- Who is Tolu? – Name, Nationality, Family background, Educational background etc
Bios always make me chuckle but here we go – Tolu Agbelusi is a Nigerian poet and performer who is based in London, only girl and second of 3 children. She is reserved, loves dodo and has been said to be a “gentle but powerful writer whose emotion comes through and hits deep.”
- What was your childhood like – did you enjoy reading and writing poetry as a kid? What books did you read growing up? and what kind of books do you read now? Any favourite author and why?
I kept to myself most times and loved to read Enid Blyton books, Chronicles of Narnia, Nancy Drew books; I don’t remember any poetry. Now, I read more poetry than anything else. I don’t have a favourite author but I have almost every book Maya Angelou ever wrote. Aside from that, my current favourite poetry collections are M.A.C.N.O.L.I.A by A. Van Jordan and Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis.
Non poetry-wise, Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam and most of Chimamanda Adichie’s writing are definitely on my essential list.
- How old were you when you wrote your first poem? How old were you when you first performed your poem?
I’m going to say 16 but I think it was earlier. I had a challenge with myself to perform by my 25th birthday – so my first ever performance was to a packed out audience days before my birthday. I remember I was sweating bullets under all the composure, scared I may forget my lines. I didn’t.
- They say poetry is when emotions find thoughts and thoughts find words. So, which emotion drives your poetry the most? And why?
It has to be an equal split between anger and searching. Paraphrasing Jack Myers & Michael Simms in their preface to the Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms “a poet’s essential job is learning the names of things”. At the crux of anger when I am trying to figure out the intangible why of a situation, it helps to write. Sometimes that’s the best impetus, because I am free to say those things that I probably can’t say to the cause of my frustration, free to ask questions without expecting responses or worrying about taboo or looking silly, the page becomes a place of release.
- The information you use to write poems, is it based on personal experience or other things such as facts?
I write about my life as well as things and people I come into contact with whether directly or through the media, so it’s always a mixture of both. I was told on good authority that when you write, you should separate the poet and the speaker so that even if it’s real, it is still fictive. Whilst my stories aren’t necessarily accurate (as in 5 people’s stories may be embodied by one character), I try to make sure they are true. The story is better for it.
- 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 favourite words?
I won’t say they are my favourite words but they do come up a lot: air, eyes, remember
- What is the craziest thing you have done just to ensure you get on stage and perform? What has been the most exciting/ embarrassing thing to happen to you on stage?
I don’t think I have ever done anything crazy to perform, but the most embarrassing thing — I got halfway through the poem and realised I was reading an incomplete version. I had to do some masterful adlibbing of what I had till I found the right version. No one noticed but if I was lighter skinned, the blush factor would have been hugeeeee.
- What is the biggest poetry platform you have performed on so far? and which platform(s) do you hope/ plan to perform on?
How do you define biggest platform? Being one of the first poets to perform in the IWM (Imperial War Museum) was brilliant, as was Manolorgz** which aired on Vox Africa TV… but when I think about biggest platform, I’m looking at what has opened doors – the poetry cross-arts project I created called Home Is… is what comes to mind. I have been successful acquiring Arts Council funding for it twice. I have produced and performed a sell out show supported by one of the leading poetry organisations in the UK. Other organisations who I have been trying to speak to for a good while are now contacting me and with a group of talented poets, I’ll be performing 2 sizeable venues in Manchester and London, in November 2016. Sometimes you need to build your own platform.
**Manolorgz was a Black History Month series that ran for a few years, where poets wrote and performed pieces on the theme of Black HIstory. The performances were then broadcast and repeated on TV at different times, one a day over the period of the month. This is a link to mine https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mx3b0TZOetY
- How is poetry in the UK in term of the acceptance level, attendance of poetry events, corporate involvement/ sponsorship etc?
Poetry is alive and well in the UK and the last 2 -3 years has seen quite some mainstream recognition of performance poetry with projects by the BBC and other networks. In London, there are so many events happening at the same time, so naturally, attendance varies. The more successful shows have a good balance of the right features, vibrant hosts, and good publicity. Support or sponsorship by organisations and arts bodies is of course an added bonus. There are various options for funding here; the Arts Council, various trusts, partnership with arts organisations. Securing that support is not always easy or straightforward, but it isn’t impossible. As for corporate involvement, it does happen and I have seen that support open doors for people – it’s not the norm though.
- How does your job help your poetry? On the flip side, does poetry help you at work? Please share your experience (both positive and negative).
Poetry for me is a calling and a passion. I left hobby-land a good while ago. My project alone, which isn’t just about performing but producing a show with at least 10 artists, writing and coordinating the writing of a poetry play, marketing, etc is a full time job. At this point, I say I have two full time jobs, poetry and law.
