I first met Gboyega Odubanjo on 29 January 2019 in the Terrace Bar of the Tate Modern. I had just published his poem ‘Confessions in 3/4 Timing’ in the pages of Ambit’s Winter 2018 issue, having been hired by the magazine to serve as their new poetry editor only a few months earlier. I had invited him to read at the issue’s launch, and as he was among the first to turn up, we had a few beers and got to know one another a little. He had just wrapped up an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and he was putting the finishing touches on his debut pamphlet, While I Yet Live (Bad Betty Press), the title drawn from one of the lines in ‘Confessions in 3/4 Timing’. He was glad to be done with his degree and was eager to get his work out there. His enthusiasm was infectious and we got on instantly.
Later that night he would read ‘Confessions in 3/4 Timing’, performing a set alongside fellow poets Jennifer Lee-Tsai, Maryam Hessavi, Robert Selby, Mimi Khalvati, and David Harsent. Whereas I had expected him to hold his own, he brought the house down. It wasn’t difficult to see why. ‘Confessions in 3/4 Timing’ is a riotously funny poem where Odubanjo imagines putting together playlists for various crimes that society expects him to commit:
i stole wine and toiletries now the newspapers have my face and i’ve been making playlists for crimes that i haven’t committed yet just so that i’ll be ready for it all like just murdered a man playlist robbed a bank now driving off cool playlist wrong place wrong time but he was no angel playlist […]
The writing was crisp and the levity had an edge to it, just how I like it. It was my first editorial position and I didn’t have much experience under my belt, but I knew that it was meeting writers like Gboyega that had drawn me to the job in the first place. As he stepped off the stage to thunderous applause, I caught Briony Bax, the magazine’s then editor-in-chief, looking at me somewhat proudly, as if to say, ‘so, this guy knows what he’s doing’, and she later said as much to me once the evening was over.
While we never got to know one another – several missed attempts at long coffee sessions now haunt me – we kept up a light correspondence over the years, and whenever it was time to put a new issue of Ambit or Poetry London together, Gboyega was one of the first authors I would approach. I published more of his work at Ambit and then did so again when I was hired to run Poetry London, printing poems like ‘Babel’ and ‘Gun Talk’. Prior to leaving Ambit I recommended to Briony that she hire him as a contributing editor, which she did, and Odubanjo took part in an Ambit showcase at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival alongside Dan O’Brien and Isabel Galleymore. Not long into my tenure at PL, I was asked to join the jury of the 2021 Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets and at the end of a long process, it became clear that there was enough consensus to award the prize to Odubanjo’s Aunty Uncle Poems (The Poetry Business, 2020). Seeing his meteoric rise over the past few years did much to mitigate the feeling that literary London was a cesspool of nepotism and pretend wokeness.
It’s difficult to re-read While I Yet Live in the horrific light of what has happened, and the shadow now cast by the opening lines of the pamphlet’s very first poem, ‘Obit, after César Vallejo’:
i will die in london in the neighborhood i grew up in outside the town hall on the high street. i will have been stabbed and my killer will look just like me so no-one will look for him. my body will remain dead in daylight for hours until the sky turns more blick than blue.
Just like César Vallejo, who envisioned his own death taking place on a rainy Thursday in Paris, Odubanjo had been staring directly into his future. Much has been made of Odubanjo’s ability to sound like London’s millennial answer to Frank O’Hara, including by me, but it strikes me now that his work had much more in common with another New Yorker, namely the Nuyorican poet Miguel Piñero (1946–1988): ‘Just once before I die / I want to climb up on a / tenement sky / to dream my lungs out till / I cry / then scatter my ashes thru / the Lower East Side.’
But Odubanjo didn’t die in London, in the neighbourhood where he was raised. Instead, he died somewhere in the Kelmarsh area of Northamptonshire, near the site of the Shambala festival, where he had been scheduled to perform. Last seen at 4am on Saturday 26 August, he was found five days later on Thursday 31, after a supposedly ‘extensive’ search carried out by the police. In the immediate aftermath of his death, the articles in the UK’s major press outlets began to sound like Odubanjo poems. A black poet has gone missing, they said, in the lead-up to his ‘forthcoming collection, which explores structural inequality when it comes to searching for missing Black people in the UK.’ The irony is difficult to bear. I can’t even imagine what it’s been like for his loved ones. While my heart goes out to his family and closest friends, I also feel for the generation Gboyega belongs to – writers in their late twenties, a decade younger than me – for they have just lost one of their most genuine poets and publishing world impresarios. There was much to come, and we all knew it. He should have finished his PhD at Hertfordshire; he should have seen Faber & Faber publish his debut collection Adam in April; he should have signed copies for his devoted family, friends, and admirers; he should have moved on to the next phase of his career (I always imagined he would have made an excellent editorial choice for London poetry imprints looking to go in a new direction). He should have done many things, but none of them are going to happen now. Gboyega is dead, and this is unfair in an almost unspeakable number of ways.
Gboyega was right in ‘Obit’. We will witness him die a million more deaths. Many of those deaths have already happened. The Shambala Festival murdered him when they called him ‘the man’ in their statements instead of using his name. The Northamptonshire Police murdered him when they said that there were no ‘suspicious circumstances surrounding his death’ without first calling his family who still didn’t know his body had been found. The people reporting on his disappearance murdered him when they condensed his life into fewer words than a dinner menu. All the poets out there sending their thoughts and prayers into the virtual ether are also killing him, by failing to keep in mind the fact that Gboyega brought an honesty to bear on his work and relationship that puts most of his coevals to shame.
In a scene dominated by social media-obsessed narcissists who have wilfully forgotten the ability to distinguish between speaking to power and appearing like you’re speaking to power while cashing in a cheque, Gboyega’s absence will be nothing short of catastrophic. For that, and many other reasons, I mourn the man he was, as much as I mourn the mentor and editor who breathed new hope into poets when they most needed it – myself included. For now, I will remember him for what he was to me: a gifted poet, an electrifying performer, a fierce hugger.
It has been exactly a decade since I co-edited the volume The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hofmann (CB Editions, 2013) with Julian Stannard and my admiration for the man’s poetry has only grown since then. Happily for his fans, Hofmann broke his twenty-year silence in 2018 with the publication of his long-awaited fifth collection, One Lark, One Horse, and rumour has it that we might not have to wait another two decades for his sixth. Still, there’s a reason why George Szirtes once called a Hofmann poem “a rare, strange, much valued item”, and as such, you can imagine my pride at being able to publish no fewer than four new poems in this issue. Also included in these pages our readers will find new work by Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Monica Youn, Luke Kennard, Glyn Maxwell, Cindy Juyoung Ok, Jesse Nathan, and leena aboutaleb, to name only a very few. Also in the issue are poems originally written in Arabic, Czech, Greek, Nüshu, and Spanish, among which a long-awaited fresh take on ‘The Hanging Poem of Imru al-Qays’ by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and five new poems by Homero Aridjis as translated by Forrest Gander. This issue also introduces an expanded offering of prose with Dan O’Brien on the defiant and redemptive power of confessional writing and Rachel Hadas on translating Ovid and finding comfort in a world plagued by apathy and disaster. Our interviews section sees Kostya Tsolakis in conversation with Harris Otabasis and Nikolas Koutsodontis, the editors of the Anthology of Greek Queer Poetry, while Sohini Basak interviews Meena Kandasamy. The reviews section sports criticism by Tarn MacArthur, Aliyah Begum, Lily McDermott, and Tristram Fane Saunders.