by Samira Sawlani

Never has poetry been as crucial as it is right now, to remind us, people of colour, of the importance of self love, self care and self acceptance. It has a central role in creatively articulating the many injustices in the world today, giving a human perspective to the tragedies occurring around the world, and in those moments where our own words fail us, poetry is the avenue through which so many of us can express ourselves. Throughout history poets of colour have inspired: Rabindranath Tagore, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Sandra Cisneros — the list is endless. Now comes a new generation.

So here is the latest crop of poetry legends that we discovered or rediscovered in 2014:

10. Hannah Sanghee Park

hannahEarlier this year it was announced that this young American-Korean poet had won the prestigious Walt Whitman Award. Based in Los Angeles, the 27-year-old’s poems in her forthcoming book The Same-Different were described by poet Rae Armantrout as ‘So full of Chiasmus, pun and near-rhyme that their figures twist back on themselves like strands of DNA. They are mirror-bright. This book is a literally dazzling debut’. And dazzle they do, from her play with words in Some History of Calamity — ‘Calamity thinned to calm amity’ — to the poem ‘Q’ which is reminiscent of the poetic greats: ‘May I master love, undo its luster do in the thing that makes us lust’. It certainly is only a matter of time before Hannah Sanghee Park becomes a household name.

9. Maza Dohta

maza‘There are some feelings you will never find words for; you will learn to name them after the ones who gave them to you’. This is just one of the mesmerising poems by Maza Dohta, a poet who has gained much recognition on the internet. A master of putting words to human emotion, her mesmerising poetry is a favourite among fans of Warsan Shire and Nayyirah Waheed and it is easy to see why. Themes of love, lust and a relationship with the self — there is only one word to describe her poetry: magic. The greatest poets have written on love, and this is where Maza Dohta excels:  ‘There are some feelings you will never find words for, you will learn to name them after the ones who gave them to you.‘ and ‘You are the colour of my ink. Everything I write is stained with you.’

8. Rupi Kaur 

For someone who, according to an interview with Kaur Life, began taking poetry seriously in November rupikaur2013, Rupi Kaur’s writing echoes of artistry and wisdom which is seen in the work of those that have been writing for years. The Canada-based poet has credited Sikhism as a powerful influence in her work and is an inspiration to many young Asian women. Female empowerment, self acceptance, relationships and love of every type are dominant themes in her work… particularly breathtaking is her poem ‘women of colour’: ‘our backs tell stories no books have the spine to carry’.

7. Safia Elhillo

safia‘Sudanese by way of Washington DC’, Safia is based in New York and has performed at venues such as the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and the New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway. She has shared the stage with big names including Black Thought of The Roots, Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, Immortal Technique, Faith Evans, and Sonia Sanchez. Her book The Life and Times of Susie Knuckles is a must read for anyone that has ever had their heart broken, while poems like ‘Aghani’ will strike a chord with anyone in the Diaspora that has ever had to leave their Country behind; ‘and I never hear love songs like this in English, songs that are as much about a country as they are about a woman, songs where woman is country, before we grew bitter and learned not to make a world out of a person, learned not to make a world out of a country because even your mothers country can betray you, my mother’s country broke her heart and I want to cry’.

6. Dean Atta

His poetry has been described by legendary poet Benjamin Zephaniah to be ‘as honest as truth itself’ while the Huffington Post has referred to him as ‘One of the leading lights in London’s poetry scene’ and once you read his work you will understand why. There is little we can add to this, perhaps an excerpt from the title poem of his book I Am Nobody’s Nigger (which has been seen on the shelves of bookshops around London) will explain all; ‘I am nobody’s nigger So please let my ancestors rest in Peace. Not turn in their graves in Jamaica plantations or the watery graves of the slave trade. I am nobody’s nigger So you can tell Weezy and Drake That they made a mistake’.

5. JJ Bola

jjbolaThe Kinshasa-born, London-raised writer and poet is has performed at a number of festivals and events including Vocals and Verses, Tongue Fu and Ventnor Fringe. Aside from his brilliant spoken-word performances, what is most striking about JJ Bola is his ability to express through poetry the injustices that mar our world today. Most recently he wrote ‘where black bodies die (and the world doesn’t give a fuck): ‘in cells. face down on concrete floors. hood up. 6 shots. 9 shots. chocked. ‘i can’t breathe’ or ‘please don’t shoot’. Beyond the poetry, his tweets on racism, feminism and current affairs are a must read, brutal realities, articulated in an artistic manner which few can rival. He recently replied to Ben Okri’s Guardian article, ‘A mental tyranny is keeping black writers from greatness’ on this site.

