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Titilope Sonuga: I believe in truth-telling as a pathway to healing

Titilope Sonuga

Image source: titilope.ca

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà (she writes it as “Titilope Sonuga”) is a prominent Nigerian poet and spoken-word artist. She burst into the scene in 2015 when she became the first Nigerian poet to perform at a presidential inauguration. Before then, she had been known in spoken word circuits in Edmonton, Canada, founding a poetry slam series called Rouge Poetry. In 2011, she won the Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer Award, and the 2012 Maya Angelou Poetry Contest. In Lagos and around Nigeria, Sonuga has performed her work in open mic, formal art events, and at literary festivals like the Aké Festival and the Lagos Poetry Festival. Most recently, she performed at the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival.

Although she started her career as a Civil Engineer and has worked as a brand ambassador for Intel, Sonuga has also acted in a web series for NdaniTV. Her first collection of poetry titled Abscess, was published in a limited edition print in 2014. In 2015, she headlined a poetry event she titled Becoming (reviewed here and for which I interviewed her here). In 2017, the poet has returned with a three-part spoken word concert performance she titled Open. The first part held on June 26, 2017 at Victoria Island (and I reviewed that here). The second part was held in Yaba on July 16, 2017, while the finale is slated for July 30 on Lagos Island.

I caught up with Títílopẹ́ for a chat about Open, her work as a spoken word poet, the environment for the craft, and other matters.

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Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: Hey, it’s nice to talk with you again.

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: Same here!

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: What have you been up to in the two year gap between our last interview in 2015?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: It’s hard to believe it has been that long, but it has. I’ve been writing and performing, just like I was back then and just like I hope to for a good long while. I’m completing a collection at the moment and in the middle of recording my next spoken word album. I did a little more travelling, I got married and properly planted some roots in Lagos. I’m still trying to figure out what that means exactly.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: The last time we talked, you had just finished a stage production titled “Becoming”, which you described then as “a series of poems I had been writing about the journey into womanhood”. You’re currently in the middle of another one, this time a three-part series titled “Open”. Congratulations for that. First, how is this different from the earlier one?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: Thank you. Becoming was a full scale production at the Agip Recital Hall of the Muson Center. It’s this historic space that commands a kind of grand production and I was able to do that with Becoming. My expectation was that the next Becoming would be even bigger and would continue to grow from there, however, as I began to plan towards that, a more urgent need appeared in the form of Open. Open was born out of a desire to bring people even closer to the work and to bridge the gap for people who are interested in performance poetry but do not know how to engage it. I wanted even the people who have followed my work and spoken word, to experience it and me brand new. What Becoming had in terms of scale of production, Open has in its spirit and in heart.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: How did the idea for this come about?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: In the last year I’ve been working on my next collection, This Is How We Disappear. In that quiet and vulnerable process and simultaneously thinking about the next Becoming production, the Open series emerged instead. I had been chewing on the idea of doing a series of smaller shows and a friend finally pushed me off the edge. I have had this hunger to be more vulnerable and honest than I’ve ever been on stage and that requires a kind of stripping back and pulling in, choosing to share poems that I typically would not, daring to put my heart out in the open. I believe in truth-telling as a pathway to healing, and Open is the vehicle for that. It was important for me to do three shows because of the spiritual significance of the number 3, but also because I wanted to place the work in very different parts of the City of Lagos and to experience the impression that would have on the work and the energy of the performance. The first was in Victoria Island, the second in Yaba and the finale will hold on July 30th in the heart of Lagos Island.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: How did you decide on the locations?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: I was interested in particular parts of the city and in venues where you might not typically expect a poetry performance to happen. The opening show at 16by16 in Victoria Island happened because I saw a friend’s video on instagram in the space and I was immediately drawn to it. I loved the view and how it overlooked the water. I was excited about performing in front of the glass windows and having a part of the Lagos skyline at sunset be the backdrop for the stage while I performed. The owners are really interested in supporting emerging artists so it was a great fit. I know there are many complaints about how everything seems to happen on the island and so I wanted at least one of the Open shows to happen on the mainland. Yaba has a pulse and it is a hub for innovation and creativity. I liked the idea of tapping into that energy. Placing performance art in a visual art space at The Centre for Contemporary Art in Yaba also fit into my desire to place poetry and performance in unexpected places and see what emerged. I was looking for spaces with their own stories that we could transform, or that people could experience for the first time the same way they are experiencing the performance for the first time, so the finale is happening in a brand new space juxtaposed with the rich history of Lagos Island.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: Before now, you’ve had some experience with “stage” productions with your role as Eki in Gidi Up. So with this successful stage production of poems, you have established a routine that certainly benefits your confidence as an artist in front of crowds and cameras. Is this a fair assessment?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: I have definitely grown as an artist; the diversity of my performance experience has helped me develop my confidence in front of any audience. I’ve created ways to ground myself on stage or in front of a camera that allows me to give the best of myself in that moment. Fear is a thing I have learned to live with. It is always quietly lurking, but my desire to create is stronger.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: What draws you to the medium of television (or web tv in any case)? Or, better still, how has that medium helped extend the reach of your creative potential, and gain new audiences? Is that the future?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: My entrance into television was a complete fluke. I had never acted before and it wasn’t something I was considering. When the opportunity presented itself, I said yes to the process and the rest is history. I still have so much ground to cover as a writer and performer, so I have not actively pursued a career on TV outside of my role on Gidi Up. The NdaniTV platform exposed me to an audience that would otherwise not have known that my work existed. It certainly expanded my reach and I am always grateful for that. The future is continuing to create, for the page, for the stage or for the screen. I’m open.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: I’ve often wondered why we don’t have more spoken word events in Lagos, even though we have artistes like you, like Bassey Ikpi, like Efe Paul, like Wana Udobang, etc., doing great work, and there’s some disposable income among your target audience. Is it a problem of will or of interest?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: There is definitely a lot of will, unfortunately our will alone cannot transform into the physical currency required to produce as often as we want. Efe is the director of the Lagos International Poetry Festival. I can attest to the personal and financial toll it takes for him to keep the festival going every year. Wana is producing her own work at what appears to be breakneck speed but it is driven by an intense passion. Bassey moved back to the States after giving her all to this city that tries to eat you alive every day. I can go on about poets and artists across this country putting in the work. It is hard being any kind of creative in Nigeria, harder still when you are working in an art form that people do not understand. At this stage we are just committed to doing the work, building audiences in our own small ways and gaining their trust. There is an exciting momentum in the space right now and I’m certain you will continue to see an explosion of spoken word productions and platforms around the country over the next few years.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: What more do we need to do to sustain a culture of poetry appreciation in a city like this?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: We as artists will continue to create work and share and promote it the best way we can, and in response the audience will grow to appreciate it the same way they do other art forms. The more of us there are consistently doing the work and doing it well, the more we create value for ourselves. We grow the culture by creating our own platforms and creating diverse and engaging work at many different levels. The more visibility the art form has, the more top of mind it becomes when brands and sponsors are looking to invest in the arts. Every Becoming, every Open, every festival, every documentary, every video, every poem becomes a pathway, becomes a bridge, a door open for more poets to walk through.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: In that last interview, we also spoke about the seeming momentum in the Nigerian poetry scene and your excitement to be a part of it. Has that excitement endured? What new things are you seeing that gives you hope that the industry will survive and find its own audience?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: It has endured and it has grown. Poets are working and winning international prizes and travelling the world just by the power of their words. Platforms, clubs and events are springing up. We are on television, we are on radio, we are online. It seems like every event I attend opens with a poet. Since our last conversation, I have served my term as the Ambassador for an Intel Corporation initiative, I’ve worked with Heritage Bank, HP, Nestle, Gtbank and the Lagos State Government and several organizations to create poetry or a narrative around different initiatives and programs. The demand for poets in all their diverse forms is growing and so is the recognition of so many brilliant minds that we have in this country. That makes me happy.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: You and I (and a bunch of other writers/artistes) were recently at the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival. The Poetry Night was one of the highlights for me, for showcasing the enormous talents we have in spoken word and poetry in general, in Nigeria, and in Northern Nigeria. What were your highlights?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: The entire Kaduna Book and Arts Festival experience was extremely eye opening and moving for me. The panel discussions were fire, hearing the women who are at the frontline of so many important issues speak was humbling, the films we watched, the conversations, it all just felt so necessary and long overdue. I loved the poetry night because I was introduced to some amazing young voices from the North and I was just so excited to witness their art. Sitting at the closing night concert while Jeremiah Gyang performed and just listening to the whole room sing along with him with such joy on their faces was a truly dreamlike experience. I won’t forget that for a long time. Him asking me to perform with him was the cherry on an already perfect cake. It was beautiful.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: Your work is one laced with vulnerability, either of issues of national and social importance or of a personal journey usually through relationships and life. How important is that vulnerability?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: It’s all I have, really. I do not ever want to get to a place as an artist where I am not willing to tell the truth or be soft and tender in that way. That desire to find and know the truth and to tell it, to steep all of that in love, is at the core of who I am both in and outside my work.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: I’ve also often wondered, especially when I write about personal things that move me strongly enough to put them down, about the line between millennial over-sharing and creativity-compelled vulnerability. Is it something you struggle with as well? If so, how do you navigate it?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: I’m constantly asking myself why. Checking my motivations and intentions for sharing a particular work. Why does this matter? Why now? Who cares? Then what? If the writing is able to pass through that sieve, then I share it and allow it to do what it will do.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: Something else I’ve raised with you, and have wondered about a couple of times, is the role of memorization in the successful performance of spoken word. How much of it is a challenge to an artist? At least for a page writer, as soon as the work is published, his/work is done. Yours is just halfway there.