Trying to balance both can be exhausting, physically and mentally. Putting in so much effort and not getting the support you know your work deserves is hard. But that’s life— you keep trying till things happen. Or like I said before, you build your own platform. I get people who think because I don’t do poetry alone full-time, I am not dedicated or who says I am effective because I am a good performer in a bid to dismiss my writing skills. Those people just need to look closer at my work. I put as much effort into writing as I do performing and I write for the page as much for the stage. So I ignore the haters.
Other bad experiences often revolve around remuneration. People who don’t acknowledge the process and think the poem bounced onto a page singing “I woke up like this”. It’s my only explanation for people who don’t want to pay poets but pay everybody else well. I can remember one event, involved students. I travelled far for it, the host was rude and made me want to … . My first thoughts when I got to the show were, I should have said no, it didn’t matter that there were over 100 people sat, the disorganisation killed my vibe. Add to that the fact, I had to stay the night and they hadn’t made proper arrangements I must say though, I met some lovely young ladies at the event who insisted on speaking to me for a good hour and change afterwards. They were the redeeming element of the night.
My work does inspire my writing sometimes. The kind of work I do and have done involves death, all kinds of criminal behaviour, broken families, etc. it’s humanity unfolding and sometimes my reaction to what I am handling becomes a poem or a few. Vice versa, performing poetry and successfully embodying characters on a stage has heightened my ability for persuasive delivery in a courtroom.
- Should Spoken Word/ Performance Poetry be mainstream entertainment? If yes, do you see it as a viable industry and why so?
Yes and no. I think it should be given more respect on the scene and have better presence, but that isn’t to say it should be more mainstream. Mainstream tends to come with the watering down of a good thing and already people like to put performance poetry on a lower scale than page poetry. For it to be a viable industry, people have to learn how to package it and be business minded. What can it be mixed with, so that the audience comes along for the journey – music, comedy, visual arts, etc.?
- What is the role of poetry in the society? What societal problems can poetry be used to solve?
Big question. Poetry gives people a voice and an outlet so it can be empowering, whether you are a young person trying to figure yourself out, someone who is dealing with mental health issues or just a regular Joe. Its role is to speak of what is happening in our societies but also to tell our stories, not just what we think people want to hear, but the entire life. The power of self-expression is immeasurable and thus poetry can be used to alleviate some of the stresses that compound other conditions. That said, it can be very lonely too, and at some point, depending on how much self excavation you do, being in your head so much may not be a good thing. I guess I am saying if you need therapy get it. Poetry is not a therapist.
- Are poets suppose to be fashionable or it is a personal choice? What are your must have/ hold fashion accessories when you are going to perform? What determines your attire – the venue, the audience or the poem?
Hahahahahaahahaha. Fashion? I’m a short chic who doesn’t really do heels, I like maxi gowns, sneakers and make up is optional. Being fashionable or not, has to be a personal choice. As a poet, the combination of my words and delivery is enough impact. My comfort, mood, the venue, whether I am trying to impress someone in the audience are all factors affecting my outfit.
- Do any of the artists/ poets you listen to inspire your poems? Any favourite poets? Do you sit down and think about writing, or do you just get sudden inspirations?
Some poets make me want to step up my game —Tshaka Campbell comes to mind. Having said that, I am more inspired to write by poets I read than those I hear. Poems come to me in different ways. At times I have an idea, theme, a line and I sit, research, think about it and free write before I start to shape the poem and then edit. Other times, the first draft, is something that flows from my head. I have woken up suddenly on occasion grabbed a pen, scribbled a phrase and then gone back to sleep. I take it how I get it.
- What sex is poetry? If poetry was a lady/guy, how would s/he look like? What colour is Poetry and why?
Poetry is a woman because she can multi-task. I’ll say no more on that. She is the colour of whoever is writing because experiences colour our perspectives whether it’s intentional or not.
- Where do you see yourself (as regards Poetry) in the next 5 years?
Booking international shows, my book will be published, and, well, I have a few more aspirations but they need to stay close to my chest for now.
- What advice do you have for young people who want to be poets today? Is there any link, blog or site people can go to read your writings/ poems and/ or watch your videos?
You can’t just listen to people on stage and watch YouTube videos. You have to read poetry – read the people you like, the people who inspired them and the people you don’t like, even if just to figure why you don’t like them. Secondly, I’ll say editing is your friend and thirdly, write something everyday.
- Any other information you would want us to know about, maybe something personal?
I have always been a bit reserved and unassuming so people don’t tend to know what to do with me. They expect little, I enjoy disappointing them.
20. Thank you for your time
Thank you too.