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Governor General’s Literary Award-winning poet Tolu Oloruntoba reflects on seeking solace through poetry

Tolu Oloruntoba is a writer from Nigeria who now lives in Surrey, BC He practiced medicine for six years, and has harbored a love for writing poetry since he was 16. His first chapbook, manubrium, was shortlisted for the 2020 bp Nichol Chapbook Award. He’s also the founder of the literary magazine Klorofyl.

Oloruntoba was named one of CBC Books’s 7 Black Canadian writers to watch in 2022, his debut poetry collection The Board of Happiness won the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry and he is on the shortlist for the 2022 Griffin Prize and the longlist for the 2022 League of Canadian Poets Awards.

His latest book of poetry, Each One a Furnace, was released this year. The poetry collection uses the imagery of migratory birds to paint vivid snapshots of isolation, immigration and the feeling of being othered.

Oloruntoba spoke to CBC Books about finding his way to poetry and his latest collection Each One a Furnace.

How did you first discover your love of poetry?

I was a dabbler as a kid. I dabbled in a lot of things.

I had my comic book artist phase where I’d try to create comics and so forth. But I never really quite had a story.

I had my fantasy author phase where I was writing a fantasy novel with a friend of mine. I had my phase where I was drawing buildings and shoes and cars and of course poetry was just one of those things I tried my hand at.

I sort of felt my way around it. And I started to take it more seriously initially by writing rhyming poetry and then I took it from there. I started by just exploring. I was trying out a lot of different art forms and poetry was the one that I found most rewarding. And it was easiest for me to get into.

I was trying out a lot of different art forms and poetry was the one that I found most rewarding.

It was also an outlet for me, being a survivor of trauma. I had a lot of teenage rage, depression and all that stuff.

Puberty was a very weird time for me. Being able to just write was what was useful for me. I was able to transfer a lot of that darkness onto the page. And so it became more about more than art. They became a way to find solace. And that’s probably why I stuck to it.

Vancouver-based poet Tolu Oloruntoba as a child. (www.tolu.ca)

In your opinion, what makes a poet a poet?

Poetry is everywhere. I think it’s a way of seeing the world — that’s one of the primary things.

So it doesn’t really start by trying to be literary or trying to be a smart ass. But sometimes you see things. You see things and you’re like, ‘That’s unusual. That’s interesting. That’s weird. That’s wrong. That’s not quite right.’

It’s that sight I would say that is the first tool — that power of observation.

You see things or you sense patterns, like, ‘Oh, okay, this thing looks like that thing. What if I brought these two things together?’ And it just really starts there for me, at least.

LISTEN | Tolu Oloruntoba on q

Q12:36Tolu Oloruntoba on his new poetry collection and what it means to migrate

What’s the significance of the title Each One a Furnace?

Each One a Furnace wasn’t the first choice for the title. Initially I had wanted to call the book “The Solitary Deaths of Finches.” It’s from a line in one of Dionne Brand’s poems.

I had reached out to say, ‘Can I use this as a title of a chapbook?’ Then I offered to share it with her if she wanted to read it. And she said, ‘Sure, why not?’ Apparently she liked what she saw, thankfully, and said, ‘You can make this a full length collection.’

It’s that sight I would say that is the first tool — that power of observation.

Having written it based off of inspiration from her book, having somehow miraculously sent it to her, she was my ideal audience for that book. And somehow it landed just right.

I guess it was just too self-referential, so she suggested I do something else. So I presented six different options for alternate titles and landed on Each One a Furnace. Which speaks to the fact that wherever each compass point is a furnace — everywhere you turn is uncomfortable. Or each individual is a furnace, meaning everyone is individually uncomfortable and in a state of some sort of distress or the other.

So bringing all that together, it spoke to what the book was trying to do.

Poets Tolu Oloruntoba and Dionne Brand meet for the first time at a reading at Simon Fraser University in December 2021. (Natalie Lim)

What was it like having Dionne Brand read your poetry at that early stage?

