Amiina Mohamoud & YPL
One of the elements I most enjoy about working in the community as a poet is being able to work with talented people to help them find a way forward with their work. This can manifest in various ways depending on the writer and their goals but hopefully what comes out of the one-2-one session is that the writer explores new ways of evolving their art.
I first saw Amiina Mohamoud perform at Word 4 Word, and then Dirty Gifted and Welsh open floors in Cardiff a few years ago when she was just 16 or 17 at some of her earliest performances. Back then she was nervous and a bit rushed but the voice and intention behind the words was clear and strong and I felt then that she would be someone to watch on the Welsh literature scene in coming years.
Fast-forward to 2017 and I’m on the train down to Cardiff for a day’s session with Amiina to chat about her work, try out some writing prompts, and to discover the vision she has for her poetry. We’d been having an email conversation about poets Amiina might aspire towards in the lead up to this which led us to discussing poems such as the stunning This Is Not A Humanising Poem by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan I’d recently discovered.
After meeting for coffee and a chat about Amiina’s hopes for the session we wandered over to Bute Park to read our poetry out loud with the trees. I wanted to get a sense of Amiina’s rhythm and cadence when performing and I feel most at home when sharing work with the trees. While there we looked at some light editing but I’m not particularly focussed on that element of support; for these sessions I’m interested in drawing out the inspiration, drive, talent and vision of the writer and feel that stopping to go over grammar, spelling and punctuation disrupts the flow of the day – it’s also something the writer can sort out for themselves in the future. I’m also loath to change people’s work much, if at all. This is because for me writing is about that person finding their voice, not my voice, or the voice of a magazine or a homogenised version of themselves that might be more commercial or widely accepted, and I feel that, in order to remain authentic, this takes time and cannot be rushed, but fortunately we each have our whole lives on this journey of artistic (self) discovery.
After lunch we headed over to Cardiff Library to try out some writing prompts including a few new ones I’d learned recently from the hugely inspiring Queen-of-SLAMbassadors, Joelle Taylor. It was at this point I came up against an odd schism in my understanding of the art world that I realised was magnified by social media feeds. I’d seen a number of opportunities for BAME writers online and, perhaps because I followed quite a lot of BAME writers, my view of how many opportunities are available was skewed to thinking that perhaps there were more than in reality. This reminded me of something I quote often when it comes to women on TV or in film: what can look like balance in female and male speaking parts is actually around 30% women and 70% men. I’m writing this because meeting with Amiina and exploring potential writing platforms made me realise that I’ve been as guilty at overestimating the number of opportunities for BAME writers as I accuse others of when it comes to opportunities for women. Which was a humbling and eyeopening experience.
What I can’t do with these sessions is wave a magic wand and get people published or get them headline performance slots – the poet has to do the same groundwork as everybody else, but I was happy to scout around and see what poetry nights I could find to connect Amiina with such as the wonderful and much needed Where I’m Coming From a new series of spoken word and open mic co-organised by Durre Shawar and Hanan Issa, which focuses on BAME writers in Wales; and I chatted with a few editor friends for tips on the best ways for Amiina to go about getting her work in print as that was part of her focus for the future of her work.*
The sense I got from Amiina is that she’s not yet confident in sharing her words, which is a shame because they’re powerful and visceral and political and important. It’s easy to say that a poet has to find their way just like everybody else, and that’s true to a certain extent, but I’m also reminded of all the exceptionally talented artists who have given up on their art because they didn’t believe in it. Add to that the harsh cultural landscape that still needs to be surmounted by BAME writers and it becomes clearer why there are less BAME artists out there, it’s not about lack of talent (Amiina has proven that), it’s more about being supported to have faith in the work so that the writer feels stronger and more able to overcome additional barriers such as racism or sexism (explicit and implicit).
