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Yomi and Tobi in conversation

Jawdance host and Apples and Snakes favourite Yomi ode has been selected as a Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellow alongside Hafsah Aneela Bashir and Anthony Joseph. Each of the recipients receives £15,000 plus a year of critical support and mentoring with no expectation that they produce a particular work or outcome. Yomi sat down with our London Producer and newly appointed Senior Artistic Associate at Bush Theatre Tobi Kyeremateng to enjoy a couple of Old Fashioneds and discuss all things spoken word.

When we talk about artists we often talk about individuals, people toiling in isolation but how much does community matter to you and your practice?

Yomi: It matters. When I premiered COAT at Roundhouse, I was also doing COAT Sessions with emerging artists. They’d perform after COAT for the audience as a kind of, “If you like my work, how about you take in the works of these folks”.

Tobi: That’s where I came across Gboyega [Odubanjo] actually.

I’d never negate a community approach because it’s all I’ve ever known.

Yomi: Sick, that group; Gboyega Odubanjo, Aliyah Hasinah, Shade Joseph, Marvell Fayose, Rue Gumbochuma, Abu Yillah. That opportunity’s important to the group; the Roundhouse came across Shade that night, which led to her doing her scratch there the following year. That’s what happens when you occupy a space and try to build community. If that’s not nurtured or worked on the scene’s going to be docile, insular. It’s not going to open the floodgates to people who have great work to share. What’s your take?

Tobi: I’ve always been a big fan of poetry. I always talk about how grateful I am to be accepted into the poetry community. I feel like I always say that after a Jawdance! I also feel this community houses more intergenerational conversations, which I’m grateful for every time I sit and chat with Roger [Robinson]. There’s no other space in which I have an older person, other than my Dad, that I chat to like this. I don’t know how to work alone. I can’t do it. I physically can’t do it. Community has always been a massive thing to me. I wouldn’t be able to do my job properly if I wasn’t immersed in the community; it wouldn’t make sense for me to want to champion the artform without understanding the reasons behind why people do this work in the first place.

Yomi: I’d never negate a community approach because it’s all I’ve ever known. There wouldn’t be a BoxedIn without community. I’ve always wanted to be going to gigs, supporting people, pushing them online – I enjoy doing it. It’s nothing forced, I enjoy going to support people.

Tobi: I remember the first open mic I ever produced at Battersea Arts Centre it was such a bad event! Theresa Lola came and it was the first time she’d read her work out in public, I think. And she started this poem and I was like, “Who is this person and why is she at my little open mic on a Monday in South London?!” We met each other again years later, and it came full circle. You see these people you met and started out with years ago doing great things now.

What does winning the Jerwood mean to you? What opportunity does it offer?

Yomi: There’s a blue-sky thinking with this so it’s almost a case of what don’t I ask for? I’m so used to working within frames. Their approach is; tell us what you’re interested in and we can try and support you with it. I’m doing Arvon in August, that’s the first official thing I committed to. That was scary, it’s £750, which is scary – I’ve never spent that amount on any course. Ever.

Tobi: It’s an investment in yourself.

I feel like there’s something – as Black people – which is like an inherited, historical thing. You work as hard as you’ve got to work and there’s all the suffering and the pain but nothing good is meant to come of that. So when it does we’re like, “I don’t know what to do with this now”.

Yomi: Right, but I was nervous in doing so. And I felt like I wasn’t deserving of doing so – a slight imposter syndrome situation. I was just like, “are you sure you’ve got the right person here?” Part of me thinks, don’t think like that, just focus on the work you need to do. But also, there is the imposter syndrome. Maybe I don’t deserve this, maybe there’s someone who deserves it more. My head in the last 3-4 weeks… it’s not where it should be. It’s going to move to a better place. I’m not used to this much attention. COAT was definitely something, but this is a different beast.

Tobi: You know what? I feel like there’s something – as Black people – which is like an inherited, historical thing. You work as hard as you’ve got to work and there’s all the suffering and the pain but nothing good is meant to come of that. So when it does we’re like, “I don’t know what to do with this now”. Because I know that I’m meant to work hard, I know that I’m meant to push myself, but in the back of my mind I’m not thinking I’m doing that for something good to happen, I just know that I’m meant to do it. I dunno, I think that has an historical context, and in the way we have to operate in society. And so it’s hard when something good happens to celebrate yourself. So it is really hard when something good happens to celebrate yourself and say, “of course I deserve this, I worked really hard”. For us it’s like you’ve got to work hard regardless of whether something good is going to happen or not. That’s just life.

Yomi: Inherited from our parents?

Tobi: Yeah, especially if you’re first generation. Your parents have come to this country from another place, you have to work your arse off. It doesn’t matter if there’s something guaranteed at the end of it. You just have to do that. Whereas other people are allowed to have that foresight of: “I’m going to do this, this and this and it’s going to get me that, which is what I really want. That’s what’s going to make me happy. So, when I get it, of course I’ll celebrate it because that’s what I was working towards.”

Yomi: But then it’s a thing of – if you get to that point it’s deemed as arrogant. American’s don’t care. They’re more like: “I’m deserving of this, this is what I’ll take.” And I’m like, at what point do I need to register with myself that I’m deserving of this?

Tobi: When you were talking about community and paying it forward – this is that being paid forward to you. People nominated you. Jerwood is your community paying it forward to you.

Yomi: Oh gosh! Can we talk about you and your appointment at Bush for a bit? What’s the job there?

Tobi: My job there is to present artists, read scripts – they’ll ask me for my opinion on things. It’s that level of agency that I’m not used to. So, it’s scary… to be in a position in which someone is asking for your opinion and your opinion has consequences.

