Our December Personality Of The Month needs no introduction. He’s the classic Jack of all trades, master of ALL.
Poetic Wednesdays had the pleasure of interviewing a great personality in the person of Umar Saleh Gwani
You’re in for a treat. Sit back, relax and enjoy this scintillating interview.
PW: Can we have an insight of the man behind the Legend Umar Saleh Gwani?
USG: I am Umar Saleh Gwani, born and bred in Bauchi. I speak several languages including Tera, my mother tongue, English, Hausa, Arabic and French, Spanish. I am a trained Animal Production Technologist, having bagged my B. Tech in Animal Production Technology from Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University. I have lived in several places in Nigeria and have a good understanding of the geography and cultural setting of Nigeria. I am the CEO and CTO of NextOne information and communication technology Nigeria.
PW: As a CEO of a tech company, which would require a lot of time and energy, how did you manage your time doing that and poetry?
USG: (Laughs) People tend to be shocked when I tell them the amount of time I enjoy good sleep. Frankly, time allocation makes you a very respected person. Accountability is expected of one with respect to how much you can get out of the same 24 hours everyone gets in the same day. The astronaut spends 24 hours on solving problems of how to get to the moon. It is how you spend these 24 hours that defines how successful you’ve managed your time.
PW: What purpose does poetry serve to you?
I found poetry to be an escape to a lot of things you have to explain to people. Poetry confers to you this anonymity to be an avid observer and narrate basically what you’ve been able to observe and experience so that other people can have an idea or share those experiences. I have been involved with poetry for a long time. I enjoy it because it allows you to use minimal words to express large things. For the purpose of eloquence and refinement of language; similes, metaphors and other tools of poetry makes poetry a very interesting aspect.
For a long time, people have been discouraging me, saying poetry is very difficult. One of the most remarkable poems that I’ve read that changed that notion for me is Dante’s Divine Comedy. After that poem, I had a clear understanding of how imaginations can be infused into narratives that could be interesting and that coincided with a lot of discoveries I’ve read about lots of writers as of that time. Poetry allows me to minimize the usage of words. As someone who dabbles into prose – short stories and nonfiction writing, I discovered that you have to make your message as clear as possible so as to not be misunderstood or misinterpreted by your stories but poetry gives one the freedom to steer away from that, making the reader to explore his understanding and may take ownership of the poem to make it what he wants to be. I find that very encouraging. But coming from a society where appreciation of the arts is normally constricted within the scope of what certain groups of poets define as what it should be thus stifling creativity. For instance, if you publish an anthology, ANA will critique your book to see whether it falls in a category that can be accepted as Nigerian poetry. The problem we kept having is that we have trained academics and other successfully published writers, who are not performing artists dictating to people on what they should write. That discouraged me from writing. I began writing for myself in a language I believe one-day people would speak. Technology recently helped me in reaching a wider audience on the social networks and discovered people with similar experiences with me, people who had done what I did, and people who are looking for ways to overcome these challenges. So, for the first time, I felt that there was a readership, a followership and a population of people that understand that you cannot confine and box the arts, especially the creative arts in a certain boundary and expect good results. Creativity is all about imagination and no two people imagine things in the same way.
PW: What other arts do you dabble into apart from poetry and short stories?
USG: Yeah, some of my short stories have been published in both soft and hard prints, collections and publications. Short stories thrill me because of the word restriction in the expression of dramatic instances. It sharpens one’s ability in expressing dialogue, building effects and describing a particular feeling that keep the readers yearning for more.
PW: So, if you were to choose between poetry and short stories, which one do you prefer?
USG: I prefer photography because it contains all – both poetry and short story telling. A single photograph is a frozen moment of multiple events and instances that were captured in a single frame. Try to imagine the stories that would emerge. A picture always yields to the creative mind to write more and that can give birth to short stories and poems.
PW: You’ve met with almost all the generation of Nigerian poets through their work: You’ve read Soyinka, Amu Nnadi and you’ve read Maryam Gatawa, Dzukogi and the rest. What have they done differently? And what’s the distinction between their poetry and our poetry?
USG: Yes. There is a difference. Soyinka and contemporaries were trained in English Literature since the Queen’s English days. There is Pre-colonialism and post-colonialism. The themes of their poetry and writing have eventually defined what Nigerian poetry with respect to literature is. Prof Niyi Osundare, J P Clark, Chinua Achebe – and all other contemporaries all conformed to what was known to have been the standards of literature. They were speaking to their generation. What happened in between wasn’t a smooth transition; the new age poets completely walked away from that restriction. They came out of the box. For the first time, people were exploring different ways of expressing poetry, like picture poetry, illusionary and Surrealist writing, metaphysical writing, fusion of languages – poetry of all kinds. We have venues of poetry readings filled up and writers being tethered by young people without anyone urging them too. Spoken word poetry has more crowd today than the conventional poetry. These poets are quite young – people who are expressing anger over a system bent on silencing them. To me, the new age poets are taking over and other newer age poets would take over. Poetry evolves. We hope it’s for the good of all poetry lovers.
PW: There are some new age poets that deviate away from the conventional things we write about and venture into trending social issues that are not fully accepted in Nigeria and Africa at large, like homosexuality and the sorts. What are your thoughts about it?
USG: Perceptions differ. Most of my poems are based on existentialism; on how do we find our purpose in the whole picture. Who are we? Now, most of the people that are writing with respect to current social trends are people that are motivated by the rewards they gain from the communities to which this trend is promoted and accepted. I have no objection; whatever you write, there would be people would read it, people who appreciate it and people who will criticize it. What we call for is caution; so that people may not misconstrue what is not as what it is. For instance, people whose sexual orientation is queer are free to express themselves but in doing so, should try as much as possible not to insult the sensibilities of others who do not believe or agree with them and the same thing for the ‘straight’ people, not to attack or condemn what the others are writing but caution the readers through objective analysis that the position taken by these people is wrong. Because there are prizes and awards attached to certain social activism themes, people tend to drift towards writing on such to identify with them and with the popularity that comes with it. A serious poet always finds a theme which he/she can write properly on and the authority by highlighting what others might not have paid attention to. It is a good thing we’re having such diversity and variations on themes but it is also our responsibility to educate our readers through discussions we’ve been having on the social networks of poems we’ve read so that they’re not misguided. Creativity will definitely continue to evolve and cannot be controlled or directed. There are simple events that can cause great changes and sometimes, we hardly pay attention to them until they happen.
PW: You’re familiar with the Poetic Wednesdays movement. What can you say about it? How can it be improved upon?
USG: I’m going to be a little emotional about this (laughs). Why I’m saying I’m going to be emotional is because passion is what has driven me to succeed in whatever I have done. It has helped me work with different organizations, done businesses in diverse areas. Passion is the sole driver for these. Now, this is what Poetic Wednesdays has practically done to the creative youths on social networks.
Poetic Wednesdays have disrupted the industry in the sense that a group of people can wake up, without any backing or resources and create a community that has become vibrant and nationally acknowledged as an influencer in terms of how young people dabbled into poetry. It is amazing.
At first, I was scratched, trying to see who was there and doing what. I was impressed for the single reason that there are no restrictions about the low quality of poems or what have you, but a subtle attempt to guide, correct and improve on the quality. Every week there’s a theme and people are expected to make voluntary submissions which are not edited by the team but simply collected and shared on the page in order to make impact and encourage others that are coming to learn how to write and those that are writing poetry to come to the middle and look at each other’s work and point out the obvious corrections in the submissions. Do you know or are you aware of any other poetry movement in Northern Nigeria that has done what Poetic Wednesdays is doing in a short period of time from its inception till date? I am not sure. There are groups and lots of poetry activities in the North and Nigeria as a whole but few have taken the social media by storm and has produced juice out of air. It is an amazing development. For me, this is the first time I’m having an audience read my poems without putting anything in quotation mark and I love it.
Poetic Wednesdays have already created a niche for itself. Those behind it have already sent a message to the world that “this is what we are capable of”. The next thing is scaling that success to a higher audience without resources or backing through exploiting the tools provided by technology to build on it and even make a profit. You have access to social networks and people who can provide quality editorial works. The next step is having a journal for Poetic Wednesdays online and with the right amount of traffic, advertisements placed on such journals can generate resources that will pay for publications, offices and editorial works. From there, the sky is the limit.
Once Poetic Wednesday is run on a business model, it will be able to evaluate – periodically – what strategies to change and what target audience to attract. When Poetic Wednesdays is ready, we’re ready to partner in order to find solutions to bring poetry to doorstep of poetry lovers worldwide and make them happy.
PW: Thank you so much Sir. Your collection, Thunderclap, was recently published. Congratulations Sir. Can you tell us a bit about the collection?
