Contributing Editor Adekunle Adewunmi

Interview: Featured Performance Artist Funke Awodiya

Funke Awodiya is a popular and influential Nigerian spoken word artist and performance poet. A founding member of Poets in Nigeria Initiative, Awodiya works directly with the Merchant of Poetry.


Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Today we are glad to welcome to O:JA&L Ms. Funke Awodiya, a woman who is becoming an influential voice in the Nigerian community of spoken word artists. Ms. Awodiya, what can you share with us about your experience as a poet and performance artist? First of all, I suppose, we’d like to know “how is it you find yourself here?”

Awodiya: I wrote my first poem when my father died. No doubt, my father’s death was my first muse. Before his death, I had written a couple of short stories which did not survive time. The title of my first poem is “Missing You Daddy.” It was just an attempt to express my grief through written words. I was thirteen and my best friend– my father– died. My world shook to its foundation, and writing was an escape from pain. I wrote other poems about what life used to be when my father was alive. My diary was filled with dark emotions. I didn’t show my poems to anyone until when a neighbor who is also a family friend asked to read them. I willingly gave them to him, and to my surprise, I saw trickles of tears falling from his eyes. My poems were that emotional. I wrote other poems during my days as a Diploma student in Banking and Finance. The programme evoked a lot of depressing feelings. The school, the lecturers, and the classrooms were not pleasant. But writing helped me cope with the awful experience. One of my classmates, a sickle cell warrior, died and I wrote an elegy to mourn him.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Banking and Finance doesn’t really sound like fertile ground for the development of a poet’s skills and sensibilities. What more is there that we may know about your background?

Awodiya: My background is in Sociology- a Bachelor of Science (BSc) from the University of Ado Ekiti and Masters (MSc) in Sociology from the University of Ibadan but, poetry is my passion. Throughout my education, my understanding of society as viewed through the lenses of my lecturers influenced my poetry. I chose to write poetry, not for writing sake, but to produce poetry for societal good. I am a radio presenter and writer today because of my lecturers’ passions for building students who will use their sociological knowledge to solve societal problems. I was spotted by my lecturers from my second year as an outspoken student. I represented my groups during class presentations. This is why I’m tilting towards being a spoken word poet now. Sometimes, I feel my lecturers are not happy because they did not train me to be a poet, but I have become one by interest and passion. I was, however, amazed by the wonderful comments they make on my works when they read them on social media. The head of the department, who doubled up as one of my mentors, was among the first people to buy my poetry book.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L: You write and perform in English?

Awodiya: About seventeen years ago while in secondary school, I was introduced to English Literature. I read poems I didn’t understand, but my teachers helped in unpacking the riddles in the poems. I read poetry then just for exam purposes but years later when I came across read works of a contemporary poet, Salem Hunjo, on a social media platform, my muse woke up from sleep.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L: I understand you are among the founders of Poets in Nigeriia Initiative. What can you share with us about your involvement with this and other groups?

Awodiya: Six years ago, I started attending monthly readings of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Lagos Chapter. I’m an enthusiast of fine arts, as such. This enthusiasm is perhaps why Poets in Nigeria (PIN) Initiative chose me to moderate their photo poetry contest, an online contest where poets and lovers of photography showcase their crafts to win book prizes. Reading the works of contemporary poets encouraged me to write more. I spent six weeks at Ebedi International Writing Residency and one weekend during this time was sscheduled at the Wole Soyinka Foundation Residency as an exchange programme. I blended poetry with prose during my stay. That retreat made the idea of writing serious for me.

As a founding member of Poets in Nigeria Initiative, I work directly with the Merchant of poetry; Eriata Oribabhor and Kolade Olanrewaju Freedom. Eriata is the President of PIN who dedicated his time to reading and critiquing works of emerging poets like me. Together with other members, we promote poetry reading around the country, and since 2013, I have participated in organizing poetry festivals and workshops.

I was privileged to be a judge at poetry events organized by PIN for students, reading over 500 entries sometimes. Exercises like that also help my craft. I attend readings and workshops all year-round. Also, I work with other contemporary poets as a panelist for book chats and for literary discussions.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L: A moment ago you mentioned the poet Salem Hunjo, whose works moved you forcefully toward a sort of epiphany. I think you put it something like “My muse woke up from sleep.” What other experiences, forces, or mentors have influenced your muse, your trajectory as a poet and performance artist?

