This interview by HENRY AKUBUIRO was first published on Sunday, 21 March 2010. (Reproduced in The Blogazette for archival purposes)
Nnorom Azuonye is the Founder and Administrator of Sentinel Poetry Movement, Editor of Sentinel Literary Quarterly, and Publisher of Sentinel Nigeria magazine. He is the Director of Operations and Creative Services, Eastern Light EPM International and Administrator of Excel for Charity International Writing Competition Series. Author of Letter to God and Other Poems (2003), The Bridge Selection: Poems for the Road (2005) and Blue Hyacinths (ed. With Geoff Stevens, 2010), his poetry, fiction, essays, and interviews have appeared in various international anthologies and journals including, For The Love of God (Desmond Kon et al. eds. 2004), DrumVoices Revue, Agenda, Flair, Keystone, Poetry Monthly, Orbis, Ink Sweat and Tears, African Writing, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and Swale Life, among others. In this interview with National LIFE, he talks about his efforts in transforming new Nigerian writings, among others.
The Sentinel Movement kicked off from England back in 2002. What informed its birth and to what extent has the founder’s dreams been actualized?
I started Sentinel Poetry Movement from my bedroom in Anerley, South East London on the first day of December, 2002. It was a step forward from my personal website nnoromazuonye.com where I had featured guest poets Nathan Lewis, my brother Kodi Azuonye, an Abuja-based attorney and poet, and my former lecturer, Esiaba Irobi. By the time I featured Irobi, I realized, and with his encouragement, that what I was doing on my website was bigger than my site, hence the registration and launching of Sentinel Poetry Movement. Obi Nwakanma was my first guest poet in December, 2002. The idea was simple: to build an online international community of writers, to provide publishing opportunities for writers from every part of the world regardless of race, age, gender or sexuality and to provide a platform for Africans in particular to get their voices heard alongside international writers. These objectives have been well realized. Over the last seven years, Sentinel has published writers from all over the world, including Kangsen Feka Wakai, Femi Osofisan, Gabeba Bederoon, Jim Bennett, Adam Dickinson, Emmanuel Sigauke, Idris Caffrey, Armand Ruffo and Roman Graf, to mention a few out of the hundreds.
Back in the days, literary journals have led to discovering and celebrating great Nigerian poets/writers. Has Sentinel made this possible in this age?
I can confidently claim that Sentinel has been a strong capital in selling Nigerian writers to the international community through our online and print publications over the years. Tolu Ogunlesi is one of Nigeria’s best known writers today. Sentinel did not discover him, but we were one of the first journals to recognize his talent and publish him in both our print and e-journals. His poem, “Abeokuta,” was picked up for note in a New Hope International independent review of Sentinel Poetry Quarterly in 2004. Afam Akeh, who has been writing forever, has graciously told me that the Sentinel expedition has been very instrumental in reviving his writing. But I will be hard-pressed to find a Nigerian writer actively writing in the last decade who has not been given a platform on Sentinel. Those whose works have not been published by us, have had their works reviewed or appreciated in a Sentinel publication. “Achebe’s Poetic Drive”, the seminal essay by Obiwu that tackles the concept of Achebe as a poet and his poetry, was first published in Sentinel Poetry Quarterly, for instance. We have published Nigerian names and works your interview space will not take, from Aminu Mahmud (Obemata) to James Agada, Kola Ade-Odutola, Chiedu Ezeanah, Victoria Kankara, Chika Unigwe, Chika Okeke-Agulu, Obiora Udechukwu, Kunle Shittu, Tade Ipadeola, Toni Kan, Aniete Isong, Uche Peter Umez, Sanya Osha, Victor Ehikhamenor, Ikhide Ikheloa and Emman Usman Shehu, to mention a few. A minimum of fourteen thousand people use the Sentinel website every month. Note that Ilorin-based poet, Akinlabi Peter, recently won the First Prize and £100.00 in a Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition, beating entrants from Australia, United States, United Kingdom and Canada. What we do at Sentinel is provide the platform for literary expression. Any writer we give the exposure to could choose to exploit it or bury his talent. I am satisfied that we do our work well. I am proud of what Sentinel has achieved.
