Tell us about yourself.
I am Senator Iyere Ihenyen, born in Lagos in the 80s. By origin, I hail from Esan-West LGA, Ekpoma, Edo State. I attended Lagos City College, Yaba, where I learnt the values of how to “to live, to learn and to create”. I am a graduate of Law from the University of Benin, Benin City, Edo State, and went on to the Nigerian Law School, Kano. By God’s grace, in a matter of months, you could correctly call me Barr. Senator Ihenyen after my call to Bar before the end of the year. A young Nigerian writer, I am the author of “Colourless Rainbow”, a collection of poems published in 2011 by Coast2Coast. The book got an honourable mention in the ANA NDDC/Gabriel Okara Prize for Poetry in the same year. I like to think of myself as an aspiring Lawyer and writer.
Are you really a Senator, or how did you come about the name? (Laughs)
I knew you were going to come to that sooner or later! I understand that my first name suggests a Federal lawmaker with a constituency. Well, the Constitution requires, among other things, that one must have attained the age of thirty-five years to qualify for election as a member of the Senate. I am not 35 years old yet! So, I’m not really a Senator of the Republic. I am the Senator without a constituency except my convictions. I am called Senator simply because I was born on the day of a Senatorial election in the country (please don’t ask me when). Senator is my real name.
When and how did you start writing?
As common with creativity, it’s something that has always been there waiting to be discovered, sharpened and projected. At a very tender age, it had always been drawing and painting for me at a very young age, say 10, but I started writing in my teenage years. Some of the poems in my new collection are a decade old, while some others are very fresh. The process of drafting and redrafting, editing and re- editing is usually continual until the manuscript gets to the prints. This is what the writing process has been for me. To a large extent, my early exposure to the literary works of Leopold Senghor, Wole Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, J. P. Clark, Niyi Osundare and many others stimulated my interest in writing. The more I read their works, the more I scribbled pieces of my own poetry. The Internet has also been a great resource to me in terms of a medium of expression. I started professional writing in 2006, but I have been learning the ropes and growing in the literary community close to a decade now. And I have found that the more you write, the more you can write; and the more you read, the more you are read. It’s a literary rule every writer needs to obey. As Foot, my late editor would say: “Make sure you keep writing!”
What inspired you into writing?
That question is not as simple as it appears. I wish I could simply say that I was inspired into writing by a mentor. Perhaps, that I shared the same room with Wole Soyinka or Niyi Osundare in Ibadan (laughs). It is different for me. I have discovered over the years that I have a highly creative mind. Sometimes, the nature and number of ideas that run through my mind on a daily basis is something a curious Psychiatrist may find interesting. Ideas are what my mind is made of, and any mode that provides me a vibrant medium of expression of these inner ideas equally fascinates me. I am fascinated with the expression of original and fresh thoughts, beauty and emotions. Poetry happens to be one of those creative modes of expression. Also, my childhood innocence of wanting to change the world is one great inspiration that I am still inclined to as a young Nigerian writer today. With creative writing, I don’t expect my works to re-enchant the world but that with what I portray in my works, that man could re-enchant himself. I am inspired by the reality of the ugliness of humanity and the near idealism of the beauty of humanity, and all I do is attempt to create a point of contact between these two worlds through writing. I also find the use of words in imaginative ways very delightful. As a poet, I find a lot of inspiration in what I see, hear, touch, smell and feel. This may explain why imagery essentially drives my work.
Your poetry, Colourless Rainbow, could be described as a very imaginative work of art. What inspired you into writing the collection?
Without mincing words, Colourless Rainbow was inspired by my disenchantment with the ugly state of the country, which has continued till date. The collection is an imaginative expression of my thoughts and emotions flowing from experiences fresh from the pages of a troubled nation, against the dreams of childhood. In seven sections, I attempted to symbolise the statelessness of the nation from the military era down to our current democratic dispensation with the image of a colourless rainbow using the paintbrush of childhood. But as Dagga Tolar, the Activist and past Chairman of the Lagos Branch of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), had told me during one of the ANA Lagos meetings at the National Theatre, Colourless Rainbow is not children literature as “childhood” would suggest from the cover-page! Colourless Rainbow is an outburst of anger and frustration with generations of failed leadership. Many of my followers like to describe it as protest poetry.
