Yomi Ṣode: ‘The last thing I want to be is a preacher’

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Yomi Ṣode is a writer, performer and teacher, who was born in Nigeria and moved to London at the age of nine. He made his name on the spoken-word poetry circuit, on YouTube and at music festivals. His theatre debut, Coat – an autobiographical monologue centred on the preparation of a meal that he cooked on stage – had a sold-out run in 2017. His second theatre piece, and breathe… – a one-hander about death, mourning and young masculinity – was premiered at the Almeida theatre in 2021. Manorism, his first poetry collection, was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize earlier this month.

What is the significance of the title, Manorism?It’s one of two words in the collection that I’ve invented. I was raised on the Aylesbury estate in Southwark and went to a school where I returned later as a youth worker. I started to question why it was that, even now, I live in a constant state of high alert. If a car pulls up behind me, a survival instinct kicks in. But you’re also mindful of how you occupy space, because you don’t want other people to feel nervous either, so you’re constantly code-switching. This made me very interested in behavioural trends, especially as they pertain to black men. The argument I’m making is that there’s an innate manorism that comes from where you grew up – your manor – and goes with you wherever you travel. The other made-up word is aneephya: it’s the stress toxin of inherited trauma, which leads to fear, violence and sometimes death.

What does manorism have to do with mannerist art?I’ve been working on the collection since 2018 and the concept of manorism drew me into researching the mannerist artists of the 16th century. They were nonconformists, almost like the grime and punk artists of their age. They would use colours that were against the status quo, and elongate bodies to make them look really odd, which I found interesting, because there were enslaved Africans at that time and the way African bodies were looked at also involved oddities – broad noses, big bottoms. So I realised I was on to something really interesting about the European way of looking at things. Then Caravaggio was brought to my attention (though he was not a mannerist artist), and I was drawn in not only to his work, but also his life. He is both the bad boy and the Bible of the art world.

What are the parallels between Caravaggio’s life and today?Irrespective of the great art he created, he was also a murderer; his life was tumultuous, but he got away with so much. At the time, I was looking around me and was thinking about why this kind of grace is not afforded to me and how these parallels haven’t changed much over time. Caravaggio carried a sword, though he was the last person who should have been allowed to have one. He was reprimanded and taken into custody but successfully argued to be released because he was on the payroll of a cardinal. Then I think about police officers today, who are licensed to carry guns, and who shoot unarmed black men. Until recent times, many of these police officers have been acquitted of their crimes. Even now they’re suspended on full pay while their actions are investigated. This is privilege.

What does the concept of grace mean to you?We’re talking kindness, we’re talking empathy. We’re talking room to grow and to be. Take the example of the white rightwing protester who was rescued by Patrick Hutchinson at the Black Lives Matter rally in 2020. It was a vicious counter-protest, but the man never apologised and was allowed to continue living his life as normal. That’s a certain type of grace that I don’t think is afforded to everyone. Would it have been the same if it was a black protester who had been rescued? That needs to be looked into and it’s not my job. I’m not out with petitions and a megaphone. All I can do is write poems to explore it.

How has becoming a father affected your writing about male emotion and sexual coming of age?I wanted to scale back and look closely at the different vulnerabilities of black boys and one is around sexual development. In my generation, there were lots of boys with no male role models. We all knew about porn stars, but we didn’t talk about intimacy and sex. Even condoms were a taboo thing. It’s taken until now, hanging out with other black fathers, to laugh about it and think: Oh, my God, we could really have learned a lot by just talking to each other.

Who was “Big Mummy” and why did you devote a whole section to her?Matriarchy plays a big part in my work. Big Mummy was my great-aunt, who died of cancer. The day I heard I cried on a bus on the way to the hospital and no one checked to see if I was all right. Then I sat down and wrote the poems in a single day for my cousin. Black men do cry, but we’re so used to the stereotype of a black man as someone who doesn’t that it’s not even worthy of asking: “Are you OK?” As a result, you just suck it up, wipe your tears and act like it never happened. And so the cycle continues. I think there’s a window of opportunity between about 13 and 21 years old where that one question can really make a difference, because it shows care. But as a society, we never snap up those opportunities.

What does poetry mean for you as a writer?The last thing I want to be is a preacher. I want to tell a good story. And I want to be a geek, in the sense of utilising craft. There’s a sonnet in there, there’s iambic pentameter and haiku and a ghazal. There are also some that I wrote for the sound, with performance in mind. I love being a geek but not doing it true to the form. It has to be my voice, my own style.

How do you write?My writing space is between my home and a couple of membership clubs. I’m so busy day to day that I’ve learned to map poems out in my head so, come the day to write, I just write it straight out. I’m on the go all the time, plotting in my head. I live for the day when I can just wake up and write, but I also like that my brain works in such a way.

Recommend a book that has made a difference to you?Johny Pitts’sAfropean is an amazing book that, for me, sums up what it is like to be African and an African in England. If I’m in England I’m considered other. In Nigeria, I have to prove myself to a certain extent. That’s why it was important to me to open the collection with a poem in Yoruba, for my mother. I didn’t even know such a thing was possible. I’m this in-between and Afropean shows I’m not alone in that.

What is the magic of Maggi?Maggi is a stock cube that has its pros and cons, but Africans all over the world use it as flavouring. It has its own history, but in my work the placement of food is about peace and chaos. How often have you seen plates flying at Christmas dinners on EastEnders? Also, a lot of processing can happen in the making of a dish; it’s become one of my signatures – an invitation to grander conversations with the reader and viewer.

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2 thoughts on “Yomi Ṣode: ‘The last thing I want to be is a preacher’

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