An experience as a boy, growing up in Akure, a town in Nigeria, West Africa, illustrates his early love for stories. His school library had a rule that restricted students from borrowing more than one storybook per time. On Fridays, this meant a long boring weekend ahead for someone who usually finished a book in a day.
With a friend, he came up with a ‘brilliant’ solution to this problem. Every Friday, they borrowed the single book allowed per student over the counter, and smuggled two other books each, out of the library, hidden under their shirts. However, the books were always smuggled back into the library on Monday.
This went on for a few weeks until they were caught. Tolu and his friend absent-mindedly tried to return smuggled books over the counter. Gratefully, the librarian was able to see beyond their misdemeanor and recognise their thirst for knowledge. Tolu remembers her saying “well, better to be caught ‘stealing’ from the library than from the school farm”.
This passion for reading continued and developed into his passion for writing, which publicly began with a Facebook group he created with some like-minded friends in 2009. Today, Tolu writes short stories and poetry which he calls ‘poetry for people who hate poetry’. “Many people dislike poetry, not because they don’t enjoy reading, but because they find conventional poetry typically tedious and obscure”.
He believes there is a need to have simple, witty, relatable and engaging poetry that tells stories, written without the strictures of conventional poetry, one that will appeal to people who consider the literary form boring or intimidating. Tolu’s writings are surprisingly simple but not so simple that it should not be taken seriously. He says ‘simple’ is not the opposite of ‘deep’ and based on how you look at it, life is simple and there is no point telling the simple stories of life complicatedly.
For Tolu, writing poetry should not be about how skillfully the poet can hide meanings between the lines, but in how skillfully he reveals them. “Poetry is a language or a message and the poet is a mere courier. It is a means of communication, and its glory is in its delivery.
The fanciful words and pedantry a message is encased in is worthless if the message is undelivered, and if the message is undelivered, the messenger (Poet) has failed, and when the messenger fails, the message is in vain. If over the last few decades, the way we use language has changed and keeps changing, then for poetry to maintain its relevance, it needs to adapt to the times”.
Wendy Cope, Felix Dennis and Mike Rosenberg are notable influences on Tolu’s writings. His ‘rebellious’ and unconventional but interesting approach to poetry has earned him a significant following, especially on social media. His poetry is often accompanied with whimsical hand-drawn illustrations and this also must have strengthened the connection of his works to his online audience.
Tolu currently lives in London, but grew up in Nigeria, and this background has a strong influence on his works. However, there exists a clear universal appeal in his writings, and a notable deviation from the usual angst and stereotypical themes common to African literature; typical themes like poverty, war, inequality, corruption, failed institutions and other African socio-economic and political challenges.
Instead his works focus on telling the ordinary African stories rarely told. He tells fresh, whimsical stories sprinkled with wit and humour as he explores with surprising insight a wide spectrum of both seemingly trivial and crucial everyday issues, of being human firstly and then an African, whether living on or off the continent. Beyond the interesting titles, these same characteristics run through Tolu’s published poetry collections; ‘Your Father Walks Like A Crab’ and ‘I Laugh At These Skinny Girls’ available on Amazon (Kindle and Paperback). His new collection ‘Funny Boys Cannot Be Trusted’ is due for release in November 2016.