I wanted to publish two of Amiina’s poems here that I love to illustrate the importance of her words and the strong social and political messages she exudes through her art. These poems speak of a young woman acutely aware of the myriad hurdles and closed doors she faces while still having the faith in herself to celebrate her “melanin and the role that it plays”. I hope Amiina’s voice remains this powerful and that she doesn’t lose faith in her capabilities as a poet and writer, because if she can stay the course then I’m confident this intelligent, talented young poet will play an important role in Wales’ diverse and increasingly evolving literary culture over the coming decades.
bury the wings of my dreams before I learned to fly
Suffocate my mouth, hang my truth out to dry
racism and an old boy’s network shoot blind
Now there’s so many holes people are scared to acknowledge the damage
choose to turn a blind eye
cause it’s easier to pretend that we don’t exist
blur lines of outspokenness and a racist
and they say they’re colour blind
not knowing that’s the most offensive thing they could say
I want you to recognise my melanin and the role that it plays
and that I have a culture and I put importance on respect
and that my name itself is a beacon of hope tying me to my home
made of up of letters that you wouldn’t know
foreign alphabets our names are the true meaning of bespoke
the way that we pronounce it to remind ourselves we are our own
and not what you made of us
and that we wear bright colours all year round and sometimes speak loud wear headpieces like a crown but this country was never a throne for us
because here we are thugs and estates fillers in sink schools benefit dependent and free school dinners
27% achievement gap always losers not winners
the best that we can be is a mirror? allow you to be blinding and restrict us to a glimmer
graced by light reflecting from your trophies and suburbs and privilege
and we’d be foolish not to be grateful for this
for a chance to be successful for a chance to be a reflection of you
and being ‘different’ is just a pat on the head for assimilating and leaving what matters instead
adopting mannerisms and cultures that would never claim you to become the token black person
whose name they would use
in statements and in disputes
how could we be racist? he’s black too!
and he’s happy here – that phrase echoes as you look down at old photos in frames
kids throwing gang signs dressed as if on the cover of the hottest rap demo
don’t you remember the culture? the freestyling after school a system preying on your energy circling like vultures
don’t you know that we’re magic?
and what we have is unattainable we’re full of wonder
pushed to extremities and refuse to come out under
all I see is prey running wild that are yet to discover
that men in suits with gun barrels for mouths whose word is law are the real predators yet their crimes they cover
just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real
our grace and light don’t constitute as an excuse for open field
and obstructing letting people build and make a home of the little they were given to work with
fill Estate flats with the symphony of gospel choirs and an attitude that remains definitive
yet doesn’t allow you to define us,
doesn’t allow us to be inhibited.
Black out stealing the lime light unexpected like Oscar fumbles
La La Land and Moonlight.
broad shoulders in suits held up by bravado and self-importance
my father’s shoulders fill out his jacket on his own,
in self-sufficiency he never has a shortage
and what is the measure that we weigh up performance
‘cause having everything handed to you is distorted
to translate as raw intelligence and having all of the components
to carry the heavy weight of a middle class cheque
that private schools and your father’s friends trained you for yet –
you still believe in your intelligence when in reality you bought it.
big frames in suits held up by cultural capital and gentrification
we’re all drowning trying to save ourselves desperately giving the Africa within us resuscitation.
the language that used to roll off my tongue now hesitant and it’s blatant
to those back home that we’ve pulled away and – kept ourselves hushed kept our hair straightened.
remember the day we rose from the thick heat and dust to constant raining
switched up our humour and took a liking to complaining
watching BBC drinking English tea this western world had us caving
made us think this is the norm and lives back home are alien.
but you see Africa lives within me runs through my veins headpieces and dirac but oonsi doesn’t smell the same-in council flats in suburbs our little secret
we feel shame.
want to be like the other kids reject African discipline and play
and play until we can’t get enough.
play with our opportunities and proclaim that inequality won’t let up knowing that cousins and aunties back home have expectations
and that they’re a mirror of what life could’ve been and they’re dying to take ur place and
take full of advantage of schooling no matter how they work it against us
we were always taught to rise to a challenge
succeed in environments against us.
but they taught us we are subordinate you can’t blame us
classroom contractions and mug shots make you famous
having an opinion and being loud a criminal in the making
rule breaking, I can’t shake it
counter school culture they’ve got the capital
but flip the script and we’d take it
and run with it
out of sight a head start couldn’t help them
not even their white privilege
and we’d cross the finish line in tracksuits, draped in Adidas
grime music and afrobeats as an anthem
and I hope that you hear it.
I hope that you feel it
our attire is so much more, it’s within our spirit
walking gang signs, racial profile but I swear that he did it
the man in the suit, the one with too much to lose
pulling up at the traffic light
gang signs out the window
I hope each and every single one of them offend you.