August 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Olumide Popoola by Samuel Mensah
1. When did you decide that you wanted to become a poet or a poetess?
Age 12-13. I started writing poetry then and I published my first poem when I was aged 13. So my big desire then was to become a poet.
2. Do you think a distinction needs to be drawn between being a poet or a poetess or do you think it is an unnecessary label to differentiate between a man and a woman?
I think maybe I felt differently when I was younger but now I don’t feel that strongly but when I was a performer I liked to be distinct; so I called myself a poetess. I think it would be nice if there was a distinction but that’s because I’m German and we have a distinction between the male and female form but in English you don’t have that so the necessity may not be there.
3. What poet or material influenced you most at the beginning and has this influence changed over time?
Initially it was Linton Kwesi Johnson and Mutabaruka very much performance poetry, dub poetry, reggae poetry; that’s how I started. Then I changed to Audre Lorde and May Ayim who is an Afro German poet.
4. With poetry historically being elitist and predominantly fronted by white males did you find being a woman from an ethnic background challenging?
Back in the day in Germany there weren’t many people doing what I was doing. Yes and no really. Yes there was no support from the establishment and no funding so things were not available which may have been available in the UK. At the same time when I started out there weren’t many people doing what I was doing and so I got quite a bit of attention quite quickly. So it goes both ways. But in general I would say yes; you always suffer a little bit because men are the more dominant.
5. Did you find that you may not be seen as relevant to the elite hierarchy of poetry?
When I performed it was fine but in general it might be seen as not as relevant to everyone’s needs. It becomes very quickly a black issue whereas it should be seen as a universal issue.
6. Culture and language feature heavily in your work would you attribute that to being both Nigerian and German and therefore you are able to view the diversities in a personal way?
Yes absolutely I grew up in a time in Germany where black Germans and were not the norm or accepted so I was always busy with those sorts of themes.
7. Does being bi-lingual help in identifying what language and speech techniques are most effective for the audience?
I don’t know about effectiveness but it is definitely something I am very interested in: the differences in language. I don’t think about what is effective but I think about what is an authentic voice.
8. I’ve seen a few performance clips of you. Do you enjoy the performance part more?
Yes definitely. I don’t do it so much anymore but I was definitely a performance poet.
9. What is your favourite part of the process from the idea to publishing?
It used to be the performance. I don’t know: all of it is pretty awesome. I quite like the revision part.
10. “This is Not about Sadness” is your first novella. What subjects does it touch on?
It’s about two immigrant black women in North London. One is a Jamaican pensioner and the other is a South African activist who becomes friends although they shouldn’t because they share nothing in common. It’s about trauma. It’s about issues of transformation and what can be spoken about and how we relate to each other.
11. Do you find the best way to write is to draw from personal experience?
If you have all that you carry, even if it’s not your own but your friends or family you should use it. Especially in fiction; you should always model things on something even if it’s just a character trait.
12. One of my favourite performance pieces I found on YouTube was the clip of “Water Running from My Mouth”. Could you explain what message you wanted to convey about voodoo and resistance?
In the beginning I talk about how the poem is based on a picture taken by a friend of mine. She is Haitian and very spiritual. I love the fact that Haiti was the first black Republic and they used voodoo and spirituality to empower themselves so they could keep on fighting. There are many layers in that poem.
13. I noticed you are accompanied by a pianist in that performance. Do you find that music can enhance the effects of poems?
Absolutely I used to love working with musicians. I loved performing but mostly with musicians. It can sometimes carry the poem more than when you do it by yourself.
14. Another poem I’ve seen you perform is “Dem Natural Beauties”. Is this a defiant stance against idealism and the way the world has been conditioned by western ideals?
Yes absolutely. It was a lament and a plea to my sisters stating: let’s not do this to ourselves because there are no real natural black beauty ideals.
15. I notice that you were part of the first-ever anthology featuring lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans-gender, intersex and questioning poets also known as LGBTIQ. Your contribution was called “Mercy Killing”. After what happened in Uganda when the newspaper Rolling Stones published that anti-homosexual article, was this a proud moment for you?
Yes I am proud but to be honest it was also daunting because yes I’ve always been out. It was never really difficult to find out whether I was queer or not however it was daunting. There is a lot of backlash at the moment and so to take a stance so openly could also mean something for my personal life. Yes I am proud to be part of the anthology; absolutely.
16. How about your May Ayim awardin 2004?
Very proud of that moment. May Ayim had become one of the biggest influences for me so it was an honour.
17. Do you have a favourite piece of work that you hold closest to your heart?
There were ones that I used to love to perform. Undercurrent; Dem Natural Beauties. At the moment the novella I’m working on which I’m striving to finish also.
18. Do you have any words of advice for budding writers and poets on how to become published?
Yes. At the moment you can get together with different people and publish things together. There are so many opportunities for self-publishing and if one for instance got together as a collective and founded a small publishing house then you could bring out anthologies in that way. I think you should create opportunities rather than wait for them.