Tolu Oloruntoba lived in Nigeria and the United States before settling in the metro area of Coast Salish lands known as Vancouver with his family. He spent his early career as a primary care physician, and currently manages virtual health projects with organizations in British Columbia. His poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, while his debut chapbook, Manubrium, was a bpNichol Chapbook Award finalist. The Junta of Happenstance, his first full-length collection, was the winner of the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Award for English Language Poetry and the Canadian winner of the 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize.
His latest book of poetry, Each One a Furnace, explores (im)migration, diasporas, transience, and instability by following the behaviour, and abundant variety, of finches. The often-migratory birds in these poems typify the unrest, and inability to rest, that animate the lives of billions in the modern world. Out of the register of ornithology, themes of difficulty, adversity, and migrancy, urban ennui, and the psychic struggles of diasporic peoples take shape as those unable to be at rest in the world take to improbable flight. Trailing the global mobility of birds, in urban and non-urban settings, in historical and contemporary contexts, and through the metaphysical and concrete, Each One a Furnace is a chronicle of struggle within, and between, cultures.
Interview by Christine Schrum.
Christine Schrum (CS): First of all, congratulations on winning both the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Griffin Poetry Prize—in less than two years! Does it sometimes feel surreal to have gone from Nigerian physician to prominent Canadian poet? That’s quite a shift.
Tolu Oloruntoba (TO): Yes, it’s a shift! I’ve had a lot of shifts in my recent life so I guess it’s one in a long series of seismic shifts. But it also comes with a lot of scrutiny so that’s different. I feel exposed. I’m no longer in my little corner just enjoying my own obscurity. There’s the additional burden of being somewhat in the public eye. I know that this is a wonderful problem to have as a writer, and I understand the privilege in being able to complain about scrutiny and so forth. So I guess I’ll shut up and just stop complaining!
CS: Ha ha! I can only imagine. In your new collection, Each One a Furnace, migratory birds—finches specifically—become a metaphor for the diasporic experience. You write, “I have, by now,/ fallen halfway across the planet. I will myself heavier,/ farther away from the keening calling me back.” What does the word “home” mean to you these days?
TO: Initially, “home” was a house, a place where we had our meals and ate and slept. But having lived in so many cities—perhaps over six cities in the last 10 years—and having lived in three countries… now that I have a family of my own, I think home is wherever my own family is. And wherever I have decided it is. I lived in Baltimore, I lived in Pittsburgh, I live in Surrey now, I lived in Lagos, I lived in Ibadan… I’ve just lived in so many places and tried to make each one a home as much as possible. But I never really displaced that feeling of transience, that feeling of impermanence and it has more or less become hard for me. A side effect of that is that I have become a bit unable to form very strong and deep connections. I have an underlying assumption that I could be in this country next year or not. I could be in this city next year or not. And so it’s like, “Nah what’s the point?”
But in the last four years, I did get tired of that nomadic life. In the last four years I’m so grateful to have lived in the same place, in the same accommodation. And for the last two years I’ve had the same job. That’s amazing! To be able to decompress and just stop jumping from place to place. But that’s where I came from, you know, “falling halfway across the planet.” Being on the West Coast of this continent, having moved from the West Coast of Africa, it’s quite a journey. And there are so many contextual and cultural shocks that come as part of such a move that are kind of hard to explain.
CS: Well you illustrate them very beautifully in this collection. And with so many interview questions, the real answer is: read the book!
TO: Yeah! As they say, if I knew how to explain what the book was about, I’d have written another book!
CS: Shifting gears a little, the poems in Each One a Furnace burn with a real urgency. As Sonnet L’Abbé has said, the finches on these pages—some of them already extinct—are like canaries in the coal mine sounding a warning. Are humans the next endangered species? How can we save each other and ourselves? A very big question I know!
TO: Yes, that’s an existential question on the level of the human species. And I think it’s a question we all need to answer for ourselves. But I was speaking with my therapist recently and I was telling him about how terrified I am of impending climate collapse and so forth, and he told me something that I found comforting. This is the sixth major mass extinction event that we’re in, and humans have historically proven themselves to be extremely resilient. Humanity might not necessarily survive in the form that it is in today, but I believe that our species will find a way to survive in some form. I mean, will it be a pleasant existence? I don’t know! But I do not believe that we will entirely exterminate ourselves.
