Tolu Agbelusi’s book of poems Locating Strongwoman is a portrait of unperformed femininity and a celebration of what it means to inhabit all of yourself without boundaries. 

Locating Strongwoman was published in the UK by the award-winning independent publisher, Jacaranda Books, on 1 October 2020 (National Poetry Day) as part of their #Twentyin2020 initiative which sees 20 Black authors published under their imprint in 2020.  With fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, #TwentyIn2020 aims to normalize the presence of diverse literature and to amplify the voice of Black Britons as valued members of British culture and society.

Tolu Agbelusi is a poet, playwright, educator, and lawyer. A Callaloo Fellow, she was shortlisted for the White Review Poetry Prize and has been published internationally in journals and anthologies

Please introduce yourself…

Tolu Agbelusi, a Nigerian British poet, playwright, producer, educator, and lawyer.

What word or sentence best describes your life right now?

Purpose.

Your debut poetry collection Locating Strongwoman was published by Jacaranda books as part of their #Twentyin2020 initiative which sees 20 Black authors published under their imprint in 2020. What do you think it is about your work that resonated with them so much that it made the cut?

Who can say for sure what anyone else thinks or why? What I know is that I write poems for women who are ready to deconstruct accepted standards, ask difficult questions, and sit in the discomfort of searching until an answer emerges. My poems explore a strength that doesn’t ignore vulnerability and they tell stories of the multiplicity of things that we can be as women and especially as Black women. So I’m not surprised that a publishing house led by Black women whose aim is promoting quality whilst dispelling monolithic stereotypes of Blackness, read my manuscript and connected with the work.

Locating Strongwoman is a collection of poems and your first collection what made you use this medium of writing to express your ideas, rather than writing a play or a novel – was it easier?

As a writer, I’m a poet first. It’s a concise medium that allows me to connect on an emotional level with a broad range of people. Every genre is different and has its own challenges so I wouldn’t say poetry is easier. A blank page is always a challenge, but poetry is where I have had the most practice.

What is the central theme of your collection of poems, who are the poems aimed at, and in what ways do you want them to resonate with your readers?

The central theme in Locating Strongwoman is strength and what that looks like when women aren’t performing their existences according to conditioned or imposed expectations. In deconstructing strength and telling everyday stories of womanhood, this collection of poems explores agency, silence, consent, love, loss, depression, mothers and daughters, and self-discovery. These are timeless themes. We live in a world that is seemingly more open and in which the headlines suggest that we are freer than we have ever been. In reality, too many things are presented as absolutes and there is less room for conversation; less room to get it wrong or be unique. It’s an odd paradox. I wanted to write about what it means to just be; to evaluate yourself, accept the good and the bad and decide to present in the world as a whole person. I’ve written principally for women, but these are human stories that will connect with anybody. In many ways, Locating Strongwoman is a challenge to the reader to examine their perceptions about the things and the people they think they know. I hope it is a collection that people can see themselves in and one that reminds the reader that they have permission to be everything they wish to be.

You were shortlisted for the 2018 White Review Poetry Prize and you are a 2017 BBC Slam Finalist. Did you find pressure when writing Locating Strongwoman to live up to your previous accolades?

No. I challenge myself to be excellent and not to succumb to any pressures to put work out before it is ready. The only pressure I felt when writing Locating Strongwoman was to ensure that I did the stories justice and that I did it with sufficient vulnerability to let readers in so that other women could find themselves on those pages.

You have also performed widely including at Stanza International Poetry Festival, Lagos Poetry Festival, the Southbank, St Paul’s Cathedral, IWM, and for BBC World Service. Which do you enjoy most the art of written or spoken word?

One doesn’t happen without the other, so I don’t make those distinctions. The pains that accompany the process of birthing a new piece of writing with all the imposter syndrome and feelings of impossibility that are part and parcel of watching a blank page and wondering how to start are matched by the triumph of the final poem and the stories of the many turns the process involved. Sharing work on stage is the final joy which is sweeter because of what came before. It is as much discovery as the writing. The work takes its own breath and it’s a beautiful feeling to exchange energy with an audience.

Do you feel your audience takes away the same feeling of expression when reading your work in contrast to watching you perform it?

Performance inevitably adds a personal flair, but my aim is always to write with enough layers and clarity that the emotion of the work is transmitted with or without my voice being heard. Once I have put the work out in the world, I know people will receive what they need from it, regardless of the medium and that’s enough for me.

You are a woman of many talents, you are also a playwright and lawyer, of course, being a playwright and poet are both art forms where does being a lawyer fit in. What came first?

On the contrary, all three are art forms that involve storytelling. In all three, you are telling stories, trying to reflect something new back to your audience or something they thought they knew which you present from a different perspective. I’ve always written even when I didn’t yet put labels on it and at some point, I thought the law and the arts were distant from each other but in reality, all my practices feed each other through themes, frustrations, and processes. The first time I realised this was after a case I did when I was still in Anguilla. I had done my closing speech and we were waiting for the jury to come back. Some of those in court were talking about my style and the effect of my voice. Suddenly, it clicked that some of those comments were identical to what people say when I come off a stage. It all comes down to performance and authenticity.

What are your plans for the future?

I’ve been interviewing women who are doing great things from around the world as part of an interrogation on strength and womanhood. At present, these interviews take the form of a monthly long-form article on my medium account. I’m looking forward to growing that platform and doing more with the stories through a range of artforms. You’ll have to keep your eyes peeled to see what I come up with. I’m sure there’ll be more plays, more exhibitions and documentaries, and definitely more poetry.

Where can our audiences find out more about you and your work?

Audiences can find my work at www.ToluAgbelusi.com and they can purchase the book from Jacaranda, Foyles, and anywhere the book is sold. You can also get e-books on Amazon, and Audible has recently published an audio version in an anthology with the other Jacaranda poets called, In Her Voice. If you would like a signed copy, DM Tolu on any of the socials. Twitter and Instagram – @toluagbelusi

GETTING TO KNOW YOU …

  • A book you have to have in your collectionForest Primeval by Vievee Francis
  • A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date – Oooh, can’t decide between Mali Music’s Walking Shoes and Tobe Nwigwe’s Against the Grain.
  • A film / TV show that you will watch whenever it’s on repeatedly – My TV and film choices are completely mood dependent so I’m struggling with this question. I’m going to say Grey’s Anatomy.
  • The first play you saw and what it meant to you? It wasn’t the first play I saw but the first play I remember seeing is Umoja. I’d never seen a stage full of Black people in the UK who were just telling their own stories. I left the theatre on a high that I still remember over a decade later. I didn’t necessarily have the words for it at the time but with hindsight, the impact was that feeling of being represented.
  • What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week – SadTier 4 and knowing that I won’t be spending Christmas with family. Mad – My boss. Glad I met up with some friends who I haven’t seen since March when lockdown started and it fed my soul to see them, talk about nothing, sip on mulled wine and amaretto and make the best out of not being able to be at a restaurant like we had planned. In a word, SISTERHOOD.


Find out more about Jacaranda Books and #Twentyin2020 here.