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In Conversation With Fathima Zahra, after the R.A.P Party

STRAND writer Bianca Layog interviews three Barbican Young Poets — Fathima Zahra, Troy Cabida, and Jinhao Xie — who performed at the R.A.P Party at 05Fest, Inua Ellams's poetry festival at the Barbican Centre.

Photo by Abi B, Courtesy of Barbican Centre

Last month, I attended an event called R.A.P Party, hosted by Inua Ellams as part of his festival, 05Fest. 05Fest ran from the 26th to 30th of September at the Barbican. The R.A.P Party was the final event in the programme, created to celebrate the intersections of poetry and hip-hop. Audience members were invited to dance and mingle amongst each other. It felt like they were part of the art, too. Ellams was in his element, inviting them to clap, stomp our feet, and shout for the lineup. Sometimes, celebrating so openly can feel a bit silly, but at this event, there was an exhilarating sense of joy that made you feel like you were on the brink of a miracle. There was a thrill to the atmosphere, and a generosity to it, too; songs selected by the poets filled the spaces in between the poetry readings, almost like homage or some sort of callback, the formation of a lineage. In an especially touching moment, the poet Jinhao Xie admitted that they had reached out to their brother — who knew more about hip-hop — for this event. They then read a poem celebrating him. After the event, I had the privilege of interviewing Jinhao as well as two of the other performers about their work, Fathima Zahra and Troy Cabida. Although I asked them similar questions, they were each able to bring something new, different, and inspiring to the table. This article is centred around my conversation with Fathima Zahra.

Bianca Layog: It was so wonderful hearing all the different poets’ take on the theme of ‘belonging’ last night. I wanted to check out some of your work before the event and read that your debut pamphlet Sargam/Swargam surrounds a similar theme: home. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on how poetry and poetry collections act as homes in their own way. Can you speak to your experiences putting together that first pamphlet?

Fathima Zahra: Sure thing. I’ve always been writing in some form or another. I used to write short stories when I was a kid and had a blog through high school on which I would publish a mix of poems and reflections on my life. I flitted about different mediums of writing but came across poetry when I moved to India. I started going to these poetry workshops. And I was like, engaged in this community that allowed me to have access to a lot more poets outside of school. I didn't really enjoy poetry when I was at school. Whatever was on the curriculum didn't feel relevant or something that I could connect to.

And when I started hearing about spoken word poets like Sarah Kay and Safia Elhillo, it just opened up a whole new world for me. It felt very much like a place I could find my footing in compared to short stories or other forms of writing. I think that with poetry, every time that you sit down to write a poem, it still feels new. It never feels predictable or boring.

I'm someone who’s never been able to stick with a hobby for quite long, but I've been working with poetry since 2016. That’s probably the longest I’ve ever stuck to something.

In that way, poetry feels like home, especially when I walk into The Poetry Library or find a poetry collection. It speaks a different language. I think that's something that I've come to recognise with my pamphlet that I didn't used to. Before, I mainly performed my work on stages. I didn't know how to write or edit or work with different poetic forms. It wasn't until I joined collectives like the Roundhouse Poetry Collective or the Barbican Young Poets that I learned a lot more about craft and technique. It helped me become more comfortable in exploring my work on the page.

Towards my first pamphlet, I started performing and working on poems that were really close to my heart. A couple of publishers got in touch after hearing me perform at festivals or poetry competitions. In the end, I decided to go with Ignition Press because I loved the pamphlets that they put out and the work that they curated over the years. So, that’s how the pamphlet came to be.

BL: In the act of putting your work out there, you're building a home in a neighbourhood full of all these other homes — poems — that have been created before. It can be really intimidating. In what ways is your work concerned with that larger poetry community? I feel like there's people who maybe only have their foot in performance. There are people reading poetry for the first time. And then there are all those big, fancy poets that people really want to impress.

FZ: I think it's tricky finding a home or even feeling at home. It has a lot more to do with your set level of confidence than anything else. With most of the poets I've met, if you've shared a poem that they liked, they say you're a poet. Whereas with me and a lot of my friends, we've been saying that even though it's been ages, we don't necessarily feel comfortable calling ourselves poets. It's kind of slippery.

I heard this beautiful thing that Safia Elhillo said that she thinks of poetic ancestors as a lineage formed not just vertically but also horizontally. She considers a lot of her peers as part of her poetic lineage. And I think I've definitely found that with the poets that I met through the Roundhouse and the Barbican. There were poets who I admired or whose work I connected with or could see myself in conversation with, even learned from.

I think hearing that from Safia really affirmed that idea for me; that they are also my poetic lineage. In that way, it felt easier to feel at home within the poetic ecosystem, if that makes sense.

BL: How do you think that performance has changed the way you write?

FZ: When you perform at poetry slams, most of the slams need it to be a 3-minute poem. That's a form in itself. When you're reading to an audience, especially in a place with pressure like that, you only get to read it to them once. The audience doesn't get to come back and linger on the line. They don't get to think about what you said. So I always have it in my head when I'm writing or editing my poems for performance: it has to land the first time you read it. Every line has to be concise. I'm also concerned with the sound and musicality of it.

