The Consonance of Dissonance

Poetry has the ability to spark something within us, reshape our sentience and change the way we see the world in which we live. The poems of London-based writer Timi Olotu craft a world in which the everyday is not what it seems: his words take us outside the confines of our inner shells to a world where the familiar is unfamiliar.

Olotu sets the mundane against the absurd, the comedic against the profound, and the enigmatic against the simple. The crushing of a spider becomes the end of love, questions of life’s purpose morph into drunken searches for shoes, the little monsters that dance above our heads are trivial everyday fears.

Olotu’s use of language is plain and natural. As in an email to a friend, the words are honest, direct and simple. They seek to connect, radiate, communicate, and do so with a magnetic quality.

But what’s behind the thoughts that engage a poet who helps us understand our own? I caught up with Olotu to find out.

CL: What sparks the initial conception for the creation of a poem for you?

TO: Any moment that lasts longer than a moment. That moment could be triggered by something I see, remember, smell, grok, hear or dream. No matter the cause of its spark, a moment of inspiration is known simply by its refusal to detach from my sense of self.

You can always tell when a moment forever changes who you are and how you see the world — when it opens a door of perception that you know can never again be shut.

CL: Which part of the poem writing process do you most enjoy?

TO: It’s a bit perverse… but I love (and hate) staring at the blank sheet of paper. I love it because, at that point, I’m like an overzealous fan, waiting to see how poetry will surprise me. I don’t know what I’m going to write any more than a stranger does.

I recognise and feel the moment of inspiration—but I don’t yet know what kind of chemical reaction it will have with the person I was before its arrival. And I especially don’t know what the poetic outcome of that chemical reaction will be.

I’ve often read back over a poem, 5 minutes after it was written, and experienced surprise at some of the words I don’t remember writing.

CL: Are there any ideas that have particularly captivated you that you try to connect with as a poet? 

TO: I love the idea of dissonance… and the fact that it can be consonant with the person feeling it. This might also be tied to a personal philosophy of mine — I look at negative experiences as opportunities to take power away from troubling sensations, by becoming comfortable with them. I’ve achieved enough success using this strategy to know it’s not an unreasonable idea.

Viktor Shklovsky, a Russian writer, described a concept called “Ostranenie” (or “Defamiliarization”) — an idea which helped me channel my appreciation of dissonance into poetry. Ostranenie is about breaking the consonance of monotonous living, and instead introducing dissonance by making familiar things seem unfamiliar.

I love creating poetry that talks about love or fear or… a chair, in a way that makes people feel like they’re encountering all the strangeness of these familiar concepts for the first time.

I think “consonant dissonance” is also why I love jazz. You’re hearing the same 12 notes per octave contained in other forms of music — but jazz arrangements make them sound wonderfully strange and unfamiliar.

CL: What do you think that poetry can communicate as an art form in 2017?

TO: I think poetry can communicate the disconcerting paradoxes of existence in a way that’s comforting.

I think we (humans) are losing perspective on what it means to be alive. We’ve become so good at filling every second of life with things that are (ultimately) lifeless… because we’re terrified of that existential boredom which draws attention to the dissonance living in us all.

I think poetry can jolt us back to life by drawing us into moments where being alive feels as strange and exhilarating as it did, the first time we experienced it. It can give us the gift of consonant dissonance — it can help us feel alright about things that don’t make sense.

A selection of Timi Olotu’s poems is available on his blog: