Biography: Othuke Umukoro—Nigerian poet, playwright & educator—is the winner of the 2018 I Found It Short Story contest organized by Swift Publishers. Born in Olomoro, a small town bounded by untamed rivers, in 1990, Othuke spent most of his childhood fishing & learning how to read from his mother. A University of Ibadan graduate, he has taught in an underserved public primary school in a low-income community as a fellow of Teach for Nigeria—a nonprofit organization devoted to ending educational inequity. His poetry explores the language of quietness, the geography of memory, home, depression, hope, loss & occasionally the ‘other’ that hovers around traditional father-son relationships. He is a Pushcart & 2 x Best of the Net Nominee. His writing has been published in Agbowó, Crooked Arrow Press, Random Sample Review Mineral Lit Mag, The Sunlight Press, Kissing Dynamite Poetry Journal, Sleet Magazine & elsewhere. He tweets @Othuke__Umukoro
(Following the announcement of the Brunel Prize winner, our Publishing Editor, Michael Emmanuel, connected with Othuke Umukoro, interested in investigating the process that birthed his win. Below is the outcome of that investigation. This interview was conducted over WhatsApp and Email conversations).
Michael: Congratulations on your win, Othuke. What were your initial responses/thoughts on finding out you had won the Brunel Prize? Did you scream?
Othuke: Thank you Michael. I had been teaching all day and was pretty exhausted by the time I came back to my seat to rest. I did not really know the exact time the winner was going to be announced so when I opened my personal email and saw the message from Dr. Bernardine with a subject that read ‘WINNER!!!,’ I was washed with joy. I wanted to scream my lungs out but then my students were having a lesson and I didn’t want to make a scene so I quietly went on my knees and thanked God.
Michael: This was your first time appearing on the shortlist. Prior to the winners’ announcement, were you expecting the win? Was this your first time submitting?
Othuke: The shortlist this year is just extraordinary and it’s an honour to share the stage with these brilliant poets. Truth is, I carry divine faith everywhere I go. My Bible tells me to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). There were some moments when one or two voices of doubt tried to force their way into my mind prior to the announcement but something deep inside of me told me I was going to win. No, my first submission to the prize was in 2017. I tried in 2018 and 2019 but the same unhappy story hit me. For the 2020 prize, I told myself I wasn’t going to send an entry and I didn’t. I spent most of 2020 writing, revising and preparing my poems for the 2021 prize.
Michael: When did you start writing? How has your writing journey been?
Othuke: I started writing in secondary school where I was a member of my school’s press club. I started with short stories because I was fascinated by the stories in our English Language textbooks. Poetry came to me much later in my senior years in secondary school. Miss Ibironke, who taught us English literature, was a very brilliant teacher. I still remember the days we spent trying to analyze the crux of J.P. Clark’s Abiku and Kofi Awoonor’s Songs of sorrow. The journey so far has been bittersweet. There were days when rejection letters from editors nearly paralyzed me, days I wanted to quit—those were the tender days. You need a thick skin to be a poet. I see rejections these days as doors that lead to other doors, sometimes even better doors. Poetry is progressive revelation, it is a journey and I am enjoying it every day.
Michael: Rejections as doors that lead to other doors rings true. Let us talk about some of your winning poems. In The Garden (a favourite), you write, “You carried on in that charismatic manner I have grown to love & gave your soul to the garden, your miracles of dazzling impatiens”. What do you consider the significance of “garden” in this poem?
Othuke: I love gardens. My uncle, who was a retired secondary school principal before his death, had one in his large compound back in Olomoro. There is this compelling vigor and beauty that comes from finding yourself in one. The significance of the ‘garden’ in this poem is its bilingual documentation. In one language, grief covers the tongue. In the other, there is a bloom—which for me represents the soul of the poem—that is trying to fill the mouth of the drained speaker. The duality in experience, cold and warm, is often a predominant feature in my poems. The pandemic came with a large dose of grief. But it also taught us how priceless our humanity is, how brittle and ruined we would become if we neglect it. In its individualized form, even in a subtle sense, the garden—though a significant metaphor for the beginning in our end—is a celebration of life and how in such moments we must find flesh for the skeletons of our mourning.
Michael: The duality of poetry is a path worth towing. I have found that poems – and literary writing in general – which lend multiple meaning expand in beauty with each rendered interpretation. Which prompts me to ask: your poem, Cooking My Country, investigates the various attacks that have endangered the Northern end of Nigeria in recent years. However, the poem’s thematic flow is interjected by the line “This song reminds me of the first time I kissed a boy.” What did you hope to achieve with this “interjection”, and why?
Othuke: Michael, thank you for the observation. It is quite unfortunate that we wake up almost every day in Nigeria to what has become the ritual greetings of violence and mass slaughtering of our countrymen. Boko Haram is still wreaking havoc and the herdsmen crisis has its poisonous fangs fastened on the delicate flesh of our nation. This country is going through a very disconcerting moment right now but, although it’s not easy, we must continue to keep hope alive. I recently took a break from social media because, among other reasons, the news these days is so disturbing. It’s an interplay, really. What I wanted to achieve with it is to show the reader the dual nature of the chaos the poem persona is baptized in. The “body” and the “country”, although going through different wars, do not exist outside of each other. The body is prey, or at least a victim, in a country trying so desperately not to swallow a war. It is my hope that this interplay would create an urgency that is stark and that reveals the face of two fears.
