A Conversation with Poet Bola Opaleke

Bola Opaleke, a Nigerian-Canadian poet, is someone I’ve come to admire, and so I decided to ask if he’d be willing to have a conversation with me. He graciously accepted. What followed was a fascinating dialogue about poetry, his work, and how the internet has helped, not hurt, the writing life.

We spoke over a period of two days.

(The following has been lightly edited.)

Thanks again for agreeing to this, Bola. I think it’ll be fun.

I want to start with the state of poetry today. I’ll note I’m relatively new to the poetry scene. I didn’t begin seriously writing it and following it until 2016. But I see great things. I see poets sharing each other’s work, publishing each other, doing readings. I see new books and chapbooks and journals coming out all the time. It’s wonderful.

I will say, though, that this does seem walled off from the culture at large.

Would you agree?

Yes, I agree.

But the internet age is changing the way we used to look at things, including literature.

Personally, Twitter has greatly influenced my writing. And the community of writers and friends I developed here have also enriched my reservoir of knowledge and inspiration.

People that were hitherto far away from poetry have now inched closer. The so-called Insta-poets have successfully taken poetry to the doorsteps of younger folks who, in years back, viewed poetry as too elitist.

All these combined to make emerging writers like myself very comfortable in this estate.

I completely agree. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have seen how many working poets there were, yourself included. I can see what other people are doing, connect with them, learn with them. It’s been a real gift.

I’m interested in how Twitter has influenced your writing. Has it given you a shorter, more condensed style? Who and what are your other influences? And what led you to get into poetry?

Twitter has impacted my writing in a way very good way. I have discovered lots of established writers as well as new poets with whom I have bonded to grow my craft. With this, it is easier to keep up with updates in the poetry world. Also, reaching out to poetry heroes for guidance and encouragement is not as tough as it used to be. Regarding style, I don’t think it has changed me in that form, though my reach has been broadened by my constant interaction with other poets. My influences are ordinary happenings within the society. Growing up in Africa with poverty and the rot of that plain slapping me across the face every new day has shaped a lot of my writings. And reading the works of Wole Soyinka, James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe and others very early in my life opened my interest in literature. Later, the works of Warsan Shire, Jericho Brown, Tiana Clark and a few others soak me deeper into poetry production. And more importantly, my friends, many of whom I follow and are following me on Twitter, have made a huge impact on my work.

I’d say it’s the same with me. If Twitter did not exist and had I not seen how reaching out to poetry heroes is easier now, I probably wouldn’t have continued to pursue poetry. It would have been only a hobby.

Do you think, though, there’s a way to reintroduce poetry to the culture at large? I’ve noticed people who read often don’t read poetry, or if they’re interested, they’re interested in sentimental, nursery rhyme type stuff. Perhaps it will come through the internet.

Regarding your influences, I love all those writers and poets. I look at Jericho and say: I want to do that.

That’s something else, I’d say. There’s a kind of tyranny to what we read when we are in school. Take Soyinka. Everything that guy writes — from his essays to his plays — should be read in classrooms all over the world. (I am thinking here of high school.) After all, he’s a Nobel winner. But I didn’t encounter him until college, and that was only because I’d signed up for a class on post-colonial literature.

Many here in North America do not know even a Nobel prize winner like Soyinka. Perhaps it is deliberate or maybe not. But it is one of the curricular failures of the educational system of the West. As African students, because of the European influence, we learned about Western writers even before our African. But that gave us an edge, too, in a way. The writing community (mostly composed of academics) has been tilted against people of color until lately and I don’t think it’s due to racialist bias, even though it looks like it. It is what I call “inherited oppressive maneuvering,” where the oppressor doesn’t even realize he is oppressing, and the oppressed can only “count his/her blessings and see what the Lord has done”. This is rapidly changing. People now have unrestricted access to writers across the globe via the internet. But simply put, I agree with you: award winning writers across the globe irrespective of their location or origin should be introduced to students at the early stage of their studies. You don’t know whose work will speak to you best until you have had a chance to read it.

Poetry is roaring back into the center stage of our culture, and there is no doubt about that. If you look at the sale of poetry books the last couple years, and the readership online and in schools’ reading events, you’ll see the truth of this. Also, don’t forget just in the past year Rupi Kaur sold over two million copies of her poetry book. Isn’t that amazing? So, people are becoming more aware of poetry. And we’re decentralizing the “godliness” of poetry and making it open and not constrained in the hands of a few people who play gods with the acceptance or rejection of what is a “creative work”. Small presses are rising daily, and poetry journals and reading clubs are being created with little stress unlike before, making the established ones to stand on their toes. In my opinion, larger numbers of new writers are making their way into the hearts of ordinary people who only have to turn on their laptops to find amazing poetry.

We should also start making poetry videos and small poetry movies to attract people that think poetry is reserved for only a selected folks, the eggheads.

I think it’s absolutely a failure of Western education. I’ve long been in favor of reading people from everywhere, because, like you said, you don’t know whose work will speak to you best until you’ve had the chance to read widely.

Also, I like the idea of making poetry videos. It’s a way to break the university’s hold on poetry and bring it back to ordinary people.

And you’re right. All of that is amazing. I think sometimes I can get too pessimistic.

I want to pivot to your work for a second. There’s a haunting quality to it — in part, I’d say, because of your word choice, which is pitch-perfect — because you peel back reality and cast your poetic gaze on its beauty and its ugliness. In “How We Invented Therapy,” you pivot nicely from a description of the erotic brush of a woman to how the world today lacks Eros. We are all rooted like trees and say “isn’t this nice?” but we don’t realize we’re stuck. Encounters like the one at the beginning of the poem can wake us up.

(Laughing) I’m always awestruck anytime I come across people who have eyes for hidden spots in poems, like you. I’ll say you’re spot on. I think in making advances in some societal developmental targets we also lost ourselves in its gravity. Without knowing it, or at best ignoring it, we humans are moving away from uninduced interactional orgasm to overcurated puritanism in our emotional traffic. If this continues, we would soon all become natural robots. Maybe that’s a little exaggerated but you know what I mean. (Laughs).

I like that — “uninduced interactional organism to overcurated Puritanism in our emotional traffic.” I know exactly what you mean.

So: what projects are you working on right now?

Right now, I’m working on a full-length poetry manuscript. This would be a collection of poems about my immigration experience and those of others I know. It would showcase the trials and temptation of typical African men and women frustrated by the political and economic stagnancy of that land, our attempts to seek greener pastures in Europe and America, and the consequent hardship and challenges accompanying that. I think it would eventually speak to all people of color and to immigrants in general.

That sounds like an excellent project. I for one am looking forward to reading it.

Thanks for doing this! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I would like to advise younger and aspiring writers to join Twitter and follow great talents on there. I have improved my craft and received a lot of encouragement too just by doing that.

Bola Opaleke’s website is www.bolaopaleke.com. He can also be found on Twitter @BolaOpaleke.