Jamal Mehmood

Tell us more about your journey as a poet? When did you start writing poetry and when did you start performing?

I think the journey probably started before I knew it did – poetry was always in my house, and in our car through the old desi tunes my parents listened to. On top of that both my parents are great appreciators of poetry. Much later on, like many, I found my appreciation through rap lyrics grow. At the time it was a far more palatable form of poetry than Bulle Shah, so through it and then the discovery of Def Poetry Jam, which was hosted by my favourite artist Yasiin Bey (then Mos Def) meant I was now a fan of poetry.

I think I started writing semi-regularly around 2010. I entered and won the school poetry competition and was Laureate for the school and would have a piece published in each copy of the school newspaper. I only started performing at open mics when I finally made it to university in Southampton, so 2011/2012.

Who would you say are the main influences of your work?

So music in general is a big influence (hence the title of the book; a play on Little Girl Blue which was Nina Simone’s debut album). I often write to music as a backdrop so its a very direct and close influence. I still feel like I’m very much growing as an artist – stylistically, content wise – everything. So I’m still being influenced by different things now and I hope that continues. I think it probably does for most people. What I have a difficult time thinking about is where I fit – my work is not of a particular style per se but I think remains a mixture of all my influences, which might make it difficult to market or whatever, but I’m okay with it.

You were crowned Poetry Rivals Champion in 2015 and the prize was a contract to have your pamphlet published. Were you ready for this next challenge as an artist and what was your approach?

I wasn’t even ready to win! Entering the competition was one of the first things I did when I decided to really go for it and treat myself like a writer. I had stopped performing and even writing regularly for a couple of years until I went to an Arts Council workshop for BME writers. Nick Makoha delivered a session which was a real wake up call – he taught me that if I wanted to be writer I had to treat myself like one. So after the session – I had lots of ideas, but one of the first concrete things I actually did was enter Poetry Rivals. I was happy enough to have the poem published in their book with the top 100 entries, but when I was invited to take part in the slam at the albert hall I was pleasantly surprised. Even at the slam – there were some incredible pieces performed by the other competitors (I personally thought Toby Campion and Shruti Chauhan were both brilliant) so I was genuinely shocked to win. Style wise, my work isn’t the kind that generally does well at slams. I always worried that my pieces were too short – and in terms of stage presence I’m more requesting than commanding. But the judges liked the piece enough to pick me as the winner and I was so happy my parents were there to see it.

In terms of approaching the collection – it was quite difficult initially. In its current form it includes both new and old poems, but because i’d been writing for so long, I had probably a hundred poems sitting in different places that I collated and went through. I can’t quite remember whether I had the title at that point. But slowly after a few versions and help from some great poets and the good folks at Burning Eye – I came to what you have now. A loose theme that serves as background for my mixed influences – its now (I hope) a somewhat solid body of work as opposed to a scattered selection of poems. I had the idea to begin the collection from a very personal perspective, then introduce poems about the world, and then towards the end bring those two worlds together. Not anything incredibly original or unheard of I’m sure – but it meant the book has a loose structure which I hope makes it a better read.

Would you say that there’s a difference between the poems that you write for the page, and the ones you write mainly for performance?

I think so, yes. The poems I used to write before I really got into performing were in hindsight very mostly suited to the page. That changed more purposefully than naturally because I realised that if I really wanted to do this, I’m going to have to spend some time on a stage. So that became something I didn’t write for per se, but a point I learned to consider when writing. I’m hoping that because of the older stuff I did the newer pieces and the book as whole works well on page. I refuse to read it again and find out. I’m too worried I’ll find something I don’t like anymore.

What is about the themes of family and identity that made you want to explore them for this pamphlet?

This was far less purposeful and more just happened to be what I’d been thinking about – and a reflection of who I am. It isn’t a book of ‘diaspora poetry’ and I never intended it to be. There are of course a few pieces that deal with those topics of belonging and culture but it was never my intention to make that the focus. Not that there’s anything wrong with poetry that explores those things – it might have made it an easier sell or more popular in general or whatever but I didn’t want to lead with that (figuratively speaking, the book does actually lead with that in the first piece!). With regards to family, I just really love my family. I’m really fortunate to have a lot of family who have always lived very close to me – so I’ve grown up with them always around. They’re a huge part of me.

What have the challenges been for you as a British Asian artist? Have you found the scene welcoming?

The scene in general is very welcoming, in London anyway. There’s a real wealth of amazing artists of colour who are either from the city or just work and play in it like me. In that sense the scene is very welcoming. In terms of Asians in particular I think there might be a slight lack of representation still in the poetry scene but a large lack of representation in the arts as a whole. For a lot of us, and completely understandably, financial security comes before anything when considering a career path. It might be a long shot but I hope that perhaps a little Asian boy or girl see the book and think of the arts as a viable path to take.  (I don’t write ‘full time’ in that it doesn’t pay my bills, but I’m working on it).

In terms of personal challenges, I guess it’s more about structural issues than anything else. The idea that I know I will receive more support from an Asian organisation or an organisation championing BME communities than anywhere else. In terms of the literary landscape, there’s been a ton written about diversity which I won’t repeat but it’s safe to say there’s a problem. Because it’s not only about nominal representation – but representation on our own terms. I mentioned marketability earlier; if I went down the path of selling the collection, (and my work as a whole) about ‘exploring identity and the balance between being Muslim, Pakistani and British’ with a union jack and Pakistani flag in the background wearing a T-Shirt saying ‘British’ on it, I know I might be more commercially successful or more popular. It’s comfortable for a white audience to see that – someone showing pride in Britain as opposed to something that might call out Britain on its long list of crimes – from which they might well benefit.

