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"So You Wanna Win A Book Prize" w/ Gbenga Adeoba

by Jamaica Baldwin

Our final "So You Wanna Win A Book Prize" interview of the season is with poet 'Gbenga Adeoba, the 2019 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets Winner. This is the last of a series of illuminating conversations between PS Book Prize Coordinator Jamaica Baldwin and writers who have played the book prize game and won! There are only 2 days left to submit to the Raz-Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book PrizeClick here for full details. Read on for Baldwin's conversation with 'Gbenga Adeoba. Click here to buy Adeoba's Prize-winning collection Exodus.


Jamaica Baldwin: You won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets in 2019 for your collection Exodus. What were you doing when you heard the news that you had won? How did you feel?

'Gbenga Adeoba: Stunned! I was at the library, in between classes. I had stepped out to call a friend when I got the news. It took a while for it to sink in.

JBDescribe the process of constructing your first manuscript. How did you conceive of ordering the collection?

GA: My first manuscript grew out of my undergraduate thesis. It didn’t quite work well as a collection because it lacked cohesion; so, I had to discard it. But a couple of those poems made it into the manuscript that became Exodus. In ordering Exodus, I was interested in the conversations the poems might be having with one another.  I wanted the kids in some of the poems to speak to one another even though there were sometimes different pursuits. In the first section, the poems with the sea as their source of metaphor, whether or not they were reflecting on the past, needed to be together. The poems about internal displacement, too.


JB: Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?

GA: I did, especially in a section that didn’t eventually make it into the book. But it was useful in mapping my most dominant or reoccurring thoughts while writing those poems. The tics that remained and were fruitful found room for themselves. Songs are scattered all over the poems, and they are important in the social, speech, and historical communities to which I belong. They were also faithful when line breaks or imageries failed.

JB: How did you decide where to submit the collection? How many places did you submit?

GA: I had not sent it out before I entered it for the Sillerman First Book Prize. I wanted a press that would care about what the manuscript explored. The experience I had with APBF while working with them on my chapbook made submitting the manuscript for the Sillerman Prize an easy choice.

JB: What does current-you wish you could have told past-you about the whole processes?

GA: To get out of the way and see the possibilities the work might be offering.

JB: Has publication changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

GA: Yes, the lessons I took away from the editorial process are invaluable. I realized that I was overwriting in some poems because I didn’t trust the actual image I created or needed to work on the clarity of some of the metaphors I used in others.

JB: What project (s) are you working on currently that you are most excited about?

GA: Ekphrastic poems mostly; I am leaning more into my interest in images. Although I have been using ekphrasis to explore personal memory, I am interested in some of Pieter Bruegel's works. John Burnside's poem on his "Winter Landscape with Ice-skaters and Bird-trap" is beautiful.

JBWhat was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

GA: The process turned out to be more layered than I thought. There is indeed much that goes into making a book.

JBWhat is your favorite part of your first book?

GA: It is the publication process. It was exciting to work with people who were interested in the book and gave it all it needed for its leap from manuscript to book form.

JBDo you have any advice for the writers submitting to this year’s book prize?

GA: None but Francis Bacon’s words: “Send out your little book upon the waters and hope.”

'Gbenga Adeoba is a graduate fellow at the University of Iowa. Born in Nigeria, he is the author of the chapbook Here Is Water, which appeared in the African Poetry Book Fund’s New-Generation African Poets Series. His work has been published in Oxford PoetryPleiadesSalamanderPoet LoreAfrican American ReviewPrairie Schooner, and elsewhere. His full-length book Exodus won the 2019 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets Prize. https://twitter.com/_snowburl?lang=en