How do you respond to insinuations that Sentinel only publishes “parley” poets/writers to the detriment of those who don’t have friends within?
That is actually a brilliant piece of rubbish. I should not be persuaded to dignify such insipid insinuations that are not based on fact with a response. But then the insinuations are there and you have asked the question. Let me say this: As publisher of Sentinel, I have published such Nigerian writers as Akinbola Akinwunmi, Tope Omoniyi, James Agada, Sanya Osha, Frank Ugoji, Ejevwoke Ophori and James Tsaaior, for instance. These are people I have never met. People that are not on my Christmas list, so to say. Our back list that goes back over seven years has scores of such names that I do not remember. Definitely not my close friends or associates. As a publisher and editor, I am not stuffy and will publish things I like which may not necessarily be orgasmic to the initiated Nigerian writer or critic. Yet I reject a whole lot of work that I deem unacceptable. Many young Nigerian writers don’t take rejection by an editor or publisher kindly. It is, however, the nature of the beast in our industry and they must learn to accept it. I have received insolent e-mails from writers I have rejected their work, and even threats have come once in a while. But when they do, I simply put on the kettle and lose myself in the luxury of Kenco aroma. I laugh and get back to work. I am not surprised people are talking. But that is evidence that we are doing something right.
You took over from Amatoritsero Ede not too long ago. What have you brought to bear on the publication since then?
This will be a little history lesson. Forgive me if I sound a little self-indulgent, a luxury I can only enjoy at times like this when I don’t work within a set form of poetry. I founded Sentinel Poetry Movement and the magazine Sentinel Poetry (Online) and served as its Founding Editor from December 1, 2002 and pretty much set the tone of the magazine. By the close of play in 2004, with so much happening in Sentinel Poetry Movement, including the then boisterous Sentinel Poetry Bar, Expression Warehouse and Open Forum, I also, in July, 2004, started a print magazine known as Sentinel Poetry Quarterly. It all seemed too much for one black man. I looked for somebody to take over editorship of Sentinel Poetry (Online) magazine. I wanted somebody whose attitude to poetry and taste in poetry was completely different from mine. Amatoritsero and I came to an agreement on it, and in February, 2005, he took over. I also implemented an earlier plan suggested to me by Sylvester Ogbechie, to introduce artworks in the magazine. This coming together with Amatoritsero’s purist kind of taste for poetry changed the tone of the magazine. I also brought in Patrick Iberi as Art Editor. With Patrick and Amatoritsero worrying about the magazine content, I concentrated on the actual production of the magazine and we came out with some really amazing editions of Sentinel Poetry (Online) that I am still proud of today.
But things changed. Shortly after I got married in 2006 and my wife and I were expecting our first child, I was not as available for Sentinel as I had been when I was single. Also, the break-in into my home and theft of the main computer I built Sentinel on, made matters worse. I also moved back to London from Dartford after my wife and I experienced some really nasty racist incidents. During this period, communication problems developed between me, Patrick and Amatoritsero. The kind of flawless teamwork we had built, crumbled and for the first time since the establishment of Sentinel, we failed to publish one issue of the magazine. Patrick soon wrote in to resign and so did Amatoritsero. The duo shortly emerged with Maple Tree Literary Supplement with Amatoritsero Ede as Editor and Patrick Iberi as his Art Editor. Again, that is the nature of the beast.
