The title is the beginning of “Heavensgate”, by Christopher Okigbo, the greatest modern Nigerian poem, and I think the greatest modern African poem.  Okigbo is my patron saint, and my personal Janus (he died in the war that gave life to me), so it’s appropriate to pour out for him before I take a draught.  The second proper and good thing for me to do is to introduce myself.  I’m Uche Ogbuji, computer engineer and aspiring poet (I think I have a fair bit of skill with verse, but I set pretty daunting standards for myself).  I recently started reading TNB, following my dear friend Erika.  I’ve enjoyed my time here, so I was thrilled when she recommended me to Brad as a contributor, and twice thrilled when Brad welcomed me.

“Take it back to the days of yes ya’ll-ing”

Beat Street

I first heard Rap with everyone else: Sugar Hill Gang.  I was in Gainesville, Florida, where my Dad was lecturing, having just got his Ph.D. at Case Western.  That was my first stint in the US.  Four years.  We moved back to Nigeria that same Sugar Hill summer.  Hip-hop followed me back home.  Boarding school, equivalent of 6th grade.  The uncool kids, many of whom had also returned from the US.  Everyone else was seeing Kool and the Gang, Central Line, Shalamar, even Boney-M and ABBA.  My crew was seeing UTFO, Newcleus, Flash, Melle-Mel and all that.  Screw the park, we practiced the wave and scramble (crazy legs, baby) in the classrooms after curfew.  Beatboxing because only prefects could own radios, and we were so not the prefect type.

For my first cool kid moment at school in Nigeria I was practicing my pop-locking and some of the school football (OK “soccer”, if you insist) stars were sauntering by on their way to practice, and stopped.

Kedi ihe o na e me kwa nu?  O ara?
(That’s Igbo, my father tongue, for: What the hell is he doing?  Has he gone mad?)
I ma go.  O egwu bekee-a na e me kita.  O di mma.
(You know, it’s the dance they’re doing abroad these days.  Not bad.)

They stood and watched for a bit before continuing to the field.  I gave them the best show I could.  After that I’d often be asked to show off my moves.

Coolness didn’t last long, though.  I’m not sure why, but I had a serious self-destructive streak back then.  I did everything I could to piss everyone off and get back to not fitting in.

Of course, once hip-hop gets in your blood, there’s no shaking it.  A few years shy of forty, I’m still a b-boy.  And it won’t stop.  And it don’t stop.

“Literature?  Do you think I want you living in my house until I die?”

University of Nigeria at Nsukka

I’m pretty sure that’s close to what my dad told me when I suggested what School Certificate exams I wanted to take, outlining my truly desired career.  In Nigeria, as in many developing economies, the humanities are studied by what those who aren’t accepted for medicine, law, engineering or something respectable, as well as those who succeeded in battling their parents, or getting disowned.  I always had a gift for maths, so despite being even more at home with language, my father wouldn’t hear of my squandering the apparent opportunities.

I tried everything I could to get out of the cursus honorum, including getting suspended from school just before the School Certs.  Did I do something cool?  A panty raid of the girl’s dorms?  Putting a magnum of gunpowder in the school bell?  Well, I did consider doing the latter, having learned how to make gunpowder while I was supposed to be doing a science project on recycling abandoned clothing, but I chickened out.  In the end all I did was ignore an emergency assembly in order to be marked AWOL.

Didn’t work.  My dad drove to school and went toe to toe with the principal until the coward suspended my suspension.

I ended up in the best University in the country, one of the best in the world, really–University of Nigeria at Nsukka, stomping grounds of Christopher Okigbo, and the town where he died in the war.  Completely by chance I met and became fast friends with Victor Okigbo, Christopher’s nephew and son of Pius Okigbo, a renowned economist.  Pius was the responsible one, rising to the highest ranks of his profession.  Christopher was the gallant who lived and died for poetry and his abortive nation of Biafra.  Literally went out in a blaze of glory in the war.  Victor was the re-embodiment of his uncle–fiery and gallant.  He was one of those who fought his father’s aspirations tooth and nail, ending up in the marginally respectable School of Mathematics.

Being friends with the rich and popular Victor, along with my own emerging personality (I was 16 when I started University) made me popular for the first time since I’d arrived in Nigeria.  Oh yeah.  I lost my god damned mind.  Party seven nights a week, and during the day Victor and I hung out with his roommate, who was studying literature, and we soon formed our own little salon circle.  Problem was that Victor was in the Maths faculty and I was in Engineering.  Everyone else was actually doing what they were sent there to do.  So yeah, I was on the verge of flunking out (and had nearly killed myself in a car accident) when Dad sent me to the US to finish my education.

