would put it, the road from the head to the hand is long. Other times I just write words straight as they are coming. There are other styles and ways the words and works come to me too. The key thing in all the processes is that I often take my time to read them again, rework, re-edit and in some cases, have someone look at it too. I read my poems out loud to feel what it tastes and feels like as the words bounce off my tongue. I get an audience in some cases and get their opinion. When all is done, I let the work lie, read similar things and a loooong while later, come back to see if I am okay with what I have written. I continue in this format till I get tired or the works get tired of me, and I let it go. This is perhaps in line with Ekwuazi’s often-said quote that in the end, no work of art is ever truly complete; at some point, you just let it be.
Haneefah: You, Saddiq Dzukogi and Romeo Oriogun, share an exceptional bond, almost everyone I know in the literary realm still talks about how emotional the three of you get them because you define the true essence of brotherhood. How did you meet Saddiq and Romeo? Is your relationship as a result of Poetry or as a result of the NLNG Prize for literature?
We have all been friends for several years and talk to each other a lot. We have supported each other through the years personally and professionally. I was looking at some of the pictures we took together in Jos in 2015 and it made me laugh to see how much we have all come and grown. There were other writers in those pictures too, and when one relives those memories, you just smile at the blessing of the people one has come to be in the same tribe with. In summary, the Nigeria Prize for Literature shortlist for 2022 is one of those once-in-a-lifetime occurrences.
Haneefah: There was one striking post Romeo made about an arrangement that if either of you win the NLNG prize, others would partake in the cash. How did you come about this pacesetting arrangement?
I think we individually knew that there was no way any of us would get the money and keep it entirely without sharing it with the others, considering we are siblings. We might have even reached out to each other even if we were not on the shortlist, but being on the shortlist made it more compelling to do that. Close to the date of the awards, we had a virtual meeting amongst ourselves and strengthened each other, reminding ourselves of our brotherhood beyond the prize. We also drew up a formula to show what the eventual winner would give to the runners-up.
In all, it takes great integrity and courage to honour such agreements when the only binding thing to it is love and friendship. Thus, it says much of Romeo that he has gone ahead with it, and shows the big heart that he has.
Haneefah: Saddiq, Romeo and you have mentioned “Golden age of Nigerian poetry”. A kind of agenda appears to be off your sleeves. What are you guys up to with that refrain? What’s the agenda for poetry as designed by golden gang?
I don’t know about a golden gang, and we are not the originators of the description of the poetry of this time as it has been used by several people in times past. Chiedu Ezeana, the fine poet and critic, used it at least six years ago – if I remember right – to describe the continuing beauty that is the flourishing poetry you see everywhere. The issue is people seem to have a short memory and some of these reflections and descriptions are not in mainstream media or recorded in journals or articles for posterity, so it is easy to lose them. Even when they are said at events like festivals, the reports are not robust enough to capture all that is said. To answer your question directly, there is no agenda, just a description of the flourishing of the beauty of poetry coming from Nigeria. And if you think this is not true, read the article I wrote, ‘2022 The Nigerian Year of Poetry.’
Haneefah: In your poetry collection, Memory and the Call of Waters, there are many stories behind each poem. Tell us one of the stories that inspired any of the poems.
‘Keep your verse for your heart’ is a poem dedicated to a couple of my friends who I call siblings, all poets including Romeo Oriogun, Saddiq Dzukogi, Debbie Iorliam, Daisy Odey, Oko Owi Ocho, and Silas Sharamang. I was thinking of several things that I knew they had gone through. These people are among some of the finest souls you would find anywhere, but the weight of the troubles life has served them would befuddle anyone. I wrote the poem to celebrate them and remind them of the beauty of their gifts and personal essence. A plea that they shouldn’t let go but keep keeping on because we need them alive every day. There’s also ‘A Song of the Waters’, which traces Niyi Osundare’s Hurricane Katrina story in New Orleans. He was in trapped in the hurricane with his wife for some days and was nearly losing it all, then he had a dream – or vision, if you will – of his mother who told him that the waters had given him to her and no water would conquer him. That is paraphrasing it, of course. Shortly after this dream, very near him dying, he got some help from a neighbour who rescued him. As you know, he is quite alive today and continues to inspire several people, including myself. The poem in my book focuses on his mother’s prayer for him and takes the creative licence to reimagine what they said.
I’ll give another example. There was this workshop we had with Kwame Dawes in Oxford. Now, we were given various objects to interact with. I was intrigued by a picture, of a lonely woman and it inspired several thoughts that eventually became a poem published in Memory and the Call of Waters as ‘A house has fallen’:
A house has fallen/and a family scatters/The blocks are used to build the city.
Where the house once stood/weed grows thick./A wall still stands there
On it is a picture,/a withering old woman./Alone.
