The Tribe of Umar: Sidi and Contemporary Nigerian Poetry by Ismail Bala

Reviewer: Ismail Bala

Title: Like Butterflies Scattered About by Art Rascals by Umar Sidi

Publisher: Masobe Books, Lagos



There is a subtle but profound similarity between Umar Sidi and the late American poet, Frank OHara, who together with John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler formed the loose group of poets who were associated with the avant-garde art world of New York City known as New York Poets. Unlike any contemporary Nigerian poet, Umar Sidi is closely and openly associated with Abstract Expressionism as both a theme and recurring motif in his poetry. But unlike the so-called New York poets, Sidi does not directly work in the art world but is a helicopter pilot making a name for himself in the equally competitive Nigerian poetry scene, in his spare time. But like the New York Poets, particularly OHara, Sidi writes in an abstract and increasingly witty style that combined literary and artistic influences to inaugurate and sustain a new aesthetic in Nigerian poetry.

Unlike the academic and increasingly confessional poetry holding sway presently in Nigeria, Sidi’s poetry incorporate disparate things such as the art world’s titbits, and commentary on individual paintings and painters and lean wholeheartedly to mystical poets, figures and avant-garde writers from all over the world. Sidi, like OHara and other New York Poets, experimented with language which is clearly influenced by French Surrealists poets, the Abstract Expressionist painters (Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, etc.).

Yet again, like OHara, Sidi’s obsession and artistic involvement with the art world, especially Abstract Expressionism, was central and no less integral to his development as a writer and ultimately the growth of his lean but important oeuvre. Indeed, Abstract Expressionism afforded Sidi the idea of art as a process rather than as a finished product. In this way, Sidi’s whole poetic endeavour is the chronicle of the creative project that produces it.

Like the paintings of Jackson Pollock whom he admires and is always on the verge of obsession, Sidi’s poetry, most especially in Like Butterflies Scattered About by Art Rascals, is one of the lavishly variegated surfaces instead of imagistic depth. Instead of striving for a stratum of meanings given by symbols, metaphors or images, Sidi aspires for a poetic language not to mention a larger poetic aspiration that eludes interpretive scheme based on reading against the grain or between the lines. Like OHara, Sidi’s poems appear to be written very fast and in a fastidious fashion, conferring on the poetry both verbal and emotional energy achieved via the gratifying speed of the creation process.

Frank OHara’s most famous poem, Why I Am Not a Painter like Umar Sidi’s whole poetry reads like an extended verbal prank on the difference (or lack of it) between poetry and painting, but on a soberer level, OHara’s and Sidi’s poetry is an Ars Poetica, which is about the unpredictable nature of the creative process. Both poetry employs what could be described as an offhanded style, often casually narrated and employ loosely formal structure used to arouse a feeling of both play and innovation, which both poets regarded as a counterpoise to the confessional mode of 1960s American poetry and now in vogue in the Nigerian poetry scene.

Sidi is something of a controversial figure in Nigerian poetry, for his poetry is a touchstone for readers of contemporary Nigerian poetry. Some readers who are used to the enduring convention and tradition of Nigerian poetry may find his poetry self-indulgent, and intractably difficult. But among his admirers (and there is a growing number of them), Sidi’s poetry belongs to the most original of post-colonial Nigerian poetry. Unlike many Nigerian poets, Sidi like OHara and Ashbery is among the few poets to be regarded and acclaimed by both popular and academic critics. Although Sidi has jettisoned the self-consciously indulgent styling of his debut collection, his poetry is still marked by its wilful difficulty and its oppositiveness. A typical Sidi poem deploys dramatically different discourses, dangles speedily between one register and the other, often eludes conventional interpretation or close paraphrasing and most of the time does not present any logical, ordered speaker/persona and is not known for conventional themes or subject matter. To make up for all the loss, Sidi’s poetry deploys, to a greater and fresh effect, post-modern narratives.

Consequently, like OHara, Sidi appears to be more concerned with processes, acts and performances than with any finished product; his poems from his first book to the present one are less about anything than about the process of the poem in the act of composing itself.


Ismail Bala writes in English and Hausa. His poetry and translations have appeared in the UK, the USA, Canada, India and South Africa, in journals such as Poetry Review, Ambit, New Coin, Ake Review, Lunaris, A Review of International English Literature and Aura Literary Arts Review, among many others. Born and educated to university level in Kano, he did his post-graduate studies at Oxford. Line of Sight (2020) is his first collection. His poems have been translated into Latvian, Belarusian, Nepalese and Polish.  He is a Fellow of the International Writing Programme of the University of Iowa.