Dolapo Demuren is a Nigerian-American writer from the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He received his B.A. in Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University and M.F.A from Columbia University. He is a doctoral student in Education at the University of Southern California. His honors include a fellowship from the Cave Canem Foundation and The Academy for Teachers, as well as scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. His poetry and other writings are featured in The Adroit Journal, Frogpond Journal, Prelude Magazine, and Small Orange Journal. He is currently completing his second collection of poems, among other creative works.
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Bailey Bujnosek: When did you first become interested in creative writing and poetry? What was your introduction to writing?
Dolapo Demuren: I came to poetry in high school. I had a wonderful creative writing teacher, Mr. Paul Clark, at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland. I’ll never forget when Mr. Clark pulled me aside before one of our classes and said, “Hey, Dolapo, can I talk to you at the end of class?” I thought I was in trouble or something like that. Then afterward, I’m in the hallway with him, talking, and he says, “You know, Dolapo, you’re a poet. You’re really gifted.”” And I was shocked, of course. Not just because I thought there was maybe some trouble coming my way, but because I had no idea that I had this gift. His words set me on a path towards discovering this gift that he said was in me. So, I owe a lot to Mr. Clark. I sent him an email a couple of years back, just to thank him and say, “look at the work your encouragement is still doing in my life.”
BB: You’re from the Washington D.C. Metro area. What was it like to grow up there? Did that experience have an influence on your writing in any way?
DD: The DMV, as we call it, is an easy place to grow fond of… to be proud of; reliving childhood there in poems and memories is a favorite pastime of mine. Specifically, I grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland. My parents immigrated from Nigeria to the States in the 1990s. PG County is the home I know–Nigeria is the one I know and long to know much more. PG really was a light for me nonetheless, because the black community is so vibrant there. I have a vision of black beauty, creativity, possibility ingrained in my spirit; it doesn’t have to be awakened. I got to live it in PG. It’s not all roses of course, but there are a lot of them for a child there. I could go on about not having a mainstream concept of multiple expressions of black identity in America to pull from, and about feeling the odd sensation of wanting to be less ‘african’ so that I could be more black… but what I can say now is PG gave me a very good breeding ground for hope, purpose, critical engagement with difficult subjects, and an understanding of the human family. Home comforts and home challenges. We must accept both. To this day, I always say I am a proud PG-native–ask around, you’ll know.
BB: You’re an alum of Columbia’s poetry MFA program. How did your poetry evolve while you were there? Is there any particularly memorable lesson or piece of advice you received during your time in that program?
DD: I had an incredible teacher there who, sadly, recently passed. His name was Richard Howard. I took an introductory poetry class with him during my first year. The setup was that you would meet with him every week in class on-campus, and then later on in the week, you were supposed to schedule a time to meet with him in his apartment and go over your work. To put it simply, Richard made me feel like my writing mattered. Like I had something special to say. I would take my poems to him and he would go through them with a pen and make edits like, ‘put a comma here,’ ‘make this stanza four lines,’ things like that—and one time he looked at me and said, “Hey, Dolapo, I want you to know that everything is all here. I’m just helping it come out.” The crazy thing about it is I didn’t necessarily believe everything was there. He could see things that I wasn’t certain about. I always appreciated that about him. I reminisce often about how, during my days in NYC, I could call him whenever I needed. I was lucky. So many of us who had that opportunity were lucky. When I visited him, I always came prepared with material, but I think a large part of why I continued visiting him, even for years after finishing his poetry class, was to hear his familiar, reassuring voice. I can still see him now, sinking into his lush sofa as he examines one of my poems on his clipboard with a fountain pen snug in his hands. I can still see that gracious, knowing smile he would give when he figured out what you were up to in a poem. I held on tight to those affirmations. I still do. I carry his familiar, reassuring voice around with me now. Now, it’s my job to give other students that same experience.
BB: Now you’re a doctoral student in Education at the University of Southern California. What drew you to that program? Are you planning to become a professor, teacher, something along those lines?
DD: It’s interesting. With most of the questions you’ve asked, my answers have gone back to a teacher in my life. I see education as a place of contact. Education is a field where you get to help people, who are at the beginning of their journey, receive what they need to reach different milestones and levels of life. In time, as they reach these new heights, they get to pass on what they’ve learned through their own words and actions. If you’re willing, you can see eternity in that. My goal is to become an educational leader. I’ve always wanted to make life better for people. Education is one of the ways I anticipate doing that.
BB: How did you find out about The Adroit Journal? What made you apply to be on the staff?
DD: It all really goes back to [The Adroit Journal founder and editor-in-chief] Peter LaBerge. I think I was at Johns Hopkins when I heard about this guy, Peter, and I was like, man, this guy is out here ballin’. Not balling in terms of—I mean, balling, yes, in terms of what he’s accomplished at his young age, but also in terms of just his involvement in the world of poetry in general. I told Peter this when I was interviewing for the Managing Editor position. From afar, I’ve been inspired and encouraged by him and his journey.
More formally, a mentor of mine, Kyle Dargan, was generous enough to ask me to interview him for an Adroit conversation in the Enlightenments section. I had a great experience doing that. From there, my communications with the journal started.
BB: For those who aren’t familiar with the role of Managing Editor, can you walk us through the usual tasks that come with the position?
DD: I handle the construction of our issues. I make sure that every issue, when it’s published, is as perfect as we can get it. I manage our deadlines, communicate with our contributors, chime in on decisions etc. I work closely with the wonderful Matilda Berke, who’s our editorial manager, and incredible Dené Dryden, our web editor. Outside of my work on Issues, I try to be the best team player I can be, which takes many forms. I recently led our efforts at AWP, am currently working on some fun in-house initiatives for our staff, and am in constant communication with other staff members at the journal.
BB: Who are you reading lately? Which authors are currently influencing and inspiring you?
DD: Yusef Komunyakaa is always on my list. Sylvia Plath is on my list. Natalie Diaz, too. Phillip B. Williams is on my list. I’m writing a review on his book Mutiny. I also draw a lot of inspiration from film and sometimes television, so directors and auteurs have a profound influence on me. I’m thinking a lot about manuscript construction and I’ve been trying to key in tohow creators and directors like say the Duffer Brothers and their team structure their seasons, develop their plot, and get the most out of their characters (and as a result, their audience).
BB: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
DD: Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. And be present. One of my favorite writers, William Stafford, every morning he would get up and write. In one of those sessions, which ended up being the last one he did, he wrote a poem [titled “Are You Mr. William Stafford?”] where the lines read, “‘You don’t have to/ prove anything,’ my mother said. ‘Just be ready/ for what God sends.’” I’ve held onto that forever. I think it’s so beautiful.