Praise Osawaru is currently a Jack Grapes 2020 Poetry Prize finalist. He also made the shortlist of the Babishai Haiku Award and the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize all in this year. Here, he talks about how he approaches his work, clinching awards, his journey as a poet, and more.
Bookshelf: What generally influences your poetry?
Praise Osawaru: Thank you. I won’t be the first person to say that experiences play a key role in shaping a person and their lives. What mostly influences my writing are experiences; personal or from stories passed down to me. Many of my works are inspired by happenings that have a first or second impact or relationship with me. I’m also influenced by art, movies, shows, music, books, and the poetry of others.
My senses are somewhat heightened because I feel it all. Everything I hear, see, smell, taste, feel, is logged into my mind, and affects my poetry. It begins with me thinking about what happened, and then thoughts are woven into words, and they birth my poems. I could say that everything influences me. From the words of others to a moonless night, to me tripping over a stone, to hearing about suicide on campus. Overall, I and every other person or thing I come in contact with affect my poetry.
You wrote a poem on grief titled ‘When Grieving, Do (Not) Follow These Instructions’ published in The Rising Phoenix Review. What triggered it?
Osawaru: Thanks for reading that poem. I had been reading works on grief and loss at that time. A friend of mine lost a parent, and somehow the feeling was transported into my being. I am quite sensitive, and so, I found myself ruminating about my loss, something I’d disremembered, or should I say locked in a vault? You know it’s crazy how we writers read a person’s work and can share in their experience, feel everything as though it happened to us.
That poem began with the title, ‘This Is How Not To Grieve’. That was the idea, a guide on what not to do when grieving. I had read about a woman who lost her kid and wasn’t herself anymore hereafter. Days later, she took her life. I didn’t want that for my friend or anyone else. That birthed the poem. But then, after writing it, I realised that I don’t exactly have the right to tell someone how not to mourn their loved ones, thus the bracketed ‘not’.
Bookshelf: Your piece, ‘I Remember it Like Yesterday Because It Was’ focuses about depression. Are some of the stories you tell in your work part of your experience?
Osawaru: That poem was me telling the story of a friend. She was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, and she would talk to me over the phone about her therapy sessions, her feelings about it, her family’s (re)action, and her lover’s departure, and I thought her story could help someone and tell them they are not alone. That said, most of my works are inspired or drawn from my life, often mixed with altered truths. For a person to write, they have to be conscious to what happens to them and in their surroundings. They also have to be able to capture a moment and turn it into something extraordinary. I do that a lot. In some works, I lay myself bare because they are very personal works that give a view into my life. ‘The Ode to My Dead Brother Whom I Never Met’, ‘Interwoven in A District’, and ‘The Chaos of Distance’ are typical examples. I also have one forthcoming in Ice Floe Press about my family. Everything in those poems happened. I basically cut a part of my life and morphed it into a poem. However, some works are not part of my personal experiences, and are inspired by what I read or heard, or it’s just me experimenting, speculating, or just creating another world for myself. If I’m not telling my story, I’m most likely telling someone else’s or imagining it. Whatever I write, though, is for myself and anyone who finds solace in words.
You have been longlisted and shortlisted for different prizes this year. How do you feel while waiting and after the final verdict? To what extent does that influence your work subsequently?
Osawaru: Awards are ways of motivating writers and often result in exposure, bringing writers and their works into more light. For me, I don’t submit to win. It was part trying my luck and part proving to myself that I can achieve something. I believe if anyone desires to do something, they should, to prove to themselves they can and not to anybody. While waiting for results, I try not to worry and focus on getting better at the craft.
But to be honest, it is never easy waiting. I’d say one thing though: making the shortlist of the Babishai 2020 Haiku Award and the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize 2020 changed me. It gave me more confidence, and also brought attention to me and my work. Being a 2020 Jack Grapes Poetry Prize finalist is one of the biggest highlights of my life as a poet. I never imagined I would go that far in an international poetry prize. You know, we writers often seek validation; an acceptance, a win, assurance that we’re good. It goes without saying that there are a lot of new voices, brilliant writers out there. All they need is a platform. It wouldn’t hurt to shine a little light on them.
How did your journey as a poet begin?
Osawaru: I never imagined I would become a writer or a poet. In boarding school, I steered clear of Literature. I found poetry at a time when I felt like a shadow fading into the wall, or perhaps it found me. I had just gotten admission into a polytechnic in 2017 and wasn’t entirely excited. It was the beginning of a new chapter of my life, yet it felt like the pages were stark black. I had a journal and thought it would be good to write these feelings in my own words. At the time, I was using Instagram often, and I came across some poems. I was fascinated and began to practice writing poetry. I did it on and off for a long while. Later, in 2019, I discovered that poetry was bigger than I thought, so I educated myself. My course of study is in management science and that didn’t really help. I applied for SprinNG Writing Fellowship, but I wasn’t selected. I joined writing communities on WhatsApp, connected with other writers and learned. I also taught myself a lot of things, though I wrote a lot and read very little in those days due to lack of understanding. I would read some works, classics and online recommendations, and wouldn’t grasp anything. For a while, I had reading anxiety. Almost everything I came across I would toss aside. I kept writing. I began to read every day, shorter works and things I enjoy and understood. I also read books on writing, particularly poetry, and partook in a couple pf online classes and workshops.
Poets whose work I enjoy reading, whose work has inspired and still inspires me, include Romeo Oriogun, Ocean Vuong, Warsan Shire, Saffia Elhillo, Danez Smith, Taylor Byas, Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Michael Akuchie, Nome Emeka Patrick, I.S. Jones, Ernest Ogunyemi, and many more. I’m also grateful to friends I made along my writing journey and are now my family. Writing is a solitary journey, having people who support and appreciate one’s work makes it easier to keep pressing on. And for that, I’m grateful to Olaitan Junaid, Yvonne Nezianya, Boloere Seibidor, Anointing Obuh, Timi Sanni, Zenas Ubere, Kelechi Obioma, Semilore Kilaso, and many more. They have been great to me, supporting and giving peer reviews. I’m also grateful to my family for their support, especially my mother.
What are you working on at the moment?
Osawaru: A chapbook is currently in the works, though I’m still conceptualizing. ‘Two Decades And A Year’ is a prospective title. I’m also working on pushing more of my prose out, submitting my works to International contests, writing fellowships and scholarships, and taking the bar higher as I go. It’s been an exciting year for me. I have over 20 publications, including poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. I also have over 100 rejections. I’m sure I’ll make about 30 submissions or more before the year runs out. I’m also expecting sweeping good news, so wish me Godspeed.