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The MFA Chronicles: O-Jeremiah Agbaakin 

The MFA Chronicles: O-Jeremiah Agbaakin 

The MFA Chronicles blog series offers perspective on the experiences of Nigerian writers who are currently on MFA programs, shedding light on the challenges and rewards of such a journey. 

Nigerian writers who aspire to pursue their writing dreams can gain valuable insight into the application process, program selection, cultural and language barriers, and how to overcome them.

This month, we spoke with O-Jeremiah Agbaakin.

image 1 The MFA Chronicles: O-Jeremiah Agbaakin 

O-Jeremiah Agbaakin is the author of The Sign of the Ram (APBF/Akashic Books, 2023), selected by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani for the New Generation African Poets Chapbook series. His poems are featured/forthcoming in Colorado Review, Guernica, Kenyon Review, Poetry Magazine, Poetry Daily, Poetry Society of America, Transition Magazine, and elsewhere. He has received scholarship from Tin House, Key West Literary Seminar, and was finalist for Black Warrior Review contest and Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. He holds an MFA from the University of Mississippi and is currently a doctoral student in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.

What motivated you to pursue an MFA?

I wanted to devote time to study the craft of poetry in a formal institutional setting. I needed a space to write, to practise and to learn how to teach writing. In my first year as a law student at the University of Ibadan I knew I wanted to be ‘taught’ how to write and to show people what I wrote. There was no formal structure in place to do that except through campus journalism. It was as if everyone around was a ‘professional’ writer and was so by the virtue of self-appellation. 

I didn’t know about MFA programs or even writing workshops in general. I had found kinship and community on Facebook poetry. It was later I learnt about MFA programs through African literary magazines like Brittle Paper, African Writer, Kalahari Review, Jalada, Saraba Magazine, Praxis, and so on; and local poetry festivals. These platforms exposed me to a wide range of writers with a wide range of skills, education, and qualifications. 

I would say that the biggest motivation to pursue an MFA was the confusion after graduating with my law degree. I knew that I didn’t want to go to law school and practice immediately after five years of studying law. I had worked hard at studying something I wasn’t absolutely sure I wanted to do, so it made sense for me to raise the bar for and study what I was truly passionate about.

How did you select the program you attended and what was the most challenging aspect of the application process?

I selected schools mostly based on the writers that were on the faculty of the program whose work I really love, followed by the reputation of the program, the stipend, as well as my financial ability to apply to those schools, all in that order. MFA programs are competitive to get into so I wanted to apply to many schools. 

As you can already tell, the hardest part would be getting the funds to apply to many schools. As the application period winded down, I had to winnow out schools that had very high academic requirements like very high gpa, requirement of English credit hours in undergraduate, and so on. 

Another challenge was how to write an excellent statement of purpose, assemble the best poetry sample, and most importantly how to get letters of recommendation. I had no ‘professors’ who could write letters about my writing skills because I had never been taught by one.  

What were the most significant lessons or insights you gained during the program that continue to influence your writing today? 

I learnt how to slow down more with my work. The process of applying for MFA program somehow required you to possess and articulate an aesthetic vision for one’s craft through the statement of purpose. This vision has evolved throughout my MFA journey. 

Before MFA, I was fixated on publishing because of the benefits of visibility and you know, financial gains. An MFA gave me the break from that approach and to sit more with my work, and with language. 

The workshop experience means different things for different writers but for me it was an opportunity to see how people would read or misunderstand my work before publication to a larger group. It trained me to cede control of my work to fellow writers and return the favor as well.

Who are you reading now?  

Outside of the hefty, assigned reading for a creative seminar class on autobiography, I am currently multitasking between James Baldwin’s If Beale Street could Talk, Chinua Achebe’s The education of a British protected Child, Isidore Okpewho’s African Oral Literature, and Soyinka’s Art, Dialogue, and Outrage. It’s an ever-growing list.

Since completing your MFA, have you pursued any publishing opportunities or writing projects that you’re especially proud of, and how did your MFA experience contribute to your success in those endeavors?

I wrote my debut chapbook, The Sign of the Ram, published by APBF, during the first semester of my MFA program in 2021. I had been writing these poems for years in different forms but by luck I was able to say what I wanted to say in the book the way I said it. 

To risk talking too much about an unfinished (by unfinished I mean unpublished) project, my current full-length manuscript is a product of my MFA thesis. It is probably on the 5th or 6th draft at the moment but I am proud of writing it. 

Some poems from the manuscript have been picked up by dream journals. What the MFA did for me was the platform to play with silly ideas and give intellectual backing for those silly ideas! To write a comprehensive exam and defend the silly ideas. And to realize that other writers have explored those silly ideas before.

In the context of the evolving literary landscape, particularly in Nigeria, how do you see the role of MFA programs changing or adapting to better support emerging writers, and what improvements would you suggest for future MFA candidates?

Honestly, I wouldn’t consider myself the ideal voice to assign a value judgement on the role of MFA programs for Nigerian writers. In my opinion, it’s too early to predict the far-reaching role or significance of MFA programs in Nigeria given that it’s still a relatively new experience for us. 

Some critics have begun to see trends in Japa literary movement (as if we’ve not always moved, as if the act of reading and writing in itself is not a migration or wandering of the mind!) and bemoan the Americanization of Nigerian poetry and literature. 

I believe this period is pivotal in the evolution of our literature. I can’t say what the outcome will be and I don’t care! I hope more Nigerian writers keep on applying and getting into these institutions to gain access to the institutional support they need for their work while we continue to improve our own institutions back home. 

Interested in sharing your MFA experience with us? Please fill out the form here.

About the Writer: Precious Obiabunmo is a graduate of English and Literature at Nnamdi Azikiwe University. She’s the Digital Content/Community Manager at Kachifo Limited. Connect with her on LinkedIn

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