Tender Headed, selected by Camille Rankine as a winner of the 2022 National Poetry Series, is a musical and formally playful meditation on Black identity and masculinity
"In this dynamic debut collection, Nigerian American poet Osinaike unpacks ideas of masculinity with playful musicality . . . Acutely attuned to poetic lineage, Osinaike cites established poets Yona Harvey, Ladan Osman, and Morgan Parker, setting a context for his own new and versatile voice." —Booklist
The irony of transformation often is that we mistake it to have occurred long before it does. Tender Headed takes its time in asserting the realization that growth remains ever ahead of you. Examining the themes of Black identity, accountability, and narration, we encounter a series of revealing snapshots into the role language plays in chiseling possibility and its rigid command of depiction. Olatunde Osinaike's startling debut sorts through the many-minded masks behind Black masculinity. At its center lies an inquiry about the puzzling nature of relationships, how ceaseless wonder can be in its challenge of a truth. In the name of music and self-identity, the speaker weaves their way through fault and how it amends Black life in America.
This is demonstrated best in how the demanding, yet vulnerable tone for the collection is set in "Men Like Me," its restless opening poem. Here, we find the speaker reciting a chronicle of generational neglect from men that became him also. Earnest and sharp, there is a beauty in seeing a poet not shy away from both the melancholy and resolve of rescripting their path while cherishing their steps and missteps along the way. This collection is a panel aching of fathers, sons, uncles, grandfathers, all of whom would do well to join in and confront shared privileges that are typically curtailed or altogether avoided in conversation. Tender Headed entrusts the heart to be a compass, insisting on a journey unto itself and a melodic detour toward tenderness precise with its own footing.
About the Author
Originally from the West Side of Chicago, Olatunde Osinaike is a Nigerian American poet and software developer. He is the winner of the Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize, a Frontier Poetry Industry Prize, and honorable mention for the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Award in Poetry. His work has appeared in Best New Poets, New Poetry from the Midwest, Kweli Journal, Wildness, Southeast Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Atlanta.
In Tender Headed, Olatunde Osinaike asks the question, what makes a man, and what makes a man like me? As he interrogates the inner and outer workings of masculinity in all its sharp and tender parts, and the way a Black man meets the world, his poems strut and duck and weave across their pages. These poems unpack the ingredients of being and make a meal of language. They relish every word, every sound, every syllable. Their music is the sugar that makes us take our medicine, but their beauty refuses to be disguise. They disturb the peace while asking, 'whose peace?' The poems are playful, not playing. They pulse and spin and push us forward, never carry us away. Even as we dance along, we never close our eyes. This work is nimble. A two-step on a tightwire. Tender Headed grooves and shines, holds us wide awake and mesmerized.
— Camille Rankine, author of Incorrect Merciful Impulses
The assured debut from Osinaike puts Black masculinity under the microscope in poems full of humor and vulnerability. With impressive sensitivity, Osinaike unmasks the insecurities that hide behind the performance of Black male identity, as in the poem 'An Inconvenience,' in which the speaker writes, 'I do my job/ the same as any man with a need to provide/ for his need to provide.' Poems rhythmically swell to convey how personal struggles transmute into larger concerns for an entire community: 'A horse loses a race.// A race/ loses its culture. A culture loses its place. A place loses its mothers. Mothers lose// their babies. Babies lose their wonder.' It would be easy for the critique to turn satirical, but Osinaike’s verses charm with their inquisitive tone and direct address: 'Fellas, what does it/ mean to you// to be the bigger man? I haven’t/ figured it out for myself.' A sense of possibility permeates the poems as they reorient the place of the individual within the collective: 'We were deliberating all of what we could make from scratch.' This insightful outing points the way toward hope. — Publishers Weekly
In this dynamic debut collection, Nigerian American poet Osinaike unpacks ideas of masculinity with playful musicality . . . Acutely attuned to poetic lineage, Osinaike cites established poets Yona Harvey, Ladan Osman, and Morgan Parker, setting a context for his own new and versatile voice. — Booklist
What sets Tender Headed apart from most of what passes for socially engaged 'poetry' nowadays is that Osinaike is not relying on The Project to do the heavy lifting. Rather, he is writing actual poems. Inventive, musical, and surprising poems.
— John Murillo, author of Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry
With precise linguistic cleverness, Osinaike shapes, mangles, and unearths gospels to smoothen the serrated edges of masculinity. What’s cultivated in this resistance is space for our breathing, space for our being. Tender Headed annihilates the lie of a singular Black male identity.
— Courtney Faye Taylor, author of Concentrate
This poet has a truly remarkable ear and a refreshing sense of assuredness in the range of his voice . . . He understands that poems are social occasions; that they find new life once given over to the air. And there is air everywhere in this boundless book: in breath, in ascension, in song. — Joshua Bennett, author of The Sobbing School
There is a dexterity it takes to weave through the mundane and make it feel radical, to break normality over itself until it is no longer something of easy comfort, and Olatunde Osinaike shows this off in his debut collection. Tender Headed deftly uses contemporary language as a form unto itself—a series of humming vignettes that move with a kinetic sharpness that rarely slow to catch their breath. At one point, Osinaike writes, ‘I made a mannerism out of faith,’ and it is clear that there is a longing for answers that will not come easy, birthed from questions many writers wouldn’t have the fortification to ask. Osinaike’s confidence in the movement between styles, but the vulnerability in the lens he allows us to view the world through makes for a complicated negotiation between the brick/mortar of the language and serenity of his voice. Tender Headed is a pleading, a prayer shared with a stranger, a reluctant fist resting upon your shoulder that asks, demands, insists on your attention.
— William Evans, author of We Inherit What the Fires Left
The poems in Tender Headed span a variation of volume, tone, and pitch. They beg to answer the question of what it means to be a Black man not only surviving, but living: 'How does one look for a fight when it is already in you?' To the speaker, language is a tool of delight and discovery, weaving in and out of sonic and idiomatic play. And everything is biblical, from the barbershop to the gas station to Grandma's house. Through praise and parables, spells and invention, Tender Headed challenges and captivates. It blooms beyond the page, strong in all its tenderness: 'Oh I can be such a mess when the world lets me. Gorgeous / with sympathy.'
— Diannely Antigua, author of Ugly Music, winner of the Whiting Award
Author Olatunde Osinaike thoughtfully poses the question, ‘What makes a man, and what makes a man like me,’ in this musical and formally playful collection of poems on Black identity and masculinity. Pick up for your brother or any man in your life. — Ebony
The push-and-pull of form in this debut from Osinaike is such an impressive balance, spanning from reverent prose pieces to something like the interesting construction of 'Etymology of Simp'; with its two columns, verses square and stark, inviting the reader to confuse the line appropriately for the coming-of-age narrative it presents. Selected by Camille Rankine for the National Poetry Series, this collection simmers thoughtfully through considerations of Black masculinity and boyhood, introspective and precise in its critical eye—but always tender, always earnest. — Millions
Tender Headed . . . is an exploration of the intersection of masculinity and blackness. It is there that Osinaike finds himself at a crossroads of the man he was taught to be and the man he wants to become. Osinaike’s work is unafraid to put its heart on its sleeve and appear vulnerable. It is through this vulnerability that Osinaike hopes growth will happen. That in taking accountability, the current generation can hope to leave some of the pain of the past generation behind them. While there are moments of heaviness, and melancholy, there are also moments of joy and love.