Year

2003

Degree Name

University of Wollongong. Faculty of Creative Arts

Department

Faculty of Creative Arts

Abstract

The creative component of this project consists of a volume of poetry in three parts, entitled The Calabar Transcript. Part 1, Beneath Lion Mountain, presents images from half a millennium of contact between Europe and Africa. Part 2, Zip!, documents moments in the lives of dwellers in contemporary African states today. Part 3, The Calabar Transcript, is a discontinuous narrative based on the life of the Ovonramwen, the last leader of an ancient imperial Edo dynasty in what's now southern Nigeria. He was deposed and sent into exile by a British punitive expedition in 1897.

There are no direct connections between poems in Parts 1 and 2 and changes in the second part signal a shift from broad historical to contemporary reportage. In the form of dramatic monologue, Part 3 presents a microcosm of imperial domination whilst at the same time suggesting how differently the relationship between Africa and Europe might have become. From Ovonramwen's point of view, Europeans had been trading partners for five hundred years and though their technological and military power wasn't in question, m y narrative suggests the possibility that in his mind at any rate an alliance could have been established with Britain. The island-state was, after all, ruled by another longstanding, dynasty with imperial ambitions and common trading interests.

By the end, all three parts of the book combine to offer a dramatic meditation on the subject of Africa's relationship with Europe: what has been, what might have been and still could be in the future.

The poems are not confessional and I rarely appear but they do reflect an enduring personal involvement on m y part with Africa as symbol and place. T o clarify this, the Exegesis begins with an outline of relevant autobiographical details. These indicate that whilst writing back to the master narrative of European history, I was still part of that narrative. If fact, the first piece of imaginative writing I began was a fragment in the Heart of Darkness sub-genre.

Composing an extended dramatic monologue delivered by Ovonramwen provided a radically different approach to relations between Britain and the kingdom of Benin. It also prompted new issues with regard to ethics and literary treatment. The Exegesis considers questions of cultural appropriation and Orientalist approaches to indigenous subjects and presents theoretical and pragmatic lines of argument to justify the new direction the project was taking. The question of appropriation and response to it resurfaced in the final chapter of the Exegesis.

The Exegesis demonstrates how poems that became the basis of Part 1, Beneath Lion Mountain, developed a subversive and alternative history of the treatment of Africa and its peoples by European trading and imperial interests. Poems can be identified as employing a number of techniques common to post-colonial texts, including recontextualisation of colonial work and artefacts, interrogating and reconstructing history and re-storying. The intention was to re-locate the reader's perception of familiar image and text and disturb the process of the received idea, all part of a personal reorientation I have characterised, borrowing a phrase from Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o, as "decolonising the mind". To describe the way poems in Part 1 mounted rapid satirical attacks on broadly institutional targets, threatening and disrupting order and then withdrawing, I coined the term "guerilla lyric".

The poems in the collection drew on a considerable range of "source material", including literary models (Margaret Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie and Dorothy Porter's Akhenaten suggested possibilities for The Calabar Transcript), visits to museums, material from the electronic media, imperial bric-a-brac and Edo oral histories. All of these posed methodological questions and I had to wrestle with the fact of I was neither historian, anthropologist nor art-expert. On the other hand, I was able to draw on the iconology of magnificent Edo bronzes and the imaginative world bequeathed by the fiction of writers like Ngugi, Bessie Head and Chinua Achebe as I wrote m y poems. A number of poems emerged directly from texts by these African writers, including the collection's Prologue. The Exegesis defines limitations imposed and freedoms I gave myself with respect to source material and argues the poems transform themselves into conduits to unfolding patterns of experience.

The idea of writing "inside" and "outside" a place sets up a naive polarity, but it remained an act of faith as far as I was concerned that my book included poems written, or at any rate drafted, in a number of African settings. These became the basis for Zip!, Part 2 of The Calabar Transcript. Travel writing is a problematic concept because it carries Orientalist connotations of lack of understanding by visiting writers and imposition of their o w n cultural values (Eurocentrism, for instance) on what they find. Personal observation and testimony, however, has a special value in any cross-cultural transaction whether between individuals or published text and audience, and it seems unreasonable to abandon it for theoretical reasons. The Exegesis argues the case for travel text as a crucible in which familiar and Other can fuse to create modes that transcend stereotype.

Cross-cultural fusion also became the basis for the position finally taken by the Exegesis on the question of cultural appropriation: with reference, notably, to the post-colonial concept of hybridity. The definition of hybridity in The Empire Writes Back by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin envisages new entities and forms emerging in brand new cultural environments of post-colonialism. The final chapter (6) of the Exegesis argues that this is what last draft of Part 3 of The Calabar Transcript does. It brings together elements from biography, oral history, fantasy and master narrative using a format that is none of these things in a text that is manifestly post-colonial.

Technical developments in lyric form through the collection are discussed where this is relevant in individual chapters. My approach to composition was exploratory and experimental, with the result that individual poems were generally subject to extensive re-drafting and often abandoned at some point following completion. Even where a poem was abandoned, it could create a site on which a different poem emerged later. The final selection process was documented in detail in Chapter 6. Chapter 5 includes detailed analysis of the evolution of a poem called "Love on Safari" that went through three distinct stages before reaching in its final form. Appendices list all poems written for the DCA , identifying those selected for the final draft of each Part and charting the development of the final book in relation to the project as a whole.

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