Q. Why and how did you come to the choice to express your ideas and thoughts through writing, poetry and singing?
We all have gifts. Some of us just don’t know it, have forgotten, or have been denied access to their gift because of life experiences. Sometimes we have to see some type of life experiences that may have a break through to our gift. As an only child I had to amuse myself. Had an imaginary friend and learned how to improvise, create and writing was my gift. I wrote my diary and I wrote my own stories and loved books I loved words and their ability to communicate complex ideas with images a child can understand. This is why children must read. To communicate their thought and to be able to be healed by stories when circumstances are tough growing up. Books were my escape as an only child in a single parent family. Mum working hard. And I learned to be a very self sufficient child in making my own fun. It got me into trouble a few times but then that wouldn’t be childhood. I learned yet again. I would never have known that it could become a career. Finding that out was a whole other journey with characters with their own backstories. People are interesting and there’s a lot we could learn from each other by listening to one another’s stories. We all wanna feel freely, without fear. Stories that empower can help you have hope. Hope is practical. Hope is doing things that innovate and create. No matter what your circumstances and my circumstances growing up were challenging. My family situation was challenging, growing up a young woman of African descent with a Caribbean migrant and my experience in Britain. I have to write that story and stories that I can relate my own experience with. Tell a collective story and you have a purpose, a vocation and if you’re lucky, dedicated and hard working your talent, gift will give you a career. That’s why and that’s how.
Q. You have travelled to variety of different countries. How have the experiences of the countries and people you have met affected your growth as a writer and a poet?
I have a mentor in Pops Mohammed. Steve Tasane, gave me an extra point in a slam and I haven’t looked back. Capitalise on an opportunity to grow. It’s a way to find a path in life. I never knew I’d be here but a path began to build itself in front of me as I got more interested in the art form. Also the scene was providing a new network of people. It made London an exciting place to be in. Still is. Spoken word events every where. Audiences in different cultures like and understand different things so it has diversified my work. I try to write a balanced spectrum of work because it’s also part of who I am growing up in multicultural London. I can be a global writer. That was also very affirming to know. Travel has really influenced how I think about working and a career as a spoken word artist. It is possible.
Q. How powerful a tool do you feel poetry can be to teach and educate our youth on topics of politics and opens them up to what is happening in the world around them?
Language is a tool like pressing buttons on an xbox. You push a combination of buttons, and swivel the joystick in a particular way you punch a code into the game. The code becomes a player’s moves affecting the game. Same with words. You put a set of words together in a certain tone of voice and you get a code to people’s humanity. Politicians know this and so do poets. And that’s the crafting, to make people feel and be inspired you have to work at how you put those words together. You have to love language and you have to love people enough to put the work in and make a change. I love young people. I was young once. But today’s young people are under it. It’s tough and I’m seeing adult situations forced up on them too soon. The least we can do is arm them with the gift of language, words. And the beauty of poetry, it’s ability to connect people, change hearts and minds, bring people around, engage them in a group activity that has nothing to do with drugs, alcohol, being on the street. At the same time by using a language that they understand, by validating it, and allowing them to have a voice that is natural to them, or should I say giving them permission that they shouldn’t even have to ask for to express themselves because things are scary out there. They need education, advice, a shoulder to cry on or share their pride with, some reprieve, a platform to express concerns when their mental heath and well being is threatened, and stories, music and words. Language can do this so efficiently and the politicians know this. This is why the every child deserves an education. We only have to look at the Malala Sou to know that there is some kind of conflict going on when women are denied the access to words, to their own thoughts, this is why I really push for young people to get in to poetry, they can use their words creatively and experience beauty, understanding and power even if they’ve never left their post code.
Q. You also perform storytelling. How do you find people’s reaction to your storytelling and poetry differ?
Not much actually. I’m not clocking it really because I just do me and if people like it then great. I have had to do a lot convincing in the past. Had audiences that just don’t get me but work on the craft of performance to deliver a solid set. Focused from the heart. It helps that I believe in the work. So in some ways any event where words are on the menu, I just do me and not concern myself too much with whether I’m storytelling or performing poetry. To me it’s all story telling.
Q. What are some of the main influences that allow you to express your thoughts through writing and poetry?
The way you have phrased this question is interesting – “influences that allow me to express my thoughts…” James Balwdin gave me permission write long sentences but master the art of punctuation. Maya Angelou taught me you can have as many lives as you want just dedicate yourself to being authentic and one hundred percent present in whatever phase of your life you are going through. Zora Neal Hurston taught me about writing with cajoles, thriving survival and gritty spirituality. Paulo Coehlo and Garcia Marquez taught magic realism and where life and death can meet in writing which bled into my performances. Chris Abani told me to write about life when its ugly and make it beautiful to read and listen to.
I think as a woman of colour living in the west there’s a diaspora story that needs to be told, one that is unique to Britain too so these writers tuned into that story or I tuned into theirs and could relate. Well these are my influences and they are fundamental, they allowed me to tune into my culture, my language in a way the mainstream narrative would never permit me to. Most mainstream media has us as one dimension with one narrative. When the western patriarchal mainstream was telling me what I had to say as a woman and woman of colour at that, was not worth anything and was not allowed that it was wrong. Seeing the brilliance, incandescence of these writers guided me to my gift, the way I spoke of earlier, giving permission to be my self, speak my truth, my way. They cleared my path obstructed with the doubt that my voice was good enough to be considered worthy, and that it had a right to be part of world history as much as anyone else’s.
Q. You are involved in educational workshops and master classes in schools, community centres, Arts institutes and theatres. Could you tell us a bit about what is involved in these workshops and master classes?
I focus on the longest term and deepest impact a person can walk away with after being in a space of learning. I tend to think core work. So I will put together a series of workshops and exercises based on what I sense a group might need to give them that permission I spoke of that my influences gave me. So for example we don’t have racism in our faces in the mainstream media like we might have had twenty or thirty years ago but it has changed its shape and if you give someone the right glass they will see past the blur. All you need is to just be able to see things clearly. I try to put together workshop plans that work muscles that help people to see the world clearly. I don’t tell them what to see I just give them a workout plan. So I’ll think engagement with the subject, knowledge of self in relation to that same subject. If an islamaphobic, racist, or homophobic comment is made in an article but disguised as fact then we need to unpack it and creativity is a good tool for deconstructing and reconstructing. Any newspaper journalist knows that.
Q. What advice could you offer any young people that are thinking of developing their written or poetry skills?
Be prepared to go through a few evolutions and don’t freak out when they’re happening. They’re just creative growing pains. If you’re serious you should feel them because growth is the most important part. As you grow more confident in your voice, being authentic, have some failure with new work as life experiences give you a new and deeper understanding about life. Use some of the uncertainty to write stories with beginning with a journey, middle with high tension with high stakes and happy or sad ending but where things have moved forward and your audience has been moved. To do that you must be authentic and in a world that doesn’t really praise authentic and wants plastic throw away stuff, now is the perfect time to be original and authentic cos that stuff don’t wash any more. People want connection in time of austerity and corruption, job insecurity and high youth unemployment, a culture of fear and blame, people don’t want escapism any more. Tell them the truth give them practical hope and remind us of our humanity but tell the joy, pain, moments of beauty and love and triumph, that’s what we all what to experience over again through a good story. Remind us to stay human for each other and ourselves. “Me. We.” As Mohamed Ali said. That’s the world’s shortest poem apparently. Write your truth. Read and practice using words like a painter, and mathematician. Lastly, Think global. You get out of your post code, your, borough, your city, your country and out into the world when you think global.
Latest posts by Arash Sharifi (see all)
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