‘Why spoken word poetry is magical’

Onotu David Onimisi

Onotu David Onimisi, popularly known as Poetic Oracle, is a spoken word poet. He is a British Council Creative Lives alumnus, a 2013 first stage winner of Youth Enterprise with Innovation presidential initiative in Nigeria and, currently, the vice chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) in Plateau State. In this interview, he explains why spoken word performance is a magical and mystical kind of art, and more. Excerpts:


How would you describe your art?

I am a spoken word poet and its performance is my forte. Basically, spoken word poetry can be described as storytelling complete with characters, conflict, expectations and the thrill of suspense. It is, however, recanted in carefully chosen diction arranged in verse. When rendered with the right voice, dramatic in its modulation, pauses and speed, it is expected to create an effect in the listener, and of course the performer too. It is magical. How else can words be used to elicit specific responses from people and nature if not sheer magic?


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How popular would you say spoken word poetry is in Nigeria and in Platea State in particular?

Beyond school work, young people on the Plateau are yearning for a medium to express themselves. It is no surprise that teenagers see engaging in spoken word poetry as a way of venting and saying all they need to say before an audience.

It is becoming a common feature to find spoken word poets performing at nearly every function, including weddings, birthdays, trainings in schools, and gatherings of all sorts. They are seen on TV, in films, and heard on air, and musical albums. This is a welcome development. However, it is nothing compared to the over 80% of the population who have no idea that it exists.

Over the years, performance poetry has drawn gratuitous attention because of the energetic physical nuances that characterize its celebration. It is encouraging that in the Plateau, through the relentless efforts of outfits such as the Jos Poetry slam, now JusCrea8, Punchline Poetry Society, Custodians of African literature, and outstanding personalities and poets, like Decipher, Rudolph, Northpriest, Lardo, Younglan, Envoi, Diva, and a host of others; poetry as a culture is catching on and becoming widespread.

What is the genesis of spoken work poetry?

It’s is not unfamiliar to people all over the world. We find it in folktales, songs, mimes, artistic and ritual enactments. It is a skill employed by the greatest orators, either to win or break hearts, or simply to drive home profound messages.

Performance poetry over the years has assumed many forms. Unlike other literary forms that we can date to precise texts and time periods, it’s a challenge to pinpoint the earliest work of poetry, in one form or another. Poetry has been around for thousands of years. Professionally, many people within Nigeria and Plateau State have made spoken word popular, notable among them is Sage Hassan.

The earliest seeds of my incursion into poetry came from reading. Stories such as that of D.O. Fagunwa, and essays too. But I had a bias for poetry. ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh,’ ‘The Iliad,’ ‘The Odyssey,’ ‘The Mahabharata.’ I read poetry from nearly every country and age.

Poetry in Africa is as normal and natural as speech, but on special occasions the language of poetry among Africans is strikingly more elevated than ordinary speech and richly vivified with proverbs and stories. Used for ceremonial events such as the coronation of a new king, the death of a great man, and other ritualistic performances, poetry in African societies has in many instances been undermined and this is not unconnected to the colonization experience. However, literary figures such as J.P Clark in his famed work ‘The Ozidi Saga,’ amongst many others, have sought to preserve the high regard with which poetry in many ways has fashioned the worldview of Africans.

What inspires you?

Inspiration comes from the need to become a better, more creative, and fulfilled person impacting the world in a positive way. The material with which the artistry is woven around comes from everyday happenings, from reading books, news feeds, experiences, mine or from listening to others, the environment, and chiefly, imagination.

Memorizing the words is not entirely a piece of cake, however there are strategies that help in memorization. Rhythm, Rhyme, repetition, and imagery when aligned with the five senses are a part of the secrets known to mental athletes. From one generation to another Africans have transferred entire cultural practices and history, orally. It is an impressive feat. Today the typewriter and photocopiers are among the chief culprits of memory loss.

Ever wonder why nursery rhymes are rich in rhythm, rhyme and repetition, and are usually accompanied with actions when they are taught to children? Simple, it helps them remember. It is a technique that cannot fail. I use it every time.

Retentive memory or the ability to remember key information and aptly reproduce them in a legible manner is a huge challenge for many students and young people. Through poetry performance, the retentive power of the brain experiences a boost. It is simple, the carefully chosen diction which poetry enjoys alongside the rhythmical and musical structure of its verses accompanied by, in many cases, the rhyme factor affects the brain in a manner which makes recollection easy. When we consider also the apt application of tone, mood, imagery and other figurative and harmonic additions, it is not surprising why poetry is an art that can greatly impact the human memory positively.

What is the distinction between spoken word poetry and other aspects of poetry?

While poetry performance may involve dance, dramatic actions, heavily concentrated gestures, and mime, the spoken word which inspires the actions of the performer can stand alone. We hear spoken word poetry recorded in audio forms, but can only see it when it is accompanied with action by a performer.

Both are important as they make for a fuller, richer poetic experience, especially in holding the attention of younger audiences while teaching them.

I totally agree with George Thompson in his Marxism and poetry where he implies that the performance precedes the speech. However, without the speech, the performance may not entirely be grasped and vice versa.

In what format do you have your poems?

A lot of them are recorded on CDs and some can be purchased and enjoyed online. Presently I am working on a spoken word collection in book form. It will be authored by myself and NorthPriest, another spoken word artist.

There is no end to the mediums through which creative expressions can be packaged and as artists, we must continually explore new ways.

Did you study anything related to your career in school?

Absolutely. My first degree was in Theatre and Communication Art, while my second degree was in Theatre and Film Art. I also have a Diploma in Education, another in Creative Enterprise, and a number of certificate courses in other relevant areas. I am passionate about creativity, and enterprise as it relates to the socioeconomic development of people. I hold a Postgraduate Diploma in Education. My writings have appeared in several international anthologies.  I am a film maker, a judge on numerous literary awards, an actor with numerous plays to my credit, a scriptwriter, and editor. I am widely travelled, and can aptly be described as a community development champion.

To what extent does spoken word poetry pay your bills?

There are high and low times. I would say 40% of my earnings come from spoken word, and the remaining from spoken word related activities, such as being a judge on spoken word platforms, coaching, training, writing the piece to be performed, editing of manuscripts, provision of video contents for those willing to explore the film angle and so on.

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