So there’s that – balancing the desire to really want to be able to make this a sustainable career path, with knowing that commissions or projects or whatever else might not come flooding unless you perform your identity in some way. It’s a complex thing. So it’s not to say that nominal representation is entirely bad – and all representation has to be this super anti-colonial thing – that’s not the case. There is a clear benefit from of nominal representation too – symbols are powerful.

Your poetry explores the themes of family, identity and immigration. Have you always been interested in these themes or have they found themselves in your work as a result of the challenging political times we live in? 

I think with identity and immigration – it is something that I’d been interested in but it wasn’t something that I started off writing about. In the beginning my writing was more abstract but those topics weren’t ever completely absent. My interest grew the more I learned that my culture and family history were nothing to be ashamed of, or hidden away – which is what the opening poem explores. I’m still learning new things all the time, mainly through conversations with my Grandmother, about where we are from (which isn’t one place), and what we’ve been through. I’m still relatively young in that regard – growing up in a majority white area, race or identity was something I usually wanted to quickly shut away if it ever came up.

I’d definitely say though that the current times have informed my work – and its very clear in the collection I think too. When there are current events directly affecting you – my local mosque being attacked, britain first harassing people I know outside the same mosque, my mum telling me not to leave the library late at night on the day of the Lee Rigby murders and so on; as an artist its almost impossible not to comment on these things.

Several of the poems reference home, or indeed reminisce going back home. How do you feel about your relationship with home and where is home to you?

I think that it fits in with the theme of nostalgia  – which is an idea that comes up again and again in my writing. One of my favourite films is Midnight in Paris – in which nostalgia is seen as a form of denial of the harsh realities of life; but I find nostalgia almost instructive. For example in the poem Stardust Memories (another great film) which talks about family and home and what things used to be, I see it as a reminder of what should be aimed for. In the sense ensuring family ties remain close, people spend time with each other etc so I don’t see it as denial at all.

Home to me is really anywhere I’m content, somewhere I associate with joy and belonging – whether that be in my friends car passing the aux cord over, or looking at old photographs with my nan at her house. It all feels like home.

What have been the most useful resources, networks or opportunities which have helped to shape you as an artist?

While at university, before I took a break for a couple of years – I was mainly doing open mics at uni or in London with friends and it remained quite hobby-like. But I can can trace back my return to performing and taking things seriously to a single event. Someone I follow on twitter (who I am really grateful to for that fateful tweet), retweeted an event by the arts council on sustaining your career as an ethnic minority writer. At the time I had no career to sustain but I thought I’d go along after work. It was really useful – it was themed around how to apply for AC funding, but there was lots of general advice from the speakers. In particular Nick Makoha really helped me as I mentioned before.

The London poetry circuit has been really welcoming too – I’ve made a few friends who have been great to have around as I try and progress. I must also mention Media Diversified – Samantha and Samira have been so kind and supportive of both my poetry and long form stuff for a while now. Sharan at Burnt Roti has also been great too. Clive and Jenn from Burning Eye have been really great in explaining the process of the book and its been really easy to work with them.

The BBC Ed Fringe Slam organising team were also so great in supporting all of us who went up to Edinburgh in the summer. That’s a lot of networks isn’t it. I think I’ve been really fortunate in meeting some great people.

What advice would you have to anyone thinking about performing their poetry?

Firstly to not be afraid to go up on stage – it really is a very warm community. you won’t get booed. unless you’re hateful.

In all seriousness though its true, it is a welcoming space with lots of opportunities to perform. I would also advise really sitting with what you like, not worrying too much initially about styles, or slams or competition – and focusing on authenticity. All my favourite poets are authentic – they don’t have a stage persona. I think for someone new to the world of performance poetry, it might be tempting to try an emulate a particular style of writing or performance, because it seems to be getting all the cheers and winning all the slams but the focus should be on trying to be as authentic as possible. There’s no reason why a colourful or animated performance can’t be authentic, but you should make sure its you.

What excites you most about spoken word as a movement?

Its a movement that has really ballooned, there’s been so many poetry-aided adverts on TV recently – and its very exciting to know that there might be a renewed interest in the art form socially. What remains to be seen is, if its a trend thing, and the buzz dies down or whatever. I am hopeful that it isn’t just a trend though, artists like Warsan Shire, Saul Williams and Kate Tempest among others have produced incredible work that has somewhat broken the ‘mainstream’, (Warsan moreso than anyone else – but the point still stands) that might allow for poetry to be given a larger, more permanent platform in the arts space.

Another key thing for me is that a lot of the popular voices in the space, are voices that are critical of societal ills, of governments, of racism, misogyny and so on –  so voices like these being heard more, (many of which are voices of colour) can serve as powerful educating tools through the arts which is such a positive thing given the lack of anti-racist education in school for example. There’s that famous Shelley quote about poets being unacknowledged legislators, and given our current crop of legislators globally, I’d welcome some acknowledgement of the poets.

Jamal Mehmood is a writer, poet and committed people watcher living in Kent and working in London. As well as poems and essays he is currently writing his debut film script which you can follow online. Jamal also works in arts and cultural affairs for Restless Beings – a human rights organisation focusing on marginalised communities. He loves Yasiin Bey, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Nina Simone. You can find him tweeting @_jamalbhai and find his work at jamalbhai.com.

(Image credit: Burning Eye Books)