USG: Thank you. Thunderclap is a baby that was nursed as a result of my interaction with several people over the period of five years. I have asked a lot of questions about things I had known with respect to human behavior, human attitude and relationships with others. I have been plagued by questions since childhood on where were we before this life, where do we go to after we die. I have delved into spiritual scriptures, trying to find explanations. But faith, like any other thing that comes through revelation is a matter of belief and not a matter of proof. The proof and evidence lies much deeper in the understanding of the universe as a single entity. So, when inspirations – or questions – like these come, I sit down and try to find out my knowledge of them and my purpose within them. These collections have been caged until I started sharing them on Facebook 2 – 3 years ago and got a lot of attention. People were commenting what they feel such poems means to them.
Also, the choice of my publishers played a huge role in the emergence of Thunderclap. When I was serving in Minna in 1996/1997. During my service year where I met students of College of Education Minna who were running a literary society and encouraging people to make submission. From there, I was exposed ANA Niger branch where I met Baba Dzukogi and other ANA Minna members where I was encouraged to share my writings. I promised AMAB books a collection to be published due to the very rewarding relationship I have with the proprietor, Mr Nurdin Busari.
PW: Should we expect to see more collections subsequently?
USG: Definitely. I have a poetry collection – much deeper than Thunderclap – in the works. I also have a short story collection which has gone very far. They are amazing collections. They are amazing because they have been in the dark for so long and I found out they’re still relevant today and some are even prophetic.
I’m trying to see that by December, editorial work has been completed and handed over to my publishers. Also, I have been involved in translation works in Hausa. So, next year, we’ll have the follow up to Thunderclap God’s willing.
PW: The literary scene in Northern Nigeria is changing – albeit very slow. Do we have enough organizations and people actively engaged in propelling this change? Do we have someone to thank for?
USG: There are a lot of influences from people who have influenced the shaping of our literary scene:
Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi; our father, our brother, our mentor and friend, has championed a lot of causes that has exposed young and old people to aspire to write. He has pushed for writing in our indigenous languages so much that it has garnered international recognition. There are bodies like the Northern Nigerian Writers Summit that have done well.
A big kudos should be given to emerging writers that have won prestigious awards based on what they have written as a true reflection of what literary maturity has reached in Northern Nigeria; people like Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, El-nathan John, Helon Habila, Friday John Abba and the rest. Most of these people were the pioneer members of Kaduna writers league, then ANA. So, you can see how such membership, participation and interaction with other writers have manifested in the qualities of works they have produced and awards they have won. People like Professor Zainab Alkali, Professor Sadiya and so many others have done so much.
So, hopefully, the landscape will broaden and widen, with enough inclusion of all artists from all angles.
PW: You were recently at Minna Art and Books Festival and you know about ABUfest, Kabafest and a host of others. What can you say about Festivals?
USG: Literary festivals are very important. The biggest challenge we’re having with literary festivals is that the content and participation should reflect the goals of the organizations. Due to this reason, we want more organizations to be involved in organizing more festivals through which writers would have wider platforms to showcase their works. No matter how many literary festivals we have, it is not going to be enough. The more, the merrier. More corporate organizations as their CSR, encourage community literary events at the grassroots level through local book clubs, discussion circles etc. It would be a good idea to have more platforms where people can explore what is available for them without fear, discrimination or rejection of their works.
PW: Gender issues have become hot topics in the literary circles over the years. Can you share with us your thoughts on how gender influences literature?
USG: To be candid with you, our society lives based on the orientation that has always been a patriarchal society which has had issues with gender over a long period of time. That has reflected in the writings and clamor for inclusion by the female writers. You hear about “Girl child education”, but have you heard of “boy child education”? If you remove the perspective from Northern Nigeria and move to South-Eastern Nigeria, you’ll find out that more boys are dropping out of school to join businesses while the girls stay in school. That means that there is a gender imbalance there. Gender as a theme for activism is where we are getting it wrong? Feminism, essentially, as being portrayed by Western culture is alien to our cultures here. But that doesn’t mean that some of the ways our local cultures treat women here is right. There are a lot of things that are trying to be addressed through legislations like FGM, inheritance of properties by females, equal opportunities in education, commerce and all sorts of activities in human endeavor to both males and females. The problem, however, is how our literary communities have been carrying out gender issues is completely confrontational and sometimes, goes against religion or established social order. You can’t simply adopt everything someone does and assume it will work for us. Most of these ideas are alien and people are picking up these ideas for simple personal gratification and the perks they come up with. There are people who strongly believe what they are fighting for with respect to rights but that doesn’t explain the position of the Nigerian feminist as compared to the French or American feminists, whose ideas are trying to be cultivated here?
