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GGBooks Special: The Chat with Tolu Oloruntoba

"Tolu Oloruntoba’s voice in The Junta of Happenstance is at once thoughtful and authoritative, metaphorically rich and lyrically surprising. Oloruntoba’s language travels through history and myth to speak to today and engage with a future transformed by new understanding. The combination of craft and spirit cuts a fine place for this debut work, expanding our literary view."—2021 Peer Assessment Committee

Tolu Oloruntoba spent his early career as a primary care physician. He currently manages virtual health projects, and has lived in Nigeria, the United States, and Canada. His poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, while his debut chapbook, Manubrium, was a bpNichol Chapbook Award finalist. The Junta of Happenstance is his first full-length collection of poetry. He lives in the metro area of Coast Salish lands known as Vancouver.

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The Junta of Happenstance is your first full-length collection of poetry. How does it feel to be recognized with a Governor General’s Award at this early point in your career?

Thanks, Trevor. I suppose it is early in my career, since I hope to have a long one, but I have been writing poetry since 2001 (although I am glad all my earlier attempts to put out a full-length book failed, because I wasn’t ready). But to answer your question, and if I can be honest, it has been surreal and a little terrifying. Dionne Brand, Anne Carson, and so many other lights have won this award. I am not even slightly close to being credibly considered their peer. So I feel greatly honoured, but I also find myself wondering what it all means. I understand the metaphor of the runaway train a little better now. I didn’t really expect anything much to come after having the book published. I thought I’d have a few readers, which would have been satisfactory.

What aspect of the work did you find most challenging?

Putting the notes and acknowledgments together was the most challenging aspect for me. I was so afraid that I would forget someone I needed to acknowledge, or a reference I needed to cite, that I just kept going. Perhaps that’s why they covered seven pages in the final book!

At a time of so many concurrent global crises, what does poetry offer the world?

If poetry is the voice of fidelity to truth and possibility, then it remains vital to every era of human life. I can respond in terms of what poetry offers me, a person who often feels crushed by and helpless in the downward spiral of the world. Reading poetry frequently shows me I am not alone; I feel kinship with those whose words I live in, however briefly. When I feel frozen with ennui, it moves me: literally, changes my state of mind. When I cannot cope (with anxiety, for instance, like at the start of the pandemic when longer-form work was impossible because my attention-span was non-existent), I can hide in it. It sharpens my moral conscience. It enriches my empathy. It puts my inchoate thoughts into words. It gives me unexpected chuckles and laughs out loud. It exposes me to the beauty of the word, and the world. It makes me cynical of easy fixes and forces me to look deeper. It shows me nothing is above scrutiny, and questioning. It extends my awareness of how differently things can be said. And when I have been reading enough of it, it clarifies my words and helps me see the world clearer and describe it better. I believe these gifts of poetry are available to anyone else. Writing poetry is often, for me, like withdrawing the sting the world has left in me. I often feel I have unburdened myself and can set some problems aside, when I have written about them. Because the human brain dislikes unsolved equations, the poems that come to me are often recent solutions in a long-lasting internal dialogue as I attempt to solve conundrums. I believe poetry can help us cope, and when its insights make us better people, it can help us intervene differently in the world.

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Writing poetry is often, for me, like withdrawing the sting the world has left in me.

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Are there poets or artists with whom you feel a particular kinship or allegiance, who have moved and inspired your work?

Yusef Komunyakaa, who has transcribed the exact rhythms of jazz, and the mystic world;
Kamau Brathwaite, who stood with feet on either side of the Atlantic;
Mabel Segun, D. O. Fagunwa, and Kola Onadipe, whose Yorùbá mythography shaped my early life;
Wole Soyinka, whose work we’ll be unpacking forever;
Esiaba Irobi, who encapsulated the peculiar sorrow of exiles;
Kimiko Hahn, who shows me one can find poems everywhere;
Pascale Petit, Safiya Sinclair, Eduardo Corral, and Hanif Abdurraqib, who understand the magical bonds between things;
sam sax, who wrote a better book of medical poetry than I ever will;
Adrian Matejka, whose space poems describe life on earth with utter beauty;
The oracular and magisterial Dionne Brand, who inspired my next book;
Jim Johnstone and Shane Neilson, who, from their work in science and art, describe mental illness with consummate grace;
Clint Smith, who showed me how one can have productive conversations with inanimate objects;
Eve Ewing, who showed me how to subvert the power of grief and rage (we are not powerless in their grasp);
And the great rappers, who remind me that poetry should not stray too far from music.

49th Shelf is built around a large community of readers and fans of Canadian literature. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?

I’m often reading several books at once. Most recently: Neil Surkan (Unbecoming), Isabella Wang (Pebble Swing), Aidan Chafe (Gospel Drunk), and Paul Vermeersch (Shared Universe). Once I finish these, I’ll be reading Stewart Cole’s Soft Power, Kirby’s Poetry is Queer, Erín Moure’s This Radiant Life (a translation of Chantal Neveu’s La vie radieuse), Tara Borin’s The Pit, and Ayaz Pirani’s Happy You Are Here, but my out-of-control TBR stack is likely to be even larger by then.

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Lookout

Your
one wing
-ed scapula: what does it mean?

Look out, child, clamber above
the fill line of the world:
if we are indeed part

of a continent and not alone,
where is everyone?
Our vise of hands

cannot hold counter-
clockwise flight,
is too confusing for radar:

this carceral island
will never keep us.
On an armspan

altar below
I imbue
the homespun

stone with a blue
animus,
a fletched offering

wind-ing you up.

Expunge

Mantikore, they called the coffee thicket eating
the first sons of first sons to rise,
thorn incisors in a fugue face.

It has taken a whole saccharine country
and this runnel vision
to almost forget you.

That man-eater has been stealing
your gift of disquiet.

My coat is rafter guano,
beard a griot gyre as I shuffle,
dead-reckoning edges of your house;
I mimic the whitewashed walls,
I find the zodiac center
(or it finds me) where you, Taurus, lashed me red,
bound like the thief you thought I was.
Your bonds were good, lockjaw anklets
and bracelets. I counted to fifty
with my head,    striking the ground.
This is why I can’t remember.

Poems reprinted with permission of the publisher
Photo credit: Caroline Latona / Franctal Studio

 

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December 1, 2021
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