Interview with 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlisted Poet, Romeo Oriogun

IMG_20170327_101617Brief Biography:

Romeo Oriogun lives and writes in Udi, a little town in Eastern Nigeria. His poems, which mostly deal with what it means to live as a queer man in Nigeria, have been featured in Brittle Paper, African Writer, Expound, Praxis, and others. He is the author of Burnt Men, an electronic chapbook published by Praxis Magazine Online.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you first hear about the Brunel International African Poetry Prize?

Romeo Oriogun: I heard about the Brunel International African Poetry Prize three years ago, a friend of mine shared the winning poems by Warsan Shire on Facebook and I was hooked, here is a poet who went deep into herself to bring out words that are filled with emotions, memories, and history. I had just started writing then, in my country students are mostly exposed to poetry books from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, they are what is used to teach poetry to students, books written by contemporary poets are rare and most times expensive, so meeting a poet who is like fresh breath changed my thinking about the way poetry should be written. This year was my first time of entering for the prize, in Africa there are very few spaces for queer writing, I thought it was a means of sharing my poems, I never knew I will make the shortlist, so for me getting here is both a blessing and a surprise.

Geosi Gyasi: Was it by choice that you became a poet?

Romeo Oriogun: I first met poetry as a junior student in secondary school, my teacher introduced me to it as a means of naming the war inside me, when she was transferred I left it and found other means of fighting, it was a though time. I thought I was strange and crazy and there was no room for me in a society where boys are taught how to be rocks from a tender age, I was water and I suffered till I decided to end it, it was at that moment that poetry met me again, I was searching for rope when I saw an old poetry book my teacher gave me as a gift, the first poem inside was JP Clark’s Streamside Exchange, it touched somewhere deep inside me, somewhere filled with fire and it gave that place a new way to look at life, at that point I knew there was no turning back, poetry became a means of finding the way forward, of naming the chaos and fear inside me, of celebrating every joy I meet on this way to light, so in a way I met and fell in love with poetry and it fell in love with me too, so I can’t really say it was by choice. I believe life is full of gifts, things given to us by the universe to navigate this space.

Geosi Gyasi: Your poem, “How to Survive the Fire” basically deals with survival in a city like Lagos “where the only freedom for a man who loves another man is to leave.” Do you ever experience some of these hardships you talk about in your poems?

Romeo Oriogun: There are memories that are ours and there are some that are shared with us and even that becomes ours. I wrote How to ‘Survive The Fire’ for a friend who ran through the desert to Italy last year. He came out to some friends during a drunk night and he had to run before they lynched him. Nigeria is full of history of queer men lynched when found or burnt. There are a lot of obstacles for queer men in Nigeria and sometimes we learn to be quiet about it, to try to blend in and go on pretending in other to live which is a sad thing because every day when you live a life that’s not truly yours you die a little. Because I write about these things I’ve been subject to online threat and abuse, after my chapbook was published someone promised to look for me and burn my ass, I still don’t know what would make one hate his fellow human up to that extent. I’m dealing with some threats at the moment, someone asked me to pay some money to him so he won’t tell the paramilitary force I work for that I write queer poems, his name on Facebook is fictitious, there’s no way I can trace him, I told some of my friends about it last week and they told me to be careful, they are scared and I understand, to be queer or support queer people is to walk with the fear of lynching or burning and there’s also the police. Sometimes this is the price I pay for writing but it is better than keeping quiet. I know queer people may not be free to love openly in my lifetime but it is a journey and we are laying the stones for the future and these memories must be documented for future generations to learn how people where lynched and killed because they dared to love.

Nigeria is full of history of queer men lynched when found or burnt. There are a lot of obstacles for queer men in Nigeria and sometimes we learn to be quiet about it, to try to blend in and go on pretending in other to live which is a sad thing because every day when you live a life that’s not truly yours you die a little.

Geosi Gyasi: What at all is queer poetry, if I may ask?

