Othuke Umukoro — Nigerian poet, playwright and educator — is the winner of the 3k Brunel International African Poetry Prize 2021. Born in Olomouc, a small town bounded by untamed rivers, in 1990, Othuke spent most of his childhood fishing and 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, and occasionally the ‘other’ that hovers around traditional father-son relationships. He is a Pushcart and two-time 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
This interview was conducted in a WhatsApp group chat of over 200 creative undergraduates from several African countries on the 28th of May, 2021.
Interviewer: Rahma O. Jimoh.
Good evening, Othuke. It is an honour to have you here.
Good evening, Rahma. Thank you for hosting tonight. Good evening everyone. I am glad to be here!
Congratulations on emerging the winner of The Brunel International African Poetry Prize. The prize is the largest and most recognized prize for African poetry in the world — which is huge. How do you feel about it? What does it mean to you?
Thank you. It is huge. I am super happy to have won this year. I am also humbled and honoured by the immense love and support I have received so far. Brunel is a huge door and I am just so happy it opened for me.
We have read your bio, but we would still love to hear from the horse’s mouth. Tell us a bit about yourself. What do you write? Do you explore other genres? And why do you write?
I will start with the last question. I write because in many ways I see myself as a historian documenting my individual and universal experiences. I believe writers, poets mostly, hold the keys to some of the cities in our heart. I write mostly poetry these days but I started my writing journey with short stories. I studied Theatre Arts at the University of Ibadan which opened the door of playwriting for me. But then again I haven’t written a play in a very long time.
It is interesting to know that you once wrote short stories. And that, although you studied playwriting, poetry has a softer spot in your heart.
Your winning poems explore themes such as sexuality, family dynamics, HIV, nature, ecology and politics. The judges, in their praise for your works, said:
“‘The language is lush, mesmeric at times and the balance between lyric and narrative deftly handled. There is technical competence too. These are unafraid, thoughtful pieces — playful, yet serious, making us look at love, life, mortality afresh. The elegiac A Mountain Cracks Before Translation — mourning the suicide of a brother found hanging — heartbreaking, but never gratuitous in its detail. A complex poet, with the formal skills to match the weight of the subjects he takes on”.
This is true, and like you said, “writers, poets, mostly hold the keys to some of the cities in our heart”. Your poems indeed unlocked a lot of cities in our hearts as readers. I am curious, how do you do this?
Humanity is a good teacher and there is so much we can learn from her if we are ready to listen. The key is listening. I think poets ought to be good listeners. The miracles of ourselves bloom when we understand that our stories are connected. I write with a community in mind because I am interested in the chaos and the beauty of the ‘other.’ This is where the resonance in my works comes from.
I agree with this, writers should be good listeners as much as they are good readers.
I noticed that in two of your poems, the first one, “at the poetry workshop one of my students kept on insisting & insisting that the poem” and the second one, “it appears there is a narrowness to inflorescence” the styles in these poems are prosaic, a lame man will probably not call them poems but poetry is evolving, contemporary poetry gives room to creativity and experimental styles. What is your view on stylistics as related to contemporary poetry?
I think stylistic is important if there is a purpose. I usually don’t walk that path if there is no ‘need’. In those two poems you mentioned, I wanted the reader to touch my hurt: the endless route it was travelling. You would notice the absence of punctuation marks in the bodies of the poems because in my broken heart, and this scares me to my bones, Gulnaz might not be the last to be eaten by patriarchy. I am not an expert on this, but I would say that stylistics in contemporary poetry should satisfy a hunger, and if there is none to satisfy please don’t create one all in the name of ‘creativity.’
Damn! This is deep, enlightening too!
“…and if there is none (hunger) to satisfy, please don’t create one all in the name of ‘creativity’.
You are a teacher, which means you must be a very busy person. How have you managed this with writing? Also, do you think your teaching influences your writing & vice versa?
Thank you. I have been teaching for five years now. I do most of my writing at night. This plan works perfectly for me because I am mostly teaching during the day. In a way, yes. Teaching comes with a lot of studying and observation. These two things help me to be very precise in syntax. Also, my teaching experience in low-income communities has in many ways opened my eyes to the broken truths in our humanity.
We want to know: is this the first time you submitted for the Brunel International African Prize? If No, tell us the story.
Also, as a writer how do you cope with rejections, what do you have to tell other writers concerning contests and publications?
No. The first time I submitted was back in 2017. I submitted also in 2018 and 2019. For the 2020 prize, I refused to submit. Honestly, I was tired. I spent the greater part of 2020 reading, writing and revising. Most of the poems in the winning collection were written in the heat of the coronavirus lockdown last year.
Rejections are important in this art. I have received quite a handful of them. I have learned to never take any rejection personally: I tell myself it’s the piece, not me, that is rejected.
Do not rush. I know you want to get published but please spend more time reading and writing. The publications will come later. Read across genres, not just poetry collections.
For contests, I would say prune your piece before sending it. A lot of folks are aiming for the prize and judges don’t have time for error-filled pieces. Also, read the works of the previous winners: sometimes it can help in detecting the taste of the judges.
Read also about the judges. I read every published work of the contest’s judge(s) I can find online. I know you’ve heard this before, but please READ the submission guidelines.
This is enlightening. There is so much to pack from here. Writing is not for the faint-hearted, one has to keep trying, pushing and pushing again. I would ask one more question after this and then we would call it a day.
Going through your timeline, you are a spiritual person. This is also evident in your poems with words like a church bell, salvation, Lord, prayer, etc. How will you describe your spiritual life and the influence it has on your works?
Thank you, Rahma. My spiritual life is built on the word of God: my whole life feeds on it. Love, I believe, is the highest form of spirituality and the Bible teaches that. Salvation came because of love. We have ruined cities without love.
My poetry, and maybe this is the case for many poets reading this, is rooted in humanity: its walls and bridges. There’s no humanity without love and if we are to write poetry that reaches the heart of man, then we must first anoint ourselves with the fragrance of love.
So true! We have ruined cities without love. Before I drop the final question, I would like to say that you are so brilliant and there is a lot to learn from this interview. I wish it doesn’t have to come to an end.
ARTmosterrific is an online platform and community by and for African undergraduates. There is a recent surge of undergraduate literature in Africa. Platforms like ARRmosterific aim to bring together African creatives. What advice do you have for young writers regarding communities and platforms?
Thank you for the compliment, Rahma. ARTmosterrific is doing an amazing job. I have read some of the works on the platform and they are brilliant. My advice for young writers is: think community and not competition. Support other writers. Don’t hoard writing opportunities/information.
We will have a far greater impact if we are kinder to one another. Above all, believe in your work, but never miss an opportunity to improve. Keep writing, keep submitting, and may light and love find you, always.
“Think community, not competition.” So much power in a few words! Holding this quote on my left hand so I don’t ever forget. Thank you for your time tonight. It is an honour to have this conversation with you. Wishing you more literary feats and accomplishments.
You’ve been a very warm host, Rahma. Thank you so much. Thanks to everyone who joined us tonight. Thanks to ArtMostTerrific for hosting me. Thank you!
Rahma O. Jimoh is a writer and nature photographer. She is a 2021 Hues Foundation scholar and a 2020 Pushcart Prize Nominee. She edits for The Quills and reads for Chestnut Review. A lover of sunsets and monuments, she has been published or forthcoming in Feral, Lucent Dreaming, So To Speak Journal, Kalahari Review, Olongo Africa and The Hellebore. Rahma was recently shortlisted as a top writer in the Hysteria Writing Contest, the Abubakar Gimba Prize for Fiction & the Eriata Oribhabor Poetry Prize.