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The Manchester Poetry Library’s Ruth Awolola: “Poetry is the best way to explain what it means to be human”

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“Sometimes I think I don’t really understand what I’m thinking until it’s become a poem,” says Ruth Awolola, explaining how she uses poetry to work through her emotions.

Awolola has risen to the top of the poetry scene since her 2015 win at the national youth Slam Poetry competition, Slambassadors UK. She now works in the Manchester Poetry Library as a learning officer, alongside running poetry workshops for children and performing at shows and open mics.

She says: “For me, [poetry] is the best way to explain what it means to be human.” She explains that poetry is the way she understands herself, and thinks that it’s the same for others. She likes listening to other people perform, saying, “This is how that person sees the world. It might not necessarily be something that I agree with. But like, I’m interested in that perspective.”

Awolola often has many projects going on at once, “when I started writing my first show, like, immediately after I got the commission, I had this idea for a second show that I wanted to write instead. And I wrote that before I wrote the first one.” This is how she kept her passion for poetry alive as she transitioned it from a hobby to a career. “At first it felt very much like a hobby I occasionally got paid for, I’m still adjusting.” 

Awolola also has different techniques for writing performance poetry than her written poems. “When I’m writing for the page, I think a lot more about form,” Awolola says, while acknowledging that some of her performance poetry can still be broken down into stanzas. Despite that, she says: “It feels a lot more like free verse, for me. Whenever I’m writing a performance poem, I think about the audience reaction.” She explains that over lockdown she had time to just write without thinking about the performance element, and when she did eventually perform them, some of them changed completely in what they were about.

People often tell Awolola they don’t like poetry. But to her, not liking poetry is similar to saying you don’t like music, since there are so many different styles and genres. “I don’t think all poetry is for everyone. I just think whoever doesn’t like poetry hasn’t found a poet they like yet, something that speaks to them.”

For Awolola, music, especially grime and rap, have been huge inspirations for her poetry. Her mentor and fellow poet, Joelle Taylor, has also been supportive, and describes Taylor as a “fantastic poet but an even better person.”

Awolola references a meme that answers the question: ‘Why do you write?’ with \I’m sad but I can’t rap’ and says she very much relates to this and explains “My dissertation was on the value of grime in comparison to Shakespeare”. She is interested in how rap and poetry go together, and how boundaries can be broken by combining things that are very similar but have different audiences and places in modern society. Awolola uses the collaboration between rapper Stormzy and poet Micheaela Coel as an example, saying: “This is fantastic for me career wise, because hopefully they’ll keep doing that. And one day, it’ll be me.”

Identity, heritage and the grief of losing her twin brother are some of the personal truths Awolola shares in her poetry. For her, writing poetry is healing, and although putting those things on display for an audience might seem daunting to some, she’s worked through everything that she talks about on stage.

“I’m not here for therapy. I’ve done the processing. That’s how we got the poem. Whatever I’m saying I am okay with that being known to people.” She separates her current self from the person she was when she wrote it: “That is the ‘speaker of the poem’ [saying those things] and not necessarily me.”

Awolola says poetry had an influential part in her life: “I was on a very different path before I was exposed to poetry.” After being  kicked out of school, she had no intention of going to university. “I didn’t know I could be a poet. I was a bit lost and finding my voice and a community in poetry really helped me become the person I am today. It also helped me understand who I am better.”

After her first introduction to writing children’s poetry, her work was selected to feature in a collection which was highly commended in the children’s poetry awards. “I was still in sixth form, and then I started being invited to like, children’s book fairs. I also judged that prize the year afterwards. I think I was very fortunate that they invited me into that space, and I’ve had the chance to grow there.”

And while Awolola didn’t have exposure to poetry in school, she explains that it makes running children’s poetry workshops even more fulfilling. “I do think it’s essential that everyone has access to poetry. I think everyone needs the opportunity to express themselves.” Running the workshops also helps her with her children’s poetry writing. “I want to know what they care about. I want to know what is on their minds, how they speak.”

As a Nigerian-Jamaican poet, Awolola has a lot to say about representation in the poetry circles. She says that this year she paid her rent in full just from the money she earned in October for Black History Month and sometimes she thinks she gets asked to perform at events just because she’s Black. She explains how she feels conflicted about that, “but my landlord doesn’t care about my morals.”

When it comes to representation in the industry, Awolola says not everyone knows the pathways: “Some of the best poetry I hear definitely comes from the children I work with in workshops. I think there are people who are making hundreds of pounds, writing things that are not as good. But it’s about access… some people know how to make a living out of this, how to establish themselves. That information isn’t available to everyone, which is why I think there are issues with diversity.”

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Rosa-May Bown

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