I didn't realise this until my peers mentioned it to me, but there’s a sense of musicality in my poems that has to do with the way I speak or my daily language.

When you start out performing it's a very specific way of thinking. When you're writing those poems for stage, you have the audience in mind. And when you're reading the poem, you can get a live reaction. Sometimes there’ll be a line that I think is funny, but the audience doesn't laugh. I immediately have my reaction there.

They’re my editors in that way. There are times when I'll have the poem written one way on the page, but based on the audience's reaction, I might change a word in the next line or two. Performance really honed that level of editing just while standing on stage — thinking on your feet. I didn't realise that until much later, when I was editing poems to send out to magazines or to share for anthologies and stuff.

So yeah, I think I'd been working or building those techniques for years, but in a very different sense.

With performance, I think it's also the fact that your body's very much present in the poem. You get to convey as much as you want with your face and your hands as well. When you don't have that on the page, when you don't have your voice guiding the audience, it's a lot more focused on the wordplay and form. They also get to enjoy that. They get to come back to the poem. So yes, I feel like it's been just different ways of thinking about it, but very much more connected than I thought.

BL: One thing you brought up last night that was really interesting goes back to that idea of horizontal poetic ancestry. It was the line, ‘Writers are just collectors of catchphrases.’ The R.A.P Party was a very interdisciplinary event. There was poetry, there was song. There are also many different types of catchphrases: visual, musical, etc. I've read a couple of your poems that are fascinated by the moon. What other images or themes or catchphrases appeal to you?

FZ: I grew up across different communities in Jeddah and India before moving to England. Something I was really struck by across each move was the difference in language. Even if the communities that I was surrounded by were speaking English, conversations would still be littered with Hindi or Malayalam or even local slang. When I moved to England, it was quite different. I immediately know I'm in a different place because suddenly I don't hear the streets bustling the way I do in Bangalore.

In terms of sound, my poems used to be clean of any slang or words in Malayalam or Hindi or Arabic. These are the languages I have and grew up with. It was after I started reading more poetry or listening to poets who include their different cultures or heritages that I thought, when I speak at home or when I'm having dinner at home, we have different languages — even if we're saying something in English, that could also be an Arabic word and a Hindi word.

So for me, it was important to channel that in my poems. In my poems now, including the title of my pamphlet — which is words in Malayalam — it's important to kind of have those words like the common phrases I used to hear growing up.

In terms of themes, I'm really interested in exploring girlhood. I grew up in Saudi Arabia. Because of the laws of the country, we used to have segregated spaces for men and women. So, I grew up in these women-only spaces. And it's been quite different to what I have now, when I walk into a space. It's something that I both miss and don't miss. I grew up surrounded by women; different types of women and women who were nothing or everything like stereotypes people have about Muslim women. I'm interested in exploring girlhood from a Muslim perspective.

I think growing up or being from different places really makes you attuned to the specifics of the place that you're currently in. I think these are the different things that I'm thinking about on a daily basis that I try to bring in my poems.

BL: That’s such a wonderful answer. Thank you. I guess you've kind of spoken about this already, but obviously a common complaint that you hear a lot about poetry is that it's inaccessible. That’s why events like R.A.P Party are so important. Do you think about a specific audience when writing a poem?

FZ: I think when I started out performing, I definitely had the audience in mind just because I knew it was easier to write and accustom myself to that way of thinking. It helped me practise keeping an audience in mind. With poetry slams, it would usually be young people or university students. It was a very specific audience for each slam, based on the place that was in or the competition. So that kind of helped. I don't think I ever changed my poems around that, but I did have them in mind when I was performing or rehearsing.

When I started out writing, it opened up the world for me in terms of thinking of who I'm writing for or who will be reading this. It changes for each of my poems. In my pamphlet, there are some poems that are a lot more inward and there are some poems that are a lot more inviting. Sometimes, I had to write just for myself and get to the end of it to go through that journey, to explore or understand a specific incident or anecdote, or a specific time and place in the world at that point.

I don't think I necessarily speak for a community or consider myself a spokesperson for any specific communities, but I think of it as writing love letters to the places or people that I grew up with. I imagine them reading those poems. And I think that's kind of helped me because it's hard to designate just one type of audience for all of your work, because each poem is so different in the world that it explores.

The only difference lies in what I'm going out to perform, in practising self-care. I’m conscious about what I’m sharing with an audience in the room because there are a lot of strangers. As I read to a lot of new audiences, I like to think: is this something I'd be comfortable reading in front of strangers tonight? Would I be okay coming offstage after having read this? With poetry and with slam poetry, I've seen poets share vulnerable pieces of work and not be okay after. As a learning process I've come to be careful with what I choose to share. Even if I write it. Even if I write pretty much anything for any audience.

BL: Thank you. I am very interested in your experiences working as a Barbican Young Poet and with the Roundhouse Poetry Collective. How was that experience for you?