Now, in thinking of this poem, I thought of ‘civilisation’, so-called development and in seeking a better life, everybody’s moving, going – like the japa phenomenon. And this old woman stands as a metaphor representing our villages, our parents, all the things we are leaving, our culture and tradition. Because as all of us are ‘japaing’ and doing other things, we are not really remembering what we are losing, and that day is going to come when we wouldn’t be able to trace our history. We can move, and we should move to save our souls but whatever we do, let’s remember our old woman and ensure she does not die or remain lonely forever.
Haneefah: One of my favourite poems in your book, Memory and the Call of Water is ‘Building Memories,’ I fell in love with the title and even before reading the poem, I imagined myself in an empty space, a vast one, creating a world where the creatures are my memories (bad and good), building a world where these creatures will have to coexist and have a balanced life. When I delved into the poem, trust me my imagination got wilder and wilder. My love for your poem ‘Building Memories’ is perhaps pregnant with a collection of poems waiting to be birthed. Now, different readers will read different meaning to the poem but let’s hear from you, what specifically inspired the poem?
That is a difficult question. You see, that poem is close to my heart and found life through myriad experiences. I can’t remember exactly how long it took me to write it completely but it took some time. The writing process was inspired by several incidences in my life from love to living, despair and hope, and so much more.
Some poets find it very hard to come up with titles. Every poem in your book has a striking title ranging from ‘I am Spirit,’ ‘Before Learning a New Normal’ and others. For you, how easy is coming up with titles for your poems?
Some titles come easy, and some don’t. There are some that just come in one breath, others I get from the spirit of the poem or certain sentiments. There are a few which are answers or continuations to other poems, so their titles come in more relatively simpler. The majority of them are short but once in a while I try my hands at longer titles such as ‘Nightmares raised on the fringes of pain where the vulture becomes our emblem’ and ‘When minutes give birth to eternal declarations.’ In all, I try to be intentional with my titles.
Haneefah: Water is a controlling metaphor in your poetry collection, could you describe the spiritual, mental and physical connection you, other poets or people generally have with water?
I would speak more for myself here. Nothing big there. I love water and recognise it as one of our world’s dominant elements. We are mostly made of water and our world is more majorly water than land. When I get to water bodies at some point, I feel at ease and can think. I have been blessed to have found waters that have helped me think about many things, both restful and strange. These include the Benue, Bantaje, and the sea at Lagos and in Brighton, among others. There is always a certain peace that comes about them but I do not kid myself that the waters only have positive values. In some of the poems in Memory and the Call of Waters, I try to balance this narrative by showing the other side of water such as in ‘The Vanity of a Scholar’s dream’ that talks about the suicide of a Nigerian student.
Haneefah: You must be working on another book already? What are the themes you intend to explore?
There is never one fixed theme in any work; I generally work across large-scale ideas. My next book project is a short story collection which looks at life in various facets, in Nigeria and abroad. My emphasis is to encapsulate the African experience at home and in the diaspora in tender words woven in a simple but (hopefully) beautiful style that will leave an enduring effect on readers.
Haneefah: Like life writing can’t be entirely flawless. Did you feel reluctant to release the first book you published? Tell us about that phase of your life as a writer?
I had no reservation about letting Bring our casket home: Tales one shouldn’t tell go out into the world. It is a book dear to my heart and, like my other works, contains my vulnerabilities, which is the thing about poetry, right? The road to that publication had some challenges though. For instance, when I had the idea of publishing a book at first, my second father, Mr Charles Ayede, told me to hold on and concentrate on other things. He had promised to get Professor David Ker, my Vice Chancellor, his friend, to look at it. I had to pause getting the collection out too. However, he died in tragic circumstances in 2011. I gathered those old poems and wrote many new ones to find some escape from my grief of losing him and some other friends. The title was funny. I think APOLOGY, STRENTH and something I can’t remember now. However, I had a reading with Professor Hyginus Ekwuazi where I read some of the poems in the book, and he was impressed. When we got back to his house, where I was on vacation in Ibadan, he gave me some other tips. Later, he told me some stories which inspired poems that found their way into that first collection of poems and later, short stories. I had some friends look at some of the poems too, and decided to let it go because I knew that if I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t. By 2012, I felt the book was ready and let it go into the world.
