“I’m a bit of a contradiction in many ways” – Titilope Sonuga, spoken word poet
Titilope Sonuga is one writer whose words stick and reverberate in your mind for a long time. Her voice soothes and guides, and you can trust that my recent chat with her was quite pleasant.
Enjoy the details of our interaction.
Please tell us about yourself, your career and the achievements or highlights that have marked your journey as a writer and a performer?
I am a poet, writer and civil engineer. I was born and raised in Lagos, but moved to Canada with my family when I was 13 years old. My poetry career began there. I’ve had the opportunity to share my work on numerous stages across Canada and internationally. In 2010 I self-published a collection of poetry called Down To Earth which went on to win the 2011 Canadian Authors’ Association Emerging Writer Award. I released a spoken word album, Mother Tongue, in 2013. My second collection, Abscess, was published by Geko Publishing (South Africa) in 2014.
In 2011, I was invited to perform at the Chinua Achebe Colloquium on Africa at Brown University alongside renowned poets Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Yusef Komunyakaa and others. My poetry also made way for me to have a once in a lifetime meeting with the late poet Maya Angelou, an experience I will never forget. I won the 2013 Rise (Recognising Immigrant Success in Edmonton) Award and the NBCC Fil Fraser Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts and was a speaker at TedxEdmonton 2014. I also have a role as the character “Eki” in the NdaniTV hit television and web series Gidi Up, which airs across Africa.
You are a trained Civil Engineer, how has that affected everything else about you?
This is an interesting question, one that I have struggled to answer for a number of years. I believe being trained as an engineer amplified my desire to problem-solve. When I write, I treat it like a kind of puzzle that I need to figure out. There are parallels between creating a clean, simple design for a road and wanting to tell a story in the most concise and powerful way possible. I’m still trying to unravel the connections, but I’m a bit of a contradiction in many ways. I’m not what you would imagine an Engineer or a writer to be.
At what point did you realise that you had to prioritise writing over your career as an Engineer?
For a long time I was doing both side by side, but poetry and writing just took over. I was leaving work to teach workshops or perform and opportunities continued to open up in front of me. I discovered that when I felt the most in tune with my purpose was when I was on a stage or writing something that mattered to me. I became really unhappy and it was a feeling I couldn’t shake. When you’re not answering to what you have been called to do, your talents/dreams have a way of chewing away at you until you respond. That is how I felt, so I had to make a move.
Who were your first influences when you started out as a writer and who influences you now?
Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enough was my earliest experience with the kind of poetry that jumps out from a page at you. I will read almost anything, which has been an important key to finding my own voice. I have a deep and profound love for the works of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Sonia Sanchez. When I discovered spoken word, it was as if someone had taken the handcuffs of my wrists, and I could write and speak my work with a new kind of freedom. I remember listening to poets like Bassey Ikpi, Staceyann Chin, D’bi Young and thinking, “I want to do that.” Being able to create work that is remarkable on the page and the stage is really important to me and there are so many incredible poets doing that work: Warsan Shire, Natalia Molebatsi, Thuli Zuma, Rachel Mckibbens, Dominique Ashaheed…the list is endless.
What is that thing you hope to achieve with every poem?
Poetry is how we connect to our purest truth. I try to approach each poem with that in mind, this desire to create something that someone else can come in touch with and be moved to tell their own truth, to reach for healing, to forgive, to love, to start over, to change the world. I want each poem to mean something.
Tell us about your role as Eki in Gidi Up (Season Two) and what the experience meant for you
Playing Eki was a really wonderful experience. I had never attempted or even considered acting before, but I was approached to audition and I decided to at least try. I went to the audition, tried to overcome the fear of embarrassing myself and just did the best I could. In the very least I knew I could learn lines; performing poetry had prepared me for that. I had one of those “what have I done!” moments when I actually got the role, but I decided to submit to the process and I’m really glad I did. The reception to the show has been incredible. I have so much to learn still, but playing a character like Eki (who isn’t a far stretch from who I am as a person) and doing so with a crew of people I feel safe with is a great space to learn and grow.
Are there any creative mediums of expression you hope to adopt that you have not explored yet?
I have a desire to infuse music into my poetry performances. I’ve experimented with some amazing musicians but I would love to play an instrument as well. I play a tiny bit of acoustic guitar but I’m not consistent enough to really be great at it.
What inspires you?
The resilience of the human spirit, love, grief, healing.
Your poem; “Becoming” where there any personal experiences that inspired it?
I wrote “Becoming” for Eki. While we were shooting, the director/writer of the show Jade Osiberu decided to incorporate some elements of my poetry into the script. I wanted to write something that spoke to what Eki was experiencing at the time, but also what I knew to be universal for many women. I was perfectly happy at the time, but I could definitely reach back into what it felt to be heartbroken and unsure, to be devastated by loss and to feel like everything was unraveling around you. In the end, I needed “Becoming” as much as Eki did.
What is the future for poetry for you especially as a Spoken Word artist?
Spoken Word is continuing to grow across the world. I’m focusing on continuing to create work that affects people. I have a lot of dreams I’m trying to bring to life about what is possible in the realm of poetry and how to exist on the page but also transcend it.
Your parting thoughts would be…
Discover your calling and chase it by any means necessary.