Just call her Dark N-Lovely, An interview of Chicago Poet Tarnynon Onumonu

Our series on the ten poets you should know continues; next up is Tarnynon Onumonu.

Tarnynon (Ty-yuh-nuh) is a poet and artist from the Jeffery Manor neighborhood on the southeast side of Chicago. In 2017, she took second place in the Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Awards and represented Chicago at the 2018 National Poetry Slam. Her work has been featured in Newcity Magazine and South Side Weekly.

PrideIndex: I am having a conversation today with Tarnynon (Ty-yuh-nuh) Onumonu, one of the poets who appeared with us at the Black Alphabet and Esteem Awards Poetry Slam. How are you today?

Tarnynon Onumonu: I’m doing all right. Thank you. Speaking of your poetry slam, I thought it was awesome. There were amazing poets there, and I enjoyed the environment. The two organizations just seemed so full of love. I was so grateful to have been chosen to participate, especially with the piece that I shared. It was my first time sharing that poem. It was all about my experience playing hopscotch in and out of the closet. It’s a subject that I don’t hear many people grappling with too much in 2023. Many of our brothers and sisters seem very comfortable in their queerness. I’m 31 years old and still working through being comfortable with my queerness. I’m still healing from a lot of internalized homophobia from my upbringing. It was truly a moment of bravery for me to get on stage and share that piece of work, despite how I felt some people might take it. I’m so grateful to have gotten that opportunity to free myself. It hopefully spoke to an experience that others in the audience that day might also identify with.

PI: Thank you for that. Let’s start with you telling us a little bit about yourself and your journey so far.

TO: My name is Tarnynon (Ty-yuh-nuh) Onumonu. I was born and raised in the Jeffrey Manor neighborhood on the southeast side of Chicago. Most of my poetry has been in Chicago, regarding public transportation, the great migration, everyday life, or coming of age themes. I’ve been writing since I was ten years old. I began calling myself a poet and sharing my work in Chicago around 2016. I have been published in Chicago publications such as New City Magazine, Southside Weekly, The Reader, and The Sun-Times. My work, “Darker Girl Manifesto,” was on exhibition with the Center for Book Arts in 2021. In 2022, the environmental justice organization, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) commissioned me for National Poetry Month. My EP rap and spoken word, “Brown Liquor on a Slow Sip,” is available on SoundCloud.

PI: When did you first know you wanted to be a poet?

TO: I knew I wanted to be a poet at 18. Everyone in my family is a Nurse, either a Registered Nurse (RN) or a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). I assumed that I would go the same route for security. But I eventually told my mom that I wanted to forget the medical thing and tour the states on a bus doing poetry. I don’t know where the idea came from. I had no idea then that I would have to pay my bills someday. I just ran with it. I went to college, and I kept it in the back of my mind. I tried to pursue other ventures that would lead back to the medical field, but after Chemistry 101, I realized that medicine would not be my journey. Little by little, I began attending writing workshops, networking at open mics, and improving my skills through practice and submitting my writing to different contests. It started as a hobby, but in 2019, I began working as a Poet in Residence with the Chicago Poetry Center, which sealed the deal that I could do this professionally. 

PI: When was the first time you competed in a slam, and what was that like for you? 

TO: It must have been while I was still in high school. I participated in Louder Than a Bomb during my sophomore and junior years of high school. It was a beautiful experience. I had the opportunity to work with my classmates to produce a group piece. I have so many fond memories of hanging out after school. We would get stressed out getting ready for the competitions. It was so serious at the time and gave me hope. It gave me a strong sense of self-confidence and belonging. In terms of participation, it just felt good. It felt good to be praised for something that came straight from me; straight from my spirit and I loved it. Competition is not my favorite part, and I have yet to focus on that aspect as much as I’ve grown in experience. Still, I had a very positive experience, and it has informed my present and future endeavors that I decided to contribute my participation.

PI: Name three people who have contributed the most to your artistic style.

