Slam Poet Toluwanimi Obiwole on Art and Public Health

Toluwanimi Obiwole was named Denver's first Youth Poet Laureate in 2015.
Toluwanimi Obiwole was named Denver's first Youth Poet Laureate in 2015. Riley Cowing
Denver poet Toluwanimi Oluwafunmilayo Obiwole was studying engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder the first time she attended a poetry performance; a friend had invited her to see Kevin Kantor perform in the basement at Hooked on Colfax. "It was absolutely life-changing," she recalls.

She continued coming back to Hooked on Colfax to participate in writing workshops, and eventually began slamming with the Minor Disturbance youth team in 2013 and 2014. In 2015, she was named Denver's first Youth Poet Laureate and describes the experience as "trial by fire." She quickly discovered as a young professional poet that self-management is key, and after a period of overworking herself, she briefly paused from performing and took time to return to her roots as a poet.

Over the last few years, Obiwole has continued to compete and is currently a member of Slam Nuba's 2018 slam team. She also co-hosts Slam Nuba's monthly open mic and slam at Brother Jeff's Cultural Center. She will be performing at Flowetry: Poetry in Motion, at Fort Greene, on Saturday, July 7.

We spoke with Obiwole about her evolution as an artist and her hopes for Denver's poetry community as the city continues to rapidly change.  

Westword: Is there a general motivation when you write, or does it come from what you’re dealing with in your life at the time?

Toluwanimi Obiwole: I think it’s everything. I think my poetry isn’t just my art form, but an extension of me. Whenever I do it, whenever I practice it — one, it’s always for the ritual of it. You know, releasing something. Having to say something clearly. I guess my motivation definitely changes with whatever is happening in my life. My inspiration, I should say, definitely changes with what happens in my life, but it’s always me focused, because I definitely believe that when we make the effort to understand ourselves and really, really delve deeply into understanding our identity, how then, only then, can we really understand how we relate to the outer world and how we relate to other people’s stories. So, yeah, it always starts with me.

How would you describe your evolution as an artist?

[Laughs] Uh, trial by fire. … I was chosen to be the 2015 Youth Poet Laureate for Denver. It was the first time that Denver had participated in the Youth Poet Laureate program that was started up in New York. Then Los Angeles had one, Philadelphia had one, and then it just started all over. With that, there were so many things I had to do. It was like, “Okay, now you’re the Youth Poet Laureate. Okay, what do poet laureates do?” They perform, they go around, and they are representative of the literary community of their city or their state. … I was invited to rooms where youth, women, people like me, who look like me, who kind of share my same experiences, would most likely have never been invited into. That was because of the privilege and the pathway of the Youth Poet Laureate program, and I started seeing the ways in which when you become a professional poet. You have to be really, really good at self-management if you don’t already have a manager. I had to navigate the world of being a super-young professional poet while still being in engineering school, and it was so difficult.

Whatever "right" is, I probably wasn’t doing it. I was overbooking myself consistently. I was taking in so many commissions that there were points at which I was like, “What is my writing, even? What is my voice actually doing in this poem?” I just wrote it for someone else and performed it for this organization or this specific event. It got to the point where my body became sick. I was overworking myself. So I had to hit hard pause and hard reset. I wasn’t performing as much, and that gave me both the patience and heartbreak enough to return to my own voice, return to writing just for me, and return to the original purpose of my art in general. And understand that poetry is just one of my artistic tools, and there are so, so, so many ways to do it. I started doing collaborations more often and started exploring my visual art, because weirdly enough I went to Denver School of the Arts for cinematography. … It was a lot of trial by fire and making huge mistakes and being given such large responsibilities; not very many young poets or artists are afforded that type of opportunity. I was really super-blessed, but it was such a huge responsibility. To have to learn that on your own because your city is also learning it alongside you — I think that both strengthened my professional artist skills but then at the same time took me on this wild, huge journey of discovering not only what are my limits, but what can I do, what should I do and what am I being called to do.

Was rooting back into the community something that helped you?

