BY ASHIA AJANI
Toluwanimi Obiwole is a Nigerian-born, Colorado-raised poet and performer. She is a Brave New Voices international slam champion, a Denver city slam champion, and author of multiple chapbooks. She has been a member of the Denver Minor Disturbance youth poetry team, and was a member of the 2015 Slam Nuba poetry team. As part of her craft, she also creates music. In 2015, she was announced as Denver's first Youth Poet Laureate.
Tell us about Tolu!
There's no limit to what I can be inspired by. I think my mind has gone through many stages of gravitation to what it is inspired by. No matter what, the constant variable is my healing. Whatever feeds my neglected child spirit or brings me closer to wholeness also fuels my writing. It used to be my pain and the processing of everything that happened to me everything I had been forced or coerced to do that I did not originally have words for. Now, it is wholeness and revisiting the narratives I have lived with a nuanced perspective. Specifically, right now I'm working on a full length manuscript about love and marriage through the lens of an African femme raised in a traditional household and who, in many ways, is still bound by those expectations.
How would you describe your writing style?
I feel like my writing style has evolved as my tools have grown. I used to not care about style or structure at all so everything was writing in my speaking voice in a very open verse / stream of consciousness understanding. Now, I love experimenting with structure even as a form of resistance. I've been taking structured poems and modifying them or using them in conjunction with slang and broken English to create pieces that both reflect who I am and hopefully add to the voices of poets who also challenge the status quo of canonized poets.
How was your writing influenced by your upbringing?
My first book, OMI EBI MI, is an exploration of this very thing. As a Nigerian immigrant living in a traditional household, I've seen how fear and fierce protectiveness kept me teetering on a line between preserving my indigenous identity and staying alive and sane in a country that wanted all my identities to be quieter, fit in a nice safe box, and look American. The poetry that was born out of this double, many times multiple consciousness, was how I survived and made sense of it all.
Walk us through your “poet history.”
I've been journaling and writing in different capacities pretty much since I could form my own sentences, but I didn't start intentionally making art out of it or speaking those words out loud until my freshman year of college. I was taken to a dark basement by one of my friends and listened to a poet magically bring his stories to life with his voice and movements. From then on, I started attending open mics regularly, taking writing workshops, and competing. Even through all of that over the past five years, I feel like I'm just beginning to really find my voice and delve deeper into poetry in a way that honors my ancestry and healing work.
What does home mean to you?
Wow, this is a really big question and complex. Home is comprised of many things for me and rarely means the same thing depending on the space I'm in (mentally, spiritually, and physically). Home is diaspora. I'm at home with the feeling of not having a home or having so many that I cannot concentrate my loyalties. Of course, physically I will always feel a rooted connection to Nigeria and soil I was born on and that birthed so many of the ideologies I hold dear. America is my broken home that I can't decide to patch up or run away from. Home is also very kinetic for me right now. It is the process of creating sanctuaries for myself in whatever space holds my body. My body is just now becoming home as I figure out how to heal my whole self.
What brings you joy?
Deep understanding and revelation brings me joy, especially when the shit is consistently flying. It brings me joy to stop and watch honeybees do their thing, to linger on a particular smell in a garden, to realize when the chaos is absolutely perfect. When I allow myself to be aware of beautiful minutia in nature or a moment, I feel like I'm actually looking at the bigger picture and understanding just understanding in a way that honors the most ancient knowledge in me.
Why do you think literature by authors of color important?
Because. It. Is. Not only is representation important and we must have an alternative to mediocre white canonized poets, but people of color, indigenous peoples, have always been the original storytellers. Our writing is not just important for publication, but spiritually, it is what heals this world. Our stories, which are often connected to indigenous ways of preserving history, balance out the disharmony created by white victor narratives. Our stories are prayers and spells, and invocations for justice, to call back the spirit into a world where capitalism has de-spiritualized the earth and severed our connection to it.
How do you bounce back from heartbreak?
Yikes, you tell me. I'm still figuring it out. I'm still heartbroken, and the only thing I'm learning is to be in it, to honor that heartbreak, to feel my grief completely, get up underneath it, and go through it. The only way out is through. Self care and love is great, but not a cure, the only way not to allow my heartbreak to conquer me, is to square up and go through it.
What are your pre-WOWPS (Women of the World Poetry Slam) and post-WOWPS feelings?
I believe I had slammed four years in a row trying to go to WOWPS and for one reason or another, I couldn't go. This year, I went with a giddiness in my heart to see some friends and hear incredible writers, who despite my best efforts, I would inevitably compare myself to. I was nervous but happy that it was my first time actually competing so I couldn't judge myself too hard. I was slightly disappointed that I didn't do better, but also by the poems I heard getting the most love. I like to think of slam, while a game, as a community forum or conversation. We get to hear the things most pertinent to writers and open up new and nuanced conversations. Sadly, I did not hear that this year. What I heard were poems that used the same language to say the same thing (white feminism sucks, black people are dying) they seemed like very preliminary conversations. Now, this I know, is an opinion that I have to check since I cannot assume that everyone is having these conversations about black folks dying or white feminism and fragility. However, what I appreciate the most about poetry is its connection to the writer. I don't like hearing poems that I feel anyone could have written with the right formula. I was disappointed to see many strong writers go unnoticed, but I had to remind myself that this is the game of slam. But, to honor my feelings I also have to acknowledge that while it is a game, it is also a very amplified conversation and the world is listening, and what it needs, rather than gimmicks, is genuine writing and connection.