What I believe is that most of these gender imbalances are borne out of cruel systems that have exploited us as human beings for a long time. I am happy that we have begun to disengage from certain practices that have skewed favors to the disadvantage of the other sex. True activism is seen in the communities where mobilization is done towards better health care, education, entrepreneurship and economic and financial inclusion by women from CSOs and NGOs that are going deep into the hinterland, delivering messages and bringing about change, not women who write to newspapers and appear on TV stations to make noise and are completely disconnected with reality.
PW: Can you take us through a social issue you’re very passionate about and what you think can be done about it?
USG: First of all, I am human. Any cause that will protect the sanctity of the lives of other humans, I will be part of it. Any cause that elevates and improve the role of human beings and his responsibility of sustaining his environment for the future, I am part of it. In the words of Mallam Nuruddeeen Lemu who said “the proclamation of every human being in this life is to leave this world in a better way that he found it, not worse that he met it.”
My plea, first and foremost to people is, they should put themselves in the position of accountability. Once one is accountable for his actions, every action becomes worship and he becomes spiritual in duties that improves or better the lives of others. We are all in this together. To be able to differentiate between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong is inherent regardless of the sex, orientation, religion or the environment people find themselves.
PW: How do you see awards and prizes as motivators?
USG: They’re good. They should motivate a writer, but should not be the cardinal point of writing. Awards help writers get recognition and wider readership. They help artists to improve and spread messages further than what they could have done without the awards. But sometimes, there are questionable awards people scramble for and flaunt them around simply because they are recognized. A writer should not abandon his ideologies or beliefs in order to conform to something which they believe will bring rewards to them.
Writers should not just focus on awards, but writers should focus on people understanding the message they’re sending and getting feedbacks on how to get better.
PW: Can you introduce us to three books that changed your life?
USG: (Laughs) To be very honest, lots of books have changed my life but to mention just a few: Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms (2015) and Omar Qayyam’s Rubaiyat collection of poetry.
PW: How can our members get a hold of your collection?
USG: I can make arrangements for any number of copies and give discounts on volume orders for the members of Poetic Wednesdays so that we can have them in groups of ten or twenties and to be delivered in any part of the country.
PW: How do you think writers can contribute to national and societal developments?
USG: Writers and other creatives have to look at themselves as the mirror of the society. We’re not judges. We shouldn’t be judgmental. We should hold a mirror to the society to see the reflection of how beautiful or ugly it is. We’re supposed to identify certain problems, engage these problems and work towards identifying solutions for these problems. We’re not just watchdogs to culture, any complacency on our part would bring about the acceptance of false information as the truth in the future. Writing is like being a clergy; it is a calling. Any writer should be ready for the responsibility that comes with writing. A responsibility of being objective and being truthful. One has to pick a cause, stand by it and justify the passion invested within such a cause.
PW: Any advice to aspiring writers and poets wishing to be published?
USG: The most important advice is not to be swayed by comments and reviews on social networks that would make them feel that they’ve arrived at a point where they are good enough. Publishing is important, but what is more important is having an audience that would read your published work. Many young writers haven’t cultivated this audience. They haven’t refined their writings. This can only happen through a lot of practice and training.
Never give up, rejections shouldn’t defer you. You have no idea how many rejections I have had. That has helped me to make corrections but a lot of young people are now in a hurry to publish. Despite the fact that there are platforms where you can self-publish, you’ll find a lot of these books unsold and with no review. This makes the effort a waste of time. Young writers and poets should get as much mentoring as they can from those who have interest in what they do, not necessarily established writers and poets. The truth is that the established ones are overwhelmed and don’t have the time to be correcting and reviewing except you’re paying for it. Personally, there are people I have enjoyed mentorship from; people like Fiona Lovatt, Laura Kaminiski who are excellent teachers who take their time to check your work and advise you but they are overwhelmed because of the number of people who require their services. Therefore, we’re appealing to other professionals to spare an hour or two and dedicate it to mentoring the upcoming ones. A diamond that is mined from underneath the earth doesn’t have its sparkle until it is cut, polished and shined. We need more hands on deck to be polishing our diamonds – pro bono.
Also, never stop writing. Don’t give up. Use your time and energy positively.
PW: Thank you for your time, Sir.
USG: My pleasure. Thank you.
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