Clear mes­sage, lan­guage im­presses po­etry judges

Nige­rian-born poet tops 200 en­tries in Maya An­gelou con­test

Edmonton Journal - - ARTS & LIFE - EL­IZ­A­BETH WITHEY ewithey@ed­mon­ton­jour­nal. com Twit­ter.com/ lizwithey

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.

KATYA NOVA PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

Ed­mon­ton poet Ti­ti­lope Sonuga is the win­ner of the Ed­mon­ton Jour­nal’s Maya An­gelou po­etry con­test.

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