What advice do you have for young writers of color?
Write and write and keep on writing. Write for you, write out the parts of yourself you want to know more. I know it seems more tantalizing to hit bars and have popular art, but all of that comes and comes deeper when you're more connected to yourself. When you connect to yourself, it's so much easier to connect to the rest of the world, and to really understand how you feel about things.
ASHIA AJANI is a junior Environmental Studies major specializing in environmental justice and food rights at Yale University. She is a poet and activist who combines her love of natural spaces and women of color to inform her writing. She is the co-president of WORD: Spoken Word at Yale. She recently ended a two year term as head coordinator of the Yale Women's Center, where she worked alongside other badass femmes to diversify their constituency. She is a Minor Disturbance Denver Youth Poetry alumni and took 4th place alongside her team at the 2014 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival. She was awarded honorable mention in the National YoungArts Foundation’s poetry section in 2015. She has been published in Rigorous Magazine, Atlas&Alice Magazine and The Hopper Magazine. She released her first chapbook, We Bleed Like Mango, in October.
BY SHEREEN LEE
THADDEUS RUTKOWSKI is the author of six books. His novel, Haywire, won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, Medgar Evers College and the Writer's Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Read his TRACK//FOUR piece, "Seeing the Light," in VOLUME TWO // ISSUE TWO here.
Can you explain the making of "Seeing the Light"? (Events or people it was based on, your writing process, etc.)
"Seeing the Light," is based on my experience—it’s an “autobiographical” story. I grew up a biracial child in rural Pennsylvania. My mother is Chinese, and my father was Polish-American. In high school, I worked on a farm for pocket money. I often went fishing.
This was an earlier time, and Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan was a big thing. I liked the idea of achieving higher consciousness through exotic substances. In my story, the boy uses tea made from a burdock plant to get high. I doubt burdock has any mind-altering properties, but I had to make things up to fit the story.
I rely on memory for source material, but one’s memory is imperfect. Scenes appear as I reimagine them, not necessarily as they happened.
I collect images, pieces of dialogue, actions—I make notes—and then look back at them to see how they might form a story. When I see some kind of a story, I add to it or cut from it until it has a working shape.
I tend to put things in chronological order—I rarely use flashbacks. This approach is to compensate for the fact that there are gaps—missing explanations or exposition—in my stories. My idea is to create a kind of cinematic effect: “flashes of light in darkness,” as someone once said.
How do different parts of your identity impact your writing?
I try to bring both parts of my identity—the Chinese part and the Eastern European part—into my writing. When I write about my childhood, I draw on what my father and mother said or did. My mother still speaks with a slight accent (her native language is Mandarin), while my father was proud of his Polish roots (his parents spoke Polish).
I haven’t spent much time in either Poland or China. I visited Poland once, for lunch. A host of a Berlin poetry festival gave me a ride to Frankfurt on the Oder River, then across the bridge to Słubice, Poland. I remember dozens of men walking over the bridge from Poland into Germany to go to work. The traffic was slow at the border, and I was told that people became poorer as one drove east. In Russia, driving was risky, because of bandits. We went back to Berlin that afternoon.
I’ve visited Hong Kong a few times and Singapore once to attend writing festivals. I was excited to be in my mother’s home country (parts of Hong Kong are on the mainland)—I finally made it there, and I want to go back.
There’s another angle to this topic: how I’m perceived by people. I’m often seen as the “other,” and the other can be anything. My Medgar Evers College students, most of whom are of African descent, see me as Caucasian. Many Asians also see me as Caucasian. But Caucasians see me as Asian, Latino, Hawaiian, Native American, etc. Few people see me as Eurasian, which is what I am.
How do you approach revision of your writing?
I believe that revision almost always makes a piece of writing better, though it is possible to over-revise. I revise in order to “re-see” the story. The revision can be of each line, each sentence, to make the voice or tone consistent, or it can be a more substantial, structural change. If I’m not getting a good response from readers or editors, I know it’s time to revise.
It often helps to let the work sit a few days (or longer), to let your mind get away from the circular pattern of being close to the work. When you go back, you might see the text with a fresh eye.
Do you have a piece of work that you return to over and over again?
I take this to mean a piece of my own work. I have files of unfinished work grouped as dreams, childhood memories, or current incidents. I often go back to this material to see if there are things that jump out, fit together, or suggest more. The idea is to push the material beyond the everyday and make it more meaningful—to transform diary-keeping and make it “art.” Anyone involved in creating something must go through a process like this.
Who or what are your greatest non-literary inspirations?
Some of my greatest non-literary inspirations would be places I’ve visited, whether those places are far or near, recent or in the distant past. I’ve been fortunate that my mother still lives in the village where I grew up. When I visit her, I remember things about my childhood, and I see places that remind me of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I’m also something of a traveler; I always like to see new places and discover what happens there.
I’m also inspired by animals and nature—I grew up in the country. I’m interested in how we relate to nature, and how we share things with animals. I care about how animals “think.” This tells us something about how we think. Some of my works are solely about animals, with some humans thrown in.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my family: my wife and daughter, who I live with in Manhattan. Daily life is the reality; but there are moments of hyper-reality. Those are the moments one wants to “write down.”
The TRACK//FOUR Blog discusses all things literature and art, and celebrates the accomplishments of our contributors.