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: Memorization is the way I go even deeper into my work. There’s an edit that happens on the page, there’s another edit that happens in memorizing, and there’s a final edit in the performance where the piece takes on life and breath and attempts to move through a room. You know immediately if it has legs. Memorization is about me allowing my work to exist inside of my body such that when I open my mouth to say it, it is as though it was always there with me, which it was. So I write to unearth the poem in its raw form, then in the editing that happens between the writing and memorizing, I place the more accurate and honest version of it back inside, then share it.

Of course, I don’t memorize or perform everything I write. There are many poems I write for the pleasure of experiencing them on the page. I do not force a poem to be what it is not. I pride myself in the flexibility and freedom to choose when or what or how I share my work.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: What new things have you learnt about yourself in the process of writing the poems that make up the Open production?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: The process has reinforced for me that none of our experiences exist in a vacuum. There are access points for people even within the most deeply personal stories that I have written and performed. Everything connects on some level. I am learning to trust my voice even more and be confident that even what seems like an unremarkable personal experience still has its value.  I have learnt that, as they say, the only way through is in. So I’m trying to dive a little deeper.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: What has been the audience reaction to it so far?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: It has been everything and more than I could’ve hoped. I’m extremely grateful to have had two sold out shows so far and to have received the kind of feedback that reinforces my decision to do this.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: When should we expect a poetry collection or should we be satisfied of what we see of you on the stage?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: There’s a collection coming, there’s an album coming, there are videos coming. So I’m asking you to be patient with me. Everything good will come.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: Have you tried your hands at any other genre aside from poetry? Will you?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: I have experimented with prose, started and stopped a number of short stories. There’s a novel hovering above my head. It is something I hope to spend more time with in the coming year.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: What is your writing ritual, if you have any? Mine is a quiet place, preferably when the house is asleep. Or a noisy place as long as nobody knows I’m there.

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: On a good day, I wake up, spend some quiet time alone to set some intentions for my day, make a list of what needs to get done, turn on my laptop and I get work. I can be there, just like that till nighttime. On days when the writing doesn’t come as easy, when this process fails me, I read and try to count that as productive too.

I can write in almost any condition, all I require is good light and to be left alone for a while. I’m not that bothered by noise, in fact, music is a big part of how I create; I have a writing playlist that just plays while I work. It keeps me still.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: Who are the authors you are currently reading (local or international), and which ones have given you the most inspiration over the years?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: I have this greedy habit of reading two books at once so I’m currently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces.

I recently finished Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees. All gorgeous books. I fall in love with writers every day, but Toni Morrison has been my most consistent love.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: So, what more should we expect from you? If I talk to you again in two years, what do you think will have changed in your artistic evolution?

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: My collection will be in people’s homes and be making its way across the globe. I want to continue to travel the world with this art and where I can’t go, I hope my work will go for me. I plan to have written that novel that has been haunting me for many years and to reach past poetry into other forms. I hope to have a baby on my hip while I continue to share this work that I love.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: Thank you for your time, Títílopẹ́.

Títílopẹ́ Sónúgà: You’re welcome. Thank you.

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