“Writing is a Reflection of the Soul on the Human Consciousness” INTERVIEW WITH OJO OLUMIDE EMMANUEL
By Phateema Salihu (Literature Voices)
(Ojo Olumide Emmanuel is a Nigerian poet, playwright and book editor. His works have appeared and forthcoming at INNSAEI Journal, Feral, Quills, Poets in Nigeria (PIN), WRR, The Nigerian Review (TNR) and elsewhere. He is an Assistant Editor at The Nigerian Review (Teen/Interview section). He was long-listed for the ‘Poets in Nigeria Student Poetry Prize’ (2020) and he was shortlisted for the Arojah Student Playwriting Prize. He is an Alumnus of the SprinNG Writers’ Fellowship.)
Phateema: Who is Ojo Olumide Emmanuel?
Ojo: Ojo is a multifaceted individual. He is a teacher, a mentor, a broadcaster, an excellent editor, a writer and a supporter of everything creative. As a writer, his Poems, Essays, Plays, Interviews and Reviews have appeared and forthcoming at INNSAEI Journal, Feral, Quills, Poets in Nigeria, WRR, Ibabanaija, The Nigerian Review, Litvo and elsewhere. He was long-listed for the ‘Poets in Nigeria Student Poetry Prize’ (2020) and he was shortlisted for The Arojah Student Playwriting Prize. He is an alumnus of the SprinG Writers’ Fellowship.
Phateema: You’ve had a lot of your works published in both national and international journals; when did you start submitting and what was the trigger?
Ojo: I would say that writing for me is a bag of surprises. I started submitting my works to journals, anthologies and international books in 2017 and for the trigger I like to say, if you want the world to see you, you have to first go see the world. Then the world, like a mirror will reflect you back through their faces. This means I have a voice and this voice requires outlets where it can be amplified. Featuring in journals provides these amplifying platforms.
Phateema: A lot of writers don’t handle rejections easily, some even get discouraged and stop submitting, how do you handle rejections?
Ojo: To deny that rejection isn’t painful is inhuman especially if such an individual has put so much effort to get the work out there. The truth is that Journals receive a lot of submissions and some have strict rules guiding their submissions. They also have the kind of works they are on the lookout for. So, one must be conscious of this before making submissions. In my early years of submissions, there was a day I had five rejections. It was really tough for me because I was naive and was just testing the sea of journals. I was really discouraged. I felt a need to clear writing off my head for some time. Fortunately, I took courage with a new determination that if a particular journal rejects my work, there are several others willing to accept it. So, if my work is rejected, I simply delete the rejection mail, go back to the work to see if there are adjustments I can make and with that done, I send it elsewhere with the mindset that it will surely find a home.
Phateema: You have held and still hold important positions in some literary organizations, how is that like for you? Does this not hinder your personal productions?
Ojo: Holding positions come with responsibility and responsibility is the stamina for experience. I find these positions as a learning avenue for building myself and others. At some point, positions may affect my personal productions; for instance, if I have so much work to edit or I have a mentorship activity to facilitate. The important thing is that those other activities are learning platforms too and can even be triggers for my poems. I have always told my mentees that those moments of slight discomfort and surprises are the right moments for writing as the right words are supplied in such situations. So even in the midst of many responsibilities, I still take out time to write in my moments of slight discomfort or surprise.
Phateema: What do you have to say about authors who write in patronizing ways just to get accepted in western journals? Why are Nigerian young writers heading West-ward?
Ojo: Beyond the artistic/creative aspects of the writing craft, writing is a serious business. In the developed world where opportunities abound, people can work as full-time writers. You can’t do that in Nigeria because there isn’t any form of social security or structures to salvage you when you are caught in the web of bankruptcy. Thus, if authors write in a patronizing way to be accepted, it is not off beam; after all, that is where the opportunities are obtainable and there, their craft can thrive. Isn’t it demeaning that Nigeria as a country does not have an MFA Program for Creative Writing? Most of our talented young writers have secured one form of MFA Scholarship and Fellowship from the West even without a degree certificate because of the worth of their artistry and those Western countries are even willing to provide them with the serene environment and resources necessary to help them grow.
