Adewale-Gabriel Led Poetry Workshop As Abuja Writers Marked Second Year Anniversary

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A cake gave it away. Topic for the June 26 edition of Abuja Writers’ Forum (AWF’s) creative writing workshop, that is. The cake was in a colourful branded pack, sitting on a table in AWF’s Abuja office. "Who is marking his birthday?" someone had asked on sighting the pack. "AWF clocks 2 today," a member answered. "What if no one is marking his birthday, and the pack is empty in the first place? That means the pack is a powerful imagery, and that’s the topic we will treat in today’s workshop," Mrs Toyin Adewale Gabriel, the resource person for the workshop said, as she walked towards the classroom where participants were already seated. The session had already begun before participants were informed about the topic for the day. Organizers later pointed out that they deliberately kept the topic close to their chests to keep appetites wet. 

It was a mixed lot in there – the participants. There were civil servants, uniformed officers in mufti, businessmen, private sector employees, graduates still in the employment market, people from outside Abuja and as far as Makurdi, all of whom shared the same love for writing. Their teacher, Adewale-Gabriel who herself had authoured, co-authored and edited poetry collections, had some things to say about her students. But that came later after she got to know them fairly well. "I am happy to be here," she announced for the moment, "and I think we should all applaud AWF for organizing this kind of workshop." She pointed out that only one or two Universities in the country provide opportunities for learners (who have diverse academic backgrounds) to acquire creative writing skills as AWF does; one reason for which she said  participants should make the best use of the opportunity. Then to the business of the day. There was no doubt that Adewale-Gabriel knew her onions. A writer and poet of many years standing, she admitted that she learnt the way of writing by reading works of great poets. Russian and Latin American poets were her favourites. "If you want to master the true craft of writing serious poetry, you need to read their works," she said.

Wole Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation and J.P. Clark’s Ibadan were two of her workshop materials.  She also had  Mary Magadalene 1&2 by Russia’s Boris Paternak, as well as The Shark by Edwin John Pratt. And there were other items too: Baby powder, mirror, rechargeable lamp etc. Why were those items on Adewale-Gabriel’s table was a thought in the mind of everyone who had watched as she brought them out of her bag, and placed them on a table. Time for their uses was yet to come though. But that of Telephone Conversation had. "I chose it because it is a wonderful poem in the use of imageries," Adewale-Gabriel said and then she asked her students: "What can you see, smell, taste or touch in the poem?" These are basically the four human senses, and as she  explained, they are the means by which a reader perceives imageries not only in poetry,  but in writing in general. Yet imageries are particularly important in poetry because they are the very tools that set poetry apart from other genres of writing, more so as it is generally shorter than other genres. Imageries can convey a whole range of emotions, the teacher explained They can trigger memories when they are skillfully used. In response to her question on  Telephone Conversation, "I can sense discomfort on the part of the man in the poem," a participant said, citing the line –  But self confession. ‘Madam,’ I warned, ‘I hate a wasted journey - I am African." This poem was meant to be a conversation between an African who wanted  to rent an apartment and a landlady who was presumed to be white. Obviously, the African expected a negative reaction to the fact of his being a black man if he eventually met the landlady, so he confessed his colour ahead of the expected meeting. More questions from Adewale-Gabriel prompted further insights into the imageries that the poem contained.  

"Where was the location – the place where the telephone conversation took place?" she had asked her students. In a city, In a phone booth in a city, In South Africa, In London, came the responses. And why London? At the time Soyinka wrote the poem, a participant responded, African countries didn’t have the luxury of public phone booths. But Adewale-Gabriel insisted there were more imageries  in the poem which strongly showed that the conversation took place in London. Such imageries included, "‘Red booth. Red pillar-box, Red double-tiered Omnibus squelching tar." a participant, Ms Ada Ubah said. The teacher asked other participants to clap for her. But "how do you know that? Have you ever been to London?" Ubah was asked.  "No, I read a lot. I knew it from my readings." The teacher said red pillars are actually some of the symbols of London. But she further asked, "what type of person was the landlady?" A participant thought she was a woman of easy virtues without explaining why; another thought she was an old woman, and yet another person said the landlady was a married woman, rich, intolerant, a racist and a segregationist. But Adewale-Gabriel wanted to know: if there was a sense of discomfort in the poem, on whose part – the lady or the man who wanted to rent her apartment? The reactions varied: the discomfort was on the part of the man; it was on the part of the woman; and yet others said ‘both’ considering the fact that they circled round each other, assessing, cautiously treading in their conversation.

But as Adewale-Gabriel pointed out, there was more than a conversation going on. There were deeper layers or meanings in the poem. So she asked: "what is the underlying message going by the combination of images in the poem?" Her students thought Soyinka wanted to show that when one is black, he should be proud of it; others said the poet wanted to show the discomfort white and black people feel towards one another, yet some said, the message was beyond race, but representative of the curious human nature that wants to know and possibly tag others by where they come from. Some of the participants also posited that blacks, even Nigerians, also ask one another questions such as: where are you from? What’s your ethnic group? Which state are you from? While some thought this is not right, others felt there is nothing wrong in it since human mind tends to identify a person better by the place he comes from and so on. White people ask each other such questions too, it was stated. But another point was also stated: Having such information is not the problem, but how it is used. If it is used to negatively judge the other person, then it is wrong.

