Poetry, praises in memory of Harry Garuba

AN evening of readings and reminiscences held for the poet, theorist and Africanist, the late Professor Harry Garuba at Ouida House, Ikeja GRA, Lagos on Saturday, March 14.

Garuba, an intellectual giant and mentor credited with helping the third generation of Nigerian poets, hone their skills passed on February 28 in South Africa.

He founded The Poetry Club (also known as Thursday People), at the University of Ibadan and mentored Remi Raji, Afam Akeh, Akin Adesokan, Sanya Osha, Niyi Okunoye, Chiedu Ezeanah, Bose Shaba, Onookome Okome, Ogaga Ifowodo and Nehru Odey.

Garuba also edited ‘Voices from the Fringe: ANA Anthology of New Nigerian Poetry’, that became the defining collection for the third generation of Nigerian poets.

The organiser and owner of Ouida Books, Lola Shoneyin, explained that the store had hosted similar events for Professor Pius Adesanmi and French journalist, writer and diplomat, Pierre Cherruau when they passed.

She appreciated people that had commiserated with her over the passing of the late academic who hailed from Uneme-Nekhua, Edo State, stating that her grief is public. “I would like to thank the close friends who have contacted me privately to offer their condolences because of my link to Harry. But I want to let everyone know that my grief is very public. It’s very similar to what you are all feeling.  Although Harry and I had an interesting dance 25 years ago, in the last 15 years, I think we have become excellent friends. He would always contact me if there were something specific he needed; anything that had to do with the literary world in Nigeria and internationally.

“He was a very gentle person, very soft-spoken and extremely brilliant. He had a massive impact on the writing of my first collection, ‘So all the time I was sitting on an egg’. Harry was there for a whole lot of us. I mean when you talk about the third generation of Nigerian writers, Harry mid-wife that age, I think because he was very much on the cusp.  In between that generation where you had Osundare, Osofisan and then the younger generation. Harry was the bridge, and he did that wonderfully. Many writers of my generation have a lot to thank Harry for; his encouragement and support.”

She later read a poem, ‘What is Africa to her’ from the poet’s 2017 ‘Animist Chants and Memorials’.

Executive Editor of TheNews/PM News, Kunle Ajibade, affirmed Garuba’s role as a mentor. He reeled out names of his Thursday People and invited one of them, journalist and writer, Nehru Odeh to take the floor.

“He was a mentor, a father,” began Odeh who read Sociology but was always with Garuba in the Department of English, Faculty of Arts.

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He continued: “We ran to him whenever there was a problem, and he assisted either financially or morally. He embraced all of us from the social sciences and arts. He encouraged me to write for The Guardian Literary Series. I spent more time with him and gained more from him than even in my department. I learnt theories from him; I always got the latest books from him. He was a cult figure, a cult hero.  Whatever I am, he made me 90 per cent.  He always advised: be careful the way you use words. He made my stay in UI very exciting. He encouraged us to continue writing. He was everything to us.”

Publisher and organiser of DAME Awards, Lanre Idowu, said he met Garuba in 2008 at a Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism event. “He was a gentle spirit, and I also noted that he was a chain smoker. I wish I were coming here in more pleasant circumstances. We wish his spirit safe travel,” he added before reading ‘Naming Day’ from the deceased collection’.

Ajibade read two poems from the same collection, ‘A wake for the storyteller’ dedicated to Professor Chinua Achebe and ‘The Forest Give up their spirit.”

Odeh read ‘Death of a poem’ while Opeyemi Obembe and Chiebuka Obumselu read ‘Prodigal City’ and ‘Home Owner’ respectively.

Writer and editor, Molara Wood also paid tributes to Garuba.  “I had hoped that many people hatched in the incubator that was Harry Garuba’s house and garden in Ibadan would be here today. I’ve heard much about him over the years; many of the people I’ve interacted with over the last 15 years, Uche Nduka, Amatoritsero Ede, and so many others. Of course, there’s always that talk of that poetry anthology, ‘Voices from the Fringe’.

“From talking to all those people, what I got was Harry Garuba was a totemic figure to the third generation of Nigerian writers; those poets that arose in the 90s, mid-90s and so on. They would not have become writers if not for the atmosphere he created and the kind of mentorship that he was able to give them: the friendship and the encouragement. I’m speaking in their place today because many of them are scattered over the world; they are professors, world-renowned poets.

“I can recall only ever meeting Harry Garuba once at the Fagunwa Conference in Akure in 2013. He was gentle. He was soft; very softly spoken, humble, self-effacing. I’m grateful for having had that opportunity, and it meant a lot to me.” She then read ‘Memorial Wish’ from his collection.

Also reliving shared moments with Garuba, writer Toni Kan recalled his first encounter with him around 1997 at the now rested Post Express Newspaper and later at Pearls. “He didn’t talk much; he was always at the background. Always quiet, smoking. He was a man who took his art seriously. Quiet, intense and committed to helping people. All of them in Ibadan, they wouldn’t have been known if not for him.” Kan also read ‘Tonight I read the moon for omens’ from Garuba’s collection before the evening ended.



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