Awodiya: I did not read much poetry when growing up but when I look into the works Maya Angelo, Niyi Osundare, and Femi Onileagbon, their voices synch with mine. In Maya Angelou’s works, I found a poet larger than life; in Niyi Osundare’s simple, beautifully crafted poems, an appeal to a sympathetic resonance in my own soul; and in Femi Onileagbon’s poems, an unapologetic self-confidence about thinking in the mother tongue. These are all things I aspire to as well. These poets and other poets I have read have schooled me.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Many poets are slow to appreciate their talents and capabilities and are sometimes slow to recognize their calling. What can you share with us about your own process of self-discovery. Did you make the conscious decision to see your poems in published form?

Awodiya: It took me a while before I decided to publish. The thrill about my poem in th anthology Who Shall I Make my Wife, a collection of food-related poems edited by Kolade Olanrewaju Freedom and Eriata Oribabhor, encouraged me. I have published poems on blogs like praximag and other journals. One of them is my poem “Ode,” a piece dedicated to to my mother’s friend, which was recently published in Best African Poets Anthology.

Successes are sweet– my poems have been translated to the Nepali language by a Nepali scholar and poet Keshab Sigdel and published in one of Nepal’s most-read journals. Rejections are, of course, disheartening, but listening to other writers talk about their rejections makes me feel I’m not alone.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L: How would you yourself characterize your body of work?

Awodiya: My poetry is not an art for art’s sake. My writing philosophy is poetry for service. Serving as a Health Volunteer with the State Ministry of Health influences my attitudes and purposes, and through them influences my works. I write about my daily experiences, about people and things I see at the health facility. Poetry becomes my medium for coping with the emotional stress that comes with caring for the sick.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Many will agree that reaction to daily stresses can serve as creative sparks. Do you actively seek out inspiration, or intellectual approaches, or poetic models? What is your normal creative practice?

Awodiya: I compose in a scrapbook, phone, and desktop. I write everywhere and many times, in unusual places like for an instance, at a wedding reception. Reading the works of contemporary poets inspires me. A good poet is a good reader, they say. I read and read works of poetry. My life revolves around poetry and what I can achieve with my poems, like creating awareness for sickle cell anemia and the suffering it causes to those afflicted with it. My poetry in the month of September has sometimes been dedicated exclusively to raising awareness of sickle cell anemia. I write some poems for the page only, but most of my verse is written to be performed.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Are you a disciplined writer who imposes on yourself arbitrary schedules, creative rituals, or regular writing routines? Can you describe your work flow for us?

Awodiya: I don’t have a specific time for writing but I prefer to write in the morning and at night. I go about with my scrapbook, writing ideas of poems to explore and sometimes writing out complete drafts. Sometimes, I write a poem daily on my social media timeline. But at the writing residency, I learned that with discipline and determination, I can have a writing schedule like some writers do. Writing discipline is an evolving process with me.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Books

Awodiya: I was greatly influenced by the President of Poets in Nigeria and social media friends to publish my first book The Farmer’s Daughter (poems on the borderline). I had been reluctant because most of the poems are personal poems written about what life is like growing up in a suburb of Lagos. The reception has been so awesome and that it brought me to literary limelight. People read my book and send me feedback comparing what their own hood with mine, sometimes detailing of similar experiences.

The poem which serves as the title of my book “The Farmer’s Daughter” is a metaphor for a sort of fatherhood that the State should provide for the citizen, but most readers assume it’s about my own father.

Adewunmi for O:JA&L: Thank you, Ms. Awodiya, for your time today, and we look forward to your performances and to your new work.


Update: Funke Awodiya has released a new collection Woman of a Woman, available now as an ebook from Amazon or as a hard copy from the publisher Something for Everybody Ventures (SFEV), 24, Fehintola Giwa Street, Aguda, Surulere, Lagos, Nigeria.


About the interviewer:
Contributing Editor and translator, Arts & Letters of Africa (Nigeria focus) Adekunle Adewunmi is  the author of Arise Nigeria, a collection of poetry that examines the peculiarity of the nation. He is a member of Poets in Nigeria (PIN) and was featured as Poet of the Week in Daily Trust Newspaper, Nigeria. A freelance, Adekunle works as a correspondent with Church Times, a specialized newspaper company. During his one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme at Kogi State Broadcasting Corporation, he worked as a Corps On-Air Personality (OAP) while submitting his poems and articles to the State’s newspaper for publication. Adekunle Adewunmi was recognized in 2018 by former President Olusegun Obasanjo as an Outstanding State Youth Ambassador for his efforts towards curbing youth irregular migration in Nigeria. Adekunle Adewunmi is an advocate of youth and good governance in Nigeria.

Images: All images courtesy of Funke Awodiya.

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