As opposed to finding poetry, Nigerian poet and spoken word artist Iyanu Adebiyi would argue that poetry found her. Poetry presented itself as solution to a personal life challenge and she took the offer. “In the early stages, I didn’t even know what I was doing. I didn’t know if I wanted to do this,” she recollects. At a time when she was going through episodes of depression, she looked for an escape. Her initial attempt to utilize poetry as an escape seemed futile. She wrote to heal but it was just not working.
In 2020, Iyanu Adebiyi released her debut poetry album which features a musical production that brings her soothing voice to life as she recites twelve distinct poetry pieces. For the listeners, the body of work is a pleasing poetic experience, and her recent works are usually accompanied by positive feedbacks from the audience, but Iyanu claims that her works have not always been this brilliant and her representation of her own poems have not always been courageous.
Once when she was browsing through social media hoping to understand what to do with herself, she stumbled on the #depression hashtag and started seeing that she wasn’t the only one lost in the dark cave of depression. “I was filled with so much anger and I wanted to do something about it.” She started to write short poems.
This experience opened her eyes to the poetic possibilities she would later learn to explore, not just for herself but for the benefit of a thousand others whom she always have in mind whenever she’s creating every single piece of her poetry.
Recently, Iyanu launched Ifeleta, a poetry gift shop offering a range of poetry-inscribed items from wall frames to greeting cards and t-shirts and scrolls, with the purpose of building “a community that finds healing and inspiration through words, a family of people who use love-words as weapons to break the shackles and heal their own selves and others.”
For our ongoing series titled Black Magix in celebration of Black History Month, Tope Akintayo had a conversation with Iyanu about poetry as healing and purpose, the inspiration behind Ifeleta, and the challenges of the creative process.
Somewhere I find that you write: “I am a young Nigerian poet with a passion for hurting and broken people. The three pillars of my art are pain, poetry and purpose.” Could you reflect on this? Where did this resolve come from and what led you to (what inspires this) this passion?
It was how I was able to get past the depressive phase and helped other people work through theirs. Since I can remember, I have always internalized other people’s pain, always been an empath and so I’m someone who is really familiar with pain and feels things deeply. I’ve always wanted to help broken people see themselves as whole, comfort and encourage people going through hardship in whatever form.
So, the three-pillar thingy was first a mantra. Whenever I was going through pain, I wanted to remember that I had poetry and through it, I could turn any sort of pain to purpose. I taught myself that sometimes pain is prophetic. It is just something that makes you softer and more responsive to other people’s pain. My pain is something that brought me towards poetry and poetry brought me towards purpose and now I know that purpose is the first gate towards success. So, I created that as a mantra to remind me of my process.
Let’s practice gratitude. Could you mention some of the achievements you’ve had as a creative and poet that have been super special to you and you’re most grateful for? What makes them so special?
I’m not sure I can remember many, but one that stood out for me was very early in my career, before it was even a career, I was awarded by the U.S Consulate in Nigeria. I was invited to the award ceremony and given an opportunity to speak at a private meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria. He was so deeply touched by some of the things I said and that was when I began to understand the power of the words I carried. That was when my family stopped laughing at me for performing poetry. I’m not going to lie, even I would laugh at myself then because I was so corny with the hand gesticulations and dramatism – that was very special, because it helped me to begin believing that I had something within me that the world needed.
Then recently, I was awarded by the Federal Government of Nigeria for my service to arts. It happened after a tough period in my life. I was wrestling with a devastating illness. I would still write poetry, I would still perform while feeling unbearable pain. I didn’t know I loved poetry that much. So, when I received the award, the Minister presenting the award on behalf of the Federal Government took some time to encourage and acknowledge me for all my work in the arts. He told me well done, told me that I was making Nigeria proud and that I was appreciated. It was a special moment, because it made me realize that even when I feel unseen, people are watching and applauding me for all my sacrifices.
The one that I will never forget is the lady who sent me a DM on Instagram and told me that my poetry was keeping her alive.
Ifeleta is your new project. Could you share a backstory on the inspiration for this idea? A lot of effort and activities go into planning and executing a product or project launch, especially when it is an entirely new project. Could you reminisce on what it was like behind the scene? I think it will be an interesting story.
