By Yamilenu Bamgboye
Some years ago, Professor Ahmed Yerima argued very vehemently that poetry enjoys more social favours than drama and other genres. At first, that sounded too paradoxical to contain any element of reality. Today, considering how much spoken word poetry has begun to thrive in Nigeria and environs, I’m beginning to have a rethink.
Poetry writing to some is a craft that is consciously learnt and developed but to some, it’s a talent that’s soaked in so much ability to project the thoughts that run wild in their minds. For masters like Folu Agoi, Niyi Osundare, Eriata Oribhabor, Romeo Oriogun, Chukwumerije, Fr33zing Paul and a host of others, poetry writing flows from within with so much secretion from the ‘gland’ that produces muse such that they have a hard time containing their thoughts else, they burst open. Lol!
Theresa Lola (23) is fortunate to belong to that category. She is a fast rising poet whose exploits are sung like Davido’s hit tracks on different platforms in England including the prestigious BBC Radio 3 programme The Verb, Gal- dem Magazine, Brittle Paper, Girl Got Talent, Litro Magazine, etc. When we caught up with her at the 2017 Lagos International Poetry Festival, she was kind enough to let us into her world, her challenges when she moved to England, the awards she has won and her future plans as a writer. Do have fun reading
Hi Lola, could you introduce yourself very briefly?
My name is Theresa LOla (with stress on the first syllable).
LOla or LoLA (with stress on the second syllable as typical of its etymology and meaning)?
Whichever one, (laughs). Nigerians say LoLA which is why I like to hear it. And I am a poet, I am a writer, a workshop facilitator. I do many things though.
With this Cockney accent of yours, I’m pushed to ask if you were born here.
Of course I was born here. I lived in Nigeria till I was about thirteen. So, I left Nigeria at thirteen to be with my family.
Let’s talk about poetry, how did it start?
Poetry actually started here in Nigeria. Uhmm… so I loved reading, it was always, you know, compulsory in my house to read a book everyday. So, we had to read, we had to feedback the story to my mum because she loved reading. I loved reading so naturally, I wanted to recreate my own stories. So I started writing short stories, uhm… I started writing scripts just for fun. And while I was in secondary school, we went on a school trip to Lagos Poetry Festival. I met some poets there and I was like poets seem like cool people and I just started writing poetry.
In the university, what course was it?
In the university, I studied Accounting and Finance because at a time, though I love poetry, I was like how do I make a living off poetry? So, I did the typical Nigerian degree and I studied Accounting instead. I still do work as an accountant part-time uhmm… but poetry does add up.
So, do you live off it?
Yes, it is part of my income currently.
But not hundred percent, right?
Not hundred percent because I still choose to work part-time as an accountant. I still like to have that balance. Mentally, I’m a full-time poet but I like to do a lot of admin things.
Does it mean you can’t do poetry full time?
I can but I also like to be behind the scene. So, even if I’m not working in accounting, I’m probably working in publishing, working in editing. But if you mean poetry full-time as in performing, that’s not even my intention because I have so many other things in mind like programming events, poetry events and late show events. So, those are the things I have in mind. If that makes me a full-time poet, yes but I have other things I’ll like to do.
You are from which of the states?
I’m from Ogun State. I lived in Lagos but I’m from Ogun State.
Have you won awards in poetry?
Yes, in London. I was shortlisted for the Bridport Poetry Prize last year (2016) and I was shortlisted this year (2017). Uhmm… I was shortlisted for the London Magazine poetry prize, uhm…I was one of the winners of the Magic Words Seasons Poetry Prize, 2016. I also won the Hammer Tongue National Slam this year (2017).
Did it come with some cash?
Uhmm…when you are shortlisted, no. For winning, yes. I have to do a tour round the country so I get paid to talk. Yeah, you get some really good opportunities too. So, it’s good.
Which poem of yours won you that award?
It was three poems. The one I did about my grandfather How Time Is, one poem I did on post-traumatic stress disorder about soldiers coming back from war, and the one I did about women who are silenced in or whose quietness is mistaken for shyness when it’s actually they don’t want to speak about traumatic issues. But the main one that won it for me was the one I did about women.
Can you say the lines or remember a bit of it?