Phateema: How long does it take you to complete a poem or a literary piece?
Ojo: I would say as long as I feel it is ready to be put out. I work on some for hours and others for a period of a week to a month. I keep looking at it and making adjustments until I can convince myself that I have understood the message in the work.
Phateema: How did your journey to Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation begin? What are your roles there? What does the foundation do?
Ojo: I became a member of the foundation in January 2017 although I have been writing and also a co-presenter with Usman Tokurah (Alhaji Tuclint) of Ultimate FM 103.9 of College of Education, Minna [now General Manager, Standard FM, Bida] on the Poetry and Spoken Word show, “Voices of the Pen.” It was through this program that I met a passionate young man Peter Kwange who invited me to the Foundation as a guest and since then, it has been an ethereal ride.
For now, I am the Librarian of the Foundation. I also do in-house editing for the Foundation and ‘The Nigerian Review.’ I manage the ‘Wakaso Prize for Poetry’ and the ‘Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Fiction.’ I facilitate ‘Teen Authorship workshop’ and a host of other things too.
Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation is one of the leading Art and Literary organizations in Nigeria with a philosophy to discover, mentor and publish teenagers. The Foundation ensures these teenagers grow and develop into excellent Artists visible on the Nigerian and International Literary Scene and to be socially cum politically conscious citizens of Nigeria. Saddiq Dzukogi, David Ishaya Osu, Halima Aliyu, Deborah Oluniran and others are graduates of the foundation.
The Foundation organizes the biggest School Festival in Nigeria (HIASFEST) and others like Minna Photography Contest, NIFESTEENA, and Literary Workshops and so on. The fascinating thing about the Foundation is that it provides a structured breeding environment for individuals to bring their idiosyncrasies, exhibit them, harmonize them and create excellence with a sense of accountability and measured growth.
Phateema: As a young Nigerian writer, what do you feel about the proliferation of poetry and poets on social media?
Ojo: Social media is a vast place and a place for growth if the individual is dogged and strategic. There are so many groups organizing different contests and anthologies, for instance, on Facebook. Young Nigerian writers can grow their craft via social media. I did too but the danger is that works posted on social media can easily be plagiarized. I have witnessed too many cases. There is also a lack of quality or poor editing in some of the works available on Social Media. The way out is that young writers must be patient with their craft; they should allow it to grow and shouldn’t allow themselves to be tempted to the point of posting their best works on Social Media. They can only do so if it has been published on a website or in an anthology.
Phateema: Most writers tend to either have a problem with their sexuality or religion, these days. People say they do that to seek acceptance in the West. Do you believe this? What is the place of your religion in your art?
Ojo: Religion provides one with certain Godly constraints and empowers the individual to maintain restraint. When freedom is excessive for an individual, he or she may begin to do unthinkable things. I am God-conscious in what I do and as far as I’m concerned, if you are good at what you do, people will accept and appreciate you irrespective of the differences you may share. I also believe it is God who can truly lift a man. Therefore, I don’t need to manipulate my sexuality or religion to gain acceptance. My mantra has always been lose or win God alone is to be Glorified!
Phateema: Do you think there are enough avenues for the young Nigerian writer to showcase his/her talent and nurture them?
Ojo: I would answer it in two ways. First, I would say yes considering the fact that there are accessible avenues both in Nigeria and abroad where these young Nigerians can mail their works to. Many have won international awards without leaving the shores of Nigeria. I won the ‘Poet Choice Award’ organized by the Rotaract Club of Churchgate, India (September, 2019) despite being in Nigeria. So, opportunities abound everywhere. In the second way, I would say no. The opportunities available in Nigeria are nothing to write home about. Most Literary and Art activities rely on the goodwill of benevolent individuals. There isn’t any institutional framework of support for the different Art/Literary Platforms in the country and by extension limiting the availability of avenues for the young ones to showcase their talents.