Michael: The body as a metaphor for prey. Hmm. Garden as a word appears in four of your winning poems. Beyond being a metaphor (if it was), do you think words in poetry play larger roles?
Othuke: Yes, I believe words in poetry play larger roles. In defining poetry we often say it’s a genre of literature that employs carefully chosen words. One of the roles these carefully chosen words play is that they can sometimes open a window into the heart of the poet: his/her personal life, occupation, faith, struggles or influence. I was reading some of my works the other day and was amazed at how many words from the Bible have found their way into them. I believe this is because I spend most of my time reading the Bible. Words like ‘prayer’ and ‘salvation’ have a repetitive pattern in my works. Words, in poetry, can build bridges to connect our individual and universal experiences or can create walls that separate and imprison us. I have often said, jokingly, that poets hold the keys to some of the cities in our hearts.
Michael: Tell us about your family. Your profile reads that you grew up in Olomoro, a small town bounded by untamed rivers. Has this directed the course of your writing in any way?
Othuke: I come from a Christian home. My father, before his death, was a devout member of the Anglican Church. My mother is still a chorister at the old Anglican church my siblings and I attended as kids. I often say, in smaller circles, that my mother’s lush voice is the first place I, innocently, touched poetry as a child. Last December I was home and on hearing her sing some of those old powerful church hymns, memories came running towards me with warm outstretched arms. She didn’t have time to tell us bedtime because from dawn to dusk she was out trying to make sure we have a good life but she gave us the greatest gifts—her voice and love. We are eight from my mother’s end—six daughters and two sons. Olomoro is a small town with very kind folks. Most of the folks there are into farming and fishing. Olomoro gave me stories. She taught me that our stories, no matter where we stand, are connected. She taught me to tell my stories but also to build rooms for those of others. This is what I try to do in my poems.
Michael: As a writer and an educator, how do you deal with the constraints of time? Does this affect your productivity?
Othuke: I do most of my writing at night. This is how I try to make up for the time lost on a very busy day, which is like an everyday occurrence. Yes. Teaching is a very demanding job, especially when you work in a private school. I come home very exhausted sometimes and there is little I can do on such drenched days. Managing my office job with my creative writing work is arduous. It affects my productivity in terms of how many poems I am able to write, let’s say, on a weekly basis. I am not too bothered by it, really: quality, not numbers, is what matters to me. These days I am learning to take things one step at a time.
Michael: Are there particular writers/poets that influence your style of writing?
Othuke: Yes. Yusef Komunyakaa tops the list. There are the wonders of Kofi Awoonor, Grace Nichols, ‘Gbenga Adeoba, Mary Oliver and the amazing Naomi Shihab Nye. Chinua Achebe’s storytelling prowess is legendary and I, every now and then, drink from his well of awesomeness.
Michael: At a time when Nigerian poets are growing “bolder” (for want of a more fitting word) in writing and submission, what are your thoughts on the poetry scene in Nigeria?
Othuke: The harvest in the poetry scene in Nigeria is beginning to ripe and I think it’s fair to say that there are many labourers who are ready for the glory of what is to come. Poets from Nigeria are getting works published in major magazines out there and winning various poetry competitions. I am particularly happy because these poets are young and bold when it comes to the issues they address in their works. The r/evolution has started and we are all fortunate witnesses. There are very few opportunities for poets living and writing in Nigeria with respect to writing workshops, reading platforms, residencies and awards/contests. It’s really a concern because many of our poets, the contemporary ones especially, are forced to seek validation from western platforms. This is why the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry are so important for poets in the motherland.
Michael: Who is one single writer you admire the most, and why?
Othuke: It’s a tough one because there are about four brilliant poets that come to my mind whenever I am asked this question but I will go with Yusef Komunyakaa. There is something really compelling about his works. His language, luxuriant and powerfully simple, comes with imagery so vivid you can reach across the page and touch it. Read his breathtaking poems—My father’s love letters, Ode to the drum, Thanks, Facing it, We never know, Ode to the maggot, The smoke house, Anodyne—and you will discover the treasures of language and storytelling. Yusef is one poet I run to every time.
Michael: Are there plans for an MFA? What are your plans following your Brunel win?
Othuke: Nothing concrete yet, but yes. The plan for me never changes: keep writing. Also, to keep praying that more light and love find me on this journey.
Michael: What are you working on at the moment? Are you publishing a poetry work soon?
Othuke: I am working on a very stubborn chapbook that has told me for the umpteenth time that she wants to metamorphose to the manuscript for my first full collection. No.
Michael: Final words…
Othuke: First, thank you Michael for talking to me. You’re a brilliant interviewer. If you’re a writer reading this, do not lose faith in your work. Do not take rejection letters personally. Read wide. Read good books, not just poetry collections: you’re what you read. Keep writing, keep submitting. Pray, too. Support other writers. Share their works on social media and buy their books. Fall in love. Listen to some cool music. Travel and see the world. We are living in one of the most challenging moments of our lives so be kind. Kindness is a door we must never close.