FZ: I have to say, I would have never applied to these programmes if someone literally didn't come up to me and hold my hand and say, ‘You have to apply to this’. I have a hard time pushing myself to put myself out there and send my work or even sign up for things. I’d just moved to London a year ago and I'd heard of Roundhouse Poetry Collective and Barbican Young Poets because I'd seen them in the bios of poets that had performed at different slams who were featuring at these nights. I was aware of these programmes; I was just daunted by the applications themselves.

Luckily, someone had urged me to apply for these. I went ahead and did it and it honestly changed my life. It gave me a community of poets that I'm still friends with. I'm currently living with one of the poets who I met through Roundhouse. I still regularly meet up or go for poetry events or plays with the other poets I met through the programme. It’s quite rare to make friends with people you want to keep writing alongside, whether it's through workshops or these programmes. I'm lucky to have had that through the Roundhouse Poetry Collective.

The programme itself, I think, definitely changed my ways of writing and thinking about poetry. I learned to read poems through that programme. With the Roundhouse poetry collective, we would meet every week from September to July. It was a year-long programme. We spent our time writing or reading poems and performing. Sometimes we'd have guest tutors. The mentors had your interests in mind. What kind of poetry were you interested in? What kind of poet were you? They would kind of try and help you develop that. It was never a rigid syllabus like in university or school. It was very much tailored to you.

We had many different kinds of poets in the room. There were people who were also playwrights, also musicians. There were poets who only wrote on the page. They would bring poems that really connected to each of us. Having that space and routine of sitting and writing or thinking about poems for three hours each week really helped because it's hard to cultivate that kind of discipline by yourself, especially initially, when you don't have any idea what you're doing. That practice of giving you feedback on each other’s poems and teaching you in very subtle ways how to edit each other's work and things like that is also so important. It’s very much you get out of it what you give. I found the same with the Barbican as well.

BL: I saw your reading of ‘Small Kindnesses’ by Danusha Laméris on the Brinkerhoff Poetry Website. You said that the part that resonated with you most was the line: mostly we don’t want to harm each other, we have so little of each other now. What poems or poets do you feel most inspired by at the moment?

FZ: I'm glad you said both favourites and at this moment because it constantly changes for me. I think some of my all-time favourites and poets — I would read every poem or book that they put out — would be Raymond Antrobus, Tishani Doshi, and Safia Elhillo. I think when I came across their work, they were really instrumental in shaping my understanding of how to play with language and how they spoke about the different places they were from or felt at home at. I've really connected with that. At the moment, I'm reading Victoria Chang's OBIT.

BL: I have a copy of OBIT. It's so good, so sad.

FZ: It is. I couldn't bring myself to finish it when I first started reading it. So now I’m just picking it up again. And I'm also reading this poetry anthology called Poetry Unbound by Pádraig Ó Tuama. I think it's based off of his podcast of the same name, where he picks a poem and speaks about it. I think he's an incredible poet. The way that he speaks about each poem really brings it to life. He notices things that you wouldn't have thought about or come across just by hearing the poems once. I'm also really looking forward to reading Iman Mersal’s work. I just finished reading her non-fiction work called Trace of Enayat and I've got her poetry collections.

BL: Lastly, do you have any tips for young poets seeking to write and publish poetry?

FZ: You know, just things that pretty much everyone says. Read as much as you can and read widely. That extends outside of poetry. I'm someone who is interested in a lot of things. I did biomedical sciences before I did my master's in creative writing. I am interested in the human body and biological sciences. With poetry, start with poetry anthologies or magazines. They really give you a good taste of different kinds of writing, different styles of poetry. For me, they have helped me seek out or understand what kind of poems I gravitate towards, and what types of poems I don’t like. I think that's an important skill in developing your voice. So yeah, read as much and as widely as you can. The National Poetry Library is amazing. That’s definitely one place that I find a lot of my poetry books in. I always look at their return shelf. They have a little trolley where people put back the books they finish reading. I always find new recommendations there because so many people come to the Poetry Library every day.

Curate the list of poets that you like. Find out about the poets that they like and find out about the poets that those poets like as well. It helps you kind of build not only a lineage, but it also allows you to read far back into time as well as across it.

Being disciplined with your writing really helps. I used to be someone who used to wait to be inspired or only wrote when I felt strongly about something. Obviously, that’s a very sporadic way of writing and creating. Through the Roundhouse and Barbican, I’ve learned to be more disciplined in my practice and understand what's useful to me as a writer. So I find it helpful to freewrite. I know for a fact that I enjoy writing at night compared to the morning. Find out what works for you or what you enjoy and keep doing that.

It will kind of offset the disappointment because writing is not a very rewarding journey. You have to write for far longer than you imagined, or edit for much longer than you imagined, to get to the heart of what you really want to say.

Also, check out the Young Poets Network. I think they were instrumental for me when I started writing. They have an incredible amount of free online resources as well as writing challenges all the time. And when I didn't quite know what to write about, I would just find their latest writing challenge and I would write a poem about that every single day. If I liked any of my poems, I would send it to them.

BL: Thank you so much for sitting down to talk with me!

Fathima will participate in events this coming November with the London Library. Keep your eyes peeled!

Photo by Ivan Gonzalez, Courtesy of Barbican Centre


Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor