The poet objected to being interviewed on tape. Casting a coy glance at the little instrument set to capture his voice on record, he shook his head, slowly, in disapproval.
“I don’t like putting my voice on tape,” he said softly, then admitted in all frankness that he was “somewhat shy of the tape recorder.” He attributed the shyness to “a hangover from the Ozzidi saga.” By the Ozzidi Saga, the poet John Pepper Clark was alluding to his major work of scholarship, an African epic that took him 15 years to research and accomplish. The Ozzidi epic in Ijaw folklore is about the son of a hero, an Ozzidi who went avenging the murder of his father, also an Ozzidi, from one place to another, subduing and killing all those involved. In the end, he was nearly killed by the god of smallpox but was saved by his mother who cured him.
There were various variations of the legend. Clark’s main concern was to search for a version of the epic which he could translate into English to reach a wider audience. Thus, armed with a tape recorder, he travelled to several places, interviewing Ijaw people living in Ibadan, Lagos and in the Delta until he got to the roots of the legend in a place called Oruwa. In the course of his research, Clark discovered that the Ozzidi Saga went beyond just the narrative form. “I found it was a material to be seen. It had a visual side as well as a ritual side. It had to be performed, to be appreciated in all its dimensions. So, we had to film it, we had to perform a festival which stretched for 7 days at Oruwa out of which we made an album of three long-playing records.”
J.P. Clark is evidently filled with pride and sense of achievement when he looks at his work. “No scholar has ever researched a piece as I have done, bringing out that monumental work out of tapes, together with the film,” he said. “We have displayed the work as a literary masterpiece, dance masterpiece, music, art in all its facets…that this is an art which you can’t confine to the pages of a book.”
One literary scholar, Dr. J.E. Ifie of the English Department, University of Ibadan, an Ijaw like Clark, thinks that Clark has not been totally faithful in his translation of the epic from the diverse Ijaw dialects into English. According to Dr. Ifie, “there were many translation errors in his work. There were a lot of things he misunderstood. He is bilingual. The reason for his error is that he is not conversant with the Ijaw language and its different dialects, so he erroneously translates certain words. And since he used a tape, as soon as he is not able to hear what the tape says, he resorts to fiction.”
Dr. Ifie who compared Clark’s Ozzidi Saga to be as great as other world-famous epics, told me that that the stance he had taken “is to correct the mistakes for the sake of those who don’t understand Ijaw language.” He has written papers and published papers in scholarly journals to correct the error. Regardless, J.P. Clark was a pioneer of a kind who had made a name for himself as a lyrical poet and a poet of the theatre. “He was one of the earliest to write poetic drama of strength and vitality,” Dapo Adelugba, a Visiting Professor of Dramatic Arts at the University of Ife told me. “I see his work in drama as a continuum with his work in poetry. I see him as a poet in the theatre.”
“Clark is stronger as a poet (than as a playwright),” Prof. Dan Izevbaye the then head of the English Department of the University of Ibadan told me. “He has drawn attention to the possibilities for the poet in Africa for transferring landscapes and regional images into poetry. He has shown that it is possible to create in standard English idiom and authentic African poetry relying mainly on the presentation of landscapes and local images, and has done it at a higher level.” Prof Izevbaye is of the opinion that “If you are to list just a handful of poets in Africa, Clark would be one of them. If you have a class of undergraduates, many more are likely to go for the poems of Clark than Okigbo, not because it is less difficult but because it has more immediate appeal for them than the complexity of Okigbo.”
As at the time of meeting him, Clark had quit the chair of Professor of English at the University of Lagos to concentrate on his art as a poet and playwright. He was seated in cane chair in his office at the PEC REPERTORY THEATRE in Lagos, a theater company he set up in 1982 with his wife Ebun Clark, Associate Professor of English at the University of Lagos. On the shelf were books he had written. Books like Poems (1962), Song Of A Goat (1962), America, Their America (1964), A Reed In The Tide (1965), Three Play, Ozzidi Play (1964), Casualties, The Example of Shakespeare, The Ozzidi Saga, A Decade Of Tongues, The Masquerade, The Raft.
Since leaving the University of Lagos, he had written new plays like The Boat, The Return Home and Full Circle—all of them make up a trilogy. And a new book of poems was in the works titled: State Of The Union.
“I am satisfied that I’m working as an artist,” Clark told me. “That gives me joy. But one never finishes. One goes on to create more works before the day is over. Clark said being a poet and a playwright mean one and the same thing to him: “I’m a poet. Sometimes I write lyrics and at other times I write plays which are in verse. So, it’s one and the same thing to me being a poet and a playwright. I write my plays largely in verse. At other times I write pure poetry which is lyrical.” But of the two, Clark thinks his poetry gives him most satisfaction than his plays.