Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Tolu Oloruntoba

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.


Tolu Oloruntoba

is the author of the Anstruther Press chapbook Manubrium, and a full length collection forthcoming from Palimpsest Press. He has lived in Nigeria and the United States, and practiced medicine before his current work in project management. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Columbia Journal Online, Obsidian, This Magazine, and the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.  He lives in Metro Vancouver.

Website link: http://tolu.ca/

His debut chapbook is Manubrium ( http://www.anstrutherpress.com/new-products/manubrium-by-tolu-oloruntoba ),

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I started writing verse when I was 16, in my penultimate year of high school. Calling those early attempts “poetry” would be too generous because I began by modifying vinyl sleeve lyrics (Lionel Richie and the like) that I had hoped would impress a classmate of mine. When these proved inadequate for expressing the sentiments I envisioned, I tried to be more original by constructing verses of my own. My classmate remained unimpressed, but that ability to write things in verse stayed with me, and I found that I quite enjoyed it. I had never thought poetry was something I could do but at some point, I realized that this writing could be called that. Between that excitement, and the catharsis I didn’t know I needed, I started to write a lot between age 16 and 18. It was all written in notebooks, with new versions modified from the last, containing non-standard editorial annotations I still use when I write longhand, and it likely all atrocious to begin with, but I was on my way.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

My Literature-in-English teacher, Mrs. Ukpokolo. I really enjoyed our in-class explorations of what poems meant, and what made them work.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

From when I began to read literature, I was aware of the work of poets who were older older (in that they had emerged in about 2 generations before my birth), but who are still more contemporary than ancient. Some of these giants are still alive, including J.P. Clark, Wole Soyinka, and Femi Osofisan. I grew up in Nigeria, so my initial context, beyond Shakespeare, was mostly provided by these writers, and others who had been active around the independence struggles of many African countries. These included poets like Léopold Sédar Senghor, Gabriel Okara, Kwesi Brew, Okot p’Bitek, Birago Diop, Kofi Awonoor, Christopher Okigbo, and R.E.G. Armattoe, who had contributed much to the poetic ethos of newer African countries. One would rightly call their influence dominating, but new and vigorous germ lines are emerging from Africa and its diaspora.

3.1. What are these “new and vigorous germ lines” that are emerging?

One that comes to mind is the African Poetry Book Fund which, with their Brunel International African Poetry Prize and New-Generation African Poets chapbook series, introduced me to new voices like Warsan Shire, Safia Elhillo, Ladan Osman, Romeo Oriogun, Clifton Gachagua, and Nick Makoha. I also think of talented writers like Razaq Malik Gbolahan, Tiwaladeoluwa Adekunle, Ama Asantewa Diaka, Olukemi Lawani, and more poets than I can remember now. I see a lot of vibrant experimentation, the boldness to break free of handed-down conventions and tap into a peculiar vision of the truth, honest and evocative poetry, and an innovative embrace of new media emerging in several forms.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I have “writing months,” when I write between 2-5 poems per week, most of them in snippets in my note app on the train, etcetera (since I work full time). I consolidate and type these out when I get home, after my daughter is asleep. Most other months (about half the year, sadly) I write about one poem in two weeks, in a very drawn out process. In those drier periods, I don’t have much of a “daily writing routine.” I know I should exert more discipline to make my output more consistent. Or do my project management emails at work count? 🙂

5. What motivates you to write?

That’s a good question, because the answer varies from day to day. My major motivations are the knowledge that it is something I am able to do; that it potentially has more permanence than my physical existence on this world; that I can connect, like others have with me, with those others who may have been waiting for just that thought, or challenge, or confirmation; and being on the trail of an idea that keeps me following poem after poem, investigating what I mean (usually when I am in a state of flow while completing a manuscript).

5.1. What do you mean by “investigating what I mean”?

I sometimes begin with thought fragments that, on face value, don’t seem to mean much. I have however come to recognize these fragments as outputs of my unconscious mind. From the computational power of the mind, notions, anxieties, observations, follies and wishes tend to coalesce into a pool you can draw from, if you’re patient. So I stay on the trail of thoughts and concerns that sometimes become obsessions, sometimes with surprising results. I know they say writing is not therapy, for example, but some of the insights I have achieved through and after writing some poems have brought me unimaginable peace. Through my poems I ask and answer questions, sometimes beyond what I consider the limits of my commandable intellect.