Honestly, no. Look, I was so nervous that day. I memorized it for that moment. After that, you know, it just disappeared. I used to memorize a lot but then, now especially as I’m writing my first book, you’re always thinking of how to write a poem so you try not to memorize a version of a poem.
Ok, let’s talk about your book; what’s the title and when is it coming out?
Oh gosh! I haven’t thought about it really. Before, I had Equilibrium as a tie up. I thought that’s going to change as the book is changing but the book… I’m just exploring death and the way in which it’s affected my life. So, I’m starting off talking about my grandfather’s death, issues surrounding it and a conversation about death and the many forms of death and things like that.
Do I say it’s a project for your grandfather because you guys were close and you miss him?
Uhmm…no. Yes, I was close to my grandfather. I lived with my grandparents while I was in Nigeria till I was thirteen but it’s about exploring death like I said. So, the book should be done by the end of this year (2017) or hopefully, next year (2018).
Are you self-publishing or…?
No. I’m going to get a good publisher in the process of discussing with different publishers.
Apart from poems, do you do short stories or drama?
Uhmm… not drama. The only other form of writing I have an interest in is screen writing. I love films. That’s what I started off doing. I started off writing scripts. I would pretend that I was in a film and I would write all sorts. Right now, I have a few scripts. I don’t know how many, I just kind of write and store them because I’m yet to prioritize them.
What plans do you have for the scripts you write then?
I definitely want to produce movies in the future. It’s just I don’t want to be a jack-of- all-trades-master-of-none. So, I kind of want to go one step at a time. Once I publish my first book which is a collection of poems, I will definitely move on to films and come back but my priority is to have the poetry collection first and then start thinking about how I can turn my scripts into films.
Can you retell your early experiences in England?
Like I said, I moved to England when I was thirteen and I remember really being excited like telling all my friends in boarding school that I’m moving to England. Back then, it was seen as such a big deal, everyone saw England as this ‘better life’ sort of thing. And it was fun at first but the first school I attended happened to be a racist school. Uhmm… and so, I ended up having to leave after a year because I experienced bullying, it was horrendous. Before that, I knew I was black but I lived in a country where everyone is black and race is not like a huge topic, do you get what I mean. So, there, I became really aware of it. But over time, I made new friends, met new people. I needed poetry because I was going through identity crisis and I was like why just being myself was a problem for other people.
Like most of the guys who go over there and later come around to settle in Nigeria, do you have such plans?
Hmmm… (laughs). I definitely want to come back but once in a while. I feel like I’ve lived enough here. I lived here for thirteen years so, I’ve paid my dues, you get what I mean. But I definitely do want to come back you know, more regularly and just try and build something here, maybe a publishing house in the future, just something you know. I really want to invest in the future of this country.
So, no plans of you coming to live in Nigeria?
No! I because I know why I’m in England and the reasons have always been the same. I think my destiny is in England (laughs). I enjoy living in England. I mean, it has its own downfalls but I know the opportunities I’ve been able to get.
Where is home to you then?
Home to me is family. Uhmm…by family, I mean like my mum, dad, siblings because they cross over the two homes that I have: Nigeria and England but I used to think home is Nigeria and all of that. But the longer I’ve lived there and the more I’m understanding identity, I don’t think home is a singular thing. I think it’s time to think home doesn’t have to be in one place but wherever all the major experiences in your life… all those places become home. It’s like a collation of things. So, when I think of home, I think of here (Nigeria) and England. So, all those things make home. I don’t think of it as a singular thing because I wouldn’t want to return if that makes sense. I feel like that’s in the past. I think of it through like the five senses, so uhmm…the things that you saw, the things you felt, the things you could hear. So, for me, when I think of home, I think of music, food which is more about tradition. I also think of home as where you are returning to when you’re overcoming trauma and sometimes, it’s both the same thing: when you’re experiencing or overcoming trauma.
So, what do you hope to see around here in the festival?
In the festival, I’m excited just to see communities, the merging of poets of different backgrounds: Nigerian, South African, etc. based in other countries and here in Nigeria just kind of sharing on the same stage and just being in one community. I’m looking forward to hearing many poets perform. I’ve never seen Wanna perform, I’ve never seen Titilope perform, Dami Ajayi, etc. So, I’m really excited to hear their works in person aside from via Skype or like searching them on the internet. I’m really excited to commune with other poets and the audience as well. I’m really into you know, getting to know the audience as well and not just the poets.