Describe your interaction with a difficult
headwind, your rise against it: pinions
the heart valves of a reluctant death,
trashing in a drown of blue blood;
your method of staying aloft,
palm of a heavy sky on your brow, how you swam,
cycled, climbed drafts that were flash flood,
then viscid wax, avalanche then mudslide.
Tell me: of the time you had to rely
on intermittent, and maneuvering flight;
a time you faced conflict while
stargazing, twirling, flying poor,
a contradiction of plumbing bobs.
Describe that time. You struggled to build
a burrow—to vole, through tracts of sky,
a tunnel that wouldn’t collapse.
Discuss your mnemotaxis. If earth
were a pond with landmarks, lily pads
that brought you here, for the way back, how did you bank,
twirling bags of drag in locomotion?
What was memorable on your trips
from one cage stack, and cul-de-sac, to the next?
We all make mistakes we wish we could take back.
Having leached your bony calcium for eggshells,
do you wish you’d held some back?
Describe a time you showed leadership
of your flagging apparatus, motivating your team
of body and will into volant assembly.
You saw a problem, you took the initiative
to consist, cohere.
Tell me about a time you failed.
What lessons did you learn
about the transactional conviviality
of captive flocks? How did you learn
not to mistake the dancing, the undulating flight
of your flock for a party, a family?
They parted for predators and you fell,
in ornithopter rain, to earth.
In a time you were under a lot of pressure,
tell me about a time you set a goal for yourself,
how you achieved it.
What I really want you to tell me is
how you took your red mask again,
to renew your fight against the fall.
Italicized portions quote or modified from L. Zhang. (21 April 2015). 30 Common Behavioral Interview Questions. Accessed 8 June 2019, from https://www.themuse.com/advice/30-behavioralinterview-questions-you-should-be-ready-to-answer Additional reference made to BW Tobalske. “Biomechanics of bird flight.” Journal of Experimental Biology 2007 210: 3135-3146, doi: 10.1242/ jeb.000273; The Birdcare Company. (n.d.). Neck twisting and poor flying. Accessed 9 June 2019, from https://birdcareco-shop.com/neck-twisting-and-poor-flying/; and G. Ellison (13 June 2018). Nature Journal: Goldfinches soar with the grace of ballet dancers. Retrieved June 9, 2019, from https://www. citizen-times.com/story/life/2018/06/13/nature-journal-goldfinches-soar-grace-ballet-dancers/676830002/.
Questions and Answers
How/where do you find inspiration today?
I used to balk at the idea of being bound my a small set of everlasting, and recurring concerns. A workshop instructor however helped me see that most poets have a small handful of themes that they always return to, and that one would be well served to explore, rather than shrink away from, them. I therefore find inspiration in the discordant world and the dystopian results of our urban and capitalist experiments, and from internal and interpersonal conflict. My poems are frequently ways of asking: “isn’t something wrong with this picture?” My mind often tends to conjoin disparate ideas after I have spent some weeks or months reading evocative poetry (and then I spend several weeks / months writing poems in a frenzy). In that way, I’ll say inspiration finds me, and not the other way around.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. books, films, art, websites, etc.)?
An early craft book I was fortunate to read was “How to Build a Long-lasting Fire: Writing Poems from Your Life,” by Carol Morrison. It was what my 18 year-old self needed to focus my early exploration of poetry. It taught me to seek “the twoness of things,” to pluck inspiration from around me, and to get the thoughts down first, edit later. I have continued to follow these tenets for almost 20 years.
Because I could not afford to do an MFA (not only financially), I depended on the “Public Library MFA,” as I like to call it. Those that are not rich enough to buy all the books they need to develop their taste, hone their voice, and develop their craft, would be well-served by the bounty of public libraries. “Poetry Twitter” helps me identify contemporary books I would like to add to my to-be-read pile, and I then request these from the library. The feeds of poets like Canisia Lubrin, Kaveh Akbar, Natasha Oladokun, Phillip B. Williams, Noah Baldino, Eduardo C. Corral, Aria Aber, Ilya Kaminsky, Paige Lewis, Yanyi, and Safia Elhillo help me discover vital new work.
I found the 2016 movie “Paterson” starring Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani, very comforting in a period of discouragement when I wondered if I wanted to keep writing. I saw myself in the bus driver in William Carlos Williams’ town, who scribbled poem fragment whenever he found a chance, and carried words in his head till he had a chance to lay them down.
What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?
In the spring of 2019, I was unexpectedly laid off from the job I had been in at the time. It was a very distressing period for me, and I ended up being unemployed for 4 months. I spent my newly-free time working on a new collection of poems, submitting job applications, and sprucing up my interview techniques. The behavioral interview was one of such techniques I was practicing at the time, which is a set of questions employers might ask to assess how a candidate behaved in certain past scenarios, or might behave in similar scenarios in the future. I stumbled on a list of 30 behavioral interview questions (https://www.themuse.com/advice/30-behavioral-interview-questions-you-should-be-ready-to-answer), and I found them especially poignant (perhaps it was the despair and anxiety altering my perception). There were phrases like: “Describe a time when you struggled to…”, “Tell me about a time you were under a lot of pressure. What was going on, and how did you get through it?”, and “Give me an example of a time you faced a conflict.” I decided to make this a semi-found poem, and followed where it led.
How did your writing process unfold around this poem? How did you write, edit, and refine it?
The themes of difficulty and adversity I was inspired by coincided with a motif I had been exploring at that time—the behavior of birds. I had, in particular, been thinking about the mechanics and improbability of flight. I am fortunate that the idea of the behavioral interview merged with the difficulty of flight in my subconscious, and provided the approach I took in this poem. I picked a number of especially-striking (to me) behavioral interview questions, and researched problems that could occur with the flight of birds. With words like “viscid,” “vole,” “avalanche,” and “heavy,” I attempted to show the very muscular, and persistent, effort birds deploy to stay aloft within the turbulence of the air. The behavioral questions provided a lattice, I used to flesh out my exploration of flight from the perspective of an interviewer trying to understand how the subject did it. My circumstances helped me to refine the stanzas around that sense of conflict. I edited it for length and coherence, structuring the poem in quatrains that required some re-writing (and some longer lines than usual). The poem was really a proxy for the emotional turmoil and anxiety people must often overcome to remain mobile and functional. And because most behavioral interview questions are really asking something else, usually less obvious, I decided to summarize the intent of the questions in the last line. The lives of others may look graceful and effortless occasionally, but it takes an amazing amount of effort.
Tolu Oloruntoba is the author of the Anstruther Press chapbook Manubrium, shortlisted for the 2020 bpNichol Chapbook Award. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Harvard Divinity Bulletin, PRISM International, Columbia Journal, Obsidian, and The Maynard, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, while his short fiction has appeared in translation in Dansk PEN Magazine. He practiced medicine before his current work managing projects for health authorities in British Columbia. After a somewhat itinerant life in Nigeria and the United States, he emigrated to the Greater Vancouver Area, where he lives with his family in the territories of the Semiahmoo, Katzie, and Kwantlen First Nations.