What are you working on artistically right now?
For National Poetry Month I'm trying to write a poem every day, which has been difficult, but what's good about it is that the poem is shorter and I know I'm not going to share them. So there's a freedom.
To play around?
What's the hardest poem you've written so far?
I was planning to do short pieces that were just for me, and then for whatever reason I was thinking about Lemonade, and decided to write a three-minute piece. And it was very time-consuming, and I was just constantly writing.
How long have you been writing?
Probably five or six years. Performing and writing spoken word specifically? Maybe two years.
The three-minute piece you wrote—do you plan on performing that one?
Yeah. There's this All-Star Slam coming up and I want to bring my best stuff. Which I don't think exists yet.
Do you consider yourself an all-star?
That's a really strong word, I don't really see myself that way. But one day we'll get there.
Who are the poetry all-stars in your life?
People who paved the way for me. I wouldn't have the opportunities that I have if it wasn't for the community in Edmonton. Ahmed Knowmadic is an amazing human being. Also Nasra Adem, you, people who really uplift and help to support up-and-coming artists and get gigs for people they care about.
How did you start performing?
I obsessively watched poetry online, and I thought "why don't I do this?". Then there was an event called Smash the Patriarchy with the University's Women and Gender Studies students, and they called for performers. I had a period poem and I thought "why don't I just apply?" and that was the first performance I've ever done. It was terrible.
How was it terrible?
Looking back, the growth that has happened is monumental. At the time it went well, and I thought I killed it. But now...
Are there any recordings?
Absolutely not. But Dwennimmen was there.
So there were witnesses?
Hopefully she never talks about it. That same summer I did the Somali's Got Talent thing, a cute little talent show in the gym. Ahmed was one of the judges, and he got me a paid gig the next week. And from there I met Liam Coady, and Beth Dart, and I started coming to Breath in Poetry. That's when it really started for me because I saw that there was a community.
What's the Somali community like when it comes to art?
There's a lot of poets, but a lot of the time we tend to kind of do the same community events and don't branch out a lot. I would love to see more Somali poets and artists feel comfortable in the artist community. But we're already seeing that a lot.
I heard that in Somali culture the poet is very highly regarded.
Yes. My mom was always telling me when I started that Somalia is considered the nation of poets. And just generally in our culture poetry is so interwoven, in so many aspects of it, whether it be the poetry that women do, buranbur, or the poetry that men do, gabay. It's so respected.
Your community respects you for being a poet?
I think that what I do is really different. My community is always proud to see the youth striving to do better and succeed. But what I do is different from our culture's poetry.
Do you think the difference has been difficult in seeking acceptance?
They're just two different things. But they have the same roots, the same birthplace.
Are you comfortable performing in front of your community?
I am. I'm thankful because that's where I started. If it wasn't for my community then I wouldn't have had the opportunities that gave me the confidence to do what I do.
What are the big projects that you want to do in the next year or so?
I would love to apply to one day be a youth poet laureate. To get to a place where I'm comfortable doing that I have to do at least some organizing. I think it's important to be accountable to the community that's uplifted me and allowed me to be where I am. I just think that for the next year, I don't know. But one day.
Do you have any specific poetry goals that you want to work towards?
My friends and I applied for an artist in residence opportunity, so hopefully we're granted that because it's a good space to be in.
What does community mean to you?
It's broader than your ethnic or cultural community, which is what it was growing up. It's the people you identify with and your artistic community.
Do you consider yourself part of a national community?
I definitely do more now. I remember when Ifrah Hussein won the Canadian Individual Poetry Slam and there were three women of colour in the top. In that moment I really felt like a part of the national community, and specifically, really happy for other women of colour and Somali poets who were succeeding.
What specifically do you want to build for your community at home?
When I was in school there weren't any spaces for poetry for youth. I would love to see more Somali youth feeling comfortable in poetry spaces.
What are some of the barriers in creating those spaces for Somali youth?
I feel like a fraud because I'm not in the community like that yet, or mentoring. But knowing that the space exists and encouraging people to access them is important. There's a lot of people doing work right now to mentor youth and make space for youth.
You're quite youth-oriented. You were young when you started writing and performing.
Yeah, I'm twenty.
Such a baby.
I started when I was seventeen.