Why the title, Colourless Rainbow?
The predominant subject-matter of the poems in the collection, Colourless Rainbow is Nigeria as a failing state. And you will agree with me that since 1960, Nigeria has been a fascinating paradox. We have so much potential for greatness, but that is where it ends. Beautiful country, but ugly countrymen. Rich human and natural resources, but a chronically poor leadership. Good people, but bad system. Nigeria is simply a juxtaposition of everything positive and negative.
So, why the title Colourless Rainbow?
In my tender age, I had this fascination with the appearance of rainbow in the sky. I would run to the backyard just to gaze at it until it fades out. It symbolised everything beautiful to me. Every hope and every dream seemed wrapped up in it. After a dose of one failed leadership after the other, and the resultant deadly effects, I soon realised that the socio-economic and political realities staring at me were not quite the colours of the rainbows of childhood. In reality, these were disenchanting experiences without the colours of hope and dreams. It was the opposite. It was colourless. This was how I ended up with the title, Colourless Rainbow. Colourless Rainbow represents lost innocence, battered dreams and disenchantment, but with the message of a better tomorrow. I must leave the critics to dissect the work, if there are still critics of new Nigerian poetry today.
Some of the poems sound really angry. You think that is an effective way of changing the political mess the country is in?
That is a very interesting question, sir! The mood and tone of a speaker or voice in a poem largely determines the atmosphere of a work of poetry. Being the author who is god to these speakers and voices in my work, I expressed my anger with the state of the nation-state through them. Yes, I am an angry Nigerian youth. Very angry! I am extremely angry over the wasted generations after wasted generations. My generation has been the worst hit, and sometimes you feel you just can’t take the heat any longer. Colourless Rainbow bottles-up all that anger for wasted lives, wasted years and wasted opportunities. Like you rightly put it, it is indeed a political mess. Now, to the question whether I think venting my anger through my poems is an effective way of changing the political mess the country is in, the answer is in the negative. I am not that naïve to think that the anger of a seemingly frustrated poet can change anything in this country. With the poor reading culture in the society, who cares about poems such as mine. Not even the works of most established poets and writers have significantly changed anything today, if at all. Even journalists struggle with this challenge. Christopher Okigbo and Saro-Wiwa wrote angry works during their time, but nothing seems to have changed. Ojukwu died at a time when Boko Haram was and still is threatening the unity of this country, and Henry Okah would tell you that the Niger Delta under the Jonathan administration is a time bomb waiting to explode if nothing concrete is done sooner or later. The tone in my poems is angry because I am angry, and the Nigerian people are angry. There is no time to beautify ugliness. We cannot at this time afford to miss the message. The message must be communicated in a clear and unembellished manner. Anger when expressed has a way of getting attention. Some of my readers tell me that there so much blood in my work. I simply tell them it is not my story. It is the blood from wasted lives in our nation that has soaked the pages of Colourless Rainbow, not a product of the figment of the imagination of a blood-thirsty poet. Dennis Brutus may have had all the time in the world to write sonnets and subtle satires against racism in South Africa. Leopold Senghor may have had all the time in the world to worship Africa with his Negritude poetry. But at a time like this when Nigeria is nearing the point of a completely failed state, Senator Ihenyen does not have that luxury. Colourless Rainbow is an urgent response in a state of emergency. In my last public presentation at the Abuja Writers Forum in Abuja, the audience greatly appreciated this point. Can protest writing really change the Nigerian society, considering the fact that writers like Soyinka and Iyayi seem to have tried it in vain? Protest literature has existed throughout literary history. Some of the greatest writers in history have employed their talents toward sensitising and awakening people to injustices locally and globally. There are writers who have won the Nobel Laureate based on their contributions to literature and national development. Others have also won same including national awards because they chose to stand against bad governance. From that angle, protest writing could be very rewarding. However, whether such protest literature actually influence decision makers is absolutely a different ball game. It was Chinua Achebe himself who once said that he is a ‘protest writer’ and any good story should have a message. Has his most celebrated work, ‘Things Fall Apart’ changed the Nigerian society beyond being a great novel? Again, considered by many to be the greatest living Somali poet, has the protest works by Hadrawi (Mohamed Warsame) changed the Somali society? From my experience therefore, the answer to the question whether protest writing really changes societies is neither yes nor no. It is somewhere in-between. Personally, I really don’t mind joining the Soyinkas and the Iyayis in the roll call of Nigerian writers who seemingly engage in protest writing ‘in vain.’