“La liberté éclairant le monde”

Statue of Liberty

Ah, qui peut éviter le froideur du changement?  Victor was an absolutely brilliant writer, something else he got from his Uncle, and our literary circle was pretty intense, so it was like being dunked in ice water when I arrived in New Jersey.  I’ve wandered around since then, dutifully getting my Engineering degree at least, but stopping short of my Dad’s vision by not pursuing a doctorate.  I’ve looked for bursts of inspiration throughout my journey.

  • New Jersey. Clutching writing by Victor, Chinwuba Okoro and other Nsukka friends whom I’d promised to shop around in the US, to see if I could make our clique famous, I read the leading literary magazines and found that I didn’t recognize anything compatible with voices strained through the likes of Donne, Petrarca, Auden, Eliot, Pound, Okigbo, Dennis Brutus… (we considered ourselves too good for Soyinka, Lenrie Peters, James Pepper Clark and such).  I pretty much gave up in despair.
  • Cleveland.  The less said the better.
  • Milwaukee.  I met my future wife and got my Engineering degree, so major bonuses, but more a sojourn of acculturation than anything else.
  • Dallas.  Almost hit the jackpot.  I found a very good circle of poets, and got back to the things I loved, but work was killing me, so of all places I moved on to
  • Peoria.  Found entrepreneurial yen, thus scarce time for the pen.
  • Colorado (Ft. Collins, then Boulder).  Spiritual jackpot.  Wonderful people.  Gorgeous vistas.  So much to do.  The birth of three healthy boys.  Occasional inspiration, usually from when I’ve had time to hang out with the likes of Erika.

“πολλῷ τὸ φρονεῖν εὐδαιμονίας πρῶτον ὑπάρχει.”

Antigone

From Sophocles, Antigone [in english] [in greek]: “Wisdom is provided as the chief part of happiness” (it goes on to say: “our dealings with the gods must be in no way unholy.”)  That “εὐδαιμονίας” is of course where Schopenhauer got his “eudaemonology” idea in “The Wisdom of Life”.  Of course Schopey got it exactly backwards, misreading the bit about “unholy”.  I don’t believe you reach the apex of wisdom and happiness by shutting yourself up from pleasures, but rather by snatching at and wringing every bit of happiness (and wisdom) you can from each circumstance.  I’m content with my very incomplete literary life, but I’m hardly giving up on my original dreams.  I plan to seize on arrival at TNB to get back into the rhythm of intense words and expression.

That is, if I don’t tread all over my welcome.  Let’s see.  My very first posting, and I’ve managed to throw Igbo, French and Attic Greek into a pit of self-indulgent auto-biography.  I wrote this in a fury yesterday, but then I gave myself a cool-down period.  I wanted to think hard before posting it.  In the end, I decided: this is my real voice.

I’m a culture chameleon, and if you meet me in person, I probably sound like typical Coloradan Gen-Y, complete with off-hand slacker wit.  But that’s not how I communicate with myself (my chi, Igbo for soul or spiritual second self) nor with the ghost of Christopher Okigbo, nor with the memory of my Nsukka salon (with most of whom I’ve lost touch).

Nah, the taste of my native tongue is puree of starched colonial education, wacky wanderings through America, Europe and Nigeria, and a heavy dose of Hip-Hop sensibility.

That’s me.  Naked.  Offered up to Idoto, the goddess of the oceans that separate continents,  In search of a few more friends to join me on my journey, just for a modest time, while our paths are coincident.  I won’t tell you how “Heavensgate” ends.  Of course you can always follow my link at the top and read the text yourself, but for my part, I’m not just now in the mood for endings.

✄ ✄ ✄

22 Comments copied from the archived TNB site »

Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
2008-10-28 22:22:34

Yes ya’ll!

So excited to see you on the TNB. And I can attest to it – this is definitely your true voice. I can’t wait to read more more more!

But I must say, Uche, I am a little disappointed that you made no mention of your kenpo studies here. Ah, but there is still time for that. Let’s see now…what was it you taught me once upon a time… “Agbara! A ga’am a bia ozo. Ayi e mesigo. A gam e gbugi.” (I’ve been saving them fightin’ words for a time like this.)

