11,000. You should know.
There is a difference between blue and blues. Blue is a colour. Blue is the name of the ocean. Blues are its feel. Its waves, its tides, its songs, its subjection to the wind, its opposition. You cannot hide blues. Blue is just a colour but blues are an expanse – a feeling, a wide stretch. Blues: a body of sky, infinite clouds across its surface. An ocean and its ripples.
I said I wasn’t a poet, that the muse had begun to cease, the form was tiring, and who on earth still read poems? I claimed almost everything I wrote somewhat yearned to be a narrative, that I didn’t like blogging that much because I simply could not pressurize myself to create art and that stories took time. I said that I wasn’t willing to publish yet, that my drafts were too awful, and if the West did not recognize my craft, who would? I identified as a short story writer not a poet. Poetry wasn’t just working, and didn’t those type of people speak too much grammar?
‘Your story reads like a poem again.’
I was one of the few in class who always chose the creative writing question. Others went for easier things: informal/formal letter, ‘Why I want to be the first female president’ and the likes. I always chose to write a story. In my penultimate year at high school. I was leading the class in writing but when I got to my final year, I got ‘too deep’ and so my scores dropped.
Because ‘wayek’ was close, my English teacher, concerned an external examiner would mark me down if he or she had to read twice to understand what I was writing, she began to mark my script wickedly. Strict marking, wicked marking, what is the difference?
No, you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction like and or because. No, your story has to be more explicit. Stories should be in past tense and clear, you can’t leave so much unsaid. And greatest of all: no, not again, your paragraphing is bad, when did this start? You are really deep, you write like an art student, not a scientist. Are you sure you’re even meant to be in science?
This went on throughout the year. I think of it this way: I had become so blind to the structure of my work because there was one thing I was flooded with due to the circumstances of that moment: emotion. And so my stories often lacked conflict or proper plots but had complex characters and hefty description.
In the end, I drowned in self doubt. I didn’t like my stories. I didn’t like poems. I didn’t write, I told myself I had school leaving exams to focus on.
‘You like trying to be humble.’
I remember that conversation vividly. He had praised my work and called me ‘oga’, asking me to criticize his work. I simply gave him feedback, telling him I didn’t think I was that good, I wasn’t qualified to judge afterall.
‘No you are; you are just trying to be humble.’
I shook when I was walking in a public place and someone said, “Are you writer?” I asked him how he knew me and he said, “I saw on T.V about a year ago.”
It shook me to think someone could identify me that way. Recognition can be really nice but it can also be paralyzing. It creates the awareness that people are now following your art, that they could have expectations. It really could distract from creating new work.
“Stop saying you have abandoned poetry. I would still call you a poet.”
11,000.You should know.
I drowned in its blues. A good number of friends still do not know what it means. I wept for many nights. I thought of the time I entered, how as at then I had no tiny glimmer of hope. I just simply entered because it was free and my parent’s Wi-Fi was on.
I thought of Alice Watson’s email, the congratulations, the invitation to the award ceremony at Royal Festival Hall London, the fact that Jackie Kay and Raymond Antrobus had selected me out of 11,000 entries, that previous winners were U.S Presidential Scholars in the Arts, Youth Poet Laureates and other impressive things. When I saw ‘Alice Watson, Foyle Young Poets’ on my phone notification bar that day, I assumed it was a ‘thank you for submitting email.’
I read the email. It wasn’t. My phone almost dropped. I read the email again. The shock stayed in my bones for weeks.
Every young writer needs that yes that kickstarts his or her career. Winning the Foyle Award is a big one for me. For those who don’t know the Foyle Young Poets Award, it’s the biggest award in the world for poets – and writers in general actually – under 18. It’s definitely a prestigious title – this year there were over 11,000 entries from almost 80 countries. I think the only award for a writer under 18 that can compete with Foyle in terms of number of submissions is probably the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay organised by the Royal Council England. The Poetry Society U.K gives the Foyle Young Poets of the Year award to only 100 – 15 winners, 85 commendations. My piece, ‘Chocolate is a Redeemer’ won a commendation and even though there is no cash prize – the only award language some of my people understand smh – I am still shocked. It would be published in March 2020.
I love how my Yoruba name stands out on the winner’s list even though I still feel I do not write that good to be among them.
My mother’s birthday is in a few hours. I pray the new year brings her great surprises like the Foyle award. I pray for nights of joyous screaming.