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Tarnynon Onumonu Uses Words As Tools To Heal

Written by on June 1, 2023

Tarnynon Onumonu is a South Side poet who hopes to facilitate positive change for others through autobiographical artistic expression. She’s currently the poet in residence at the Chicago Poetry Society. This is what her Chicago sounds like.

For Tarnynon Onumonu, poetry is a means of grounding, an escape, a comfort and a facilitator for connection. Spending much of her childhood inside her family’s Jeffrey Manor home on the Southeast Side, she fell in love with words at 10 years old.

“Ever since then, I’ve just always used poetry as a tool to activate my creativity, to return to myself, to feel comfort in difficult times, to connect with others, to explore, to adventure,” she said.

As she grew up, Onumonu’s work became more and more firmly rooted in her identity as a South Side Chicagoan of West African heritage. She became ingrained in the city’s arts community through seeing experienced poets perform and participating in Young Chicago Authors’s Louder Than a Bomb competitions. Eventually, she made her way to workshops at Stony Island Arts Bank, which propelled her forward to becoming a poet in residence at the Chicago Poetry Center in 2019.

“From [The Arts Bank], I just began to seek opportunities to share my work, seek other workshops, book little gigs here and there, feature at open mics,” she recalled. “It wasn’t until 2019, when I began to affiliate myself with organizations … that I really started to see the longevity of a career in poetry.”

Now going on her fourth year with Chicago Poetry Center, Onumonu’s words take on an autobiographical style, often retelling her own experiences in an effort to find healing and joy. She hopes to use her artistic practice to create opportunities for discussion about heavy topics including colonization, racism and mental health — and strives to use her gifts to promote positive change and a love for God.

In this segment of This is What Chicago Sounds Like Tarnynon Onumonu discusses starting in poetry, hopes for her legacy and being inspired by her familial lineage. 

How did you get into writing poetry?

I always start off with my first poem growing up. I wrote this when I was 10 years old. I really missed my dad, he was living in Detroit at the time. And I said, “Dad, can you come visit me?” He’s like, “No, I can’t right now … money, things like that.” He was like, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’m kind of bored. I’m staring at the wall.” And he said, “Well, write a poem about it.” I don’t even know if I knew what a poem was at the time. But he explained the concept to me, and I wrote, “Staring at the wall, I am nothing, I have nothing. At the end of the day, nothing begets nothing.” And ever since then, I’ve just always used poetry as a tool to activate my creativity, to return to myself, to feel comfort in difficult times, to connect with others, to explore, to adventure. I will always give him credit for that.

Where are you from?

I’m from the East Side, from the Jeffrey Manor neighborhood. So yeah, it’s my place of origin. It’s further southeast than South Shore, so oftentimes it’s kind of one of those forgotten or skipped over neighborhoods. My mom bought our family home when I was one year old. It’s kind of been like the Underground Railroad for my family. My mom is from Liberia, West Africa. Many of my family members came from the Liberian Civil War, I and II, and many family members traveled through our family home. So if there’s anything that is historically huge to me, it would be our family home, and that was just the base. I didn’t go outside much. I was kind of sheltered as a youth. I wasn’t really allowed to go outside and hang out with my neighborhood friends as much as I wanted. Only as I grew, I was able to kind of go on little adventures hanging out at Merrill Park, but I really treasured those moments. I was a kid that was very out of my mind, all over the place, in my household, across the sea, I just couldn’t focus. So I didn’t really have training in writing, but it was more about these strange experiences that I had, these things that I saw. 

As I got older, I participated in the Louder Than A Bomb competition, I think twice. Never went to the workshops, never integrated myself in the community, but I got the experience of seeing some very famous poets that I still admire to this day. And that started to inspire me and make me think, “Oh, I can really do this.” Maybe when I turned around, 25, and I did the college thing, and tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and failed, I went to the Stony Island Arts Bank, and I met this instructor, Jo McEntee. 

Jo McEntee was my writing group instructor. She just gave me a space to take writing seriously, a space to imagine and find joy that this could be something that I could really make my way on. And from there, I just began to seek opportunities to share my work, seek other workshops, book little gigs here and there, feature at open mics. Around 2019, I was afforded the privilege to become a poet in residence with Chicago Poetry Center. And it wasn’t until 2019, when I began to affiliate myself with organizations … that I really started to see the longevity of a career in poetry. I’m still a poet in residence there. I’m right off the 69th Street Red Line, now in this neighborhood Park Manor. So I’m right next to Englewood. It’s definitely a place that I feel safe, it’s a lot of accessible transportation. I have a beautiful apartment there by myself, which has been a gateway to me just going further within myself and increasing my productivity in terms of my art making.

What are some of the themes of your poems?

I just did a workshop through the Wild Yams: Black Motherhood Artist Residency space. There, I had a workshop called “The Space of Breaking.” Breaking is falling down, is failure. And in the space of breaking is the mental breakdown, essentially. I’ve had so many in my experience, but I had this specific one in 2019. I found myself in the psych ward for six days, and I wrote this work. And ever since then, I’ve just kind of meditated in that space of breaking, and use my artmaking to pull me out and take me back in … for good purpose. I like to stay in that space of breaking. I like to show people that it’s okay. There’s a lot of human connection that can form from acknowledging that space within self and others. I’ve been through the horror, but I’m a really happy person, and this is called an excision. For those who are not familiar with the word “excision,” it comes from “excise,” like to excise a demon during … an exorcism … So again, an excision. 

What it be like in a psych ward, Eyes Wide Shut, no sleep, pleading to God or Lord of the Prescription Pad for one hour uninterrupted, one prayer uninterrupted by a new face every 15 minutes on cue, talking about, “Hi, my name is blank. And I’m here to help.” Help like here’s a cup of juice, cookies and some more sugary stuff. Because you need happy like it be survival, like sugar high be temporary, but low be six feet. And if you’re here, you’re already in too deep. What it be like in a mind, wrestling with itself, yearning for quiet, only to find it be one dose away. One pen stroke away. With the flick of a wrist, silence resounds, and suddenly, day breaks from perpetual black. Whiplash between present and past. This was always an eventuality. The schism, the rapture, this breakthrough to an internal questioning, a desire to be integrated, to end this tormented tussling for sanity’s sake just spent six days wondering. What it be like under a microscope, every skin flap up for analysis, wishing to be more well-presenting. Scribbling rantings with a crayon, because it dulls the pain of not being trusted with sharp points, not even a fork to take a stab at losing a grip on things. 

What does your legacy mean to you?

I want my legacy to be a legacy of love. I want my legacy to be a legacy of being lost and found. I want my legacy to be very tied and intertwined in a true happiness, not a manufactured one. And with all the searching and dark places that I’ve been, as I travel into the light more and more, I want my legacy to be one that glorifies God. I want everyone to ask themselves today or … whenever you hear this, how will I intertwine my legacy? How will I point my legacy towards God? And if it’s not God, your higher self, depending on what you subscribe to. The legacy is me stepping into a space where I find out, how do I use my gifts and my curiosities to glorify the Creator?

What do you love about Chicago?

I love Chicago. It’s been such a difficult ride, transforming in my hometown. It’s so hard to change in a place that you come from. But the city is so alive and thriving, and it’s worth it. Some people say that Chicago is tough terrain. I agree. But it has made me soul kind, loving, resilient and compassionate. 

Follow Tarnynon Onumonu on Instagram

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Introduction written by Morgan Ciocca and Joshua X. Miller

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

Photography by Ari Mejia, edited by Morgan Ciocca

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