Poetry in Motion: Tolu Oloruntoba + The Junta of Happenstance

May 12, 2022

Author Tolu Oloruntoba's debut collection The Junta of Happenstance (Palimpsest Press), is a compendium of dis-ease. This Poetry in Motion feature introduces Tolu's Griffin-prize nominated collection, and he shares how his poetic style is influenced by encounters earlier in his life."

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If you discover what my poetry means, will you tell me?

If I am asked about my poetic style and can provide a coherent response, it may seem as if my “style” is something I understand and can characterize. It is not, and I cannot. One way into such an answer, however, might be to examine some of the influences I encountered as my style developed.

In one of the earliest craft books I ever read, How to Build a Long-Lasting Fire: Writing Poems from Your Life, Carol Morrison spoke about being attentive to “the twoness of things.” I was fortunate to learn early enough, that path into poetry and idiom. Things are often like others; the more contradictory the better. I was also fortunate to discover the conversational, ambling, yet precise verse of Charles Simic and Mark Strand, which helped me settle into my poetic voice, which I can describe as equal parts soliloquy, rhetorical questioning, and rageful rambling.

I tend to complain a lot, and poetry has given me a medium that allows me to do that in a somewhat socially acceptable way. There is also an element of free association in my writing, in which I do not discover what I mean until the shape of the words begins to emerge. The way the stimuli of this world interact with the substrate of my past, and my emotional state whenever I am writing, prompt associations that I sometimes recognize as novel (or at least, interesting to me). Often, however, the fragments that I record languish in my notes, sometimes for years.

But back to my influences. Mabel Segun’s books laid an early foundation of Yorùbá mythology for me, but Wole Soyinka’s poetry and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road showed me how far this worldview could go, and what I could do with substance of my incongruous but beautiful country. Growing up in southwest Nigeria, listening to oral panegyric poetry must have calibrated my ear for poetry, and what I consider “good” poetry, cadence, and musicality. This was helpful because just like I cannot tell you the rules of English grammar, I cannot reliably tell you the rules of the poetry I write. I continue to follow my ear. 

I hid, as a child, in several of Ursula Le Guin habitable worlds, and their wonder became part of my internal definition of home, and possibility. When I moved to America, the mysticism of Yusef Komunyakaa helped me tune into the resonances of the subconscious, non-verbal, and non-material world, and I have worked since I read his Warhorses to use the test the fidelity of everything I write to my internal landscape. Between his work, and Kamau Brathwaite’s short-but-sharp lines in Arrivants, I found a path into the poems that began The Junta of Happenstance. Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal showed me how poetry can extract and revel in visceral, martial emotions and triumph with new music. Finally, Jim Johnstone’s The Chemical Life, as the manuscript came together, gave me permission to interrogate mental illness, in my poetry, with the register of science. 

 

A Reading by Tolu Oloruntoba

At some point in my development, I discovered that since I have lived most of my life in urban settings, often in dissociative and imaginative states, pastoral poetry might not serve me well. I found that I gained more traction by using elements of the urban world as I saw it, but I got even more by looking within. But all I have written so far is simply my best guess. I know some of the ingredients that went into the cauldron. There is no recipe book, and I do not know how they mixed and continue to mix to produce what they do. And at the end of the day, it is not for me to define what my writing is or what it does, but if I look at what went in, I might better understand what comes out. I do not know where any of this is going, but I can at least speak about what I have been doing. And what have I been doing? I have been trying to faithfully transcribe the contents of an often-chaotic mind.

 

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Picture of the Author Tolu Oloruntoba

Tolu Oloruntoba is the author of the Governor General Award-winning The Junta of Happenstance and the Anstruther Press chapbook Manubrium. His poetry has appeared in Pleiades, Columbia Journal, Entropy, and other publications, and his short fiction has appeared in translation in Dansk PEN Magazine. He founded Klorofyl, a magazine of literary and graphic art, and practiced medicine before his current work managing projects for health authorities in British Columbia. After a somewhat itinerant life in Nigeria and the United States, he emigrated to the Greater Vancouver Area, where he lives with his family.


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