In Minnesota, Somali youth poets are changing the game
By Frank Bures
One night not long ago, I sat in a church basement in Cedar Riverside, a Minneapolis neighborhood where many of Minnesota’s fifty thousand Somali immigrants have settled since 1991, when the Somali Civil War began. The occasion was an open mic poetry night called Youth Voice, which featured mostly Somali-American high school kids reading long, spoken-word poems off their phones.
Poetry has a deep history in Somalia. The country was once known as the “Nation of Bards,” and here in the cold of Minnesota the power of Somali poetry remains strong in the community. Every Somali politician who comes to town knows they have to get poets to their rally, or no one will show up. In every program, there will be at least four poets who either read from their own poems or recite those by others on the topic. And back in Somalia, poetry remains important enough that both the Somali national government and the militant group al-Shabaab use poets’ words to help fight their wars.
I wanted to see how this river of desert poems was branching in Minnesota, which is why I was at Youth Voice. The host of the reading was a young woman named Filsan. She wore a headscarf and a skirt with pants underneath. She was brash and confident and used phrases like “Wassup?” and “That’s how I roll.” She told the audience that since the 2016 election, her Facebook feed had gotten “way serious.” She told a story about a guy at the Mall of America in a Make American Great Again hat who told her to fuck off. “When people say, ‘Your English is so good. Did you grow up here?’ I say, ‘I sold my Somali for English. I can’t communicate with a lot of elders. So this shit better be good,’” she said.
The young poets in the audience nodded and clapped. One by one, they took the stage. A high-schooler named Guled read a poem called “Wounds of hate, I hope my poems can heal them.” Another poet, Fatima, read a poem about her disappeared father, whom she knows nothing about. There were poems about social justice, about women’s oppression, about Black lives mattering, about Donald Trump.
Traditional Somali poetry is rigid in form—more like classical verse in Europe. There are specific poems for men and women performing different activities. The gabay is considered the highest form of poem for men. The buraanbur is the equivalent for women. The belwo is a kind of love poem. All of them rely heavily on alliteration, to which the Somali language is well-suited, and the syllables and sounds have to be in the right places. This makes it hard to render into English, though this belwo translates well in the hands of the Canadian writer Margaret Lawrence, from her book on Somali poetry A Tree for Poverty:
The curving of your breasts
Like apples sweet and small
Tolmoon, I will know you again
When night turns to dusk to dark.
The poems at Youth Voice were different than the ones the poets’ parents knew. These were personal, not persuasive. They didn’t follow any form or have strict syllabic rules. The young poets didn’t alliterate, or recall the desert, or use oblique metaphors. Their poems were direct, angry, confessional. They sought to witness, not to convince.
In the early 2000s, when a lot of Somali immigrants were coming to Minnesota, I was reporting a story on Somalis running into trouble with police for chewing khat, a narcotic leaf imported from Djibouti and Ethiopia. One of the people I met was Abdirizak Bihi, a community organizer who later told me about a meeting on an issue that was plaguing the Somali community: parking.
Many of the recent immigrants lived in the Cedar Riverside complex, a collection of urbanist utopian towers near the city’s downtown. The buildings housed some four thousand residents, crammed into a few small blocks. A local towing company had been preying on the new immigrants, towing their cars almost as soon as the owners had locked the door and walked away.
At the meeting, an older poet by the name of Anod stood up and recited a Somali-language poem she had composed. It told those present they were being discriminated against because they were Somalis. It said their hard-earned dollars were being wasted and urged them to call the mayor’s office to protest. The mayor’s number, Bihi recalls, was included in the poem. People at the meeting memorized the poem, recited it to their friends. Those friends in turn told it to their friends. The poem went through the community like a wave and the Mayor’s office was flooded with calls. Soon the mayor himself, R.T. Rybak, was down at Cedar Riverside trying to get to the bottom of the problem. (Rybak says he doesn’t recall the specific incident, but confirmed that he did talk to members of the community about the parking problem.)
As a writer, I had an idea of the power of words, but this was beyond anything I’d heard of. It seemed like a wonderful thing: poetry that could move an entire community to action. I kept reading about it and talking to people who studied it, like John William Johnson, who lived in Somalia in the 1960s, and who wrote ‘Heelloy’: Modern Poetry and Songs of the Somalis. “This poetry is mind-blowing,” Johnson told me. “I describe it to people, and they say, ‘I’ve never heard of anything like this.’ It’s unbelievable.”