Following these events, I resumed editorship of Sentinel Poetry (online) in December, 2007. At that point, the dynamics of the game changed. Mind you, I had started Sentinel Literary Quarterly (SLQ) in September, 2007. SLQ was a replacement of our earlier title, Sentinel Poetry Quarterly. It just was not feasible for me to continue publishing both Sentinel Poetry (online) and SLQ. Therefore, in October 2008, I merged Sentinel Poetry (online) and SLQ into the single publication that it is today. In my view, and some people may disagree, SLQ has grown from strength to strength. We are publishing more diverse, eclectic, and I hope, stronger literary voices in poetry, fiction and drama. We also run writing competitions with a total prize fund of £400 (Four Hundred Pounds) every three months. Unfortunately, we don’t get Nigerians either in Nigeria or in the Diaspora entering these competitions. The joke is that the first time a Nigerian, Akinlabi Peter, entered the competition, he won. I see the poems that people enter. They range from the ridiculous to the perfect. Some of the best known names in British poetry enter the competition, but they don’t always win. Because the competition judges don’t get to see the names of the authors, they only go with the quality. I suspect that if more Nigerians participated, they would win many of the contests. It is a hard sell though. Pay to enter competitions are not the cup of coffee for Nigerian writers. I was impressed recently when I saw a pay to enter competition run by Abuja Literary Society with entry fees of $20 or so per poem. At Sentinel, it costs only £3.00 per poem to enter.
What led to the birth of the first national chapter, Sentinel Literary Movement of Nigeria?
Ambition. I have this dream of a global Sentinel Literary Movement brand with local chapters in every nation of the world. I dream of each of these chapters telling the stories of their own people through their own local Sentinel magazine. I dream of these visions in the hands of the optimistic young, so that as we, the ageing grist, get rinsed out of the mill, new stars shine in our places and make our accomplishments truly outlive us. I am very pleased that the first national chapter of Sentinel is the Nigerian one. I think that my choice of Richard Ugbede Ali as Administrator is perfect. He presents a ‘can do’ attitude that makes me leap into the air. Nothing kicks that young man, and I think that choosing him to fly Sentinel in Nigeria is one of the best decisions I have made in my life. I am hoping that time will not prove me wrong. I have received many of those e-mails from my people expressing anger at my choice of a Northerner to lead Sentinel in Nigeria. The truth is that I did not and still do not see Richard as a Northerner, I see him as a Sentinel poet who has been a member of Sentinel Poetry Movement and Sentinel Poetry Bar since 2003.
How has it projected the Sentinel cause at home and abroad?
It is well on its way. Sentinel Literary Movement of Nigeria was established in November, 2009, and is set to harness and showcase the Nigerian literary talent inside and outside Nigeria for the appreciation of the entire world. The website: sentinelnigeria.org is already receiving high keyword rankings in major search engines with related searches such as Nigerian Literature, and Nigerian Writing. I reckon that by the end of its first year, it would have achieved a few Sentinel objectives such as providing a publishing platform for Nigerian writers at home and outside the country, building a global Nigerian literary community, instigating productive debates on Nigerian writing and presenting a veritable source of material for international scholars interested in Nigerian literature.
Its associated magazine, Sentinel Nigeria, came into existence recently, what’s the impression/feedback like?
Yes, February 15, 2010, was the day Sentinel Nigeria was first published. It has been a confident debut by Editor-in-Chief Richard Ugbede Ali and his editorial team, including Fiction Editor Kanchana Ugbabe; Poetry Editor Unoma Azuah; and Features Editor Nze Sylva Ifedigbo. I gave them a free hand to publish what they deemed fit and never leaned into them one way or another. I simply published what they presented to me. To be totally honest, I have had mixed feedback from independent assessors of the magazine. Some have praised the new magazine and commended the quality of some of the offerings. Others have said that some of the writings in the magazine were not fit for purpose. It is all in the appraisal report I shall be sending to Richard soon. Good or bad, I am the publisher and I take responsibility. Overall, I give the new magazine a pass mark, but Sentinel Nigeria has so much to learn and a whole lot better to get.
Online magazines are hardly patronized in a developing country like ours. How do you encourage readership, as well Nigerian contributors to be contributing to the publication?
