Gates transcend physical representations. This is not surprising, considering how gates can double as milestones for beginnings, entry, growth, exit, etc. While they might seem mundane when there’s little or no restriction, gates are more consequential when actively manned. So much so that several notable historical events and religious expectations are conceptualized around gates. The Greeks had a god for gateways- Janus, the two-faced god, and Norse gods were said to have assigned the crucial task of guarding the gates of Asgard to Heimdall, one of their finest. Christians revere pearly gates and obsess about the gates of hell. But this is not an expose on gates or myths, it is an interrogation of the work of an unusual gatekeeper.
Poetry is gated. Apart from the sanctimony ascribed to this genre of literature over others, its very nature creates a barrier between creator and audience. While a little above the basic literacy skills might be enough to interrogate most other kinds of creative writing thoroughly, poetry demands a lot more from readers.
Leveraging on the ever-evolving devices of language, poets are often tasked with expression beyond language as usual. Contrary to popular opinion, this does not always mean choosing the most complex words or making the most complicated clauses. Sometimes, the complexities of poetry are masked by its simplicity, leaving the reader with the task of interrogation and, more importantly, interpretation. But even this is too much for many people, creating a negative bias or, as Tolu Akinyemi more pragmatically puts it ‘hatred’ for poetry.
I walked into these metaphorical gates of poetry about nine years ago. At the time, I was only a curious student. My interactions with poetry before this time had been mostly unpleasant, and I was disillusioned about the genre. I’d read and write everything else but poetry. All this changed when an older colleague actively tasked me to explore the kinds of writing I didn’t like and even went ahead to share some materials with me. Tolu Akinyemi’s work was one of these materials. At the time, his work was posted, as they still are, on his Instagram page, making them easily accessible but what made these works striking at first glance was his description of these works: poetry for people who hate poetry.
Tolu Akinyemi, or Poetolu as he is more popularly known on social media, through his collections of poems in the series “poetry for those who hate poetry” has committed to democratizing poetry for most of the past decade. The series comprises four collections; Your Father Walks Like A Crab, I Laugh At These Skinny Girls, Funny Men Cannot Be Trusted, and Her Head Was A Spider’s Nest. However, Poetolu is not exactly as famous for these books as he is for the poems on his Instagram page, which currently has a following of over 30,000 users, most of whom one could guess would typically not be interested in poetry.
His first collection of poems, Your Father Walks Like A Crab, published in 2013 contains 123 poems. In The Poet and The Potter, a poem from that collection, Akinyemi writes,
“Poetry is (like) pottery
Words are (like) clay
Is the poet not (like) the potter?
In spawning surprises.
The Potter surprises the clay
That never dreamt to be a pot
Now it imprisons a pond
The poet surprises words
With his mind, he makes them drunk
Till they speak in other tongues”
The poem suggests Akinyemi’s acknowledgment of poetic devices in the poet’s creative process, creating a distinction from some other “Instagram poets” and re-igniting the age-long question of what makes a poem a poem? After all, Akinyemi is not the first poet to explore poetry outside the traditional canon. Canadian Poet, Rupi Kaur, is one name that has gained global popularity for this kind of poetry. However, where Kaur and others in this class of poetry are prosaic, Akinyemi is more mischievous with his work. Referring to the title poem of his second book, Funny Men Cannot Be Trusted, he writes,
“…Funny men cannot be trusted
they joke and joke
so you laugh and laugh
till you are pregnant
or standing at the altar…”
Interrogating the title poems of all four collections, Your Father Walks Like A Crab follows an interesting conversation between two boys of different social statuses involved in an altercation. I Laugh At These Skinny Girls is an older woman’s soliloquy in response to insults from younger girls. Funny Men Cannot Be Trusted is a humorous yet striking poem that reminds the reader of the poet’s ability to make a good joke, even in verse. Her Head Was A Spider’s Nest explores the more sober theme of mental health issues and their implications in society.
Some poems are reviewed and republished in multiple books. An example is Who Will Warn Irepelola, which was first published in Your Father Walks Like A Crab and is reviewed and republished in I Laugh At These Skinny Girls. While both versions of the poem are centered around a young bride’s excitement and likelihood of disappointment in an arranged marriage, the latter version does a better job at painting the picture in the reader’s mind.
Overall, Poetolu’s magic is his ability to create poems from the mundane, making his work relatable to many people. From random mannerisms, popular trends, and the ignored yet persistently recurrent aspects of the society, Poetolu explores concepts from bits of the average person’s day. Themes like love and betrayal, family and relationships, and several other social issues resurface throughout his work. The inevitable devices of his work are humour and vernacular. All of these made into striking designs, courtesy of Akinyemi’s design background as an architect is how he creates poetry for people who hate poetry.
In 2016, he started the Halima series, a series of social commentary illustrations that depended solely on Akinyemi’s keen eye and ability to illustrate. Apart from breaking down language barriers, Poetolu also takes poetry from the pages of books to social media, where they are much easier to share. Most of his poems are shared on Instagram before being published in his collections. This is the other notable angle of his democratization of poetry. An average person is unlikely to buy and read an Osundare’s collection or seek out a TS Eliot’s poem, but there is a higher chance that they’d read a Poetolu’s poem on Instagram.
However, a pertinent question in interrogating Akinyemi’s work is the cost of his kind of poetry. For a genre with a restricted canon, the implication of standing at its gates is that one may never entirely go into the core of it. So, where other poets can aspire to prizes, fellowships, and special features on reputed platforms, this poet might not be able to fully aspire to these, at least not yet. Also, because Poetolu’s audience remains the people who ‘hate’ poetry, it becomes difficult to satisfy the people who ‘love’ poetry even if, like me, some of these people used to ‘hate’ poetry.
Poetolu writes with the hope that there will always be people who hate poetry because most true lovers of verse tend to outgrow this kind of poetry. Luckily, the former still form the majority. Where a new lover of poetry is easily satisfied with simple metaphors and punny stints at verse, he soon begins to seek more sophistication.
Without a doubt, Tolu Akinyemi has made a huge statement and maybe even some impact with his poetry for people who hate poetry. This is even more interesting because he wasn’t always the poet for people who hated poetry.
Commenting on his evolution at the launch of his most recent collection of poems in Lagos, Akinyemi confessed to his style of poetry being primarily influenced by the need to connect with a larger audience in his earlier stages of writing. This alludes partly to the age-long dilemma of the artist creating for self versus creating for his audience. It would seem that Mr. Akinyemi might have found some balance, considering his satisfaction with his work, particularly seeing as he is not looking to do it differently anytime soon.