Chances are most of us have at some point tried to pen a poem or two. But it takes a particular type of bravery to release these intimate thoughts to the world, and that’s exactly what poet Siana Bangura is doing.
After studying history at the University of Cambridge, Siana debuted her first poetry collection, Elephant, which explores being a black woman in today’s society, in May this year.
Not one to shy away from hot topics, she tackles feminism and Black Lives Matter in her work. Check out the powerful video for her poem Many.
As today is National Poetry Day and she’s one of the UK’s most exciting up-and-coming poets, we asked her a few questions.
When did you first start writing poetry?
I’ve been writing poetry and fiction for as long as I can remember. English was always my favourite subject in school, closely followed by history. I enjoyed writing-based subjects and excelled in them. I was even a dedicated member of the creative writing club at my school. I’ve been published in anthologies when I was nine, 11 and I think 15, but once GCSEs started my creativity took a back seat for a long time, until I graduated from university in 2013.
After an encounter with someone from my past, I was compelled to write about it and then I performed it upon the encouragement of a friend, and then one thing kept leading to another … and I just kept writing until I had enough ‘good stuff’ to put into a collection.
Do you find the process of writing spoken word poetry different to writing words on a page?
I’m a poet. I think there is a weird tendency to separate poetry from spoken word and in that are conversations that need to be had about classism and racism. Often black and brown poets who perform are referred to as spoken word artists and white poets are poets, even if they perform their work on the stage.
Although there is nothing wrong with specifying that one is a spoken word artist – after all, there is a rich and wonderful history of spoken word poetry and storytelling in countries in Africa right through to the USA, Britain and the rest of the diaspora – it is important for us to see spoken word as a valid form of poetry in and of itself. Often, spoken word performers are put into the same category as rappers. Often, the writings of white poets are elevated and seen to be part of a more refined art form.
For me, good writing is good writing and I believe my work has translated on to the page from the stage and vice versa well. I write my work in notebooks first so the very beginnings of my poetry are on a page and then, depending on if it feels right and adds value to the way I want it communicated and consumed, I may add music and other sounds. When I write, I don’t think ‘Oh, this is spoken word and this is poetry for the page’. Although there are differences – differences which can be nuanced or very obvious – I see myself as a writer, poet, performer and all those identities are in harmony and complement each other.
Why is poetry such an important platform for you?
Poetry is an important art form for me because historically it has always been an effective form of resistance. I, just like many other poets of colour, poets from working class backgrounds, female poets, write to be heard and visible.
Poetry is as important to me as music, hence why poetry and music often go so well together. Sometimes you can only get your message across through your art because in any other context people will not listen or understand.
Any tips for aspiring poets?
The creative world as a whole is very congested and it can be easy to try and compete. You are always in danger of constantly comparing yourself to other people. It’s important to always be yourself and write authentically. Don’t copy the voices of others and write about what really matters to you. If this person is writing about growing up in the hood and that’s not your story then don’t pretend it is just to get a following. Don’t be a phoney. If another person is writing about struggle but you want to write about joy, that is okay and you should do it.
Also be realistic and don’t be too hard on yourself. You won’t be the next Warsan Shire, or indeed the first you overnight, but keep writing and working on your craft. The best writers are the most voracious readers, so read voraciously, not just poetry but everything by everyone. It’s so interesting to see and compare how others communicate their message. I read everything from poetry to fiction to history books to feminist theory and other academic works.
I am a big fan of magazines too, so I read a lot of artsy stuff, mainly because I love the visuals but I also read The Economist, New Statesman and things like that. I am a language geek and always interested in what is happening in the world. Consciously or unconsciously, all of that will affect how you express yourself for the better. The most mediocre poetry I’ve ever read comes from people who I know ‘don’t like to read’. Visit libraries, borrow books from your friends, read free PDFs online, listen to podcasts. Read. Read. Read. Then write. Write. Write.
Which other poets do you admire?
As well as being a poet, I am also a huge fan of the art form so I love reading other poets’ work and going to shows and watching open micers and up-and-coming artists take to the stage. It’s important to always keep your mind stimulated and inspired. I love Selina Nwulu’s collection, The Secrets I Let Slip – it’s so meditative and beautiful. I also love Citizen, by Claudia Rankine, Bone, by my friend Yrsa Daley-Ward, and A Difficult Place To Be Human, by Anthony Anaxagorou – that collection is particularly visceral and powerful, as is all his work.
I also love the work of Belinda Zhawi and, of course, Warsan Shire. Warsan in particular is a real phenomenon and a force to be reckoned with. I’m so glad she and her work are finally getting the recognition they deserve. She was creating beautiful art and sewing words together in her particularly magical way long before Queen Bey discovered her!
Can you tell us a bit more about your debut poetry collection, Elephant?
Elephant is, as one critic described it, a confrontation. It’s a very real, raw and carefully put together collection exploring issues of race, gender, migration, identity, gentrification, love, family, black womanhood, black British girlhood, and more. It’s an invite to have difficult conversations and address the elephant in the room. That’s why I gave it that title.
I draw on a lot of my personal experiences but it’s quite universal and has been really well received. I’m extremely proud of the collection. It took me two years to put together. It’s political, personal and a commentary on our society, as well as a documentation of the times we’re living in. Just as Nina Simone famously said, I do feel as an artist it is my duty to document the times I’m living in and the world as I perceive and experience it. Elephant is also a lesson in learning from your past experiences, remembering them, and allowing yourself to move on.
Why do you think poetry allows for such a level of self-expression?
In poetry, you can make your own rules. There are plenty of people who will tell you how you should and should not write and what you can and can’t say and what will and won’t sell but I decided to stop listening to them. I don’t need permission from any gatekeepers to write, to perform, and to put my work out there. I have as much right to tell my story as any of them. It took me a while to learn this as we’re always being taught to wait for validation from people who have done it before us. I gave myself the permission to express myself and I’m a better person for it.
What’s next for you: are you writing another collection?
I’m always thinking and creating, so the next collection is bubbling away, but I’m learning to soak up the moment and enjoy it. I work hard and I’m one of those people who is always focused on how far I have yet to go rather than how far I have already come, so I’m working on improving that. Elephant is almost six months old and right now is still very much its moment. I didn’t write it to then dump it and move on to the next thing, which lots of artists are encouraged to do so as to stay relevant. I’m promoting the book, creating visuals for some of its lead poems and I’ll be working on an EP to accompany it soon. For my launch, myself and some musician friends really brought the poems to life using voice, sax, piano and the viola, so I’d like to bring those pieces together on an EP.
I’m curating an exhibition this month in London called I, The Angry Black Woman & Other Stories, inspired by my poem of the same name in Elephant. I’m also still writing and performing and I’m going on tour this month to meet everyone.
I’ll have some downtime this December after a very busy year, so my plan is to read lots of plays, then finally get down to writing my first play. If all goes well I’ll bring it to stage at the end of 2017 but we’ll see!