Yes, you are quite right. Many people have already told me that due to the high cost of Internet access in Nigeria, not many who desire it can actually afford to log on and read the magazine. I am, therefore, considering having a digital version of the magazine every quarter on a ridiculous subscription rate of just 50 pence, about one hundred and twenty-five naira only. So that the magazine will be delivered to subscribers directly by e-mail and they can print it out or download to their flash drives and read the magazine offline. At the moment, we are not paying contributors, however from Issue Three of Sentinel Nigeria, my company, Eastern Light EPM, will sponsor four Editors’ Choice awards in Poetry, Fiction, Drama and Essays/Reviews worth £15.00 (Fifteen Pounds) each. Details of this will be available on the website as soon as they are finalized. I am also talking to friends and associates in some of Nigeria’s blue chip entities to either sponsor our movement or advertise in our magazine. As soon as we begin to monetize Sentinel Nigeria, the contributors will be paid. In the meantime, we ask for their support in terms of quality submissions, and let them accept the exposure we give them and the permanent storage for posterity their works receive in the digital archives of the British Library. Thanks to Internet, these will soon be available to anyone in any part of the world.
Is there any plan to publish the hard copy, given the clamour by literary scholars that there are not much and handy materials for research on new Nigerian writings?
At the moment, there is no plan for a hard copy. The world has actually moved away from the fixation with print journals. The Internet makes research a breeze. Some people worry that many websites seem to disappear after a while with all of its contents. That is true. This is why we subscribe to British Library’s digital archives to preserve our publications. In any case, our international website sentinelpoetry.org.uk has been online since December, 2002 and all our publications are still there intact. We’ve never been offline and do not expect to. Many print journals and even books have appeared and disappeared since then. But we are still standing. Funny thing is, if we invest in publishing a hard copy of the magazine, those scholars will not necessarily buy it or subscribe to it. Lack of support by our literati has been responsible for the death of many Nigerian publications. I believe the wonderful Farafina magazine has been the latest casualty.
You have been outside the country for some time, like many of your colleagues. What has been happening to you in terms of scholarship, writing and the like?
First of all, you must know I am not and cannot be quoted as having referred to myself anywhere as a scholar or intellectual. I am a humble businessman and a facilitator of the arts. Nothing fancy. There was a time I used to delude myself that if it were denied me to write, I would jump off a cliff. But I have not felt like that in over 20 years. My poetry, short fiction, interviews and essays have been widely published in international journals, and I currently have three poetry books on the market, Letter to God and Other Poems, The Bridge Selection: Poems for the Road and Blue Hyacinths which I edited with Geoff Stevens. Time has been my enemy in completing my short story collection, The Magenta Shadow and my interviews collection, On the Record: Collected Interviews with Writers & Artists (2002 – 2009). I have also completed the screenplay of a new film, The Spirit Sword of Justice which will be directed by Obi Emelonye and produced by The Nollywood Factory in association with Eastern Light Entertainment during 2011. All these are secondary in any case. My primary job right now is being a devoted husband to my rock, Thelma Amaka and the very best father I can be to the air in my lungs: my son, Arinze Chinedum, and my daughter, Nwachi Ola.
What’s your take on the recent volte-face by NLNG to flinging its gates open to writers abroad to participate in the coveted prize? How would it influence the quality of the $50,000 prize?
The NLNG Prize has now become a decubitus wound on the butt of Nigerian literature. It is all at once a great, misunderstood, and a totally pointless prize. At first, it appeared to have been designed to encourage home-based writers, but was interpreted by many writers abroad as an exercise in resentment for them.
Now, after last year’s debacle where the prize was not awarded, many writers home and abroad spat on it as a sham and Molara Wood was one of those who called on writers to boycott what she termed a ‘sham.’ I take the view that suddenly deciding now to allow Nigerian writers abroad to participate in the NLNG prize is rude and an insult to writers based in Nigeria. The statement can be paraphrased as, ‘Sorry, no Nigerian writer living in Nigeria can write anything good enough for this prize, let’s try those abroad.’
The prize lacks credibility now, so much that its own mother will not hang its plaque on her wall. I suspect that anyone entering the prize now will not do so for a worthy literary glory, but purely as a financial pursuit. The way my mind works, I will never condemn or judge anyone who wishes to cash in on the prize. I don’t think that winning this discredited prize of $50,000 will take away from the long-term impact of a good book. As a matter of fact, the winner could deploy just ten percent of that sum into promotional activities and laundering the image of his or her work. At the end of the day, whoever chooses to enter work to the NLNG Prize makes a personal decision and we must respect that.