In the poem, ‘After the Lightning’, you wrote: ‘after life/comes the drums of death…/tears on earth.’ What is your concept or philosophy of life and death?
When I wrote that poem a long time ago, I had a short dirge in mind. I attempted to capture that idea with the imagery of lightning, thunder and rain to portray the central theme of the transience of life and inevitability of death. Life is really the meaning we give to it and nothing more.
Recently, your book got an Honourable Mention in the ANA NDDC/Gabriel Okara Prize for Poetry 2011. How do you feel about this?
The honorable mention has provided me the privilege of being recognised at the national level for my first book. Though I must say that every writer goes into a competition to get the prize but everyone cannot be a winner. And as it is with literary prizes anywhere in the world, it is not a right. The Judges always have the final say, and I doubt if a High Court judge of a state would be willing to grant an order mandating the Judges to award an aggrieved author the prize! Literature is not Law. It is quite encouraging therefore to have had such honour given to me, and I believe it can only get better in the future.
How would you describe your experience as a young writer?
I believe I will not be doing justice to that question if I fail to approach it from the angle of publishing as one of the greatest challenges to a young and new writer. Anywhere in the world, publishing one’s book, particularly a collection of poetry, is indeed a great hurdle! But in this peculiar part of the world, it is more than a hurdle! Talent is not enough. You must be professional in handling your own work. You must keep writing, but never stop pushing your work. Source information about the literary market. Research on your niche. Get a good editor and pay for the service. Publish in literary magazines and e-zines. Participate in creative workshops and literary gatherings. Again, keep writing while courting patience. I have found that in this industry, one needs hardwork, patience and goodluck. Self-publishing is not the best for a new writer. I was privileged to come in contact with my late editor, Okey “Foot” Okpa, who genuinely took interest in my work, and offered to publish “Colourless Rainbow” in 2008 before his sad death in the last month of the same year. I have the management of Coast2Coast, especially Odili Ujubuonu to thank for fulfilling Foot’s promise, as I have no doubt in my mind that he would be proud where he is.
Having released your debut work, Colourless Rainbow, should we be expecting your second book any soon?
For over five years now, I have been doing extensive research on HIV/AIDS especially in the way it affects how we live today. The product of this is what would be my second collection of poems. But I must warn that with my knack for drafting and redrafting, it is always nearing completion stage (laughs)! Recently, I worked with a student of Screen & Stages, Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, to produce a special poem for use in an HIV/AIDS documentary film. And as an avid blogger, the Internet has been my best resource in terms of the latest information on the pandemic. Every December 1, there is usually a global traffic on my blog (http://www.senatorihenyen.wordpress.com) interested in poetry on HIV/AIDS. The working title of the collection is ‘Stranger in the Mirror’.
What is your advice to other young writers?
Like many other young Nigerian writers who are still toddlers, I could do with some advice myself (laughs)! However, I have found that there are many talented writers out there. I implore them to keep writing. The more they write, the more they can write. Secondly, to write well, they must fan that creative flame by continually reading other writers. Thirdly, they must be professional by identifying vibrant and useful platforms where they can showcase their works and get constructive feedback. Moreover, they will need to publish some of their individual works in anthologies and e- zines, before working on getting good publishers for their manuscripts. More importantly, from my own experience, I strongly advise that a serious writer needs the services of a good editor. A very good one! They must not be in a hurry to publish. Self-publishing is not a virtue, as far as a new writer is concerned. The more established writers can afford it because, apart from the funds, they have a ready market. This is not the same for a new writer. Also, they must make efforts to acquire creative writing skills. Writing is serious business. You must be highly-skilled to produce a literary work, constantly feeding your imagination with raw materials. Lastly, make the Internet your best resource. Get a blog and start building your network.