4. Yrsa Daley- Ward

yrsa2When I received Yrsa Daley Ward’s book ‘Bone’ I read it in one sitting and found I had held my breath throughout. The British born half Nigerian, half Jamaican poet’s writing flows like no other. In the title poem she writes:

‘From One who says, “Don’t cry. You’ll like it after a while”
and Two who tells you thank-you after the fact and can’t look at your face.
To Three who pays for your breakfast and a cab home and your mother’s rent…’

There will be many that will read the above and be able to relate to the pain cutting through the words. These are poems of love; of good love, of painful love, of complex love of self love and of places and situations where there is not enough of it.
If you read one poetry book this year then make it this one.

3. George The Poet

Recently nominated in the Critics Choice Award at the Brit Awards 2015, 23-year-old George Mpanga was born to Ugandan parents and describes himself as ‘a spoken word performer, public speaker, writer and recording artist from North-West London. At twenty-three years of age, he offers social commentary through poetry. This draws from his early life in the inner city as well as the Politics, Psychology and Sociology course he studied at Cambridge University’. He first found himself in the limelight when in 2012 his poem ‘My City’ gained much popularity during a time when London was being portrayed as ‘clean and shiny’ for the Olympics and the Jubilee. The Guardian describe his work as ‘accessible and skilful, fuelled by an interest in rhetoric’ and with lines like these, one can understand why: ‘TFL knows the world is your Oyster as long as you can afford it
Even though you might need to re-mortgage just to get from Aldwych to Shoreditch’

2. Nayyirah Waheed

nayyirahThe writer of two poetry books, Salt (which she describes as a ‘journey through warmth and sharpness. This collection of poetry explores the realities of multiple identities, language, diasporic life, the self, community, healing, celebration, and love’) and the recently released Neima, Nayyirah is a US-based writer who has gone from strength to strength in recent years. Her ability to express and articulate emotions and experiences in just a few words is unrivalled. There are poems which haunt, like ‘Immigrant’; ‘you broke the ocean in half to be here. only to meet nothing that wants you’ and there are those which possess the reader with drowning emotion: ‘she asked “you are in love, what does love look like” to which i replied “like everything I’ve ever lost come back to me.” ‘
Her poems deliver a powerful punch in a fashion so gentle that it can best be described as empowerment through art; you will read every poem at least 3 times and wonder how a few lines have the ability to dismantle you in minutes, only to find that all of a sudden you are stronger than ever before.

1. Warsan Shire

warsanThe current young Poet Laureate for London, this Kenyan-born British-Somali writer has been making waves across the literary community since 2011 when she published her book Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. Since then Shire has toured the world, taught workshops, won numerous accolades, been poetry editor for Spook Magazine and continued to write heart wrenching, stomach clenching, empowering poetry. Some of her most renowned works include ‘For Women who are difficult to Love’ which features the line ‘You are terrifying, strange and beautiful. Something not everyone knows how to love.’ And the powerful ‘Conversations about home (at a deportation centre)’: ‘They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the city of Rome with no jacket. I want to make love but my hair smells of war and running and running’.

There are poems like the agonizing yet beautiful ’34 Excuses for Why We Failed at Love’ (1.I’m lonely so I do lonely things) and ‘Questions for the woman I was last night’ (How far have you walked for men who’ve never held your feet in their laps?).

Unrequited love, war, immigration, sex, race, culture, family, heartbreak, pain and relationships; Warsan Shire exquisitely covers these in a melee of words, which never fail to bring back that familiar sensation of a feeling long gone, be it love, heartbreak or grief.

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Samira Sawlani is a writer and journalist specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa, in particular Kenya, Uganda and Somalia. She also writes fiction and human interest stories. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London she has previously worked with the Commonwealth Secretariat and as an International Election Observer for the Kenyan elections in 2013. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. Twitter: @samirasawlani

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