Phateema: What stage of writing do you think is trickier? At the idea stage, development stage or the writing stage?
Ojo: I think the idea stage. This is because there is usually the dilemma of where to start. What word should come first and what style to use. I often tell my mentees that in such scenarios, write down the first thing that comes to your mind. It may not make sense to you but because it is a start, other words will be added and sense will gradually be breathed into it.
Phateema: Who are your favourite authors for now and what is special about them?
Ojo: I read so much of Romeo Oriogun, Adedayo Agarau, Saddiq Dzukogi, Ocean Vuong, Laura Kaminski, Ojo Taiye and many others. I like to say I have come to appreciate their adroitness and the genuineness of their craft. Their works mentor me a lot and you could hear my voice re-echoing theirs with a unique flavour. It’s like wearing a dress that has all their names written on it (Laughter).
Phateema: What do you feel about the recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature? Each time Africans feel it should be Ngugi, the Swedish Academy dashed such hope by awarding it to someone. Do we need prizes as writers?
Ojo: Ngugi is a writer that has immortalized himself in the heart of African Literature and the World Literature at large. This isn’t the first, second or third time he has been snubbed. Some narratives opined that it may be due to the theme of his works which are usually Anti-colonial, Anti-European and Pan-African. Their opinion has nothing to do with the justification of how great he is as a writer. The world knows the strength of his artistry and whether he wins it or not, his contribution to the discourses of world Literature is a legacy that no ocean can drown.
Do writers need prizes? Yes of course, it provides validation, encouragement, money and sometimes opportunity for bigger platforms. But it shouldn’t be the major reason for one to write or not to. The joy of being a writer alone surpasses whatever prize that is out there to be won. Fulfilment is not something a prize can give. Only the joy that comes from what you do can bring that.
Phateema: Literary festivals have dwindled in Nigeria. Only Ake attracts Nigerians and the world. How can we revive the spirit of literary festivals in Nigeria?
Ojo: The major problem of literary festivals, apart from the surge of insecurity in Nigeria, is finance. Most literary organizations endure a lot of hardship just to organize a literary festival. Literary festivals will come alive if the government provides grants for organizers of such events. Private organizations and corporate bodies should also support the organizers through quality sponsorship of their events.
Phateema: Do you have a specific theme you explore in your writings or you just write as the muse comes?
Ojo: Writing is a reflection of the soul on the human consciousness. I have found myself in situations where I am asleep and suddenly, I jerk up to pick up my phone or the laptop and begin to type. I may not really know why the poem chooses to wake me up in the middle of the night but my soul is more cognizant than my physical realities. Sometimes, I may suddenly be angry. This is a time to write. So, I write as the muse gives me utterance. In the past my works are a bit political in nature but recently I try to capture every moment before it is lost forever. I write on the theme of love. I do some confessional writing; a bit of surrealism and mysticism. I write about nature too. Writing is about tearing our skin and stuffing stories inside and letting them out when our bloods are mixed with them.
Phateema: Any suggestion to anyone hoping to have as many acceptances as possible in journals? How can one fish out links to submit to?
Ojo: Reading more than you write is general advice from great writers. Always read thoroughly the submission guidelines of any journals you intend to submit your works to. Sometimes, it is wise to read their previously published work to see the quality of what they accept. You must also ensure your work is well edited and in line with their themes (if there is any). The best way to fish out links to submissions is to network with other writers. Wherever their work is published, click the link, read their works and search for the submission page on the website. Similarly, Google is quite accessible as a search engine for such inquiry.
Phateema: Thanks for your time
Ojo: You’re most welcome
Phateema Salihu is a poet and activist who has been described as a hurricane because of her passion and dedication to literature and art. She is a member of the Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation and one of the rising literary voices emerging from Niger State. Her works have been published or are forthcoming in Praxis Magazine, Brittle Papers, Kalahari Review and so on. She is the moderator, Hill-Top Weekly Book Chat Review. She has published a collection of poems titled: SKETCHES. Facebook/Instagram: Phateema Salihu, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.