With over a decade in the poetry scene, the soul-stirring talent that is Yomi Sode has forged a career with numerous highlights. He is known for his story-telling style of writing and performance, his work mainly explores life as a Nigerian born navigating life in the UK, his work also uncovers the veil of masculinity.
Born in Oyo State, Nigeria, Yomi Sode is now based in London, Sode has appeared on BBC World Service/ BBC Africa, Latitude, Lovebox, Olympic Village, Sadler's Wells Theater, Channel 4 and BBC Radio 1xtra, and has had work commissioned by The Mayor's Office and more.
His one man show COAT, set in a kitchen explores these themes further and was acclaimed by the likes of The Guardian. COAT was the opening show for the 2018 Africa Writes Festival, and received a standing ovation at the end. COAT returns October 25th and 26th 2018 at The Albany! tickets here.
Theresa - Hello!
Yomi - This will be the baddest bad boy interview because you are literally joining me en route to my chores for the day in the car, we are just going to make something of it, the first stop is ASDA.
Theresa - I am so done [laughs]
Yomi - I am just coming from a really really good conference too.
Theresa - A workshop?
Yomi - It’s nothing to do with poetry, the whole premise of the gathering is ‘how do we rehash our dream, these ideas we had and put away?’ I like the idea of not necessarily letting go of the dreams we had even when you are bogged down by work.
Theresa – That sounds insightful, thank you for taking time out today. The conference you attended today leads in nicely to the first question I want to ask you. Your career has spanned a little over a decade, what has kept you sane and kept you going during low moments?
Yomi - It’s knowing that I really feel that I am yet to reach my potential because there is so much to learn, on the other hand I really believe in the impact that my work can make, especially due to the way I came in, the different access points. Now I have just gotten to the point where my work is being noticed, and I know that one day someone new is going to take notice of my work, I always get those glimmers of hope.
Theresa - In regards to those glimmers of hope, in 2016 you were selected for the third round of the prestigious Complete Works Programme which has nurtured the likes of Kayo Chingonyi and Warsan Shire. Why do you think programmes like that are important, and how do you feel your writing has changed since then?
Yomi - Funny you say that, I applied for the second round of Complete Works and didn’t make it through, and come the third time when I looked back on the poems I understood why. I was like what nonsense?! You know what, the poet ego can do a lot, I was thinking ‘you lot don’t know what you are talking about’, but then when I see the work, the way my writing has grown after taking part in the third round I get it. The Complete Works programme helped me in realising the investigational aspect of my work, it helped me look at my work and notice things I didn’t know were there. I’m coming off the back of performance, of stage, and this called for a different side of things, the page. This time it had to go through mentors, and scrutiny for the most part, and that for me was hard, but it builds resilience for the writer.
Theresa - Your poems often address the uncomfortable, especially when it comes to culture, poems such as ‘The Outing’ about the treatment of mental health. You being Yoruba, a culture that is very much rooted in respect, how do you thread that line of exposure in a poem. I know that at the moment you are investigating more into culture in Nigeria.
Yomi - If it requires something that needs me paying respect, I might just check in by calling a family member, like an uncle, and enquire about it in the first instance. There is a poem I am working on at the moment and it involves a particular uncle and decisions he had to make in regards to his practices. I spoke to my mum about it and she told me to speak to my grandma about it. At this point I am thinking about how I navigate the conversation, I need to pay respects but at the same time know how to best articulate this story. Essentially my one man show COAT was about that. For example, if you need to talk about your mother, you need to talk about her in a way that is respectable. If you don’t it will be frowned upon.
Theresa - let’s talk about COAT which you mentioned. COAT has become a significant part of your career. I’m interested to know why you felt this story had to be magnified into a show?
Yomi - Oh, because for me it was more than a poem. Initially it started off as a poem, but as the story grew I found out there were more nuances. The standard poem is stanzas, but I needed something lengthier, but I still felt prose wasn’t working. It ended up growing into a show, but then came the anxieties, so if I do a show now does it mean I am putting a collection in the back burner? All of my peers would probably have a collection out, so does it mean I will be behind? I definitely had those anxieties, I had to take a step back and realise that doing the show was part of my writing process.
Theresa - Take your time, try not to worry. Let’s talk performance, you come alive on stage, I was blown away by COAT, and your performances in general. When you are writing poetry specifically do you think about performance as you are writing or is that realised on stage?
