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The Poets

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Writers Syl Cheney-Coker and Niyi Osundare drink wine on a balcony while discussing the personal and professional friendship that has nurtured their lives and careers for more than 35 years. (They also speculate on why they think New York filmmaker Chivas DeVinck is making a documentary about them.) Cheney-Coker grew up in Sierra Leone, and lives there today after having spent many years overseas. Osundare, from Nigeria, also spent years in exile and currently lives in the US. The two first met in 1980, when they were both professors in Nigeria and discovered each was teaching the other’s work. 

THE POETS accompanies Cheney-Coker and Osundare over three weeks, as they return to the landscapes and places that formed their early influences, shaping their writing for decades to come. Through visits to family homes, upper-crust colonial-era schools, university campuses and other locations, we see how each man’s poetics have been shaped by place, time, and current events. 

THE POETS skilfully blends the story of the two men’s journey with their poetry. As they read their works – either on camera, or over evocative imagery – we see their words on-screen, as written in their own hand. Whether writing about deeply personal issues such as his wife’s death from cancer, or on more philosophical questions like the sea as embodiment of history, Cheney-Coker’s work is marked by striking imagery and a powerful intimacy. 

Osundare has long been an outspoken critic of injustice and champion of free speech. As a university student, he was beaten with an axe in an attempt to silence him. (He points to that, and his near-drowning during Hurricane Katrina as the two most traumatic events of his life.) A winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, Osundare writes in both English and Yoruba. In the title poem from his collection The Word is an Egg, Osundare celebrates the power of language: “The word is the woodpecker’s beak / Which rattles the jungle of silence / The cat’s eye which pierces the garment of night.” 

Whether speaking to admiring high school students, standing in a traditional Nigerian market and comparing it to the alienating experience of shopping in America, or talking politics and censorship in a cab, Osundare and Cheney-Coker are fascinating companions. THE POETS is a major contribution to understanding the lives and work of these two giants of contemporary African literature.

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