According to Johnson, different genres of poems have specific functions. “There’s a poem for herding sheep and goats,” he said. “There’s a poem for herding baby sheep and goats. There’s a poem for churning milk. There’s a poem for pounding grain. There are two poems for watering camels. The first is really fast. The second is very slow because people get tired.” Historically, poetry was even used to settle disputes in a practice known as “poetic combat.” “Poetic combat involves a dispute,” Johnson told me. “Maybe it’s land, maybe it’s water, maybe it’s politics. Maybe it’s something else. The prime poet of a clan will compose a poem about it. Then that poem will be answered by the other side in the same alliteration. They will go back and forth for ten, twenty, thirty, forty poems, and the alliteration will never change. These take place over weeks and months.”
Poetic combat may have been replaced by actual combat in many parts of Somalia, but poetry is still used to spread news, to affect change, to recruit soldiers, and for many other things. In 2011, a twenty-eight-year-old poet in Kenya named Abidrashad Omar was forced into hiding after he read a poem critical of al-Shabaab, after they bombed a hotel in Mogadishu that killed several medical students. Al-Shabaab gave him fifteen days to “come back to God,” and write a poem praising al-Shabaab, but he refused.
“What al-Shabaab does,” Bihi told me, “is they evoke Muhammad Abdullah Hassan [the military leader also known as Somalia’s Shakespeare] because Somalis have a weakness for nationalism. And their poets are very good. They’re better than the government’s. But Somali poetry uses very complex language and words. You have to know Somali very well. That’s their handicap, and why their impact overseas is minimal.”
I went to the University of Minnesota to visit Said Salah, a poet and playwright who worked in Somalia’s Education Ministry before the war. On the way, I walked through Cedar Riverside, past Somali coffee shops and restaurant and small grocery stores. The air smelled like incense and curry.
“I’ve met so many older Somali people,” Saleh told me, “who say the civil war was caused by the poets and artists, because they were criticizing the military government. They believe what angered the military government were the words of artists and poets. They say, ‘Our good government, and our good time, was disturbed by your tongue.’ It is [seen as] that powerful.”
In the United States, no one would suspect poetry of starting a strong argument, let alone a war. Our poets are often respected, but not listened too. They are usually relegated to chapbooks and lightly-peopled readings. In a world where poetry has been pushed to the margins, it’s hard to imagine one where it pervades everything. Yet both exist here side by side. “In Somali culture,” Salah explained, “poetry is like breathing the air. Poetry is part of life. It’s not an intellectual exercise like in the Western world. Poetry is just part of the society.”
At Youth Voice, a young poet named Mahamad told me he’d lived in Somalia until he was six years old, and still remembered people in his village reciting famous poems and making up their own. After coming to America, he started writing poems in English for a middle school assignment. His teacher noticed their quality and encouraged him to keep writing. But it wasn’t until 2016 when a friend of his—another poet—was shot and killed in a parking lot a few blocks from Youth Voice, that he decided to get on the stage to read his own work.
“The younger generation,” he told me, “we understand how important poetry is in our culture. But the average youth doesn’t know much Somali. It’s not their fault. They were born here, and probably never went to Somalia. But even with them, it’s so much a part of us that they still drift toward the poetic scene.”
On the stage at Youth Voice, something different was taking place from the formal, complex poetry of Somalia’s past, something happening across the diaspora. In that journey, I wondered what was being left behind. I asked everyone I talked to if they were worried about the future of Somali poetry, but no one seemed overly concerned. “It’s a living tradition,” Johnson said. “Somali poems will be forgotten in two or three generations if their message no longer is contextually relevant. And they will be replaced by other poems that are.”
Every group of new Americans brings with it a world of art that, in time, becomes part of a broader U.S. cultural fabric. Somali poetry has done just that in recent years. Ladan Osman, a Somali-American poet who grew up in Ohio after her parents fled the war, recently published her latest collection Exiles of Eden, with Minneapolis’ Coffee House Press. The British-Somali poet Warsan Shire’s poetry was used in Beyonce’s film Lemonade. In these new forms, it evolves and endures.
“We can be saved by faith and verse,” Salah told me. “That is what Margaret Lawrence meant by A Tree for Poverty. She took the title of her book from a line of Somali poetry, which says, ‘On the plain of Ban-Aul, there is a tree for poverty to shelter under.’ That tree is the poetry. It means when you are having poverty and feeling so gloomy and painful and the worst emotions, you go under that tree and it will shade you from these things.” That is what the Youth Voice poets were doing as well: making the harshness of life a little more bearable, even beautiful.
One day I sat down with an actress, singer and poet named Adar Kahin. I asked her, too, if she feared for the future of Somali poetry. Kahin said her older son was a poet, but her younger son wasn’t, and he didn’t care about it. “Things change,” she said with a shrug. “But the poems are still walking. The path is a little bit different, because times change, and life changes. But poetry is still walking with the change.” ■
Frank Bures is the editor of Belt Publishing’s Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology, and the author of The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes. Read more at frankbures.com.
Cover image by Darin Kamnetz.
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