Yomi - I don’t think about performance when I am writing. People tell me ‘you are such a great actor’ and I feel I am not an actor.
Theresa - Don’t worry the Lord will ordain you as an actor.
Yomi - [laughs] If I was to enter every poem thinking about performance and I perform it and get no responses I’ll feel dumb. At the end of the day I have to be able to rely on the words, the poem will do exactly what it needs to do. If I was to enter every poem with a performance in mind, it’s a slippery slope because if I go on stage and the poem isn’t received well I would be wondering if it’s the performance of the poem or the poem itself. I want to allow space for the words to do what they need to do aside from the performance overemphasising the point.
Theresa - Going back to COAT there was so much soul and passion in that performance especially the parts where you are forced to reflect on masculinity, there is a scene where you are at a house party and the other boys are egging you on to have sex. I know you are vocal about these conversations; do you ever share those poems and your work with any of your male friends that hold a toxic mindset and is it ever a starting point for a conversation?
Yomi - It’s weird because I don’t necessarily invite my boys to my shows. It’s a weird space because I don’t want to feel I am begging my friends to come, but for the male friends that have come to see COAT we are soaking in conversations after, they tell me those they know that have gone through the same thing. The scene of my friends egging me on to have sex when I was younger initially caused a lot of uproar from women, many dictating what they felt the woman should do, especially as they felt she didn’t have a voice. I felt that it is dangerous ground for me as a man to decide what the young woman would feel or say in that kind of a situation and so I chose to focus on the male side of the experience, which fits in with the narrative of the play in general. I have been working with young people for 18 years, I am constantly in meetings where sexual exploitation is discussed. I wanted to give a male account, people tend to wander what the man was thinking and it’s a scary thing but I wanted to have a healthy discourse. At the end of the day it was a real-life story.
Theresa - One last thing about your writing, you also write about being a Nigerian adopting the black British culture and the parts of that identity you have taken on. I’m reminded of your poem, the one about a grime music concert, in writing about this what have you learned about yourself and the adoption of this culture?
Yomi - I’ve learned not to forget about my elders because I am proud of the intergenerational poems. Our relationships are strengthened by having them help in the creation of my poems. It is important to celebrate the merging of black British and African culture. I mean Wizkid is gracing big stages in the UK. There was a time I was ashamed of being African, how many times would you hear ‘booboo scratcher’ and all those things. To live through the process where Afrobeats is intertwined in the culture and Black British lifestyle, I just want to bring back my 11-year-old self.
Theresa - Thank you for the honesty. You host BoxedIN and Jawdance, we actually met in Jawdance when you were hosting. I really wanted to know, do you think that the open mic scene is producing a new generation of poets?
Yomi - It always has, but the open mic scene runs a danger of being just a hype beast, it should also be with the view of hoping it helps you work on your craft as opposed to ‘I’m just here to drop some bars’. If your circle is not being truthful to you, and continue to hype lack of growth, once you step outside that circle to another Poetry night then you’ll be hit with the truth. That’s what happened to me, I went to an open mic night outside of my community and I got booed and it taught me a lesson. I will 100% champion open mic, but will also champion to desire to grow in your craft. In BoxedIN Sean [Mahoney] introduced a minute and a half open mic so normally the average open mic is 3 minutes, but cutting it down forces the open-micers to get to the core of what they want to say, and I feel that is BoxedIN’s contributions to building better poets. Long live the open mic.
Theresa - That was such an in-depth response, thank you Yomi! Last question, what are you most excited about for the next 10 years of your career.
Yomi - I am excited for my future published work, whether it be a play, or a poetry collection, but most importantly in the years that I have been in the poetry scene I am most excited about what I can contribute in facilitating the development and growth of the scene. I have always worked in a developmental space, I work with young people a lot, it’s only right this developmental aspect is incorporated into my work. Something I have is ‘COAT chef’, a booking based one to one and group sessions programme. You bring your dish which is your poem, we add seasoning/feedback to it, and you leave with a different dish. My reason for doing this is because courses are generally expensive and I wanted to make something more accessible. I am interested in using my position to support others. I also have things outside of poetry such as Daddy Dairies and other ventures dedicated to exploring the potential of others. Like I told you earlier, opportunities come that keep me alive, they keep telling me to stay at it a lot longer.