Romeo Oriogun: Allen Ginsberg once told a class “To the world, I’m nothing but a cocksucker”. Once you talk about queer poetry people think it is LGBTQ people writing about gay sex but it is about members of a community that has been marginalize searching for a way to understand their body and the world through their eyes and if it comes out with themes of homosexuality then it is because it is the reality and queer poets don’t write about homosexual themes all the time. It is funny because some people think queer poetry is all about homosexual sex, we also write about heterosexual sex, we are humans and there are queer people is heterosexual relationships, so we write about anything that pulls our humanity, it maybe joy, rainfall, a walk under the evening sky, police brutality, hunger or anything else. There is Langston Hughes, Ocean Vuong, Jericho Brown, Ricky Laurentiis and a lot of other voices and their works tackles other themes, so it will be unfair and wrong to cage queer poetry within a sexual circle.

Geosi Gyasi: Would you therefore continue to write queer poems amidst the threats you receive?

Romeo Oriogun: I will, it’s what I know how to do, it’s what keeps me sane, if I stop writing my world will drown in seas that beckons to me every hour.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about Udi, the town in which you live and write?

Romeo Oriogun: Udi is a small town in Enugu, it is located in Eastern Nigeria. It’s a town of hills and solitude and people trying to smile against all odds. I live in a paramilitary barrack, so we are secluded from the people of the town, it makes it interesting going to town to explore life, there is palm wine and bush meat and Okpa, a local delicacy made from bambara nuts, I think? There’s also music, because there is a healthy mixture of old and young people, it is not strange to hear high life music and Nigerian hip hop from old houses. There are hills and farms and trees; I love walking and getting lost in bushes to the songs of birds. Sometimes I talk to people about the civil war and life and anything that hits my head, the truth is that I’m fascinated about spaces people inhabit, about how those spaces shape them into who they are, it makes me restless and the solitude and people of this place makes it possible for me to write and live and smile.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there any familiar faces to you from this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize”?

Romeo Oriogun: There’s Rasak, I met him on Facebook and I’ve read a lot of his poems, I’ve also read Kechi Nomu’s poem on Expound, she’s a fantastic poet. Leila Chatti is another poet I’ve read and enjoyed, I find the way she explore her identity to be brilliant. Saddiq is a brother, I met him at a program in Jos, he is a fine poet and a beautiful soul. I think Nigeria is blessed with a lot of young voices at the moment and it is a beautiful thing to be among them.

A friend and I are also working on founding a queer journal in Nigeria, which will be a safe space for queer writers in Africa to find a literary community…

Geosi Gyasi: Have you been working on any specific literary project?

Romeo Oriogun: I’ve been working on my manuscript. A friend and I are also working on founding a queer journal in Nigeria, which will be a safe space for queer writers in Africa to find a literary community, at the moment I’m trying to look at the legal implications and how queer writers can be protected, especially those who don’t want to write with a pseudonym.

Geosi Gyasi: Is/Are there anything that fascinates you about your own writing?

Romeo Oriogun: Each poem I write is a door into another, I don’t dwell much on my writing but I’m moved when someone says because of my poems he knows he’s not alone and his feelings are valid. It makes me feel that what I’m doing is living a life of its own and it’s traveling with light into dark places.

Geosi Gyasi: In a tough list of nine other shortlisted poets, are your really confident of winning?

Romeo Oriogun: It feels really strange to be on that shortlist, I started writing three years ago, so to be here is very strange for me, I’m not used to being in the spotlight. This prize brings some of the best African minds writing poetry together and to be on it is an experience I’m still trying to come to terms with. I’m not really thinking about winning, I’m just enjoying the moment.

Geosi Gyasi: Who is the single most important writer you most admire and why?

Romeo Oriogun: This is really a though one, there are a lot of writers I admire and I’m tempted to cheat but let me be obedient for once. I love and admire Essex Hemphill, his poetry gave me a friend during dark days and the fact that he opened the way for a lot of voices to find home is also admirable. There are days when I read his poems and cry because he died too young and I just feel we lost a lot of poems from him, he was approaching his peak when he died. Any time I read him I’m comforted because I know that my voice is valid and it is home just like my body.

Geosi Gyasi: Assuming you win this year’s Brunel International African Poetry Prize, what would you use the prize money for?

Romeo Oriogun: Travel!!! I’m dying to visit South Africa and Nairobi and Namibia.



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