I first saw Warsan Shire seven years ago at a Farrago Slam event
in London. She had one quality that really stood out: authority. And she was
Yes, she had a lot of the attributes that are found in the performance scene: quick turn of phrase, strong delivery and social commentary. But she also had another skill that can sometimes be missing in that genre: precision. Many lines stand alone as epigrams.
Warsan really came back into my radar late last year when she was selected as one of the poets to feature in "Ten: The New Wave" (Bloodaxe 2014) an anthology initiated by the writer Bernadine Evaristo "to celebrate diversity and quality".
It was her performance, at the “Ten” launch at the London South Bank Centre, and my subsequent reading of the work in this exciting anthology that prompted me to find out what else she had been up to in the intervening years. She has been anything but silent, and I soon realized that “Ten” is merely introducing a seasoned performer and writer to the more established parts of the poetry world.
Despite the lack of real pick-up in mainstream poetry, Shire has been generating her own audience, with an impressive 43,000 followers on twitter, (a number many "more famous" poets would kill for, and a few emerging pop stars). Her lines and stanzas have been tweeted and shared widely as memes and quotes across social media. One of 2014’s T.S. Elliot nominees, Pascal Petit, Shire’s mentor on the “Ten” programme, identifies the connection between her “aphoristic two-liners” and her twitter following. It is interesting to see how the memes and tweets start to become poems in their own right, and indeed continue to be read by many more people than will ever buy a poetry book.
In 2011 her poem "For Woman Who Find It Difficult To Find Love" went viral. After appearing on her blog it was adapted to music, and many recordings and versions proliferated on youtube. As a poem, it delivers an anthemic, unashamedly affirmative message, celebrating the need to be an uncompromising woman. In the wrong hands, it could have really wallowed, but Warsan’s precision makes the personal aspects universal:
“You dizzy him. You are unbearable. Every woman before or after you is doused in your name.”
I went back to look at her first pamphlet with Flipped Eye "Teaching My Mother To Give Birth" (2011). She really takes no prisoners, with content that is rawer and, in places, even emotionally braver than the later work in "Ten":
"I want to lay down, but all these countries are like
uncles that touch you when you're young and asleep"
Conversations about Home (In A Deportation Centre)
"To my daughter, I will say
'When the men come, set yourself on fire.' "
In Love and In War
“Ten: The New Wave” is a real dynamo of an anthology and features some of the most exciting young U.K based poets around. It merits more attention than this article can provide, however Warsan more than holds her own in this impressive company.
As well as the honed epigrams, she demonstrates a very confident and natural relationship between body politics and geographical politics that feels personal rather than the result of academic labouring:
"..a refugee camp behind each ear "
"What man wants to lie down
and watch the whole world burn
in his bedroom?"
The Ugly Daughter
She owns her different identities too: Somali, Kenyan, Muslim, a young woman of London. She owns them, takes them out, and turns them upside down:
" Dear Uncle, is everything you love foreign
or are you foreign to everything you love?"
Midnight in the Foreign Food Aisle
Poems like "Backwards" have the simple clarity you would expect from a performance poet, but manages to use strict, formal structure and discipline to reverse the dark narrative of physical violence, abuse and geographical dislocation. Halfway through, she presses the rewind button on the movie of the poem:
"I can make the blood run back up my nose, ants rushing into a hole,"
This cinematic element to Warsan’s work is also acknowledged by her editor, Karen McCarthy Woolf, who, in her introduction to “Ten”, compares “Backwards” to “a speeded up version of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’ ”. She can also be pretty funny:
“Are you going to eat that? I say to my mother, pointing to my father who is lying on the dining-room table, his mouth stuffed with a red apple.”
There is a sense, both in performance and on the page, that the weapons of Warsan's choice are getting sharpened and loaded to deliver the strong messages of her experiences and her insights. She is not frightened to take the chance of naming things directly. Again and again, she demonstrates a knowingness, but manages to keep it free from sentimentality.
It cannot be denied that part of the reason why Warsan’s work is exciting is that she take on massive issues like war, gender, violence, immigration, and racism and writes very well about them. Her monologue from the point of view of a woman from a previous generation, ‘Tribe of Woods”, shares with us the everyday horror of female genital mutilation, but refuses to blindly condemn a woman who carried it out as part of her tradition. By staying in touch with the narrator, she actually takes us closer into the pain and hurt of such action more than any external judgment or accusation could:
“my husband tides himself
inside the wetness of another woman
my marital bed is a cleft chin I lag my
tongue across, my body has never felt
heat, my back has never arched.”
Tribe of Woods
(Published on the Badilisha Poetry X-Change)
Warsan Shire is an exciting poet who will not sound like, or play by the same rules, as the previous generations. While she seems totally capable of drawing in her own audience, I think her work deserves much wider attention. What ever she does next, I don’t think it will be a compromise.
Flipped Eye will bring out her new collection “ grief has its blue hands in my hair ” this year. “Ten: The New Wave” is available from Bloodaxe books.
I’ll give her the last word, this is her reading at the launch of “Ten”: