One day while we were in the last weeks of our form four in 1977, Mr Ezekannaya, the vice principal whom we called Snowball or Napoleon, walked into our class with a sheet of paper in his hand. When all had quietened, he read from the paper, announcing a poetry competition under the auspices of the Anambra State Ministry of Education.
"It's not compulsory," he said as questions erupted, including those who wanted to know how exactly to write a poem. "If you think you know how, even though you've not been taught how, send your poems to me."
In his usual curt style Mr Ezekannaya read out the closing date and other requirements. Those who wanted to participate should send in their contributions typed double-spaced. He gave the last date for submitting the entries to him and left the classroom.
The question that agitated many minds in the class afterwards was how do you go about writing a poem, how do you even start? The general attitude was that it was the business of those students offering Literature in English for their school certificate. Since the assignment wasn't compulsory, most students declared they would have nothing to do with it. Several among them taunted Isidore and I, who were regarded as the best literature students, that it was really our duty to respond to the call of that competition.
It was a responsibility we felt and tried to own, even if we felt we were unduly singled out. Where does one learn how to write a poem? We decided to head to the library toresearch. We went through different encyclopaedia. What we found were entries on poetry, poems and poets. Then we also found different types of poetry: lyrical, ballads, epics, sonnets, what have you. We also read about rhythm, rime and meter, but never saw any entry on how to write poetry. After several days of research, we came off convinced we knew what poetry was, who a poet was, without knowing exactly how to write one. The one fact we gleamed was that poets are usually inspired, and we sought inspiration without knowing how to find it. We realized ultimately that we needed to put pen to paper anyhow and hope that the right thoughts and words would flow.
Through digging deep into my conciousness and rummaging through the storehouse of ideas and impressions I had formed over time, I put pen to paper. What came out was my first poem, written at age 16, with the title: The Ill-Motivated Visitors
We were at our home
Happy and free from trouble
When they came
First they acted as visitors
Later, forcibly they became landlords
Yet in our home
At our home
We had our culture
We were contented with our ownings
They condemned these our things
And took home the precious ones
All these in our home
Back at our inner home
We became realistic
We started to fight them
They were reluctant about going
We made the fight more serious
As this is our home
It's true we have won half-way
But they still have our brothers and sisters
They're still interested in our black soil
But prepare brothers and sisters
Let us fight them to finish
This is our home
Isidore also put pen to paper and came up with what I remember (as the manuscript was later lost) as a beautiful description of a maiden dance. It spoke of beads encircling delicate, shapely waists as the comely dancers whirled and wiggled about the dancing arena. But he never submitted it. When the time for submission came, he couldn't find the piece of paper, now misplaced, where he had written it. And he really wouldn't be too bothered about it. So I ended up being the sole participant from St. Peter's. Well, I forgot all about it and never heard back from the organizers until almost two years later.
In the meantime, I proceeded to form five with my mates. Maxim had left the school by now, but I remained determined to study journalism, to which he had introduced me, as a stepping stone to becoming a writer. Only two universities, (Lagos and Nsukka) and one polytechnic (IMT, Enugu) offered the course at the time. Lagos took only A-Level holders and Nsukka was the only university that offered an entrance exam, which was very competitive.
It was also during this period that I was reading the Daily Star in the library one day and saw an admissions notice by the Federal School of Arts and Science, Aba. The school was seeking candidates with a minimum of five credits, including English and a science subject, to apply for admission for two years of studies leading to the Advanced Level certificate. Those who were about to take their WASCE could also apply if they already had their mock WASCE results, for a provisional admission, pending when their exam results were released.
I called the attention of my friends to this, but most of them were focused on seeking admission into universities or polytechnics and didn't care much about reading for A-Levels. I was also doing the same, but I reasoned that if I failed in my first try for a university or polytechnic place, it might be a good idea to start studies for A-Levels right away since the papers would qualify one for direct entry into the university, without the need for an entrance exam. So I went ahead to write to the school and posted the letter, enclosing a copy of my mock result. I was pleasantly surprised when about a month later I received a mail from FSAS, Aba informing me I had been offered provisional admission and should present my WASCE results when I get them. All now depended on getting the required WASCE credits.
When the WASCE results were published, I made the required five credits, including English and a science subject - biology. My performance had surprised many people, including the principal, Walloper, who had considered me a troublesome and unserious student on account of my poor disciplinary record: two suspensions in form five and involvement in a number of high-profile cases including leaving the school without permission to attend dances in neighboring girls' schools. On the day I came into Walloper's office for him to sign my statement of result, and he saw distinctions in literature, history, economics and biology, he declared I wasn't the owner. He requested to see the dean of students' affairs, Mr Enenchukwu, who confirmed I was truly the owner.
"He was one of our best arts students," Enenchukwu told him, while I sat looking bemused.
"I didn't know that because he made a lot of trouble with the Uzoatus," Walloper said in reference to Maxim and Isidore. Eventually he signed the statement of result, which I needed to complete my admission formalities at FSAS.
My father was wondering how I was going to spend the year at home after it became obvious I didn't secure a place in the university that year. Then I mentioned to him the admission to FSAS and he supported my going immediately. With the statement of result, I now went to Aba to complete my registration and pay my school fees.
The school was like a cross between the university and a secondary school. We wore white uniforms to school but could dress in mufti after classes. Even more exciting for me was the fact that it was a mixed school, and we sat in the same classroom with girls. It was a sea change from my boys only St. Peter's.
We were also pampered as students, enjoyed generous meals subsidized by the government, had highly qualified teachers (including Nigerian, Filipino, Indian, Pakistani and British) with masters and doctorates in their areas of specialization. I was an arts major, offering literature, history and economics.
It was one weekend when I went home to Umuahia, where my parents lived at the time, that I received the letter from the organizers of the poetry competition. The letter had been sent to St. Peter's and was redirected by someone to my home address. They had written to say that my poem was one of the runners up submissions and had been selected for inclusion in a volume of poetry to be titled: Let the Children Chant to be published by Nwamife Publishers, Enugu. The publisher was by the letter seeking my permission to include my poem in the collection.
I was thrilled beyond words. My parents were very pleased and proud, even though the benefits of the letter weren't yet clear. I decided to seek the advise of my African poetry teacher, Mr Nwosu, once I was back to FSAS. When I did, he seemed very impressed and asked me to give the publisher the go-ahead.
A few days later Mr Nwosu came into our poetry class and asked us to read Gabriel Okara's The Call of the River Nun and summarize our impressions in a sentence. I wrote: "Okara in the poem recalls watching snow flakes fall in London, and how they lulled him to sleep during which he dreamed of his homeland and became filled with nostalgia."
Mr Nwosu now asked us to read out what we had written, shaking his head when the point was missed and nodding grudgingly when the writer was closer. When it it was my turn and I read out my sentence, he raised his hand to pause me.
"Can you repeat that?" he said, and I read again.
"Did you hear that? That's the language of a poet. Do you know he's a poet?" He then went on to tell the class how a poem I had written in secondary school had been accepted for publication in an anthology to be brought out by Nwamife Publishers.