"My heart splits across three continents; Europe, East Africa and the Middle East."
Poet and essayist Momtaza Mehri begins her interview on BBC Radio 4 with these words as she takes the listener on the journey of her upbringing with Arabic, Somali and English interchanges. Her mother also features in the interview, reinforcing her rich cultural upbringing.
I came across Momtaza's writing a few years ago on the ever necessary topic of Black-British Muslim identity which can be read here. It did not cross my mind that we would meet up in person to continue the discussion on identity and also explore the work she has continued to produce since the article.
Her accolades have been too many to count but a few highlights include her debut poetry collection Sugah Lump Prayer and her creation of the The Black Muslimah Toolkit,a free google document filled with playlists, articles, reading lists and so much more catered to the Black Muslim Woman. Such a labour of love has not gone unnoticed and many have continued to show gratitude for her gift to us.
I wanted to gain insight into her beginnings as a writer and what fuels her on the path she is carving out for herself.
Thanks so much for joining me for this conversation Momtaza. I wanted to learn more about your poetry journey and also your thoughts on the purpose of your poetry?
To speak to the complexity of people I know, love and hold dear, and their inner lives. To not see them reduced to mere characterisation. I’m interested in what we wake up thinking about and what we do, how we operate and survive in this world.
I grew up in a house that had a strong oral culture, everything from cassettes to proverbs. I always had an alternative education in the sense that their (parents) education wasn’t from the English canon; they had a Somali canon, African canon and an Arabic canon. It was never taken as something to be a career, just something that I really enjoyed. I worked my way backwards as a lot of people have an encounter with the English canon in school where they don’t see themselves reflected in it. Whereas I knew it wasn’t the full story and I had seen all kinds of other poetry, so I didn’t feel alienated or threatened by it.
What inspired you to create you debut poetry collection Sugah. Lump. Prayer and how was the title created?
I was approached by the team behind the New Generation African series, that published chapbooks of poets such as Kayo Chingonyi, Ladan Osman and other poets whose work I really enjoy.
As I kept writing and editing these poems, the themes started teasing themselves out ; a lot of references were made to sweetness and prayer, hence the title. It happened in an organic way and was edited by Kwame Dawes who is a fantastic editor and it helped me get over my fear because he was being very forthright in what was good and what wasn’t.
What was the writing process for Sugah Lump Prayer?
The writing process was not that difficult as I already had a lot of poems before, but it was the compiling of these poems that was challenging. But as long as you have a supportive editor and publishing house behind you then you’re absolutely fine.
Even down to the cover art by the late Eritrean artist Ficre Ghebreyesus, it was crazy how interconnected everything was and how it really was a community and my induction into the community which I don’t think I would have got with other publishing houses and other schemes.
Who are your favourite poets ?
'I tend to go through obsessive phases; Right now I'm super into Jayne Cortez as well as Marwa Helal and Wendy Trevino. As always, I'm constantly re-reading and tracing my steps backwards to decipher why my early influences struck me so hard and close to the bone.'
With the rise of poets like Rupi Kaur who started on sites like Tumblr, do you believe social media has helped or hindered poetry?
'I wrote about this before but it truly comes down to what you do with it. For some people, social media is an entry point and introduced them to an international community of poets outside their schools. So in a sense it's increased receptivity on many fronts. However, there's always the danger of poets succumbing to a culture of branding and fawning that prevents a self-critical approach to what it means to be a poet in this culture and in this day (not that they've ever been outside it).
I talk about inspiration a lot because we don’t do things for the sake of it. So what was your inspiration for creating The Black Muslimah Toolkit and what was the process of curating it?
It was having a lot of amazing people put me on to great resources, having it all on my laptop and thinking that it should be shared. What pushed me into releasing it was attending exhibitions and events where the categorisation was so poor and indicative of how reductive ideas around Black/Muslim cultural production are. Categorisation and the whole process of archival is so steeped in colonial taxonomies and narrow understandings of the world. Black Muslims have a tradition and a way of looking at the world that is informed by our blackness. We fundamentally see the world differently from non-black Muslims, we have not been coddled by the world. The world has distorted the image of ourselves so much that we don’t even recognise ourselves or each other and our connections.
Let’s discuss feminisim, which features extensively in your toolkit .
Of course I had to include key black feminist and womanist texts. Some of the theorists included are Muslimahs, some are not. They're all bound by trying to understand, work through and address the condition of Black women everywhere. It was vital to include it because this continuing work of theorizing about and around ourselves is one way of being kinder to each other. Of understanding whats behind the violence we sometimes enact on ourselves. It's theory but it's also a door of light being thrown open in a windowless, cramped room we call the world.
What is your advice for your fellow poets that want to publish their work?
My advice to poets is to write from the centre because you are the centre. Read a lot, which I know people say a lot but you have to read. Read what you dislike too because sometimes there’s this tendency, at least for me, to be content with your finely curated obsessions. You will become a sponge and become better at gauging what you want and don't want to do with your poetry.
March 12th, Momtaza will be on part of the literary event being held at Waterstones :
Her poetry book can be purchased in the chapbook set here
More of her poetry can be found in issue 6 of OOMK where she also graces the cover !
Follow her on twitter @RuffNeckRefugee.