5.2. Please can you give an example of an idea that “coalesced” into a poem for you?

An example is a poem I wrote, called “Grove” (https://entropymag.org/new-poetry-from-tolu-oloruntoba/). I wrote it while I lived in a condo beside a busy road, that had a telephone pole close to my bedroom window that kept emitting a sound I could only describe as a dialtone. Although I had blackout curtains that also shut out some of the sound, the anxiety-indicing buzz was never far away. The sound of traffic, and that dialtone, even in an absolutely darkened room, gave me this:

In black light

the forest is an eyewhite fishbone grave,
we are bleached and all-pupil in its dark
and the curtains of the world do not hush
the dialtone traffic.

It somehow captured the other persistent drone in my head, which is what I was really writing about.

How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

They showed me the necessity of magic: things must mean more than they do.

I think of two poems of the same title by J.P. Clark (https://www.thebookbanque.com/literary/abiku-jpclark) and Wole Soyinka (https://zodml.org/blog/abiku-wole-soyinka#.XaOD3C-ZNQI), “Abiku.” These two treatments of mythos of early childhood deaths in southwestern Nigeria (possibly due to Sickle Cell Disease or other serious conditions) showed me, early, the possibility of viewing one thing in multiple vital ways.

Mabel Segun’s exegeses of Yoruba mythology and cosmology in fiction, D.O. Fagunwa’s tales of the fantastic, Kola Onadipe’s vibrant new worlds, and the magical realism of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road were early foundations of my view of what literature can and should do. A lot of my early efforts were actually split between fantasy and poetry, with poetry getting the upper hand, but with fantasy and idealism being underlying imperatives of my work.

6. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

It is difficult to pick just one, but it I had to, it would be the oracular, magisterial Yusef Komunyakaa. His poetry was, and remains, a call to action for me.

If I had to add more, I would add Kamau Brathwaite, for his grasp of the pulse and voice of the black Atlantic; Dionne Brand, for continually solving difficult theorems of language and meaning; and Pascale Petit, for the tenacity and inventiveness with which she remakes trauma into a vivid menagerie.”

6.1. Why “a call to action”?

The response to sublimity, beyond a sort of worshipful regard, is to approach it. We try to approximate (or if lucky, reinvent) that vision.

Take Komunyakaa’s ownership of the Epic of Gilgamesh in “Gilgamesh’s Humbaba was a distant drum.” It is not an “after” poem, it is a new thing.

Or the transporting imagery of “Fog Galleon.” The stronger the evocation, the stronger the response. I can practically see the fog in that poem, and I am there in the taxi beside the speaker. In response to the planetary scope of Komunyakaa’s poems, I ask myself what my own mythography, what my own archaeology is. His example (like that of the other poets that inspire me) is a call for me to do my own work, with the new vision I’ve been given.”

7. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

The answer, at this point, is probably cliché, but still true:
1. Read, copiously, for enjoyment and curiosity. It will develop your taste in writing, broaden your knowledge of what writing can do for (or to) a reader, what kinds of things have been tried, and what kinds of things you like (or don’t like) to read.
2. Have something to say (obviously)
3. Whenever you must communicate in writing, try to do it in the most inventive, yet honest, way you can
4. Your initial efforts will likely fall short of how you actually wanted to say what you wanted to say
5. Keep trying
6. Keep reading widely and studiously and keep refining your method as you develop your aesthetic / voice
7. Put some of your writing out into the world. Feedback, rejection, or obscurity, if they don’t destroy you, are another key ingredient, and reservoir of grit
8. Did I mention “keep trying”?

8. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I am about 10 poems into my fourth poetry collection, but I’m still trying to feel my way around. I don’t know what shape the  book will take yet, but I’m sure it will come to me over the next few months. I’ve also been translating a collection of Yoruba poems, written a hundred years ago, into English.

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