Yomi: How does it differ from producing spoken word?

Tobi: Theatre’s a different industry in which the fight to get something on is gruelling in comparison to getting booked for a gig. I’m not saying the fight isn’t there and it’s not difficult in spoken word, but for a theatre organisation to invest money and time in producing your work… it’s huge. There’s so much of a community in spoken word; I can book certain people and know others will benefit from that too. The amount of people who want their work to be produced by theatre companies and the amount of money available to do that, it’s wild… there were 900 applications for the Bush’s open script window this year. The odds are wild. It’s really hard to think of that and to be in that position. The honest answer to ‘how do I get my play produced?’ is I don’t know. There isn’t a system that every institution follows. There’s no one system, different theatres are interested in different things. But yeah, the appointment felt really weird. A lot of people have been excited for me but I haven’t been excited for myself – I’ve been worried! I also felt imposter syndrome massively with being nominated for and then winning it [Stylist’s Inspiration of the Year Award for Black Ticket Project]. I was like, “this should feel good, and it doesn’t!’

Yomi: How do we fight that? ‘Cause in my heart of hearts, I know I’m good at what I do. I read one of my poems back the other week and I was like, “Yo! Is that me?!” So I have those proud moments but that dissipates, but at the same time I’ll make all the room for others to fully feel good about their achievements. I won’t gas up myself, but I’ll gas you to the end of the world and back!

Tobi: I feel like a large part of me coming to you and saying “big up yourself!”, is that it’s important to instil that in each other. Yes, I want you to say out loud, “I deserve this thing!”

Where do you think the current resurgence in spoken word has come from and where can it lead to?

Yomi: That insta poet thing yeah, I’d like to think there was some kind of shift when Rupi [Kaur] came into frame. I don’t know if that made people think they could try it too. Social media has definitely done something via YouTube and Instagram. There will be people who have their poet that they like, that they’re inspired. There are templates of poets they can see and aspire to: Hollie [McNish], Suli [Breaks], George the Poet… all of those people. I’ll always feel like there are pockets of poetry. There are all these different facets.

I’m waiting for poetry’s first NWA group

Tobi: I’d definitely say George the Poet was a moment in the resurgence. It felt like that was a moment when a whole new group of people were like, “Oh, maybe I can do this”. I started to see more people writing and performing off of the back of his presence. And also, it pushed the idea that being a poet is cool. It used to just be dead white men you saw in your AQA anthology, now you’ve got the Sulis and Georges. And it’s cool now, whereas before it wasn’t. You do find some wonderful people who would never have considered themselves poets ever before. Poetry is evolving, whether it’s the insta poets, the poetry films, music that feels really exciting. It’s become more democratic in terms of who can get involved, but there’s obviously still the hierarchy of what people think is good, bad, “real” poetry.

Yomi: Words First that raised the profile to 1Xtra. I think evolution can only make it grow into something more. I’m waiting for poetry’s first NWA group! But how do you access new poets?

Tobi: Online and going to nights is the main way. It’s hard to find the time to go to everything though, and to feel some kind of cohesiveness between all of these different events. I don’t know how many of these events share audiences, and that’s really interesting.

How do you know when an opportunity is yours to take?

Yomi: I don’t! If the nominations to apply to Jerwood hadn’t come in I don’t think I’d have applied. Arts Council, I didn’t apply to until 2017. Some people have been applying for years. I don’t know though – it’s a tough one.

That made me think: f*** it, I’m applying for everything.

Tobi: Something that was a big turning point for me in the first year of my apprenticeship: I had a teacher who was throwing out statistics and she said that most women are only likely to apply for a job if they meet more than 90% of the criteria, whereas most men will apply if they meet 60% of it. That made me think: f*** it, I’m applying for everything.

Yomi: For me now, it’s the kids – it’s knowing that I need to start taking these risks otherwise there’ll be a famine happening at home if I don’t! So I need to get a move on. Worst case, I don’t get it, at least I know I tried. They might be my kick-up-the-backside to go for something. I started doing more magazine submissions this year. I’ve just gone for it, because what’s the worst that could happen? It’s a difficult process but doing it makes it a little bit easier.

Tobi: Yes, the more you do it, the more you’re able to do it. It’s like a muscle you exercise it and you start to understand the process.

How do you stay motivated, what factors enable you to persist as creatives?

Tobi: I feel like my main plea to myself is to not do things that make me unhappy. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the process will be perfect, but I won’t go into something knowing that it’s going to make me unhappy. I say yes to things because it’s something I feel passionate about. That’s a driving force. People are also my main motivators; I can feel like crap all day and I see one person and that changes things.

Yomi: I always want to say yes to things; I wonder if I’ll burn out. One thing in regards to Jerwood is that you don’t have to say yes to everything now because this is here to help out, but I get that niggly “I want to get involved because it sounds cool.” I invest in things not just because of the pay but because it’s a new experience, a new landscape, I want to explore. But it’s not necessarily money, it’s the experience of trying things out. But now I know I could say no. I need to be aware of my own limitations, which I ignore all the time.

What’s your aim as an artist?

Yomi: To write work for discussion and not for solution. I don’t want to create work and people think I’ve come to save the day; I want to create work to provoke. To stir a conversation to happen. I don’t want to create work that is an answer to itself. I don’t ever want to feel like I want to save the day with my work, but I want to feel like it’s a contribution to a different thinking. And you, what’s your aim in the work you’re doing?

I just want to see people thriving.

Tobi: I really don’t know; I feel like everything that I’ve done so far has had no strategy, it’s just been me trying things. To think of myself having an aim, an overall aim, I don’t know… I just want to see people thriving.

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