Being heard, being seen

17 May 2021 Being

Amina Jama calls for safe and inclusive creative spaces

In the last decade, poetry and spoken word has left the niche space it once occupied. British poets have broken new ground, made waves, resulting in more and more getting publishing deals, agents and producing multidisciplinary work.

I caught the bug and began performing poetry in 2014. The first live poetry night that I attended outside college was Boxedin, a free monthly open mic night in Shoreditch, East London. I grew up down the road but I was unaware of the intense and vibrant poetry scene erupting throughout London and beyond. All I had to do was type ‘poetry’, ‘london’, ‘live’ and ‘tonight’ into Facebook’s search engine and the top result would be an event starting in the next hour.

I found myself in these spaces, I found my kin – my chosen family, the biggest supporters and the most incredible, inspirational writers. I never wanted to leave. I dove pen first into every opportunity, every open mic slot and project. I felt held in these spaces. The experience of connecting with another poet’s performance and that being reciprocated was unlike anything. In 2016, I joined Boxedin as a co-host and co-producer. My entire life was consumed by poetry and I leaned into this.

But every community has its difficulties. Some things have soured. After one performance, a young Black girl, about my age, came up to me crying. Her emotional response to my words was that she felt seen and less alone, yet before this moment, naively, I hadn’t realised that in venting and using writing as an outlet, my triggers could be someone else’s triggers. I felt this responsibility acutely when hosting Boxedin. I knew that vulnerability of being on stage reading my own work all too well. How do I go up on stage after a first-time performer who has just bared their soul, balance out the energy, ask people to buy a drink or support us online and introduce the next person, all while trying to nurture a performance space that feels safe for performers and audience alike?

As public interest in poetry has grown, from adverts to radio, Fire in the Booth to singles, from Tumblr to Instagram, inaugurations to award ceremonies, so everyone has developed an opinion. This noise of opinion rises in volume when the poet is Black, young, queer, or being their truest self. The age-old debate of ‘page vs stage’ still finds its way into Twitter threads. Poetry is subjective, yes. You have the right to share your opinion on whether or not you connect to the words, yes. You can write a review of a book, yes. But when these opinions venture into publicly labelling a poem or a poet as ‘just a performance’ or ‘too simple in language’ (as so many did with Amanda Gorman’s striking inauguration poem), this is when it becomes destructive. The criticisms pretended to be aimed at the poetry but often they were disguised attacks on the poet, and her youth and ethnicity. Under this scrutiny, how can any global performance space feel safe?

The answer is in the support we get from people around us.

In 2018, I filmed a Christmas advert with Nationwide. The ugly side of British society creeped out to unleash racist, Islamophobic abuse towards me. I put my social media on private. I had never felt so unsafe online, but I also had never felt so supported by peers. I received messages and calls, checking in, and advice from mentors on how to navigate a difficult space such as social media.

In 2020, mid-pandemic, the fight for safe spaces was more important than ever. Multiple brave women called out their abusers online (many of whom hold powerful and influential positions in the UK arts scene). For poets and creatives alike, this hit close to home. I received a message from an old friend, which simply stated, ‘you’re following and engaging with a known abuser. I thought you should know.’ The only response to this sort of message should be to acknowledge, rectify and distance. This, however, did make me reflect on my experience and interactions.

It would be a lie to say that I have never been made to feel uncomfortable, unsafe, been propositioned or pushed out. But for me, when I was starting out, I had incredible women and non-binary people around me to support, guide, listen and most importantly, defend and believe me and my character. I dread that this might not be the case for some.

A safe space is an inclusive one. It is not about filling a poetry line-up for the sake of diversity quotas, but rather encouraging that feeling of being heard and being seen off the stage. Without the support and encouragement that is shared at the end of an event, when everyone is sinking into conversation, holding onto the night, and avoiding the train home, we lose the voices that really matter. The poets who leave straight away for fear of lurking around alone or the ones who leave mid-event as the anxiety is too consuming. If these writers can’t be encouraged on and off stage, can we say a space is really safe and inclusive?

I am and am not fearful for the direction that the poetry scene is going. I do not know when we will be able to be present in a live space together but I have no worries that in this time of isolation, poets will be pushing their writing in new directions, offering us more experimental, imaginative stories and forms, and coming back to events with a vengeance after the pandemic.

What I mostly hope for is a safe space for all. For the writers who don’t ‘fit’, neither page nor stage, for the new poets who know no one, for the ones who are unsure of who will ‘listen’, for the ones brave enough to turn up to a new event on their own, for those who haven’t written for years, for those who write every day. This is not to say that any ‘scene’ is full of predators, but it is to say that we must listen openly to the ones who are brave enough to share.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2021 edition of The Author

Art © Ded Pixto

Amina Jama is a Somali-British writer, curator, producer and facilitator. Amina has performed internationally and her work has been published in numerous anthologies. She won an Eric Gregory Award for her debut pamphlet A Warning to the House That Holds Me in 2020. | @_aminajama