Momtaza Mehri is a biomedical scientist, poet and writer who remains unsure which world came first. Her parents are of Eritrean, Somali and Yemini origin. Her work engages with inheritance/ psychosomatics/ ugliness/ biopolitics and digitalised diasporas. She has been active in the zine/journal underworld for some time, featuring and forthcoming in OOMK, Hard Food, Cecile’sWriters, Puerto Del Sol, Elsewhere and other delights, as well as contributing to MediaDiversified. As an editor of the digital space Diaspora Drama, she is fixated by the capacities of cyberspacepoetics. Her work has seen her perform in universities, festivals and the usual dimly-lit haunts. Anthologised in Podium Poets, as part of the London Laureates long-list, her debut collection will be published in 2016. Her heart yawns in three continents, London being its current owner. She loves the tension in that.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re a biomedical scientist, poet and writer. How much of your profession, as a biomedical scientist, do you bring to your poetry?
Momtaza Mehri: A lot. Which isn’t as technical or distant as it seems. One of my favourite poets, Rafael Campo, happens to be a practicing doctor. To him, biomedicine ‘appropriates the narrative’ with its cell counts and scans. Poetry hands the narrative back to the body. Imagine a forensic technique confirming the ink brand in a father’s pen and proving the forgery of a will? That’s a good poem right there. Finding the space between has been a process, especially as a poet studying the sciences.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you first begin to write poetry?
Momtaza Mehri: I grew up surrounded by jiifto cassettes, a form of Somali poetic chanting that would reverberate from our family car windows. Poetry was never unapproachable, never sterile, not to me or those around me. It was always Friday sermons and throwaway proverbs; the kind of ritual you never take seriously until you do. Having said that, I definitely began writing regularly in my early teens. The usual juvenile stuff that, looking back, still came from a truthful place.
Geosi Gyasi: In your view, what is the role of poetry in the modern society?
Momtaza Mehri: Poetry is a kind of breathing aid. I really believe that. That space that allows for those made invisible to just breathe, to have the luxury of specificity. ‘I see you’ – that’s the most radical sentiment a writer can channel. A good poem is a long exhale. Maybe that won’t tear down any walls but it’s a start.
Geosi Gyasi: Briefly tell me about the work you do at ‘Diaspora Drama’?
Momtaza Mehri: First, I have to give props to Isaac Kariuki, a brilliant digital artist, for founding this platform. I’ve been lucky enough to work with him and co-edit this treasure trove of art, photography, storytelling and poetry. We centre immigrant people of colour and their creativity which isn’t always synonymous with suffering or obligatory ‘diaspora tears’. The ‘Drama’ eludes to this project being somewhere our communities can be as bitchy or tender or as hilarious as they want. It’s a global online basement party.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you explain the term, “Cyberspacepoetics” as it often appears in your biography?
Momtaza Mehri: I love meme culture. I love bad Photoshop and cat pictures and Egyptian chat-room language. I also love Instagram and Tumblr poetry, the kind that gets dismissed as cutesy motivational fluff. “Cyberspacepoetics” is the only meritocracy this planet has. If your three-line, space-bar poem resonates with people, it’ll be shared endlessly. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a published poet or not. My writing tries to draw from these digital worlds and their intelligent humour. The African diaspora is engaged in the ultimate URL call & response and I want to reflect this in my poetry.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a purpose for why you write?
Momtaza Mehri: To add to a community of writers speaking in a language aimed directly back at who we write about. This isn’t always possible given how I mostly write in English, but I’m still going to try anyway.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you engage in poetry performances?
Momtaza Mehri: Yes. I used to get the jitters especially since I was terrible at the whole spoken word thing. Now I see it as just another way of giving life to the work. I love performing amongst poets I admire and hope to do more of this.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you know why you were shortlisted for the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?
Momtaza Mehri: I really have no idea. I’d like to think the judges saw a sincerity in my work. Honestly, I’m still in shock considering the calibre of the other shortlisted poets.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your future literary ambitions?
Momtaza Mehri: I want to write and edit more. At this point, I’m concentrating on my manuscript which is trying to kill me and will probably succeed. I want to find new ways to bridge digital language with more traditional forms. Mostly, I want to remain honest in my intentions at least. Anything else is beyond my control.
Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Momtaza Mehri’s poems.
Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’
The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.