in Conversation with
Bola Opaleke is a Nigerian-Canadian poet. He holds a degree in City Planning from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. In 2011 he moved to Canada and become a Canadian citizen in 2016. His first poetry collection, mainly comprising poems written in his teenage years, was published in 2012. He was a runner-up in the 2013 Thomas Morton Memorial Poetry Prize and also made the shortlist for the same contest in 2017. His poem “Ila Sisi, Ila Sisi” was shortlisted in the 2017 Open Frontier Poetry Prize, and in 2018, his poem “The Autobiography of Water” was runner-up in the CBC poetry contest. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Bettering American Poetry. Bola is also a recipient of Manitoba Arts Council writer’s grant. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Frontier Poetry, Rising Phoenix Review, Writers Resist, Rattle, Cleaver, One, The Nottingham Review, The Puritan, The Literary Review of Canada, Dissident Voice, Poetry Quarterly, Empty Mirror, and more. You can pre-order his chapbook, Skeleton of a Ruined Song, slated for June 2019 publication by IceFloe Press, here.
Tom Simpson: Does a degree in city planning feel like wonderful or terrible preparation for your life as a poet?
Bola Opaleke: Ok firstly, I developed an interest in writing at an early age. English being my second language, I was drawn to the glossiness of some foreign words. Nursery rhymes like “My Mother” by Ann Taylor caught my attention and I thought I should be able to replicate something like that in my own words. I wrote about the “rat,” “cockroaches,” “flowers,” and literally anything I came in contact with on a daily basis. Most of the poems in my self-published collection in 2012 were poems I wrote in those early years.
Having said that, now back to your question. A degree in city planning sure helps, not in preparing but in enriching my perception and admiration of life, and nature. I see things most people see and ignore, and make a huge deal of them. Because city planning is essentially life planning, my knowledge of urban and rural planning theories and concepts adds meat to the bones of some common public discourse that a few writers would see as being difficult or hard subjects to tackle, especially in poetical structures. Dexterity and contradistinction naturally attract my curiosity.
TS: One of my first encounters with your work was through the poem "BrOkEn GhAzAl fOr AfRiKa" (audio here). Talk about the form and feel of that deeply moving poem.
BO: Well, I must tell you this poem is so super close to my heart and I am immensely grateful to poetry editor Matthew Girolami and his team at Cleaver for believing in this work. In constructing this poem I tried to merge the aggressive tone in my country’s traditional poetry of challenge (war song) and the unstructured song for the dead (the dirge). The constant repetition of some words is an attempt at reminding the reader of the land’s liabilities and incoherence. It is essentially a story about the violence of faith, the pain of stagnancy and neglect, and ultimately of migration in a most awful pattern and condition. I wanted to capture and showcase the abuse of power by the ruling class and their foreign collaborators in a different light; portray the endless suffering of the common man on African soil in a way that is not conspicuously brutal (as it is in reality) so everyone can read and then, maybe, reflect on these words that keep moving backward. I hope I succeeded (laughs).
BO: I see you have carefully selected these poems. Well, these two poems are siblings. They are cousins to “Broken Ghazal for Afrika” (laughs). But really, they are. The forms are similar but the tone is different. In “Upon the Blue Nile,” apart from telling a story (and a very sad story at that), I secretly try to reveal my undying love for free verse in a way that would not betray my admiration for traditional form. The words were prudently chosen to reflect that sentiment. And don’t forget this is a war story, a tale of pain and anguish, I thought lot of attention should be paid to the structure of the language and the texture of the words used, to not lead the readers astray. And by that I mean to not lose the fundamental goal of drawing attention to the crisis in that part of the world, and especially on and about girls and women, who evidently suffer (and are suffering) the most in this situation. So that when read aloud, or silently, the hurting effect will still be retained. This is not a song of joy.
Also, most of the feelings and sentiments expressed in “Upon the Blue Nile” feature in “A Continent in______Exile” too. Don’t forget they’re siblings and so share the same blood in their veins (different DNA though). (Laughs)
TS: I see recurrences of divinity in your poems—of gods however powerless, of prayers however futile. Is that an accurate reading?
BO: It is very accurate. And I must confess that the one factor that has influenced my writings, and indeed my life, so profoundly is faith. And I don’t mean that in a religious way. Religion is a whole country on its own. It processes visas and immigration papers very differently. (Laughs)
I think, whether you believe in God or not, whether you’re a Christian or Muslim, or Hindu, or Atheist even, you must have a some kind of faith to be able to go to bed and wake up the next morning. You must believe in something. Living is an act of faith. And religion is how some people attempt to take that faith away. This is my personal opinion. I think humanity has suffered an irreparable loss from the hands of the gods. The gods being those that created them. Because come to think of it, there is no god who does not have many mouths. It is a crime to kill but not always. You cannot take what does not belong to you but not always (almost every land is a stolen land). Other examples abound. Everything points to the fact of man as the creator of gods.
Suffice it to say, here, that I am a Christian and I hold that faith very strongly. This, however, does not change my view about the fraud and deceits of religion as a whole. I was born into Christianity and I did not understand why God was just watching as Cain murdered Abel. Why did God decide to bless Jacob and not Esau, what was his sin? Why is it okay for a people to inherit other people’s land? Also, why is it okay for a man to marry ten wives but not for a woman to marry two husbands? How is it okay for anyone to kill others in the name of God? (pause) I hope I am not boring you with these ramblings, I am leading you to why faith, faithlessness and divinity feature prominently in my work, ok? So, that was how I grew up. A thousand unanswered questions on my mind.
Unfortunately, a lot of those questions remain unanswered till today. Talk about things getting stuck in your throat, you can neither swallow nor vomit them. Isn’t this how we roll? Family, God and Country? Did I answer your question? Don’t blame me, I tried (laughs).
TS: You're an unfailingly generous Twitter citizen. What kinds of literary community have you found there, and what kinds of literary community are you trying to build?
BO: First of all, things have changed so much from what it used to be. And one of the main instruments of that change is social media. Today, some of us who did not achieve an MFA (don’t cry for me, yet) (laughs) would not have had the opportunity to know a lot of genius writers that we know today. The internet makes everything travel at the speed of light. And for me, Twitter is the key. Why? Almost everyone that matters in every field of human endeavour tries to establish a presence on Twitter. From Barack Obama, to Oprah Winfrey, to Bill Gates, to Malala Yousafzai, to Tom Cruise, to Jericho Brown to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, everyone is on Twitter and you do not need an appointment (this used to be an insurmountable task before now) to take a peep into their world, to get an idea of what their opinions are about some pertinent issues. This rare ease of connection has encouraged and helped a lot of new writers like myself.
Our Twitter community is rich, I must tell you. And you’ll find almost everything you want here: ways to get advanced writing tips, make and sell books, build social bonds, etc. We have been able to support each other, bring out the best in ourselves and receive reinforcement from generous established writers. It is unbelievable how much these folks are ready to give to put good books in the hands of everyone. One of these people is the founder of your organization (Čuvaj Se / Take Care), Heather Derr-Smith. A very wonderful person. I do not want to start mentioning names because I might leave out a lot of people. A lot of equally wonderful people.