‘I want to create a world in my poems’ — 2021 Brunel Prize Winner, Othuke Umukoro | PIN Literary Interviews

Othuke Umukoro won the 2021 edition of Brunel International African Poetry. Drawn into an insightful conversation by Semilore Kilaso, he talks about winning Brunel, literary criticism, writing, Nigerian poetry and other relevant issues.

Othuke Umukoro, poet & playwright, is the winner of the 2021 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. His works have been nominated for the Pushcart prize & the Best of the Net. He tweets @Othuke__Umukoro

Semilore: Hi Othuke, Congratulations on winning the Brunel International African Poetry Prize 2021. It is really thrilling for me — you being a Nigerian and also a sole winner. What does this win mean to you?

Othuke: Thank you, Semilore. I like to think it’s a win for us all. There is this huge recognition and expectations that comes from winning a prize like this. I am really honoured to have won this year. I was at a reading the other day and a woman from the audience insisted that I read a particular poem from the winning collection. I obliged and when I was done, she thanked me for writing the poem and said it reminded her of her late husband. I was moved to tears. Her tender truth tells me how important it is to be relatable in our craft. My win is for her, and the many others out there who read the poems and touched something warm in them.

Semilore: Although you studied Theatre Arts at the University, what sparked your interest in poetry? 

Othuke: I have always loved the works of Birago Diop and Léopold Sédar Senghor back in secondary school. The négritude movement, championed by these brilliant poets, stirred something powerful on my inside every time I read their works. In a way, I wanted to be like them. I wanted to stand up to colonialism and the policy of assimilation and punch the suckers in the face. It is worthy to note that Kofi Awonoor’s short and magnificent protest poem, The Cathedral, is one of the many poems that made me fall in love with poetry. The resilience and truth of these poets sparked my interest. 

Semilore: A good number of your poems are lowercased. Do you write them this way for aesthetic, or does it serve the purpose of evoking subtle emotions? How would you describe poetry in relation to your style?

Othuke: I wrote those poems at a time when I was going through an exhaustive, almost heart-breaking phase in my life. The lowercase choice was an attempt to shed off some of the aching I was going through. I found it not only therapeutic but also a profound way to share in the burden of the persona in the works. I can’t say I have a particular style. My poetry is born out of a deep desire to tell and document experiences in the best way I can.

Semilore: I assume that your win has earned you readers and critics who analyse your poems. What is your reaction regarding the criticism you have received on your BIAPP win? 

Othuke: Not really but then I don’t dwell so much on what the critics have to say about my work. Criticism is a part of human life and critics will always be around as long as there’s life on earth. I want to create a world in my poems. A world where we can share in each other’s beauty and burden—where everyone’s story matters. I believe Roy T. Bennett said it aptly: “do not let compliments go to your head and criticisms to your heart.” There are people who have personally reached out to me to thank me for writing those poems. It means the world to me, to be able to reach somebody out there. I am humbled and honoured by their genuineness and kindness.

Semilore: There is a sense of community and identity amongst African poets, perhaps this is why some say our poetry revolves around the same theme. Should African poets whitewash their art in a bid to get recognised and published? Do you think we should go beyond exploring our truth to become a greater artist?  

Othuke: I agree that there is a sense of community and identity amongst contemporary African poets but I don’t believe our poetry revolves around the same theme. I know some young poets from the motherland who are writing about climate change, courage in the face of massive oppression, love, spirituality, survival in a country that’s always hungry, ancestral re(dis)covery etc. To say, or even suggest, that our works revolve around the same theme is to call what we do nugatory and box us into a small room without windows.  No writer, irrespective of their cultural background, should feel the need to ever whitewash their art. To do that is to lose truth and identity and once these two are thrown out the window, you become a failing heart. I am glad that many contemporary African poets are doing the opposite of whitewashing. They are unmasking vices, standing up to corrupt governments, and using their art as a vehicle for the silenced. I don’t know if it will make one a greater artist, but I believe the substance of our craft demands that we explore our individual and universal truths as a duty to humanity.

Semilore: How has living in Nigeria influenced your approach to thematic, and use of language in poetry? What is contemporary poetry to you?

Othuke: Nigeria is a metaphor for many things. The influence living in Nigeria has on my work is a continuous revelation of what it means to be a body constantly dangling between fire and water. I mean there are complexities, in terms of national or individual experiences, that come from being a citizen of this country. The themes I explore in my work, though universal, are shaped in many ways by my experiences as a Nigerian. I like to go for simplicity when it comes to language because I always write with a community in mind. You cannot really define contemporary poetry because it’s always on the run. For me, contemporary poetry is a poetry of r/evolution that has rooms for beauty and power. 

Semilore: You submitted to BIAPP in 2017, 2018, and 2019, yet you only just won in 2021. It takes great resilience and strength to pull that off. How do you suggest poets deal with rejection? Do give tips on how one could win a contest.

Othuke: First, you have to understand that rejection is part of this writing journey. If you understand this, it will save you a lot of heartbreaks. Also, don’t ever take them personally: it is the work, not you, that’s rejected. Learn from your rejections, don’t let them paralyze you. Take time to cool off. Play some video games. Go on a virtual date. Listen to some really good music. Just take time to cool off is all I am trying to say. LOL. I don’t have any tips on how to win a contest. Proofread your work. Follow the contest’s rules. One of my favourite writers, Yusef Komunyakaa, says “the ear is a good editor” so you might need to ask a friend to read the work out loud for you to hear. Submit your best work and pray for light and love. I know you must have heard this like a thousand times but don’t waste your time trying to wait for when the winner(s) will be announced. Go back to the typewriter, as Ernest Hemingway said, and bleed

Semilore: Does writing energize or exhaust you? Do you have any interesting writing habits, such as how and when you write?  

Othuke: If we look at it critically, as writers, we will discover that our creative genius lives between these two shadows. I see myself as a cook when I sit down to write. I begin with hunger. Hunger is a good vehicle. I drive her around until I arrive at my destination. Sometimes it takes months. Sometimes, when I am very lucky, which is rare, it takes only a few hours. I often tell folks, jokingly, that I am not a writer but a rewriter. I spend months in the revising room. Perhaps that explains why I have only a couple of poems published. There are poems that I have been editing since 2017 and still don’t think are ready to walk the earth. I have a notebook on my phone and every time an idea comes, I quickly pen it down. I try to set a writing target per month. Say four or six poems depending on the kindness of my muse. I do most of my writing at night on the toilet seat.  

Semilore: Should we be expecting a chapbook from you soonest?

Othuke: No.  

Semilore: What Nigerian poet(s) do you continually revisit their works?

Othuke: ‘Gbenga Adeoba. The things he does with language are beyond magical.

Semilore: What, in your opinion, is the place of poetry as a genre of literature in Nigeria? What future? What opportunities for Poets?

Othuke: I think poetry in Nigeria is getting the attention it deserves, thanks to the tireless efforts of our contemporary poets. I think poetry, like Twitter, is a powerful platform where we can talk about some of the issues that besiege us as individuals and as a nation. The future is bright. Really. Many of these poets are young, really young, and are already doing extraordinary things with their poetry. One thing I love about this generation of poets is how they are creating opportunities for themselves rather than wait for the nation’s literary institutions to make them happen. 

Semilore: Thank you for your time, Othuke. I wish you all the best in your future endeavours. Kindly leave us with few lines of your poem (max of 12 lines)

Othuke: Thank you for having me, Semilore. I wish you the very best, too. 

After you left, I came back.
The neighbour’s dog recognized 
me & came rubbing up against me. 
The landlord had not found a tenant 
yet & I wanted to read a poem for 
you, to cover the cracks, in silence. 
In this poem, we are exodus 
in the mouth of genesis.
I hesitated at the door of memory 
& when I finally turned the knob—it was 
not aridity I saw sitting in the room—it was 
a whole forest of our love growing on the 
walls & reaching for the light.

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