Let’s meet you; Name, Nationality, Family background, Educational background etc
I am the Poet, Donna. Proudly Nigerian.
My parents are Prince Babatunde and Olori Cessy Ogunnaike
I attended Santa Maria Primary School, Lagos State, Atlantic Hall Co-Ed Secondary School Lagos State, the University of Ilorin, Kwara State and the Nigerian Law State School, Lagos State.
I believe that a Poet is one who expresses his/her thoughts and emotions in written rhythmic form. It means that while everyone can write, the form in which you write determines whether or not you are a poet; the fathers before us have been kind enough to identify the different forms of written poetry – so what you write and how you write determines into what category you fall, and whether or not you are a poet.
More particular-minded critics will go ahead to distinguish one standard of poems from others; so if it is good poetry in their eyes, then you are worthy of being called a poet. Otherwise, you just write – and not very well at that. Still, I think contemporary writers are kinder; we all end up being called poets if we can string a few words together.
For me, I recall that I started writing when I was in my early teens. I wrote what I called my personal philosophies and my writing later became more topical and I found myself applying more rhyme and rhythm to my thoughts – by the mid-nineties, people who read my thoughts started calling me a poet. I even had an offer by a form editor in one of the National Newspapers to publish my works if I could get up to 50 poems written by the end of that year; this was in 1995 – I was lazier than I am now, so I did not complete the poems and I was not published.
I don’t recall any particular event that inspired me to become a poet …the words just call on me and I have no choice but to write them.
People hear the words and call me what they deem fit based on my works and the most popular one is “Poet”…so I guess I am one.
How old were you when you wrote your first poem? How old were you when you first performed your poem?
I had been writing from when I was about 13, but like I said earlier it was mostly personal philosophies.
I think I first wrote a proper poem when I was about 15…I don’t really remember; but I do remember writing something at about that age and some family members reading it and asking me where I copied it from, that no child of that age could ever come up with something as deep and painful as that. It hurt at the time but it’s something that makes me laugh now at how truly perplexed they were. Especially because I now understand that many of us poets are drawn to write at particularly deep levels, and it can come to one at any age, and that very many people are unable to understand that.
I used to bore my friends and family to death with my poems for years!!! LOL.
I would make them sit and listen as I read my poems and then I would wait expectantly for the sort of responses and deep deliberation I used to love, crave and enjoy in Mrs. Duncan’s classes. Mrs. Duncan was my English Language and English Literature Teacher in Atlantic Hall and the first person to ever tell me that I had a gift with words, of garb and with people (I never knew). She encouraged me to write and to paint and keep doing it because it was precious; she was a huge influence on my love for art. I don’t draw or paint anymore but I still write.
Bless her soul, may she continue to rest in peace; she was such a lovely woman and motivator.
I started reading my poems at Audu Maikori’s G.A.P in the early 2000’s; we used to meet in former Vintage then in Victoria Island Lagos (it is where Pizzeria is presently, on Musa Yar’Adua). Then, ANON (I think it was called) by Tope Sadiq (this was before Freedom Hall) in Lagos Island.
After very many years, I got inspired to write and perform after watching Plumbline perform at my cousin Ebi Atawodi’s event when planning for her first book launch about 5 or 6 years ago. At that event, the idea for Chill and Relax was birthed by Mayowa Ogunsi and Jeff Plumbline; we were the first artistes at Chill and Relax then at Bambudha in Victoria Island – they are now in Gbagada, after that it was Freedom Hall by Tope Sadiq; this is where you can always find me –Tope and I go way back, about 18 years of friendship so it is only natural for me to be at his event a lot.
I started becoming regular at performance poetry about 4 years ago when my boyfriend then (now my husband) encouraged me to do so. He felt that I was hiding my talent and that my words had a way of impacting people; he also said since it seemed to make me so happy when I performed, then I really should. That was how my journey of performance poetry really kicked off. Can you imagine? I had been writing since I was a child but did not do anything with it until 4 years ago – the story of many of us dreamers. May we all “snap out of it and get on with it!” as Mrs. Duncan used to always say.
What was your childhood like – did you enjoy reading and writing poetry as a kid? What books did you read growing up? What kind of books do you read now? Any favorite author and why?
I enjoyed reading very much.
My Mum had structured a system where I found buying a novel a worthy reward for a good week in class.
If I did well in my continuous assessment for the week in primary school, she would give me some money on Friday which I could spend at Baba-Odu Bookshop in Suru-Lere to buy a novel. In my mind it was a liberating experience…I could walk unaccompanied to the book shop (which was a short distance from where we stayed at the time), enjoy the scenery, walk around the book store and could pick absolutely any novel I wanted from the children’s section. It was absolute bliss. You know Lagos was so much safer those days. My Mum would set a time for me of course, so that if anything happened she could come after me, but it was such a different Nigeria from the present day and peaceful – people could go for walks! Sometimes she would be in there with me, but would leave me in the children’s section while she rummaged through any books of her taste or even waited outside – she just left me to explore books – bliss!
Anyway, I have always been an independent soul, so those walks alone and the chance to select a novel myself and plan for the ones I would pick up the next week (I would never fail in class and miss out on this reward) – was complete joy. I would finish the novel before the next Friday and be ready for my next one. Reading thus became a part of my very core…I could not do without it.
Poetry books as a continuous read on the other hand were boring for me – I could only do a few poems at a time. I could spend long minutes thinking about the meaning of a stanza in a poem, what the author was going through, where his/her mind was at the time and why the poem was written. For me poetry is whole, so everything needs to be considered otherwise one may find verse-to-verse or poem-to-poem inconsistent or even contradictory. Maybe it was because I spent such a long time on one poem in that manner that I could not do too many poems at once – I still cannot. Maybe that is even why I do not yet have a book of poems – but I will, eventually.
I read everything growing up but I also had a compulsive pattern, if it was a series or a collection I would become a member of the Fan Club or follow the series until the end. Some of my favorite books were the Goonies, the Enid Blyton story books, Jemima Shaw Investigates, The Famous Five, Mad Comics and Magazines, Adventures of Oti, Asterix and Obelix (I still have and love them), Archie, Jughead, Shakespeare’s writing (the short forms that had been adapted for easy reading), King Solomon’s Mines, Joseph the Drummer Boy, the Second Chance, Juju Rock, Jagua Nana’s Daughter, The Potters Wheel, Things Fall Apart, books by Cyprian Ekwensi, almost all the books by Virginia Andrews, Frederick Forsythe, Barbara Sheffield, King Rat and Shogun (by James Clavell), and many other Nigerian authors – I read everything!!! I’ll have to stop here so I do not bore you with my long list of novels/books/magazines that I love – there are too many. There was a very large collection of books in the house and so I had easy access to words, cultures and the minds of authors. Even when we travelled for holidays, we would be encouraged to buy books back – I do this till this day, so I have authors of so many different tribes and cultures; it is very good for the mind.
I still read now but not as often or as much as I used to which is such a shame because I used to love getting lost in the Authors mind. I fell out of love with my last favourite author and I have not replaced him so I don’t think I have a favourite one now, but I absolutely love “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is such a master piece – B.R.I.L.L.I.A.N.T!!!
I also love many Nigerian authors like Seffi Atta, Helon Habila (I really like his works), Chimamanda Adichie and Lola Shoneyin.
They say poetry is when emotions find thoughts and thoughts find words. So, which emotion drives your poetry the most and why? Basically, what inspires your poetry?
I write about everything personal to man and his environment and I write from all the senses.
So love, life, heartbreak, societal inhibitions, religion, Government, weather and weaknesses; these are my influences…where I write from. I often place myself in the character’s story and write from that voice.
More recently, I find myself writing what I call my “protest poems”; they are not written in typical classical language of traditional literature but are written very plainly in simple English. With these poems I am trying to pass on a message to my audience on topical issues in Nigeria (yes, I am passionate about Nigeria) and do not want them confused with flowery language. I try to make them have rhyme and rhythm, but I am more interested in the message.
I still write more classical poems, but rarely perform them unless I am among the literary crowd, like Chill and Relax – those guys were deep.
When did you first start performing poetry, and what made you feel the need to express yourself in this way?
About 4 years ago, when I was encouraged by my boyfriend to do so. Also, one of my friends, Kayode Fahm who passionately plays the classical guitar even though he is in the financial market always told me that “passion does what it must.” I never forgot that and realized that if I was not performing I could not really say that I was passionate about poetry. I stopped trying to wait until when I would “have the time off work” (my former excuse) to perform and just got on with it!
What is the most difficult poem you have written? Is it your favorite? Which poem has been your most popular?
“This One Life”…I have never performed it. It is not my favourite but it was a difficult one to write.
My most popular poem would be either “What Do You Wear?” or “SNIP!!!”.
Do you have one poem that you almost did not perform due to it being so very personal? Did you perform it after all? If so, please tell us about it.
“Let It Bleed”…had been written for a while but I never performed it because it is so personal.
It is about unfaithfulness in a relationship I was in and my reaction to and thoughts on it; I wrote it futuristically as though I was married and therefore, trapped – that was the only way I could get to that depth of hurt and produce those words.
All poets have several words that come up over and over again, words or sentences that they just can’t help but use in their work. What are 3 of your absolute favorite words?
It used to be rhythm, drums and flow….but now I don’t know what they are.
Who are your favourite poets, both locally and internationally?
Locally: Efe Paul (he’s my very very bestest! *wide grin*), Ivorii, Wana Wana, Ndukwe, Obii, Titi and Tope Sadiq (when he decides to perform…lol).
Internationally I really love Hollie McNish (she’s just awesome!!!) and Benjamin Zephanaiah.
Have you ever performed outside Nigeria? If yes, please tell us where and describe the experience and the response you got.
I have performed at a few occasions in London and South Africa.
I found my more classical poems were accepted than the protest ones – because the protest ones are peculiar to Nigerian issues which may not resonate with a non-resident. In either case, it appeared that the word “passionate” was used very often to describe my works.
I was also part of a documentary filmed by Remi Vaugh-Richards which was aired at the Nigeria House during the last Olympics. I understand that the response was very good – they were mostly literary minds so even though it was “SNIP” performed on the documentary, they could get a very good sense of the issues we face in Nigeria. A Dramaturge actually contacted me after watching the documentary – we will work together in the near future – Amen.
What do you like about poetry? On the average, how long does it take you to write a poem? What part of poem writing do you like the most?
I love how it frees up emotions. A sensitive reader can revive the same emotions every single time the poem is read. It is like frozen thoughts; they are timeless testimonies of where the writer was in his/her mind when the poem was written.
Do you get nervous when you are about to perform your poem? What ritual/ habit do you engage in before you perform?
I am nervous every time.
I breathe deeply. I drink water – I grab it off people’s tables sometimes when the panic levels are at a peak! I remind myself that I have a message. I take charge of the room with my first few sentences and I connect with my Spirit (which is more powerful than all my human emotions) – then I just go for it.
You usually hold on to your Playbook when performing, but most times you don’t read from it, we are curious to know why do you hold your Playbook?
I never memorize my poems. It is the compromise I have had to make for not having enough time.
I am at work a LOT of the time and I decided that if I have to read the poems, then so be it. For me, it is much better than waiting for when I have time to memorize them. What has then happened over the years is that some of the poems have become a part of me, so now I can get away with glancing at the Playbook sometimes and just performing by heart. The Dramaturge I mentioned earlier actually said that the Playbook has become a part of my act – like an extension of me, so people are not too bothered that I do not recite by heart.
For me, I am plugged in. Whether with the Playbook, without it or when I am free styling – passion does what it must – and that is what I do.
Your poem, “What do you wear?” is one of your most popular poem, is it your favorite and why?
It is one of my most popular and I think that is so because it resonates with very many Nigerian women. Every one has a story in there. There are five characters, but in their stories there is an average Nigerian woman in there somewhere and that makes people think, “Why did I turn out this way? What am I wearing (as my present situation in life) as a result of the decisions I have made and do I need to make a different decision? Am I happy with what I wear (in my life situation)”? I think that is why it is so well accepted.
Women have met me after the poem, some of them crying and telling me their life stories and how they need to think about changing their situation. Once, a lady actually walked out in the middle of the poem and later met me to say I made her cry and feel sorry for her daughter because she could see herself in one of the characters and felt helpless to teach her daughter any better. We had a brief counseling session afterwards.
The reaction of men and women alike keep me going – it tells me that my message is relevant and more than that, is needed.
It is not my favourite poem though. My favoruite poem is “Wasting Time” – I have never performed it though.
You recently did a poem, “Can I have a moment of Silence.” what inspired the piece?
It is not a poem.
It was an impromptu speech. I actually do not have it written everywhere till date and only have a voice recording of it (thank God). I was just really burdened by the deaths in Yobe, Boko Haram issues, the reaction of the Government – its usual complacence and the way we have become as Nigerians. I was physically tired from the sadness and decided to talk to my generation.
The crowd reaction made me cry – their souls were silent; even waiters and waitresses stopped serving. It was as though everything froze and I had the longest ovation I have ever received (applause and standing) – that overwhelmed me and I just started crying. My husband was on his feet waiting to catch me and whispered to me when he held me “Donna, they really heard you…I think they all really did hear you today”.
I was stunned for days afterwards at the reception of those words and many people were shocked to hear that it was unrehearsed, never written and unplanned. I uploaded it on SoundCloud and it has been re-broadcasted many times since then. A lady wants to make a video of it, but I’m not sure yet.
Where do you see yourself (as regards Poetry) in the next 5 years? Where do you see Spoken Word Poetry in Nigeria in the next 5 years?
I will be the most internationally recognized poet of Nigerian birth and heritage.
Poetry, all forms and spoken word inclusive, is the next biggest thing in the entertainment industry in Nigeria. It is words for us, to us and about us.
What advice do you have for young people who want to be poets today? How would you encourage the youths of Nigeria to feel comfortable writing poetry as a form of creative expression? Can you give us some suggestions to increase students’ interest in reading and writing vis a vis Poetry?
I think they should just get on with it! Nothing must stop them.
Nigerian is opening up now. We are carving the way for a new birth of poetry in this generation; thank God Wole Soyinka and our other Fathers in the Art are still alive to see it, because I am sure they felt we had failed them, but we are here now – breaking barriers and making poetry as an art form and as a career sustainable endeavor, the creator of Word Up and Freedom Hall are shining examples.
The more we are, the more impact we will have, so they should please get on board.
I would encourage them to write from within though. They should not try to be like anyone else or try to sound like anyone else – BE YOURSELF – we need more poets with honest emotions.
Is there any link, blog or site people can go to read your writings/ poems or even watch your videos?
I have a few videos on You Tube if you go to my channel which is :“Donna Ogunnaike”. I also post links on Twitter: “@ThePoet_Donna” and “@Dsugarlicious”. Word Up and Freedom Hall also put up some of my works.
Any other information you would want us to know about, maybe something personal?
Nah! I’m good!!! LOL….this has been a looooonnnggg interview!
Thank you for your time.
Thanks for your work; keep it up!