Yakori Mohammed, a participant who had part of her education in India and who experienced racial intolerance first-hand, said Soyinka’s poem resonated with her and she felt that the poem further reinforced her belief that no matter what anyone may say, one should be proud to be black and defend it anytime, anywhere. Adewale-Gabriel would however like to know: Did Soyinka succeed in getting his message across by the use of imageries? Many of the participants agreed, saying the images helped to convey a whole range of emotions. In that case, Adewale added, good images in the poem had helped the readers to bring their four senses to use – an excellent thing in poetry writing.    

After reading Clark’s Ibadan, Adewale-Gabriel asked her students to write down the feelings they had though the imageries contained in the poem. Responses included: an ancient town with the topography of an unkempt modern environment; a vast, unplanned modern city, bothered by hills and caught by the author at a time the sun shone brightly on it; large city with quiet suburbs. All of these were gleaned from images such as ‘running splash, flung and scattered, broken china in the sun’ that were in the five-lined poem. Like Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation, participants agreed that Clark’s Ibadan succeeded in the use of powerful imageries.

The teacher would however bring the topic, ‘Imagery in Poetry’ closer to her students when she called attention to the objects she had on her table. "Many of you would have wondered why I brought all of these along with me," she said. Then she explained. "Objects can trigger memories, they can challenge our creativity. When you experience writer’s block – a state in which a writer has no idea on what to write about – you can use memory triggers," she explained, pointing to her objects. She gave out the objects to each of the participants. But they did not go round, so she asked each person to bring out an object. A bottle of perfume appeared on a participant’s table. There was a small container of face powder. One gentleman removed his bowler hat. Another took his woven native cap off his head. And there a pair of eyeglasses. The teacher said a lady’s bag is a rich repertoire of memory triggers with the assorted lady’s things it usually contains. No lady used a bag to trigger memory on that occasion however. 

"I have here a container of Johnson Baby Powder", the teacher said, setting the stage for the exercise. "This powder evokes in me some emotions that I love so much."  It reminded her of moments when she took care of her babies, moments when she carefully bathed them and rubbed them with powder – a powerful emotional statement as a mother. The baby powder reminded her of motherhood, and so in moments when she experienced writer’s block, she could be moved to write a poem about motherhood. On the other hand, the powder’s ever-present fresh smell could make her write about ‘freshness’ in any diverse form it might occur to her.  "Hold the object you chose and relate with it with your four senses. Explore the object. What memory does it evoke – first love, wedding day, examinations that you failed, the woman you love but don’t have the courage to speak to, a journey, loneliness, anger, frustration, broken heart, beauty, ugliness, Nigeria’s political situation, fear, heartbreak? Are they painful memories, beautiful memories? Write down what you feel?" Adewale-Gabriel instructed her students.

With her hand placed around a 100 ml bottle of perfume, Debbie Edwards, wrote the following in less than five minutes: ‘She chose to like me/ a spontaneous gift, solid/more favoured in the moment than her daughters/A box set. Classy is how she sees me/Beyond my means, long coveted and loved/Airport! White noise/Terrorist hysteria/No liquids! Only 100ml!/Leave the crème – I am raped by bureaucracy/ Wealth, Glamours /Celebrities have chosen her wedding dresses/If it finishes, how will I hold the memory/ 50ml?/ eau de toilette?/Not perfume!/beyond my means, not really/but beyond my choice.’

And there were more poems such as this from other participants, a fact that made their teacher comment that she had brilliant students who caught on quickly. Just as Soyinka and Clark did in their poems, Adewale-Gabriel explained that she perceived in Debbie Edward’s poem, images of memories of a mother figure; a past relationship; a sense of a heartbreak; and an echo of September 11 attack, while further pointing out that perfumes are evocative of much memories among which are childhood years, loved ones, marriage and childbirth.

She then explained that the exercise allows a writer of poetry to explore his senses, open his poetic eyes and mind to see what he would not ordinarily see. For her, a poet should develop the ability to see what others don’t see, put such things down in short words that evoke powerful images in the mind of the reader, learn to transfer abstract emotions into the physical with the use of imageries, as well as use imageries and metaphors to convey everyday things in form of texture, smell, taste, and touch. She did add that while other tools for writing good poetry would be treated in subsequent workshops, mastering the use of imageries is a good starting point for any poetry writer. Many of the participants expressed delight at the manner the resource person bought her teachings home to even a beginner. They therefore urged the organizers to ensure that Adewale-Gabriel was invited to teach at subsequent workshops.   

As the June 26 creative writing workshop coincided with the second year anniversary of AWF, it was marked in a special way as participants were entertained with assorted foods and drinks. In his address at the end of the workshop, the President of AWF, Dr Emman Usman Shehu said the workshop is a monthly affair, free, and designed to empower writers to have skills to do what they have passion to do. He said the workshop is one of the structures AWF has put in place to ensure that the country continues to produce world-class literary figures.  The next edition of the creative writing workshop will come up on July 31. As for the topic to be treated, "I will not tell you the topic for now," Dr Shehu said, just as he did for the June edition before the cake gave it away.