TO: The first person would have to be my dad. He’s the reason I started writing at ten years old. I called him when he was living out of state and asked him to visit me. He wasn’t able at the time. He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was staring at the wall. He told me to write a poem about it. I wasn’t even sure what a poem was at the time. Again, I was ten years old. He explained the concept, and I wrote something that I identified with at the time and still love to this day. Next, up would be Gwendolyn Brooks, a writer who by studying her work has greatly influenced my style, ideas, and growth as a writer in general. Finally, Carolyn Rogers is another great Black Chicago female writer and poet. Reading her work, especially her book, “how i got ovah,” she has been a great inspiration for my writing as well.

PI: Speaking of books, are you published?

TO: I have individual pieces published but no books yet.

PI: Any particular reason why?

TO: Due to imposter syndrome more than anything. I love the word so much. I sit down and am constantly mulling it over and over. It’s always tough for me to release work. I see many of my contemporaries; they have so much confidence, and I hope to get there soon. Again, I care about the word and put a lot of time into it. It’s just so hard to release it into the world. That’s the main reason. I’m also still building my audience. I want to present my work when more people consume it.

PI: Back to competing and slamming. You say you haven’t done much of it, but have you had any wins?

TO: As I stated earlier, I started competing in slam competitions in high school. I’ve only done a few over the years since. I have a decent amount of experience with competition. No wins yet. In 2018. I represented Chicago in the National Poetry Slam and placed in the top 20. That was a big deal. In 2017, I also placed second in the Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Awards. That is a pretty acclaimed competition in Illinois.

PI: You realize First, Second, or Third place is still a win.

TO: True. Well, I appreciate that.

PI: What are you working on right now?

TO: I am currently working on my first book. I am perpetually working on that. I am working on a lesson plan and teaching poetry and spoken word to middle schoolers. I want to put something beautiful together for them for the next month. I want to find a way to make the word interesting for them. Being someone who has been in their position as a CPS student and has developed their interest in the word over time and not in school per se is different. I’m able to experience them in a way that they can understand, and I’m super excited about that.

PI: When do you hope to have your book published?

TO: Honestly, I’m not sure, by 2024 or 2025. But it’s coming soon to a bookstore near you.

PI: What do you like to do for fun?

T: I love live music. I’m not going to lie to you; I’m a workaholic. It’s funny when I meet people, you know, in terms of dating, and they always ask what I like to do for fun. I try and stumble over the answer, much like I’m doing now. I don’t know. I have fun working. I work in disability justice and get to do my passion professionally. It isn’t easy right now to think about extracurriculars. I’ll try to experience a little bit more leisure in the future. I do have a lot of fun. I’m enjoying life.

PI: If you could have dinner with any poet, living or dead, who would it be and why?

TO: I would have dinner with J. Ivy because he is a Grammy Award-winning spoken word artist. I wasn’t even aware that we could reach those heights. I’ve just got to know how he did it. Who was on his team? How can I be down?

PI: What else would you like to share with us?

TO: Poetry and spoken word is a vehicle to freedom. It’s almost been a magic carpet ride for me. It has transported me through a lot of difficult times and allowed me to bond with others in truly authentic ways. I truly love it. I can’t wait to do more and share more over time. And I encourage people to express themselves through writing to deal with difficult experiences they’ve had over time.

PI: How can people connect with you on social media? 

TO: I can be found on Facebook at Tarnynon Onumonu and my Instagram is @tyyuhnuh, and my Twitter/X is @tyyuhnuh as well. They can also find videos of my work on YouTube under @tarnynononumonu4076.

10 Poets you should get to know – Part 1: Don’t Underestimate her Poetic Prowess Brooke Gerbers

10 Poets you should get to know – Part 2: Her Storie: An interview of spoken words’ leading lady Storie Devereaux

10 Poets you should get to know – Part 3: Sunshine of my life, A conversation with Sunshine Lombre

10 Poets you should get to know – Part 4: Introducing the Millennial Poet named B.

10 Poets you should get to know – Part 5: Fantastic Voyage: One-on-one with Motown Poet Urban Legin’d Obasaki

10 Poets you should get to know – Part 7: Talking LOVE with activist & poet Michelle Antoinette Nelson

10 Poets you should get to know – Part 8: Poetry In Motion: An interview of Goddess Warrior

Coming Soon: 10 Poets you should get to know – Part 9: Ebony Stewart

Coming Soon: 10 Poets you should get to know – Part 10: Vision