Interview by Nola Ojomu @NolaMarianna | 22.02.22
For Tola Makanjuola, music was the catalyst for his journey as a poet. Thanks to the captivating work of Bob Dylan – and the always impressive wordplay of various rap artists – Tola went from a student who had initially failed to connect to poetry in school to a young man transfixed by the power of well-formulated verses.
In the years that have followed, he has published several collections of work and created the Poetry Bores platform, which is dedicated to showcasing his continued mission of crafting poems that capture the same mastery of the English language as his inspirations.
As Tola’s never-ending exploration of poetry sees him branch out into performing regular live events, he talks to Nola Ojomu about his journey to this point and hopes for his future work.
Q: Take me back to the beginning. What inspired you to start expressing yourself through poetry?
It’s a funny one because I hated poetry in school. I never really warmed to it because a lot of the poetry we focused on was very Victorian and based on things that didn’t relate to me at all.
By the time I got to university, I was listening to Bob Dylan a lot and that was because of his lyrics. His lyrics were simply so powerful and different, and I immediately thought “I need to learn how to do this”. That was the incentive for me to try and write poetry.
Q: How so?
I remember spending so much time listening to the song, ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ from his album, Blonde on Blonde. I remember I played it right before going to bed and thinking that this 11-minute song was just so unlike anything I had ever heard. It was that very moment when I said, “I’ve got to learn how to do this”.
When I listened to Dylan it felt like he almost transcended the stress of life. His music didn’t necessarily solve the problems of life but instead said ‘I get it, everyone suffers but I’ve risen about it through my art so to speak.
Even though Dylan was making rock and roll music, I felt that the closest thing I could get to what he was doing was by writing poetry.
Q: Did any other artists have an impact on you during that time?
I started learning the craft by listening to lyrics by different artists. Eminem was a big influence. The ‘Relapse’ album was so well crafted, and it led me to relisten to ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ and in particular the song called ‘Marshall Mathers’. The rhyme structure was so clear and I listened to it over and it helped me better understand the concept of rhyming when I was trying to put my thoughts together. Jay Z was another rapper that I would try and pull from as well.
Q: So how exactly did you go about creating poetry after those moments of inspiration?
I chose to start by writing a story with a clear start and finish like in “Marshall Mathers”, just focusing on a narrative to help structure my thoughts and my ideas.
I remember it was the summer of 2009 and I had a bunch of notebooks in which I was putting rhyming structures together. I was focusing on simple words that rhymed together so I could get my mind into that work in motion of rhythm. That then evolved to writing sentences and steadily evolved with me writing every single day.
I was just trying to write something that was absolutely crazy and fun. But I was always trying to get to wherever Dylan was because that was ultimately what drew me to the art form. I wanted to replicate that in some way.
Q: How would you describe those initial creations?
My initial poems weren’t great but it wasn’t about them being good or bad at the time, it was more about getting to the point where it actually made sense and was coherent. It took a while to actually start looking at my work and thinking that it was something that respectable. It took a few months.
I listened to the “Relapse” album so many times during that period and it helped me to realise that you don’t really have to talk about yourself all the time. A lot of rap is about personal bravado, the journey and the struggle but Eminem had more of an alter ego. It was like a dark escape to another world and it wasn’t real but it wasn’t fake. It was just a creation, an art piece so that gave me a different way of thinking about art.
During my second year of university, I was in the library doing my work on one page and poems on another. That was when I did something that finally broke through to what I was trying to get to. It was only a seven-line poem and it ended with something like, “When she kissed me, she bled the earth dry”. I instantly thought, “What the hell is that but also, that is so cool. Who says that?”
I don’t know where it came from but that’s when I thought I might actually be able to do this. I felt like I might have something in me that’s interesting to communicate, if that makes sense.
Q: So what made you want to share your poetry with others? Because for some people poetry just remains forever private because it can be so personal.
