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Interview with Issue 3 Featured Contributor & Contest Winner, Muhammed Olowonjoyin

By Ziyi Yan and Muhammed Olowonjoyin

Hi Muhammed! Thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview. First, I’d like to ask you where you got your inspiration for “Sanctuary With the Burning Self.” How did this poem come to be?

Hi Ziyi! Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this feature. I’m greatly honored to have been named the inaugural winner of The Dawn Prize for Poetry. I believe my poem, “Sanctuary With The Burning Self,” was inspired by the beginning of a surrender. It comes from defeat, most certainly, but also from the hope that can be found within hopelessness. It comes from the fact that you can still be, “despite, despite, despite.” The speaker of the poem comes from a wilted sense of hope– a place of war, or something close to it.

How long can a dying thing survive? This question is why the speaker of the poem says “all I want as a / wanderer is to beautiful in this chaos, and / with a home.” There have been too many poems about healing, without healing. Hence, I wrote a poem about surrender, where the speaker hopes to be saved by his own remains. I thought of a title only after I’d written, discarded, and rewritten this poem many times.

More broadly, where do you go for literary inspiration? Are there any magazines or authors that you particularly like to read? Do you find inspiration in daily life, or in other disciplines and art forms?

I think one of the biggest challenges I have as a writer is finding inspiration. So lately, if I do not intend to write, there is no form of inspiration that can force me to write. My writing process is almost intentional– almost nonspontaneous. I only jot down spontaneous ideas for metaphors, new words, and newly discovered writers. I’m especially obsessed with Ocean Vuong’s readings– how he picks his words calmly, one by one, as if building a sandcastle. Listening to poetry readings on Button Poetry is more inspiring than reading on my own. That said, I still read a lot of poems to learn how great writers, including my contemporaries, bend language. Writers who’ve inspired me are Romeo Oriogun and Louise Glück.

I think one thing that really struck me about your poem was the usage of language. With phrases like, “I oasis,” “I firefly,” and “I Icarus,” you use nouns as verbs. I find this really exciting– where did you get your inspiration for this creative choice?

I always let my poems tell me how to write them. Sometimes, I begin poems with a single line, (which I might eventually delete). Sometimes, I begin poems with an idea or a word that fascinates me. Often, I’m clueless of what the next words will be, or how a few collected phrases (I think about metaphors a lot) will fit into my poem. My usage of nouns as verbs was inspired by Carl Phillips’ “I Cathedral” from his poem “And if I Fall,” but with more experimentation– I didn’t even know if what I was doing was right, or acceptable. Eventually, I just decided to do it and see what became of it. I’m enthralled that my experimentation was accepted.

How do you think “Sanctuary With the Burning Self” fits into your broader portfolio of work? Is it similar to other pieces you’ve produced? Has it influenced any of the other pieces you’ve written?

Many of my works explore mental health, and how the body functions in conjunction with my country (in terms of geography and politics), to determine what will become of us. I think this poem fits quite well into my body of work– maybe as the epilogue of a tired soul moving towards surrender. My poem is an attempt at bloom even when the only light in my country is the light of a destructive fire. Still, so much hope has been lost in the speaker’s journey toward surrender. Before writing “Sanctuary With The Burning Self,” I wrote a similar poem, which was recently published in Pepper Coast Lit. “Sanctuary With The Burning Self” hasn’t yet influenced any other pieces, but I’m trying to create something out of it. I see it as the last poem in a series, before I click on the rewind button to paint portraits of how the speaker attained their surrender.

I’m also wondering how you balance your writing with your university work in biochemistry. How do you make time to write, and are there any intersections between your writing and your studies?

I was in my first year of biochemistry when COVID hit. This was when I started to have a wild interest in writing. But I wasn’t writing poetry. Rather, I freelanced with a news agency that I would quit a few months later. I discovered a Facebook community where people posted poems for fun, and I quickly became obsessed. As a new poet, I was hungry to shed my immaturity. My the desire to bend language lingered until two years later, when I started writing seriously. I cannot write all the time or do biochemistry all the time, but I love them equally, so I try to make time for both. It’s not easy, but I’m grateful to the world (and to my own curiosity) for allowing me to discover passions that I can’t let go of.

What’s in store for you in the future? Are there any aspects of your craft that you’re trying to hone in on, or any projects that you’re currently working toward?

My future seems a little blurry, because I have to either stick with a single discipline, pursue two vastly different disciplines, or branch out into something new entirely. I have about a year to decide whether to potentially pursue an MFA or a Master of Science. On the idea of improvement– we’re all trying to improve, right? The writer I am today is different from the writer I was a few months ago. I really aspire to have Louise Glück’s awe-inspiring use of narrative language, but I also want to keep my own voice. I have a project I’m working on– I’m not even halfway through, but I’ll let time do its trick. I’m not too much of a perfectionist, but I’d rather master my art before rushing to get a chapbook out.

Thank you so much, Ziyi Yan, for this invitation. I look forward to seeing The Dawn Review do many great things in the world of literature.


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