Haneefah: Tell us about studying English at the University
It was an interesting experience, because I was introduced to the rudiments of writing, literature and literary theory, and language, particularly English language. I enjoyed the grammatical theories and history of English. I wouldn’t change that experience for anything else. One of the finer things about the course again was my interactions with writers like Moses Tsenongu, now Professor and Head of the Department of English at the Benue State University, my alma mater. He was our early mentor and remains so, teacher and inspirer who never stopped telling us to love writing, our oral literature priest and speech writing leader, our own beloved trailblazer. Dr Andrew Ame-Odindi Aba took us in early poetry and was my supervisor eventually. I owe most of what I know in rudimentary research, especially in post-colonialism to him. I could go on and on talking about my teachers but that would mean talking without end because they did a lot for me. I am grateful to Prof Mbaiver Leticia Nyitse, who is a game changer, a gender champion and humble amazon, the teacher who in the years after school is a friend we all call blessed), Dr Maria Ajima (the humble matriarch of the arts, fine woman of grace, who led us on Creative Writing, strong lady who is patient and most kind), Dr Ferdinand Asoo (the critic who left too soon, our profound don), Dr Isa Okpe, Felix Atonde (one of the finest and most accessible teacher I have ever had) and Mrs Elizabeth Jeiyol (our family aunt, development champion and my senior padi of forever, a great woman with a very large heart). I have to add our beloved Lucy Vajime who tore stylistics down for us. One story that has remained with me, which explained a lot about the development world is ‘Halfway to Nirvana’. It was an opening to many dimensions. In the years after, her kind words have kept spurring us on. God bless you, ma, for being a great soft spoken but prayerful teacher.
Professor Tyohdzuah Akosu taught us the short story and when I think Eskia Mphalele, or Edgar Allan Poe and Dambudzo Marachera, I smile at his memory. Prof David Ker is our eternal teacher who God called home too soon. He was teacher in words, deeds, and action. No words can ever capture his essence to me, to us and our nation. I hail my elder friends and small teachers, Dr Elizabeth Onogwu (my elder sister who insists she is my mum while we know she is my elder sister; a lady who I have deep admiration and appreciation for, a fighter) and Sam Ogabidu (the first ANA Chair I served under in multiple portfolio), thanks for being my friends. Sam should be a lecturer and writer of renown by name, but he prefers to lecture to the faithful from God’s pulpit. We are glad you still throw those fine lines at us.
Outside school, Profs Hyginus Ekwuazi and Niyi Osundare remain phenomenal friends I can’t thank enough for the lessons they have added to my English grounding. God bless you. I am the poet I am because I looked through your eyes and found a vision within which my heart could get colours to paint the words I now put on pages.
Haneefah: If you weren’t writing, what other form of Arts would you be involved in?
Most of what I occasionally do, but not on a large public basis – acting, especially voice acting, singing, drawing and things of the like. I used to draw comics in school and only had to stop when life constrained my time. If I think hard enough, I am sure I would have a few other thoughts but these are the first things that come to mind.
Haneefah: How supportive is Nigeria as a country to writers?
Nigerian writers are supportive of themselves and largely derive ways to help promote their art, but the state is not one of the biggest pillars for arts. This is understandable, considering education is not one of the country’s biggest priorities, and entertainment has more support across the board, but it is what it is. I have faith that more individuals, corporate organisations, foreign commissions and embassies would support us more. They are doing their bit, if we are being honest but there is a lot more to be desired.
Haneefah: Most people love your humility and kindness. Jude Idada and some other literary icons made appraisal posts about you after the announcement of the 2022 NLNG Prize Winner (Romeo Oriogun). Think about a world without humility and kindness and describe the chaos with rich imagery
Thank you for your kind compliment. While I can’t speak for humility – my being so or not – or what the world would be without it, I know that kindness makes the world go round. It is the beauty that lifts us on days when we have nothing to hold on to, the thing that fills gaps we did not even know exists. It is the soothing to life’s continuing wounds. Better still, kindness is the sun that burns bright making all things find life, giving light in the dark of night. Without kindness, we would live in an eternally dark winter.
Haneefah: Do you feel empty sometimes? Like everything and everywhere is blank in life and your Arts?
No, not really.
Haneefah: What is your advice to older and younger Writers out there?
Don’t lose faith and keep your art alive. Keep moving, keep working, and be an inspiration in every way possible. As Sefi Attah says, everything good will come.
Haneefah Abdulrahman is a writer, interviewer, spoken poetry artiste and podcaster from Nigeria whose work has appeared in Nigerian Review, Wisprout Project, Arts MuseFair, and elsewhere. She is a 2021 fellow of Ebedi International Writers Residency, a Pioneer fellow of Imodoye Writers’ Residency, and she was a Columnist at DailyTrust Newspaper. She is the Author of Shades of Becoming. She is the 2021 Winner of The Arewa Rising Literary Star. Born in Kaduna, Haneefah is an indigene of Kogi State. She is a student of English Literature at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. She is the Chairperson of the Kaduna Branch, Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation, the 2021/ 2022 Chairperson of the Creative Writers Club, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria – Nigeria, the Editor-in-Chief of Literature Voices (LITVO) and the Editorial Assistant of the Moveee Magazine.