However, this is not a reason for us not to take urgent action. As Sonnet said, our impact on the biosphere is so devastating. And we look at it from such an individualistic lens that we don’t necessarily see the impacts of our activities always. Sometimes we need reminders that things are not really going well. And so, do we have a chance to save ourselves? I don’t know, but I hope so. The pandemic that we’re still in has proven that we are not as likely to band together to save ourselves as we used to assume we were as a species. So I think self-interest so far still has proven a more reliable thing to expect than collective interest.
CS: Unfortunately, I agree.
TO: So, what do we do with that information? Is it going to take a worse catastrophe than we’re currently in to force us to look our behaviour in the eye? I hope it doesn’t. With all existential questions, no one can answer for anyone else. Each person has to give their own answer to the question that life is asking. So in this case, it’s like, will we survive as a species? We all need to answer that question individually, and then somehow combine our answers together into something coherent.
CS: Beautiful. I love that answer. On a lighter note, I had no idea there were so many different varieties and colors of finches out there!
TO: It was astounding to me as well. So I had to write a book about it!
CS: The names are so beautiful: Cutthroat, Nonpareil, Zebra, African Silverbill… Can you tell me a bit about your process when writing the poems? Did you start out with a finch and let it guide you into the poem’s heart? I’m sure it wasn’t linear!
TO: Yeah, it wasn’t linear. The first poem I wrote was the first poem in the collection: Cutthroat Finch. My journey began when I Googled the name of the finch and saw how aptly named the bird was—that red plumage across its throat! It was too beautiful to let go of. And after I wrote that poem, I then looked up other finch types and I saw that there were so many. I saw the Zebra Finch and how aptly that one was named as well. And so the first few poems, give or take, were very short. But then I compiled a list of all the interesting finch names—it was in the dozens. And because I was unemployed at the time—I’d recently been laid off from my job—I was feeling especially precarious and needed a place to put all those emotions. I got some momentum going and was able to use those finch names and finch types to express some of the tumult that I was experiencing.
So it was non-linear, but I had several weeks within which to clarify my thoughts and write with more concentration than I could previously. I was able to really focus on it, and I wrote about half the book in the first several weeks. Then I looked into my archives—my old poem stashes—to see if I could find other poems that spoke to my meditation. I’d been in this mode for quite a while, I’d been travelling and transient, so I’d been writing things of a similar nature. It wasn’t too hard for me to bring some of my other work in and make up the rest of the volume and just really bring my thought home by writing a few more.
CS: During the Victoria Festival of Authors, you’ll be taking readers on a Poetry Forest Walk, in which you’ll no doubt be surrounded by birds—perhaps even a few finches!
TO: I would love that! They’re beautiful birds.
CS: What can participants expect from the event?
TO: Being in nature—even the research has shown it—is therapeutic in its own right. So having a morning walk out in nature in the trees, away from all our concrete and commotion and anxieties is likely to be good for anyone. And doing that communally in a group of people who care about art and the deeper meaning of things, or care about seeing life in a different light, walking in that sort of communion is likely to be very interesting as well. And then there’s the poetic aspect. There might be the opportunity to talk about poetry, to read poems, to see that we can dwell in poetry. That I feel, will be a morning well spent for me! And, I hope, for anyone else who attends.
CS: I’m struck by what you just said about “dwelling in poetry.” That circles back to what we talked about earlier, the concept of home. In a sense, poetry is kind of a home, right? It’s a place to dwell.
TO: It is. And it helps us figure out what it means to be alive in the world. I was reading an article recently that looked into poetry as an act of making. And looking at ecopoetry and ecopoetics as a way of making a home in the world through poetry. I believe part of what I’ve done in Each One a Furnace can be called ecopoetics in some sense.
CS: On a personal note, as I read this collection, it did create a bit of an anchor for me, an anchor in these turbulent times. There is hope in these pages!
TO: That’s very high praise, thank you. I want there to be hope. I do believe there is hope. I see glimpses of hope. I hope it all coalesces into something that is meaningful relatively quickly. I hope we can pull it together.