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Leeza Awojobi: “If I’m not writing, there’s usually something deeper going on”

With the help of our Patrons, we’ve given a grant to Bristol-based performance poet Leeza Awojobi. Leeza’s new piece, ‘The Frayed Elephant’, is a poetry, audio and storytelling piece more akin to a participatory art installation. It’s a new frontier for Leeza, and still in the development stages, so we asked London poet Traysi Benjamin-Matthew to find out more. Along the way they discuss ideas of truth, the problems of social media, and being a whole person outside of your artistic practice.

We love to help out artists who are trying new things in their practice, to encourage them to be bold, stretch themselves, and open up new conversations with their work. Join our Patrons scheme for as little as £5/month, and we can keep supporting artists like Leeza who are doing exactly that.

Hi Leeza! Can you introduce yourself, and your background as an artist?

My name is Leeza Awojobi. I’m a Bristol-based poet and producer. I’ve been doing performance poetry for about four and a half years now. I like to summarise my poetry with the themes/words ‘eyes and oath’. So ‘eyes’ refer to observation, perception, and intent; and an ‘oath’ is a testimony of truth, or a solemn promise. And these are two ideas I regularly go back to in my practice, and I feel like they really ground my work.

Can you tell us about the piece that Sputnik is helping to fund?

So thanks to you guys, I get to develop this idea that’s probably been a year and a half in the making. It’s called ‘The Frayed Elephant’. It’s a poetry, audio and storytelling piece that features materials. So currently I imagine it to be a solitary experience, where people listen to the poetry and storytelling pieces on headphones, and at the same time they get to play with, interact and respond to materials.

Why that title, the Frayed Elephant?

That title basically comes from a parable that I came across called ‘the blind men and the elephant.’ It’s the story of six blind men who are all feeling on different parts of the elephant – one is feeling the trunk and says ‘ an elephant is like a snake’. Another is feeling a leg and says ‘no, no, an elephant is like a tree’.

The moral is that because we’re coming from different perspectives, we shouldn’t judge each other on claims to truth.

But the ‘Frayed Elephant’ also came out of a critique I heard of that story – if there’s no absolute truth, if it’s all just for grabs, who is the person looking into the frame? Who is the person who claims to see the whole picture, and has the objective view to say that everyone else is blind? I think the moral is a good one, that we should strive towards tolerance, or shouldn’t allow our personal angle to create division; but how do we exist, and co-exist in a society without any anchoring?

Do you find something limiting in the usual ‘performance’ dynamic between artist and audience? Or how would you see it?

That’s a good question, I wouldn’t say there are limitations. I think there are just different ways of viewing performance. I want to enable whoever I engage with, in this piece at least, to engage more actively.

There’s so much you can do in that kind of traditional, unidirectional way of storytelling that we’re used to. But this is just a different way of doing it.

Can you tell us why you feel connected to the material personally, and why it’s important to make this work?

I guess this grew out of – partly that parable – but it also came out of my relationship with social media. Gradually over the years I’ve just taken myself off various platforms. I’ve always had a very back-and-forth relationship with social media. It wasn’t an environment that I felt I could thrive in, if I wanted to engage with it properly.

Any top tips for those who are starting out in poetry?

Definitely write! Sometimes, it comes out so clunky, it’s not flowing; but just having that regular time of writing – twice a week, for example.

At various times I’ve written every day. I don’t do that all the time – for some people that’s their thing, I don’t put that pressure on myself but I do write regularly, and if I feel like I’m getting stuck, I do make an effort to not stay there.

And how do you do that? How do you get out of the space of being unable to write?

I think to be honest my faith helps a lot. We’re whole people. The way society is set up, and the way work can be set up, is that we cut ourselves off from different parts of ourselves. But we’re whole people.

If I’m not writing, there’s usually something deeper going on. Maybe I’m stuck because I feel overwhelmed, and the pressure of being an artist is too much; maybe I’m looking at my work and thinking ‘this is rubbish’! But whether it’s rubbish or not, who am I outside of my work?

Because as artists we’re pouring ourselves out, we can get so wrapped up in our practice and that can be where our identity is rooted. But actually I try to be careful about that. While poetry is always going to be inside me, it can’t be all that ultimately defines me, or all that I live for.

You’ve been writing poetry for a while. Can you tell me when you felt actually “I am a poet”?

That’s a good question! It’s kind of difficult to answer because I did have a moment when I decided to pursue it professionally, but I’ve been writing since I was a kid. But that moment came about through the mentorship I received when I did a Christian internship; I had the privilege of being mentored by Cully and Ally from Morphe Arts.

It wasn’t something I had been encouraged to do or seen other people in my sphere do. But with their encouragement and others, they helped me realise, “you can do this, this is a thing, this is legitimate!’ People do see the value of poetry and engaging with people culturally.

That’s another tip surely, surrounding yourself with like-minded people who can mentor and guide you along that poetry journey, isn’t it? So what’s next, what will you be working on?

Well what’s next is this, really! I’m really looking forward to returning to my ideas and thinking about who I can potentially collaborate with. I want it to be an audio piece which may or may not feature music, for example. So that’s what I’ll be doing!

Follow Leeza aka @eyesandoath on Instagram, or find out more at her website.