Clear message, language impresses poetry judges
Nigerian-born poet tops 200 entries in Maya Angelou contest
By day, she’s a civil engineer who designs our city’s roads.
By night, she’s a gifted wordsmith and the founder of Rouge Poetry, a weekly soiree in Edmonton featuring spoken word and performance poetry.
Titilope Sonuga is the winner of the Edmonton Journal’s Maya Angelou poetry contest. She gets to meet the legendary American activist and writer on Thursday at the Winspear Centre.
“It feels pretty awesome,” Sonuga said Tuesday. She sent in her entry on the last day. “I assumed it went to someone else. I was very surprised.”
Sonuga, 27, spent her childhood in Lagos, Nigeria. At the age of 13, she immigrated to Canada with her parents and three older sisters. They chose Edmonton because they knew another family here. “It was kind of a shot in the dark,” she said, “a soft place to land.”
Poetry got its hooks in Sonuga when she was in Grade 10. An English teacher at Strathcona High School read one of young Titi’s poems and “her reaction to it was very strange,” the poet said. “She was very excited about it. And I thought, ‘hmmm, maybe I could do that again.’ ”
Sonuga studied engineering at the University of Alberta, graduating in 2008, but was also writing poetry. She wanted an outlet for her work. “I needed a place to go and read my poems, so I started the night downtown.”
By ‘the night,’ she means Rouge Poetry, which takes place every Tuesday at Rouge Lounge on 117th Street. The event took off and Sonuga enlisted friends to help out. Soon, they’d formed a poetry collective, Breath in Poetry, whose teams have won prizes at national events.
Sonuga’s first book, Down To Earth, won the 2011 Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer Award.
Her winning poem, Mother Tongue, touches on the contest theme, survival, in a clever, evocative yet indirect way. “I don’t feel like I’ve actually gone through the perils and survived,” she said, “but I thought about the people who have, in order for me to live the life I live. I rode on the backs of people who gave up their lives for their freedom, and that’s where it came from.”
In Mother Tongue, she wrote: “I am stitched together / by the hands of the / village that raised me / kept whole by all of their best intentions / cloaked in the impossibility of dreams / my every breath / is proof of the miraculous.”
St. Albert poet Sandra Mooney-Ellerbeck came second in our contest with her poem, Imprints. She receives two tickets to Angelou’s talk at the Winspear.
The Journal received more than 200 entries to its poetry contest. The subject matter on the theme of survival was compelling and diverse, from a farmer eking out his living on the land to Wayne Gretzky leaving the City of Champions. Among the entrants was a U of A Hospital nurse writing a tribute to a surgeon suffering from ALS, a parent writing about a daughter who died at 31, a mother writing about a son’s meth addiction.
The contest judges, Jenna Butler and Alexis Kienlen, are both young published poets living in Edmonton. Butler and Kienlen judged blindly and used a qualitative approach in assessing the entries. “We didn’t use a points system, but judged based on creativity, interpretation of the theme, poetic structure, word choice, imagery and flow, mastery of language and whether or not the poem evoked something emotional in us,” Kienlen said. “Poems that made us feel something rated highly.”
Each was delighted to learn they’d picked a poem by Sonuga once her name was revealed after the judging.
“I’ve heard Titi once or twice during her spoken word performances and have always found her a powerful stage presence,” Butler noted. “Learning that this piece was actually hers only confirms her strength as a writer, in my mind.”
“She did an amazing reading at the Poetry festival a couple years ago,” Kienlen added. “It was the first time that her parents and relatives had come to see her read. She read a poem about their decision to leave Nigeria for a better life in Canada. She was crying, her family was crying and everyone else in the audience started crying. It was one of the most powerful and moving readings I’ve ever seen.”
Of Sonuga’s winning poem, the judges said: “The writing succeeds very well in reaching out from the personal to the universal, and the language is excellent. Although it is a dark poem with a strong feeling of mystery to it, it holds a lot of hope. There’s a clear message in this poem; it’s not messy or muddled.”
Of Mooney-Ellerbeck’s poem, Imprints, the judges said they liked the imagery, powerful last line and repetition. “The lines and images flowed logically and seamlessly,” they noted.
The other eight poets to make the Top 10 are: Mary Woodbury, Jenny Berard, Anushka Ataullahjan, Gayle Simonson, Jenifer Ast, Vicki Pickard, Marjorie Zelent and David Brydges. All of them are from the Edmonton area, with the exception of Brydges, who hails from Cobalt, Ont. Their poems can be found at edmontonjournal. com/entertainment.
Edmonton poet Titilope Sonuga is the winner of the Edmonton Journal’s Maya Angelou poetry contest.