Momtaza Mehri is a poet, essayist and literary studies researcher. Her work has been featured and is forthcoming in Poetry Society, PANK Magazine, Bone Bouquet, The Rialto, DAZED, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. Her chapbook sugah lump prayer was published in April 2017 as part of the New Generation African Poets series
She has been shortlisted for the 2016 Brunel African Poetry Prize and Plough Prize and won the 2017 Outspoken Page Poetry Prize. A Complete Works Fellow, she will be anthologised in Ten: Poets of The New Generation (2017). She also co-edits Diaspora Drama, a digital platform showcasing international immigrant art. She has performed her poetry in universities, literary festivals and conferences. Currently, she is working on her first full poetry collection. With a background in biomedical science, she has worked as a health educator, language teacher and editor. She tries her best not to believe in astrology or borders.
SA: How did you get into writing poetry?
Momtaza: I was always surrounded by poetry, in the lyrical gabay sense as well as the general musicality of the Somali language. It's always been a grounding presence in my life and something I return to, wherever or however I find myself. I definitely got confident enough to put pen to paper during my emo phase, with the help of Vampire Freaks forums, Full Metal Alchemist YouTube fanvids & fanfiction sites. The anonymity of URL culture gave me the freedom to share my first poems. Honestly, I think as a Somali I was born into poetry. I just had to exercise this particular limb I inherited.
SA: Are there any themes you like to adhere to when writing?
Momtaza: Thematically, I'm interested in the many lies we tell ourselves, as well as the lies that are told about us. The entitlement we sometimes feel to the stories of survivors, to reliving their pain whether they've asked us to or not. The awe I feel when I think about how much our community has gone through, and continues to go through. How mundane and every-day displacement and transgenerational patterns of heartache are. I’m interested not so much in violence, but how we still lean back and giggle after its repetitive occurrence. Lately, I've been writing a lot about faith, flirting and those spaces where language fails me.
SA: Has there been a specific moment in your life that has influenced your poems in any way?
Momtaza: Too many. My life is an extension of everyone who has invested time and love into me. Like many eldest daughters, I grew up too fast. So, yes, I have many stories. That's not to say my poetry is 100% confessional but there's a lot of shit I'm still processing. I will write about seeing a possessed woman scratching the walls getting the jinn exorcised out of her. About men who refuse to talk about how they lost all their fingers. About constantly moving to and from somewhere. Documenting these stories is my way of record-keeping. I don't want to sound like a parasite but I learn a lot from the heartbreaks of those closest to me. I want to honour their survival and daily joy. The women of our community, especially, amaze me every day with stories of what they’ve had to overcome, the dreams they had to shelve and what they’ve spent lifetimes protecting us from. Their stories mean so much to me.
SA: Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?
Definitely. I'm glad I stumbled across such a variety of forms. Poetry that isn't afraid to toy with language and draw from so many worlds. You don't have to be confined to borders or other people's fantasies of what a refugee or diasporic poet should sound like. I am not responsible for the crisis in anyone's imagination. Of course, #diasporablues is very real and I too sometimes feel like my entire life is an out-of-body experience. But that’s not the only kind of poetry we can produce. Being reduced to that can mean your work or craft is being read only as anthropology. I tried to read my way backwards as well as searching out contemporary experimental poets to give me a good idea of all that is possible. Then, I started seeing poetry where I didn’t expect it. Poetry is how we're still singing Tala' al-Badru 'Alaynā more than 1400 years later. It's how Somali girls turn into the best hype-women when their friends are dancing. It's our intra-diaspora jokes about who has the worst accent. It’s what hooyo sings under her breath as she does the laundry. It’s habibi Frank Ocean telling us he ain’t gone wallahi. You can write about all of that and it's OK. It's all poetry, all Gucci.
SA: Who do you read or what poems do you turn to in times of need?
Momtaza: Essex Hemphill because there is so much communal love in his words. Akilah Oliver because she was so terrifyingly sensitive. Her poetry is like remembering a dream after you've woken up. Faysal Cumar Mushteeg because I have to shout out the OG's who speak of love and loss in the language of my grandparents. Also don't think I can continue without naming Mahmoud Darwish as I learnt so much about the absence I and those around me felt in our bones through him. Sandra Cisneros and Lorna Dee Cervantes for my borderlands feels.
SA: What are you currently reading and/or working on?
Momtaza: Right now I’m working my way through; Jasmine Gibson’s Drapetomania, i be, but i ain't by Aziza Barnes, The Consequences of My Body by Maged Zaher and In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe, the last of which I’ve been dipping into and digesting bit by bit. I would also recommend Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans to anyone else in a love-hate relationship with rappers. In my research, I’ve been reading Rashad Hashim’s work. He’s a Sudanese poet who's also technically British as he was born in and references London. He and his love and fellow poet Zina Mahjoub are like the Sudanese Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes, but with henna painted hands.
Currently, I'm working on my first full collection which will hopefully be out before the world ends. I'll also be published in a few upcoming anthologies so Alhamdulillah overall.
SA: What advice would you give to other young women who want to start writing poetry?
Momtaza: You've probably heard it before but READ. Then READ some more. Lose yourself in women who look like you, who speak like you, who hurt like you. Ignore everyone who tells you this is a small bubble. I can guarantee you their bubble is even smaller. Then branch out to your heart's desire. Write from the centre. You are the centre. Have the confidence of a token black man in an artsy crowd. Weaponize your longing. Weaponize what makes you different. You don’t have to only write truth to power, you can turn your back on it too. There are more options than you can imagine. Most of all, find/create a network of women to remind you of how necessary your work is on the worst days.
Sagal Abdulle is an Editor of Araweelo Abroad