Interviews

‘I was a late bloomer with books’: 21 Questions with poet Yomi Sode

The poet and author of new collection Manorism on his past life as a security guard, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and how a poem can stop anyone in their tracks.

Nigerian British poet Yomi Sode has been making his name for years – he received the Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellowship in 2019, and was shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize in 2021 – so it’s something of an understatement to say that the release of his debut poetry collection has been an eagerly awaited one. And with good reason: Manorism is a tender and nuanced portrayal of life in Britain for Black men and boys, shot through with references spanning from Renaissance master Caravaggio to adult film star Mr Marcus, and told in a voice shot through with musicality from his childhood and his years performing onstage.

To celebrate the release of Manorism, we asked Sode our 21 Questions about life and literature. Below, he opens up about his love of Kendrick Lamar, work snitches, and sharing a Nigerian Fanta with playwright August Wilson.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

“Admire” feels big! I’m going in a slightly different angle with my answer. Kendrick Lamar is a writer I go to from time to time. I interrogate his process and execution. Also the level of detail. These things stand out to me.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

I don’t really remember, as I arrived in England quite young and was trying to make sense of things. I remember reading a lot of comics though – The Beano annuals especially. I liked the characters a lot.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

Ha. I was a late bloomer with books, to be honest. I do remember returning to my GCSE Poetry Anthology though. John Agard struck a chord with me. Often, this is the feeling I want with my own work, how one piece of writing can change the outlook of a person. That’s wicked, no?

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

'One piece of writing can change the outlook of a person. That’s wicked, no?'

I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in my late teens and it went right through me. Nothing really landed. So that was one of a few books around that time that called for me to read and listen different. I use the same skill across my work and my day-to-day practice now; I learned that should something not make sense in the first instance, it doesn’t mean it will never make sense in the long run. The Autobiography of Malcolm X made all the sense when the right time came for me to take it all in. I say this, but Donnie Darko still loses me every time!

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

Ah! Not so much strange, but random: I worked night shifts as a cleaner once. I’d get three hours of work done in two hours, then slept for the last hour in my cosy spot. It was all good until nine months in when an ex-colleague mentioned my spot to management and I got fired. They caught me counting sheep, clean! Haters will hate, but he didn’t have to snitch like that.   

An audio extract from Manorism

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

“Don’t be a spokesperson, Yomi. Leave it in the writing.”

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

I’ve read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi a lot. I return to Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth often also.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

Ha, my books to read list is silllllllly! So long! I feel guilty all the time, but also I remember that I enjoy sleep and not doing much at times. Which hardly happens. So when it does? That gets my full attention. 

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

A journalist. I love writing. I know this much. Confidently.

What makes you happiest?

I struggle with ‘happy,’ and before I get too deep with my answer, I’d say that I enjoy great moments with amazing friends and family. In the pandemic, so many things changed, including my outlook on things, and what I consider as priority.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

'Whenever bowls [the lawn sport] is on TV, I get fixated'

This is not a hobby or passion but… whenever bowls [the lawn sport] is on TV, I get rather fixated. I think it’s just the way they make the ball curl. It’s sick.  

What is your ideal writing scenario?

For everyone to leave me the fuck alone. Simple.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

Super hyped and early in my trying-to-impress days, I asked an author to sign a book of his that I purchased. He opened it and to my shock horror, it was from a library that had purchased it already and put it back for sale. The look of confusion he gave me! The shame I felt! 

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

I’d invite [playwright] August Wilson, I think. I would cook a mean poundo and egusi for a man like August. Then hand him a Nigerian Fanta.

What’s your biggest fear?

From a writing perspective, I think it’s to not be daring enough in my thinking and creativity. I have experienced so much, and I have to believe in those stories and where they take me. 

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

The baby in The Incredibles? Yup, gimme that shit. All of it.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

You are not getting me in trouble with my author friends! I do have one, but I’ve given so much of me so far, however weird or geeky. I’m gonna bow out of this one!

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Controversial, but I don’t really do baths. I should though. I live a shower lifestyle, but I love the idea of a warm, leave-me-be bath.

'I live a shower lifestyle, but I love the idea of a warm, leave-me-be bath'

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Tea. Love the smell of coffee though.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

Ahhhhh I’m not getting caught in this, you troublemaker!

What inspired you to write your book?

The younger me that stopped on a poem. That could be anyone out there. Manorism is my contribution to that change, [to get other young people to find poetry]. All it takes is one, right?

Manorism is out now.

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