I attended the naming ceremony of my friend’s daughter many years ago and got to name her too. Beyond well-wishing, I was not responsible for the conception of this movie director’s beautiful child. This was apparently a venerable Ondo custom. All the guests at the ceremony got to name her too, the proud parents collecting the flowers of redolent names in a book appointed for the purpose.

Some art, some poetry, is like that.

Another good friend, a Sudanese artist, would never title his paintings. I asked him why and he explained that  he’d rather that every viewer of his art works out a title for himself. (He mostly works in the abstract tradition.) Titles, in his opinion, tends to pigeonhole art, putting an interpretational, even obfuscatory filter over his work. He would rather leave all interpretations to viewers and critics.

I don’t know. I suspect that the first brush stroke on a canvas, begins to interprete, pidgeonhole, or narrow the possibilities of the art anyway. There is a practical purpose to titles too, and his penchant has led to some of our more roundabout conversations: (I’d like to collect your untitled painting – the one I saw in your gallery yesterday. / Which one? / The yellow-spattered one. / Which yellow-spattered one…)

Every year, thousands of poems are titled Untitled. I have read quite a few poems which clearly could not have been titled anything other than Untitled. Some poems are extracts of longer poems and any discrete title applied to the part could have … violated the integrity of the whole poem. I suppose some other poems are Untitled because the poet could not make up his mind between two excellent potential titles and the publisher was getting angry and impatient. Or because the poem was not about anything in particular – and a title can not possibly be more concrete than the substance of its poem. Others could have become Untitled because nobody walks into an orchard to eat mangoes and takes a plate and cutlery along. Mangoes are best eaten without a fork, and some poems are designed to be ravished without formality. When I write my Untitled poem someday, I hope it is of this variety.

I used to title stuff descriptively. I had one short story I called The Machete because the hero spent most of the story sharpening a machete. My novel, Diaries of a Dead African was so called because, well, it was the diaries of two dead Nigerians (and a third Nigerian who may or may not be dead. – I’m not telling). Coming to poems, my Desire was a poem about desire. My Ram was about a ram. My Seed was… about seed. The upside of course is that with a descriptive title what you see is what you get. No reader is going to haul you off to the Office of Fair Trading because she was tricked by a false description into buying your anthology.

Downside? Gets a bit boring.  No surprise (as in ‘wow, it was about a ram after all’).

One lesson I am learning these days is that while the title of  a poem still has the practical purpose of a handle, it is sometimes a waste of real estate to reuse a word or phrase (which might be commonplace to start with) that the poem is going to reiterate to distraction. Poetry is that artform with the most expensive raw material. Having purchased words at a hundred dollars or so a dozen, I should sooner number my poems (1, 2, 3, 4…) than waste words repeating a first line, or singling out dominant motifs like machetes or cutlasses.  Having pruned words obsessively throughout a poem, it seems silly to splurge incontinently in a title.

There will be the odd first line that is too seductive to pass up, the unique, photogenic motif, but in the main, I have learnt to consider my titles an integral line to the poems they headline, more prominent perhaps, but integral all the same. I now ask a very simple thing of my titles: that they contribute something unique to their poems. That the reader who finishes the last word of the poem and returns to the title will have his aha moment.

That is not too much to ask of an ambitious title, surely.

*By the way, feel free to help yourself to any of these titles. Legally, there is no copyright in titles.  Although you are always going to look silly if you submit another Things Fall Apart to a publisher on this basis of this advice.

7 Replies to “Lessons I am Learning; No. 2. Titling Stuff”

  1. Angie Phillip says:

    Oh Chuma, you made me laugh. It was serious and thoughful but you made me laugh and I thank you for that.

  2. Ezra says:

    This is an interesting way to look at the concept of titles. Another face of the Big Identity question, certainly.

  3. Austin Kaluba says:

    This is an interesting subject Mr Chuma. Nothing pigeonholes a work of art like a title. It is not surprising that some African writers like the late Dambudzo Marechera felt uncomfortable to be called African writer. A writer is just a writer and the region he comes from is of secondary importance. Coming back to titling works of art, a classic example is Chinua Achebe’s famous poem Vulture. The poet is describing the link between love and evil but there are several other interpretation which a reader can come up after reading the poem. Even the classification of Achebe as a novelist is limiting if one looks at his classic poems like the one mentioned above and the Mango Seedling.

  4. Chuma says:

    @ Austin; thanks for visiting.
    Identity is one of the most basic of human needs. But, the right to reject an identity, (whether ‘African’ or ‘Moslem’ or any other tag) is as basic as the right to assert it.

  5. Austin Kaluba says:

    Interesting subject. I can go on and on in questioning labels, titles and other classifications. I have a few Somalians and Ethiopians who like to refer to themselves as Kushites instead of Africans. They argue that the name Africa with mysterious origins is racist. They could have a point though the author of the classic Capitalist Nigger argues that blacks should not complain of being called Africans, Nigger, Kaffir etc. He says they should prove the people who maliciously mouth these offensive names by achievements. On the other hand, the scramble for Africa so many societies renamed and pigeonholed under the Queen. It is up to us in these modern times to rename ourselves and draw new borders based on our cultural,social and political similarities. Sometimes there peace in division than in forced unity. I am happy that the people who brought Christianity were challenged to revisit their myopic and racist stance on what they called Christian names. No religion has the right to rename an African with a religious name. A rose by any other name will no longer be a rose.

  6. Austin Kaluba says:

    It is another small step for a woman writer and a giant leap for African literature. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who has in recent years stormed the international literary world is joined yet by another superb female writer Petina Gappah who has won the Guardin First Book Award 2009 for her book Elegy for Easterly.
    In an interview with Africa Writing Online Publisher Chuma Nwokolo, the lawyer-turned author thanked her interviewer who also switched from a legal career to writing fiction for trusting her writing by publishing it on the prestigious literary site.
    Here is an exerpt from the end of the interview :

    PG: Thank you very much for this intensely wonderful experience. And do allow me please to say how important African Writing, and you dear Chuma, another lawyer-writer, have been to me. I am grateful that you rooted for me back when no one knew me. I hope that you will continue to be part of the bringing to light of many unpublished writers in the way that you did me. Thank you Chuma.
    The new crop of internationally acclaimed writers like Ben Okri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Petina Gappah have rekindled African literature with new themes of African’s in the diaspora.


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