Poet Tolu Oloruntoba is letting us into his “hiding place.”
The Griffin-nominated doctor turned health-care manager has always used poetry as a private escape, a place to retreat and make sense of things.
But with “The Junta of Happenstance,” his first book, which has won him a Governor General’s Literary Award and nabbed a Griffin Poetry Prize nod, he invites us into his comfort zone.
The poems wield language like a knife, cutting away the excess and leaving only stark observations about illness, medicine, immigration and colonialism.
Oloruntoba is tight-lipped about whether his poems are autobiographical, but he isn’t secretive about his biography. He started his career as a primary care physician in Nigeria before moving to the US for graduate school and eventually settling in the Vancouver Metropolitan Area as a health-care worker and writer.
Oloruntoba talked to The Canadian Press about the twists his life has taken, and the steadying role his writing played along the way.
CP: How does one go from doctor to poet?
Oloruntoba: I tend to go after what I am curious about. I am able to change my direction if I’m doing something that isn’t really working for me, or if it has run its course. Sometimes when I’m joking, I call myself a quitter of things.
But that’s just because I figure out that it’s time to move on and do something else.
So yes, I did practice medicine for six years after being in med school for six years as well. But I got the itch at a point. I knew I just needed to try something else. There were a lot of frustrations that I was facing. But I had the distinct feeling that I could do more, even in health care, than I was doing in my consulting rooms at the time. And so I decided to register for grad school.
And since then, I’ve been doing a lot that I would describe as transformation project management.
The only consistent thing I would say I’ve ever really done is write poetry. Professionally, I’ve just done a bunch of stuff.
CP: What was it like, having poetry as a through line during these professional and personal transitions?
Oloruntoba: There’s a phrase that comes to mind frequently. Dionne Brand says poetry is not how we make a living, it’s how we make a life.
In every season of my life, poetry has been that anchor, it has been that motive. It has been the way that I understand myself and the world. It has been my own private practice that I have recently been able to share with the world, but I’ve done it regardless. It’s my hiding place in a way. It has always been a source of comfort for me.
CP: Is it strange to take that hiding place and make it public?
Oloruntoba: It’s very strange. There’s a feeling of slight panic and exposure, because these are private thoughts.
Poets are very careful sometimes to let you know these are not autobiographical thoughts. I’m not gonna comment one way or the other, but many times it’s easy for the reader to assume — sometimes rightly — that the poet is writing about themselves.
And so these little notes that we wrote for ourselves are being consumed by people who may not have any context. And it’s entirely out of one’s control how that is received. So it makes me feel very vulnerable.
CP: Communicating emotions through poetry is very different from how a doctor or someone in health-care management communicates information. How do you find that contrast?
Oloruntoba: Whatever industry or whatever literary tradition one is working in, you need to be able to pass your idea across.
When I was a physician, the training emphasized being able to describe what one saw succinctly and as accurately as possible, being able to point out where the gaps were in one’s understanding, and being able to demonstrate one’s ability to help.
That underlying dynamic also works in the corporate world. You need to describe things succinctly, you need to get people to see your point of view. But then the language is third, we use more words than we need.
The conventions of poetry demand that we condense or clarify our thoughts. What is the minimum number of words that you require to express a complex thought? At the end of the day, there’s that clarity that I’m trying to convey.
CP: What is your process for communicating an idea through poetry?
Oloruntoba: I’m not one of those geniuses that gets an idea and instantly can transform that into a full poem.
When I get a thought that I recognize as new or interesting, I write it down. And many times I don’t know what to do with that fragment or that cluster of five words or two lines. I just let it be. Over days, sometimes over weeks, as I revisit those phrases, associations start to come to me. I can then begin to find out if there’s a line of best fit somewhere.
All I’m really trying to do is express accurately what my subconscious mind senses.
CP: Where do you go from here?
Oloruntoba: I feel I’m just stumbling along. My only plan was to have one book published, and I already achieved that.
I have some poetry in the pipeline. But because I’ve had so much poetry published in the last year, I think I want to slow it down for a bit. I can always draw out the publication schedule somewhat over a number of years.
What I want to do next is I want to try a different kind of writing — one that I’m not very familiar with. And I can just sink myself into that for some years. It’s a new adventure for me.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2022.
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