It's such a good time to start finding your voice. Especially now, when there's more of an appetite to mentor youth than ever before. So there's opportunity if you're willing to start and be brave. Are there any page poets you look up to?
Warsan Shire. And Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib.
And he's also a writer.
They're pretty recently famous.
But they've been working for a long time.
For sure. So, growing up, were there poets you read?
Poetry for me growing up was Robert Frost. There was nothing where I thought "oh this is amazing, I identify with this, I feel valid, and seen, and heard, and this is written for me." I didn't find that until I was older and on Button Poetry, watching YouTube videos. And when I found that and saw what poetry could be like, I took what I was already doing in writing all the time and channeled that.
So what is spoken word to you?
In my regular life, I struggle to be able to voice what weighs on me. Poetry isn't just a place to go when you're angry or broken or frustrated, but that's really how it started out for me. It was a way to come to terms with things I couldn't voice normally. And I think since then it's developed as a way to connect with people, and also to heal others. You can do that by writing things that are angsty and difficult to deal with but you can also do that by writing things that come from a place of joy, or other places, or love, which I'm trying to do and work towards. It's okay to hold space for both. And I'm just trying to find that balance for myself.
These poets you look up to, do you think they balance their work?
Yes. I think so. I was reading about how what Beyoncé does is with so much love. With these other poets its a labour of love as well as other emotions.
What do you think your poetry is going to look like a year from now, or five years from now?
Hopefully very different. My goal is to constantly grow and I don't know if you experience this as an artist but looking back at something I've written a year ago, I look at it differently. I feel I am constantly at a different place. I write a lot about home, and what home means to me, and identity, so I'm trying to write that but write it with honesty and not victimize myself. Sometimes I get in this place where I write about things that matter to me, but what am I accomplishing by writing? Is it a truthful story? How is it affecting the people that I'm writing about? So I'm trying to get to that place where I can write truthfully.
What do you mean by identity?
Just this collection of all these things. Being stuck in this third culture, almost, where you're born here, your parents are born back home, and you don't see that, but you're constantly hearing about it, so you think of it as a romanticized place where you find belonging. But you're just stuck in between.
Have you been back?
No, and I feel like if I were to go back it wouldn't be this amazing, prophetic, healing thing, that I hold it up to be. Because for one thing, the home my parents talk about is Somalia before civil war. And since then there's been such a change. My mom hasn't been back home since she left. We hear about relatives constantly moving or passing away. So to go back it's like, what are you even going back to? Ultimately, I didn't grow up there. So as much as I think of it as mine, is it really mine? Do I really fit in? Or am I foreigner who just looks like the locals.
Do you ever feel you're asked to perform because you're an ethnic or foreign voice?
I guess, what I'm trying to say is, do you ever feel like someone is making a spectacle of your suffering or confusion?
Yes. I think there's a really big market for that in poetry today. There's a lot of space for it and a lot of it that happens, and I try not to fall into that sometimes, or pander to it.
But it's hard. Because those are also truthful stories.
So I guess we struggle to tell the truth and still make art.
Right, that's meaningful and does what I want it to do. There's constantly a gap between where I want to be and would love to be as an artist, and where I am. Bridging it, well, every time I get close to it, the goal changes. But that's okay. Growth is constant. It's also important to find the balance between "I need to grow, I need to get better" and "I'm not there". If you're off in that balance you're going to constantly feel drained.
I feel that. If you could collaborate or work with any poet who would it be?
Oh my gosh. Let me think. So many options. Ashley August? What she does is insane, she has to be a theatre kid. She's not just doing poetry. It's performance art. She's telling the story with her body, her whole body. In the two or three minutes she's speaking it's captivating.
Have you seen her live?
I haven't. I don't think I could meet her or talk to her. But maybe just admire from afar. Is that creepy?
I met Imani Cezanne in Washington once and it was totally embarrassing.
Oh my god.
Well, what do you think the difference is between seeing a video of someone and watching it live?
I think it's the energy in the room that's the biggest difference. I don't know how to describe it. When someone is performing and people are listening, really listening, you can feel it. It's in the air. There's something about that that makes it an experience. The exchange, the whole memory is an experience.
How do you choose what to perform?
Again, you don't want to pander to an audience. So that's part of it. But it's also what I think I can be in that moment, or what I'm feeling. If I perform a piece, I need to be honest about it.
What's your favourite crowd to perform for?
