The Writers’ Block, Chapter 3: Titilope Sonuga

Titilope Sonuga used to build bridges. 


As a civil engineer, she worked on Edmonton’s 23rd Avenue Interchange Project. “I’m very proud of it,” she says. 

“It was my first project as a junior engineer-in-training after I graduated. I had the mentorship of some really great engineers and I got to learn a lot about how a thing becomes a thing.”

A new style of construction

Sonuga now builds bridges and creates communities with words. She’s a poet, playwright and actor. She’s the mother of two and the founder of a local poetry collective. She also teaches workshops to students and adults around the world. 

“In retrospect, I can see the parallels between poetry and engineering,” she says. “I think I’ve always been in love with this idea of making something from nothing.”

Titilope Sonuga’s first project as an engineer: Edmonton’s 23rd Avenue Interchange, which spans Gateway Boulevard and Calgary Trail.

Cathedral of tenderness

Sonuga is the City of Edmonton’s current Poet Laureate, a role created in 2005 to reflect the life of our city through poetry and readings. The position is supported by the City, the Edmonton Arts Council and the Edmonton Public Library. 

As part of her two-year tenure, she’s asking Edmontonians to share their hearts and art with her. She wants to construct a “cathedral of tenderness,” filled with their hopeful and healing stories, poems, words, songs or photos. (You can read some of the submissions at Tenderness Edmonton and send your own entry to

Titilope Sonuga wants to build a “cathedral of tenderness” with the help of Edmontonians. Photo courtesy Nicholas Yee.

Slivers of lights

“You don’t have to be a poet to submit, you don’t have to write a short story,” she says. “I just want us to make a collage of really beautiful things, these little slivers of lights through hard times. 

“Right now, it’s going to be a digital archive, but my hope is that somewhere near the end of my term, I can bring this into the world through an installation. I just imagine a space we can walk into and hear and see and feel and touch, a cathedral in honour of what we’ve survived and where people can meet again.”

Loss and defiance 

Hope and healing are major themes of Sonuga’s own poetry. Her third and latest collection, This Is How We Disappear (2019), is a powerful exploration of loss, the invisibility of women, and acts of defiance, inspired by the 276 Nigerian girls kidnapped by terrorists in 2014. 

“It’s about the ways that women disappear in the world, emotionally, psychologically, physically,” she says. “But also the ways we reappear, more powerful, more magical, more fierce.”

Nigeria to Edmonton

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Sonuga moved to the Alberta capital when she was 13. Edmonton is central to her foundation as a poet—she fell in love with writing here, encouraged by teachers, other aspiring wordsmiths, and Edmonton’s enterprising spirit.  

“Lagos is similar to Edmonton,” she says. “Both have a feeling of ‘I can make something here.’ There’s something that feels possible.”

She initially pursued writing as a hobby, opting to study civil engineering at the University of Alberta. After she graduated, she went to work for Edmonton’s ISL Engineering—and then her poetry career started to take off.

One of Titilope Sonuga’s early performances.

Engineering a career in poetry

Sonuga started the Breath In Poetry Collective and a weekly poetry night in 2009; released her first award-winning collection, Down to Earth, and spoken-word album, Mother Tongue, in 2011; and won the Maya Angelou Poetry Contest in 2012. 

“I had opportunities to share my work,” says Sonuga. “The more I performed, the more I’d get invited to other places like Vancouver and Toronto. I found myself taking more and more time off work because poetry was starting to bleed into my engineering life. 

“There was also a marked difference in how I felt on stage versus when I was at work. While I enjoyed it, and my company and co-workers were brilliant, beautiful, generous and very supportive, I knew I felt so much more myself when I was telling stories. I felt much more alive.”

Titilope Sonuga performs in Lagos, Nigeria in 2018. Photo courtesy Eniola Abumere.

TV, theatre and tentative plans

Sonuga finally left engineering in 2013 and began to split her time between Edmonton and Lagos, where she performed at the 2015 inauguration of the Nigerian president. She also landed a role in a Nigerian TV show, Gidi Up, for two seasons. Her last visit to Lagos was in January 2020, to attend the opening of her first musical, Ada The Country

She gave birth to a daughter last May—a month before Sonuga was named Edmonton’s poet laureate. (She also has a three-and-a-half-year-old son.) She’s tentatively starting to think about her next book and longs to perform, collaborate and build bridges in person again. 

“I do miss the feeling of being able to be in community,” she says. “Just the spontaneous nature about being able to walk into a room and make something there.”

Editor’s note: the pic at the top of the post shows poet Titilope Sonuga at one of her 2018 tour stops. Photo courtesy Eniola Abumere.