It was frankly scary because Dionne is a legend. That’s not hyperbole by any stretch of imagination. She is a legend. I was scared — imposter syndrome was really kicking my butt because I was like, Who am I to be in this scenario? I was also scared to hope.

Eventually she could have said they’re not going to pick it up. It was a mix of emotions, but I remember being very elated. I felt very honoured.

And it was sort of bizarre like, ‘What’s going on?’

Why did you choose to use the imagery of these migratory birds to explore the themes of displacement and belonging?

I was mostly using the birds as a jumping off point, not necessarily as the end of my writing. It was just easier for me to do that and use them as a metaphor.

One of the books Tolu Oloruntoba used as reference when writing his poetry collection Each One a Furnace. (Submitted by Tolu Oloruntoba)

Sometimes I read poetry books and a phrase just inspires a poem of my own. I looked up finches, and one of the Wikipedia entries in this book was about a cutthroat finch. And I looked up the image of it and it has this red sash across its neck.

Generally, when people speak about a cutthroat they’re talking about someone who cuts others throats. That’s how that first poem came together. It was “I’m a cut throat as in the one throat cut neck or red sash. They clutched their bags and flinched.” And so I brought that together with an experience I had moved to Canada.

I was at one of these rest stops and there was a woman with her two children. I was going to use the restroom and she pulled her children from her to her from her. There was a look of fear.

It wasn’t a look of, ‘Oh, let’s give this person space to pass.’

So it was a fitting metaphor for me in that being unable to find peace or rest or solace — like a bird that flies from place to place looking for food or warmth and so on and so forth.

But it was my very presence in that rest stop seemed to unnerve her and it happens to me a lot. I’m on an elevator and someone tries to get in and they see me and they’ll take the stairs.

Or in a parking lot and you see somebody locking their car five times. I’m not going to steal your car. It’s that experience of an individual that is perceived as being a threat is themselves the one being threatened by the environment.

So it was a fitting metaphor for me in that being unable to find peace or rest or solace — like a bird that flies from place to place looking for food or warmth and so on and so forth.

Your first poetry collection The Board of Happiness won the 2021 Governor General’s Award for poetry. What is it like having you work be celebrated like that?

I didn’t set out to be. It wasn’t my objective.

I started writing these poems and I met an older friend who had a collection published. And at that point in 2003, it occurred to me that I could have a book published as well. Like, ‘Oh, this could be nice. Not just these random poems.’

And then at that point I started working toward getting the book published, — putting the collection together. And that was my goal. Let’s just somehow see if I can put these into a book and get it out there. I considered self-publishing, etc. so getting The Board of Happiness published was the fulfillment of my goal.

All that has happened is just very strange to me. I don’t really fully have the words for it. I don’t really know what it fully means to me. I’m still trying to unpack it, but I do feel grateful for it. But I don’t fully know how to feel. I somehow also feel I don’t see this is my best work.

And so there’s a part of me that scared us like, Oh, they’re going to find out they made a mistake and any moment now they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, there was a clerical error.’

What is the core message of Each One a Furnace?

What I was working toward is the impression that there’s something not quite right with the way we live, particularly in urban and modern times where there isn’t any sense of stability. I look at the urban precarious living such precarious lives. We just live such precarious lives; people are living paycheck to paycheck.

Lake Chad in Nigeria is drying up — so that’s a climate change catastrophe causing climate refugees. At the same time there’s an insurgency in that part of Nigeria meaning people would necessarily move also due to violence and war apart from climate. I think about the war in Ethiopia.

What would it take for us to choose to change the way we live — or are forced to live? What indeed would it take?

The world we have built is unkind to us. But we continue to perpetuate it. We continue to uphold it. why? That’s the question. What would it take for us to choose to change the way we live — or are forced to live?

What indeed would it take? That is the question I’m asking. I don’t fully have an answer, but I’m hoping that the reader takes that question as well and finds an answer for themselves.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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