Definitely the Breath in Poetry crowd, because all of those people just love poetry so much. And love what our city does, and are in that space because they're coming to listen. You know when you're getting up on that stage that the crowd wants you to do well, and hear your story.
What it is about slam that you like?
I'm competitive to the point where it's unhealthy. But mostly with myself. So for one, slam generally brings out something in me where I have a desire to create art beyond what I normally create. It pushes me to find the best of what I'm able to do. And seeing that happen for everybody else. People usually don't crumple under pressure during a slam, everybody rises to the occasion. Being able to see that, and see people do art that is so meaningful to them and that's in their ability is great.
What was your experience at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word like?
That was amazing. In the preparation, you know, it was a lot of mess. But the four of us, we came together with a common voice and found the common thread in all of our stories. Something about that was magical. It was beyond. And being able to take that, and perform it, and be heard, and do it to our best, and then write a book from that, it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. And seeing art that I didn't even know you could do was insane and eye-opening, it pushed me. When I saw Jillian Christmas and Ian Keteku on stage on the same night, it was like, that's what I need to be doing. Connecting people.
So those were the standout performances for you?
Yeah, definitely. And there was also Urban Legends, and HYP.
For me it was really powerful being on that team with you and seeing other teams with people of colour who were navigating the same amounts of struggle and love and understanding between each other.
It's hard finding the common thread, but when you do it comes together really well.
And it's so powerful, because you're amplifying one another's voices so beautifully.
Are there any celebrities or more famous actors or musicians or other people who you look up to (besides Beyoncé)?
Black women have been holding it down in music. Janelle Monae, Beyonce, honestly, just the way that I'm feeling, I'm seen and heard and valid. Seeing all these identities that are never there. It's always pick and choose which is represented in what space. To see them all simultaneously is insane. What do you think the future for black women in art is going to be like?
Wow. Honestly, I foresee a takeover. I don't know in what form or what way, but I see us doing what I wish I had when I was younger. I'm ready. Please.
I saw this t-shirt once: "white girls copying gay guys copying black girls". Women of colour have been doing this for years. It's just access to the mainstream that they've been lacking.
Yes, it's not an issue of ability, it's an issue of whether people are going to allow you to access these spaces. When are you going to gain permission to access spaces that have been copying you for all of time?
Do you ever feel like your work or presence is offensive to men?
I think that sometimes what I do makes people uncomfortable. But I've never been in a situation where someone's clearly offended. But I tend to write things that are unapologetic.
What do you envision as the future of spoken word? None of us really know what the next ten years are going to look like?
Right now there's this whole micro-poetry and Instagram thing that's a huge trend. But I don't really know where spoken word is going to go. The whole core element of storytelling, the slam, that's going to stay, but we're going to go through these trends. I just hope we can see more collaboration between mainstream artists and spoken word poets. I think slam is really amazing, but if there could be spaces where poetry is uplifted and heard and it's not competitive, but it's at the same caliber and reaches the same audience, that would be great.
What are some of the challenges in writing spoken word pieces?
I tend to write from a place of frustration. It's really easy to write from places of pain, generally. So I am really trying to push myself to write from other places. Even though they're important, how do I branch out? And write about things that matter to me otherwise? Which is sad that I'm only now pushing myself to do it.
Why is it sad?
I think it's dangerous to get into a space where you only write when things are painful. How is that healthy? How is that healing? That's the goal. To heal yourself and others. It's a dangerous way to write, which I tend to do sometimes. Being aware you're writing a painful story, but knowing you can heal from it, and that you're doing it in a productive and meaningful way, being cognizant of why you're doing it, is important.
Do you have recommendations for any poems or songs?
If you haven't heard Crystal Valentine, or when Aja Monet does "Weathering".
"Weathering" makes me cry.
It's the love poem to end all love poems.
How do you even get to the place where you experience love like that.
The mindset you have to be in to take in that much love. Right? And I think you have to have a level of love for yourself to be able to love like that.
Is that a goal for yourself? To reach a level of love for yourself?
Definitely. But I also think that the self-love that I've been working towards is not just "Oh I'm beautiful" but "How am I holding myself accountable?" or actively doing things that are going to benefit me even though they're really uncomfortable and I don't want to do them. I'm pushing myself to do better, because I love myself, and I'm willing to put in the work.