Ifeleta started as love letters which I sent to people who had subscribed to my email list. I sent them love letters often and this was a variation of what I was doing just before I started poetry. It was a process that grounded me because at the time, I was also struggling mentally. I would write messages of inspiration, love, affection and basically anything to encourage my readers. And they would respond that they felt it was written to them directly. I thought it was something I should take seriously and separate it from my normal poetry/spoken word.
I had an idea to create poetry inscribed products to help people remember these words of encouragement and affirmation, because I began to see the power of words and how it could redeem and redefine you, so I created a poetry gift shop along with it. It’s still in its early stages, so lets see what it becomes soon.
The process involved a lot of fear, a lot of learning and research, a lot of worry and a lot of asking for help. None of these was easy, but I think its been worth it so far.
This is not often discussed but thinking about Ifeleta as a business makes me want to ask, is poetry business? If yes, what is the (or your) business model as a poet. That is, before and outside of Ifeleta.
Poetry can be a business and it is to a lot of people, but mine is not. It is more like a ministry and a medium. I use it as a tool to create value.
What has been the biggest challenge to you’re creative process? How are you navigating and managing (or do you intend to navigate and manage) this challenge?
Being afraid to place a price tag on my poetry. For a long time, I didn’t know it was a challenge, because I just didn’t see my poetry as a money-making business, not that it couldn’t make money, but I didn’t want it to be that. I was very protective of it. I was afraid that they would commercialize my art and its value would become nothing but monetary. I didn’t want that because I pour so much of myself into my work, I thought it would be self-prostitution to commercialize it.
Now, I understand that nobody can pay for my art. It does not have a market value. It is invaluable. All that my clients can do is to compensate me, they cannot buy my work because art is not buyable, it is only sharable and when the artist shares it with the world, it is not lost, more than anything, it finds a lot more hearts to live in.
Now that you’ve experienced what it takes to get to where you are right now. What are some of the advises and personal life philosophies you would you share with your 15 year old self?
Embrace your lonely seasons. Self-love is key. Your weirdness is your power. You’ve always had a unique voice and perspective—it is a blessing, not a curse. Your words, as simple as they are, are enough. You are incredibly powerful. By all means, love others, welcome them into your heart, but learn to know when to stop, when to move and begin loving them from afar. Self-esteem is not a destination, it is a journey with the self. Forgive easily. Let things go freely. What is yours will come and what isn’t will go. You cannot lose what did not belong to you in the first place. Things are just things, people are just people. Learn to live without the attachment that stems from a toxic possessive outlook on life. Guide your heart. Your mind is your greatest ally, but sometimes it can become an enemy. Whatever happens, make sure you keep leading yourself towards love, as softly and kindly as possible. Just start. There will be many falls, but none of them will be able to cripple you. Keep getting up. Stand up for what you believe in. Lastly, allow joy into your jungle body. Both joy and pain can sit side by side. Rest from your grief. Life is long. Play the long game – no shortcuts, no sprints. Victory belongs to the patient ones.
February is Black history month and we’ll love to talk briefly about it. The purpose is to celebrate the achievements of Blacks. What roles do you think creatives, especially poets, play in effecting changes that ripple through history and strengthen Black victory and representation both home and abroad.
I think that creatives play a huge role, and ultimately, it is impossible to decipher where the boundaries lie between art and politics, between art and activism or even the black lives matter movement. This is because art is at the centre of everything.
Poetry is one of the most powerful art forms that exists and it’s not just because I’m a poet that I’m saying it, it’s because it’s true. Take Maya Angelou for example. Through her poems, she was able to create reflections of blackness, so that black people could finally see themselves – talk about her phenomenal poem, I Rise. This is the first act of redemption, because oppression first blinds you from seeing who you truly are. It tells you you are nothing, now when poetry is constantly created by black people, people who are unafraid to take the stage and open their mouths and take charge of an audience, it tells you you are something. You are black and you are powerful. It uplifts the soul and brings forth hope, the people are revived to continue fighting for their freedom.
Another powerful example of what poetry can do and how one poem can become an anthem of black victory and representation is Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream.” A lot of people might argue that that was a speech, but we poets know that it was a poem. It carried a rhythm, it carried soul and it was powerful enough to hold a discouraged people in hope for decades, which helped them to keep on moving, even when the world around them ridiculed and debased them.
Today, I think that it behooves on creatives to keep that spirit ongoing, whether as Africans, African Americans or as blacks in any shape or form. We owe it to the generations coming ahead of us to leave examples of black excellence and victory, so that they never believe the lie that they are less just because they are black.