Oh, yeah...if it wasn’t for the incredible, incredible mentors I have, like Suzi Q. [Smith] and Ken Arkind and Dominique [Christina] and a lot of the older people who came up out of Slam Nuba — they really, really took me under their wing and taught me so much. I was super-shy; I would barely even talk to people before I started doing poetry. The first time I read a poem in front of people, my hands were shaking so bad I couldn’t read the paper. To think that was just five years ago and I still have that nervousness is just a testament to how much my mentors and my community take care of me and foster and help me to develop my art. So everything I do in return — helping to lead Slam Nuba and putting on events — is all in complete gratitude. As a slam master, you don’t get paid; you just kind of do it. But I also see the need, because I see, in my mentors, while I was so blessed to have had them pour all of that energy into me, I could very much see that the way the poetry scene was being run, where people are doing this off of love and doing this off of gratitude, it wasn’t necessarily sustainable. So taking all of those lessons, I think what I’m doing now with poetry — at least the community work I’m trying to do — is to make things sustainable and figure out a way where everyone is participating and the art is a symbiotic experience and kept up symbiotically.

Something that really struck me about you is how palpable your vulnerability is [in performance]…especially being so nervous at first. How did you get to that? Was that a lot of self work?

It definitely was a lot of self work. One thing that I noticed, something that I used to weirdly beat myself up over was, “Oh, I keep writing the same poem over and over again, and it’s about the same thing and same shit that I’m working through.” I was like, “All of these people are writing these global-perspective poems, these commentary poems, and they’re so cool,” and all of that. But every time I would sit down to try and write one of those poems, I [realized] I can’t really write any other story but my own, and I don’t think that I was meant to as a poet, you know? Even though I believe that poets as a whole play the role of historian and healer of that history within society, even within that, different poets do, and are meant to do, different things.

I think one of the things that I was personally meant to do was to stick very, very close to the format of the oral tradition off of which spoken word and slam was created, which was the griots — the storytellers of West Africa, where I come from, and how they kept their history alive this way. Even with all the beautiful imagery and all of the poems — it was preservation, it was history, it was ceremony. That is very much how I treat my poetry. When I’m going in to say these things, it’s ceremony. … I’ve had to come to terms with this; I have a hard time just performing on demand and performing over and over and over again the same types of poems, because I actually have to be there. I have to be in it. There are poems that I have retired because I’ve spoken about this trauma, I’ve worked through it, I’ve gotten free in this poem and now it’s written down somewhere. I mean one can access it if they want to, but for me personally, I can’t put myself in that same space of ceremony. I feel like that might be why it feels so real and so tangible, because that is the way that it is for me every time. Sometimes I write poetry for fun, because you can write poetry for fun. But when I’m taking on the role of spoken-word artist and doing a show, it’s all from that oral-tradition background. 

Tell us about your hope for Denver’s poetry community as it continues to grow and move with the city.

I hope that [we] get to see the city, the people in power, play more of a role in preserving art spaces. I guess without spaces to gather, what is that exchange of energy that is spoken word without being able to gather together and actually have that experience? I hope that the poetry scene and the art scene in general is less driven by "How many different events can we churn out every month?" and more of "What are the things that are feeding people spiritually?" What are the things people need to go to every month or every week or whatever that is? To have it be more of a holistic health service, because art is extremely important to public health. So having it be more of a holistic gathering that actually feeds people’s souls and is actually meaningful to them, and not just another event. Re-centering the community and...the whole point of coming to a poetry slam or poetry reading is that you are inspired to write and write your story and to write what you do. So seeing new people on the open mic each week, seeing new people slam each week, because it’s not meant for it to be, “Oh, here are all the top poets in Denver, watch them perform over and over again.” It’s supposed to be a shared experience, almost like a town hall. I would love to see it go back to being community-centered and community-driven, as well.

Flowetry: Poetry in Motion
7 p.m. Saturday, July 7, Fort Greene, 321 East 45th Avenue, $15.
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Riley Cowing has been writing with Westword since July 2016. She is originally from Kansas City and graduated from the journalism school at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She enjoys connecting with local artists, drinking all types of espresso and loves any excuse to watch The Devil Wears Prada.
Contact: Riley Cowing