Warsan Shire is a Somali poet raised in London. She was the first Young Poet Laureate for London. Her début book, ‘Teaching my Mother How to Give Birth’ (flipped eye), was published in 2011. She has read her work extensively internationally. Her poems have appeared in Poetry Review, Wasafiri, Magma, and the anthology ‘The Salt Book of Younger Poets’ (Salt, 2011). In 2013 she won the inaugural Brunel University African Poetry Prize. In 2014 she was Australia’s Queensland Poet-in- Residence. Her poetry has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Estonian and Swedish. She teaches workshops using poetry to explore memory and heal trauma. Warsan lives in Los Angeles, where is she working on her first full collection.
Geosi Gyasi: You immigrated to the United Kingdom at the age of one. How and why did that happen?
Warsan Shire: My father is a writer and journalist; he was forced to leave Mogadishu soon after I was conceived because he wrote a book questioning the government. My parents moved to Nairobi, where I was born. Still in danger – we moved to London. Then the civil war broke out soon after and we couldn’t go back.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you regard the United Kingdom as your home?
Warsan Shire: One of my homes, yes. North West London, specifically.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you first regard yourself as a poet?
Warsan Shire: On some level, when ‘teaching my mother how to give birth’ was published – I had something tangible to reference. I didn’t come from a world where your dreams could actually come true. I wanted to write books, so when this manuscript I started writing at 18, was actually published by Nii Parkes – I had something real and physical to point to.
Geosi Gyasi: So in 2011, ‘teaching my mother how to give birth’ was published by flipped eye. Could you tell me the technical process by which you give titles to your poems?
Warsan Shire: It’s a natural process, sometimes it comes before the poem, sometimes the poem names itself. I don’t think about it too much. Most of my poems have working titles of whatever state I was in at the time of writing. I recently found a freewrite of mine titled ‘WHY IS UR EX-GIRLFRIEND HAUNTING US IF SHE IS NOT DEAD????’. The title can always change later, to something a little bit more subtle, maybe.
Geosi Gyasi: In October 2013, you were selected as the first Young Poet Laureate for London. What were your roles as a young Poet Laureate?
Warsan Shire: A major part was the writing residencies, all over London, from the Houses of Parliament to a shed in a park in East London. I would sit and write poems all day for a year. Too often I would be interviewed by journalists whose only intention, it felt, was to make clear that I was a spoken word poet and not a ‘poet’. On occasion I would be asked if I was also, a Rapper and ‘how did you learn to speak English so well?”.
Geosi Gyasi: As a poetry editor, do you edit your own poems before you send them out to publishers?
Warsan Shire: I edit until life gets blurry, then I work with my editor, who is also a brilliant poet – Jacob Sam La-Rose. Everything I know about editing I learnt from him and my mentor – the beautiful poet Pascale Petit.
Geosi Gyasi: Your poetry has been translated into many languages including Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Estonian, & Swedish. How do you feel about this and how many languages do you speak?
Warsan Shire: I look forward to translating more work in Somali, that’s really important to me. I can speak Somali and English fluently.
Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Warsan Shire’s poems.
Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’
The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.