So great to read the short bio of your life all in one place – even sans my favorite topic (martial arts!) in the whole world aside from religion and sex.

What?

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2008-10-28 23:00:09

Hey you,

Hmmm. Flying fists&feet. Religion. Sex. Yummy. Yummy. Tasty topics. Oh, they’re coming. they’re coming. Oh.

You just about knocked me over with the Igbo. “I’m coming back, oh devil! We haven’t finished. I’m going to kill you.” I’ll have to teach you some more fighting Igbo. But first of all I’ll teach you some kill-em-with-attitude Igbo. “Onye ife m na ewe iwe, ya biko we gbuo ya!”. “Whomever my shit pisses off, may they die from being pissed off”. I can’t take credit for that, though, it’s a classic Igbo schoolgirl put-down.

http://uche.posterous.com/onye-ife-m-na-e-iwe-ya-biko-iw

Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
2008-10-29 08:14:00

Now that’s one for the phrase book. You’ll have to teach me the pronunciation. On the other hand, there is probably some extra added punch by saying that phrase with grating pronunciation.

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Comment by Josie |Edit This
2008-10-28 22:48:27

The first sentence had me really nervous Uche – I’m not a big fan of poetry – and I was afraid this was going to run into endless stanzas of poetic verse that would make me want to fling myself from a cliff… but it didn’t!

Instead it turned into this really interesting, often funny, very broad and somewhat off beat, for an on-the-beat kinda guy, eccentric story about a fella that I can’t wait to learn more about.

Man, you’re so cool on the first take that I think I’ll probably even read your poetry.
And that’s saying a lot for this anti-poet chick.

Excellent introduction – a pleasure to read you.
Welcome.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2008-10-28 23:19:14

Hello,

Ummm. Hmmmm. That’s an interesting challenge. Convert an anti-poet chick. Let’s see, Hmmmm. Oh I know. Hell with the poetry, let’s sit in the middle of a metropolitan square and divine the life stories of passing folk by the rhythms of their feet. Let’s close our eyes and see if we can tell the waltz of an ghetto fly from the lurch of a day trader who just lost her shirt on a careless buy.

I am curious whether appreciation of poetry divides TNB in any way. Just, in case, so’s I’m not alone on the wrong side of any stanza police, I’m outing Erika. She’s a cot damn bad ass poet, and I’m trying to get her to share more of that purple syrup.

Erika, forgive me my snitchin’. Agbara made me do it.

Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
2008-10-29 08:20:05

(Hey Uche (Agbara!) – You’re making me look way cooler than I am. Too much pressure!)

Also, I have reason to believe there is a strong faction of poets on the site. Every now and then it tumbles out in the midst of a post somewhere and we all just kind of feel our breath catch collectively and go, ‘Aha!’

Bring it to the people, Uche!

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Comment by Josie |Edit This
2008-10-29 09:31:44

Erika’s right. There are many poet lovers on this site. My anti-poetry vibe makes me very uncool. But if it gets me and you sitting smack dab in the metropolitan square, eyes closed, divining the life stories of folks passing by…. then the world can call me uncool – cuz that sounds like an awesome scenario to me! And one that has me already drooling for your stories.

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2008-10-29 07:11:40

I’ve got to say, that was a stellar introduction. Poets get my vote.
In anticipation more of TNB posts …

2008-10-29 07:18:37

Uche! Welcome!

I am completely blown away by your real voice. Just throw away the damn edit button and stay away from the cool-down periods.

What kind of Kool-aid is being served at Erika’s house for her to acquire such a collection of extraordinary people in remotest Colorado?

Pour me a glass, baby!

Comment by karyn |Edit This
2008-10-29 11:34:06

Uche – I had no idea you were such a wordsmith! All this time I just figured you for a computer geek ;-) I look forward to reading more of your posts. (And I love the little bits of West African lingo thrown in — makes me a tad bit “homesick”)

Comment by Sistersheree |Edit This
2008-10-29 13:31:46

Excellent post! I look forward to the pleasure of your words expanding my eager mind. Have you met a local artist and wordsmith by the name of Tommy Ventura of Idaho Springs Co?
If not you may want to look him up and watch a live performance of his. I have enjoyed his work for years.

I look forward to reading your future posts. Strip the flesh, bare the soul. I do not mind taking a long hard look beyond the realm of my own being. In my family bloodlines theres a Surname Motto that never escapes me as I go about my duties of being a humanbeing:
Esse Quam Videri: Meaning: To be, rather than seem to be. I think this Motto describes the man I just met in this post.

Welcome Sir, I look forward to visiting your mind often.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2008-10-29 18:33:49

I’m really grateful for all the kind words and encouragement. Just the impetus I need to wrest some time away from all the computer geekery that Karyn rightly mentioned )

Sistersheree, I hadn’t heard of Tommy Ventura, but I’ll look him up. Idaho Springs is about 45 minutes from where I live, and it’s on the way to the ski slopes. Art and snowboarding is a combination I should well explore as much as I can.

Comment by jmb |Edit This
2008-10-29 21:33:42

Ah welcome sir.

Solomon say “With much wisdom comes much sorrow.”

Which is correct?

Both, for those who can accept it.

Comment by Josie |Edit This
2008-11-04 17:14:25

Uche, do you have a myspace account?

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2008-11-04 20:06:13

I don’t. I’m considering getting a Facebook account, but that’s as far as it goes so far.

2008-11-14 13:55:01

Idoto sounds like she’s some kind of gal. And since you didn’t restrain from your real voice after your cool-down period, I think that takes some bravado and confidence.

I love the pop-locking scene. Reminds of sometime around 1984. I was in the South High School gym in Bakersfield, California. Two scrawny black kids faced off. They were quickly surrounded by gargantuan football players and some scrawny wrestlers (that was my camp).

Popping ensued. One, then the other. They shook like they needed exorcisms. They turned into robot freaks and wildly pop-locking children of U.S. pop culture. There were cheers. There was thumping on lockers, hoots, hollers and screams.

It was a battle for the ages.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2008-11-15 17:16:36

There’s nothing quite like a pop-locking battle to stop traffic. Of course, the obvious exception is the transit cops who broke up the “Battle-Cry” scene in Beat Street. But I suppose you can’t really expect any humor from the 80s black-and-white.

2008-11-16 09:50:58

Rae Dawn Chong was hot!

Comment by Anthony C Okoro |Edit This
2009-10-28 09:17:55

H Uche

I just googled my name and found a link to this blog where you mentioned my name. Oh how I reminisced those intense days of poetry in Naija.

We need to hook up on FB. Yessss, Victor is there too.

Also, I need to know if you still have any of my old writings. In 1993 I was in a convoy that was attacked and the cars were all snatched and I lost my poetry manuscript that were in my luggage. Thus all my original poems are lost. If you still have any copies that would be simply, I would be sooo grateful.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-10-29 17:57:54

Hey. Good to hear from you again, Soul Brother ) Thanks for stopping by. Sorry to hear about the nastiness in 1993. That must have really hurt in so many ways. I do think I have a few of your pieces. I’ll dig this weekend. I hope you didn’t completely give up after the loss, and that you’re still writing. Judging from your FB page, you’re definitely still keeping he mind sharp.

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UCHE OGBUJI is a founding editor of the TNB Poetry section. He is also co-creator and co-host of the Poetry Voice podcast. His short collection of poems Ndewo, Colorado (Aldrich Press, 2013) is a winner of the 2014 Colorado Book Awards. To expand a bit, Uche Ogbuji was born in Calabar, Nigeria. He lived, among other places, in Egypt and England before settling near Boulder, Colorado where he lives with his wife and four children. Uche is a computer engineer (trained in Nigeria and the USA) and entrepreneur whose abiding passion is poetry. His poems, fusing Igbo culture, European Classicism, U.S. Mountain West setting, and Hip-Hop influences, have appeared widely. Uche also snowboards, coaches and plays soccer, and trains in American Kenpo. You can catch more of the prolifically fraying strands of his life on his home page, or, heck, even on Twitter.

3 responses to ““BEFORE you, mother Idoto, naked I stand””

  1. […] his debut at TNB, BEFORE us naked he stood, the taste of his native tongue is puree of starched colonial education, wacky wanderings through […]

  2. […] writing poetry late in secondary school.  As soon as I got to University, as I’ve related in my inaugural TNB piece, I ran into a formidable culture of wordsmiths.  Many of my new poet friends loved exercise in […]

  3. […] been fresh to this very day She had a word with Brad and I’m sure ’nuff glad Dude set me up and I tried my luck Soon Josie dropped by, and Sheree dropped by I was instant friends with some solid gems I met the […]

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