It took a while for me to start sharing them properly. I had a blog at university where I used to share the initial poems, but from the very onset, it was just expressing what I could. It was just like, “Hey, I did this. Let me share it.”
Q: Were you ever nervous about feedback?
I didn’t have nerves about what people would think. I’ve never really thought that way in general so I’ve never felt that way, especially when it came to my writing.
If you’ve done a good job, or if you think you’ve done a good job, just put it out there. Who’s judging who, you know? The way I see it, if it’s bad then do better next time.
I’ve always been comfortable writing. I know how to edit myself and I don’t judge myself so that kind of poured into the poetic side of things.
Q: Do you feel like that mentality has played a part in you heading on this journey with poetry? Feedback just pushes you to try harder.
I always said to myself, “I’m just going to do my best each time I try to do something”. And that’s all I can do.
That fearlessness might be genetic in some way. It’s not that I don’t have anxieties or trepidation about certain things but in regard to my work, I try to do my best each time and the rest doesn’t really matter. Also, as a Nigerian, we can be quite strong-willed [laughs] so maybe it’s that.
There’s something about it that you can’t force, you either care or you don’t. If you can, then you need to work on yourself. But you don’t want to be arrogant. It’s definitely something that has helped propel my work forward.
Q: What do you hope readers take away when they read your poetry? The Bob Dylan moment, so to speak.
I’ve always struggled with that question because I fell in love with the art form. Whether Dylan was talking about something political, talking about love, or going down to the grocery store, it was those words that I was blown away by.
So I never went into feeling that I want to change the world or communicate a message of hope, it was more about a love of the creativity.
I think I want people to think that my work is really well written. I want them to go, “How did you put those two words together?”
My work has definitely narrowed in its scope in terms of what I want to talk about. Currently,I’m very much interested in understanding how the world works.I guess I have always tried to solve that problem through my work. That’s probably a consistent theme throughout all my work.
I’m always trying to unpack something that’s going on in my mind at that time.
Q: You studied Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Management at Imperial College Business School so it seems only fitting that you eventually branched out into modern forms of sharing and selling your poetry. Why do you think that has been something you took to so easily where some others have not?
Poetry is not quite mainstream, and it can be quite difficult to read if it’s not written in a particular way. It can be quite self-indulgent, and people can be like, “Why would I listen with this when I can listen to a song or watch Netflix?” So I decided I needed to figure out different ways to communicate the art form.
For example, it’s like the rapper J Cole making a pop song just so that he could draw people to his world and discover the more profound stuff. You want to go where everyone is.
I’m not a purist so I’m not against building a business because I want everyone to see how cool this is. Sticking only to writing is a bit limited and I don’t want to get bogged down. I like to try different things. Creativity is what drives me most.
Q: So that creativity must have been part of the draw to do live shows?
Simply put, I wanted to engage with people. I think the digital world can be quite saturated, and there’s only so much you can communicate over a screen or via podcast.
Plus, the social media platforms are also very algorithm-driven so you never know when someone’s going to see your stuff. So I wanted to get out there and just talk to people and engage.
I’m not the most comfortable on stage in front of an audience, I try to avoid it if I can but I love the art form so much. So when it becomes a situation where you’re doing something you love, then it’s not such a big deal.
I just saw an opportunity to do something different with the live shows as well. With the structure of a poetry show, you can see people getting distracted if it goes on for too long. It becomes monotone and less engaging.
So I feel like, there’s a problem here that needs to be solved and I’m curious to see what I can do with it myself. That drew me to want to perform live.
Q: So what else is next for Poetry Bores?
I want to keep writing. The fun side of writing is that you’re never done! The next immediate step is to get better at performing live.
I’d also like to build more of the business side of things. In the two years since Poetry Bores started, I’ve laid the foundation with the YouTube channel, the podcast and the website so I’d really love to develop it into a more sustainable business.
Ideally, I want everything on the social media side to be a reflection of what I’m doing on the outside.