This National Poetry Day, We Sat Down With Mohamed Mohamed

If poetry is food for the soul, it’s probably an enormous red velvet cake smothered in endless amounts of icing; that’s especially true when you’re talking about the work of British Somali poet Mohamed Mohamed.

In honour of National Poetry Day, we wanted to celebrate one of our favourite cakes poets Mohamed Mohamed– wordsmith, activist and Elays alum. Last week, we sat down with Mohamed to talk poetry, being both black and Muslim in Britain and what it’s like to pour your heart out on stage.

Q: When did you start writing poetry, and why?

A: I started writing poetry when I was twelve years old. It was kind of by accident but also very cliched- it was about a girl and I was quite young… I was never shy to talk about issues even at a young age! That might have been the premise, but it also triggered me to write about other stuff – football and sports and other things I liked. It was kind of a way for me to express how I felt about issues. 

Q: Has your reason for writing poetry changed over the years?

A: No, not really. I’ve just kind of written what’s on my mind and various factors- it could be things that I want to talk about. It could be current affairs. It could be for commissions. This has been a more common thing recently, so connecting with organisations (various types of organisations, whether it’s an arts organisation or a charity or a library) and writing for them. And that’s been a really, really interesting learning curve. But my sole purpose of writing has been the idea and love of words, how we can use words, how we can merge words together metaphorically with words being symbolic of something or someone or a place, and where a poem locates you. The objective of why I write, and what led me to write, hasn’t changed- I write about my feelings on various issues, and also where it can take a person as well. I’m really keen on locations, and how a poem can take you to places.

Q: What opportunities has your poetry opened up for you?

A: It’s opened up a lot. It’s definitely opened up opportunities to travel. Leading poetry workshops has got me on certain leadership programmes across the country, as well as internationally. For example, I was on a programme in America. The work I’ve done with poetry has opened up that opportunity. It’s allowed me to travel across the UK which I probably would never have done if it wasn’t for poetry and being asked to read poems at various places across the country. As well as that, it’s also opened up networking opportunities, and allowed me to become a voice to some degree. Poets have always been narrators of either pop culture or as commentators for various subjects such as politics. It’s allowed me to appear on TV for political debates on news channels and talk about identity, so it’s opened up a lot of unique opportunities that I would probably never have got otherwise. 

Q: What is your favourite poem, and why? 

AIt has to be the poem I read prior to GCSE which was John Agard, Half Caste. I think at the time I had had a very deluded, one-dimensional idea of poetry – as something all about love or a feeling that was related to love or something else. A poem like Half Caste, I remember being in the classroom when it was being read, I said to my English teacher at school, ‘oh my gosh I didn’t know you could write poetry like that’, I didn’t know that you could talk about your identity in that way, it was so fascinating. It really blew my mind. In all honesty I’ve been really hooked on the idea of what poetry can do since then. John Agard really opened up the door for me to realise that poetry is far more than one-dimensional. It definitely flattened the stereotype that poetry is all about love or whatever, and it expanded my writing knowledge and my writing themes.  

Q: Where was your favourite place to perform in (and how do you deal with nerves!!)? 

A: To be honest with you, I don’t actually know how to deal with my nerves! However, my favourite place to perform in was the London Science Museum. I honestly don’t think that anything can top that yet. It was such a really cool, magical, “never-really-thought-that-you-could-read-a-poem-in-that-kind-of-space” space. It was especially cool because I was on the stage and I was in the part where there were all of these World War Two planes from the early twentieth century just hanging off the ceiling and I was just reading a poem! It was for a commission on humanitarian aid so it was a really profound experience in that space. I love science so it was a really personal and special place for me to perform. The London Science Museum… amazing! 

Q: What would be your advice to somebody interested in writing poetry? 

A: My advice to anyone who wants to begin writing is to read. Read as many different types of poems as you can. Also explore the different forms of poetry. I think we have this habit of asking somebody to read their life away but it’s so important to recognise that poetry, and the history of writing poetry, was always an oral tradition. My advice would be to explore other types of poetry, whether that’s performance poetry, spoken word, poetry in the form of story-telling, etc. etc. Read and explore different themes. Watch poetry videos. See how different people read their work. Listen to the tone that they use, because when you read your poem you need to recreate the place and the feeling of that poem. Take the person who’s listening to it back to the place that you were when you wrote the poem, whether that’s physically or metaphorically or emotionally.

Q: What do you think your poetry has contributed to the London poetry scene?

A: I don’t think much to be honest! However, a few years ago I did start something called the Muslim Poets Network, and that was mainly to give various Muslims across the country and not just London the opportunity to be aware of what’s around them in the poetry scene, and what poetry spaces, courses, workshops, paid opportunities that are available to them. The network connected them to various opportunities across the UK. I sent them links about paid opportunities and roles and how they could also work together with other poets in their local area. I was also connecting poets to other poets and flagging up different open mic nights where they could read their poems. So, starting that network –  Muslim Poets Network –  contributed to the poetry scene in that way.

Q: How has writing poetry helped you to develop an understanding of your identity?

A: Fun fact, I only found out about a few years ago, after my mother bought me a poetry book to write in, that my Great-Grandmother was a poet and, as well as that, she was a poet that used to write poems for wedding ceremonies. Learning about these small things, like how Somalia is really a nation of poets and we’re really rich on poetry as an oral tradition in the Somali arts culture, has definitely inspired me and that’s why most of my engagement with poetry often started in spaces where the presence of Somalis was heavy, or with Somali organisations. Those are the kind of spaces where I really began really taking poetry seriously. If it wasn’t for how embracing the Somali community was, who knows how I would have started my first engagement with poetry. I have a lot of love for my people. I have a lot of love for Somali culture and Somali arts. I have a lot of love for Elays, who were the first people, in fact, who facilitated that space for me to grow and nurture and become the writer that I am today. 

Elays readers, if Mohamed hasn’t inspired you to write your heart out right now, then we don’t know what will. So, go forth and put pen to paper, but before you do that, check out some of Mohamed’s most profound performances: