Interview with London-based South Asian poet Shareefa Energy
Our Editor caught up with Shareefa Energy, a London-based South Asian poet. The up-and coming orator goes from strength to strength, winning awards, working with BBC 1 on her Grenfell poetry, and publishing her debut collection this winter.
Q: So after winning the UK Entertainment Best Poet Award in 2017, and performing at festivals this summer, you’re about to publish your debut novel Galaxy Walk with Burning Eye Books- Now that you’re getting involved with the press, have you noticed any difficulty changing from performance poetry to the page?
A: It’s been a learning curve, because I write as an orator. It’s been challenging at times, because I might deliver with a rhythm that I’m used to, and my friends have to remind me, Shareefa you’re not going to be in someone’s living room when they’re reading this, you need to change it. So I was like okay cool- at times you have to compromise, you have to think about the reader, and about how they’re going to receive it, rather than how you always recite.
At the same time, I’ve retained the messages and the authenticity. I’ve tried to be true to myself as well, and not just feel like I need to adhere to this white middle class way of writing poetry. I feel like as a South Asian woman from a migrant family living in England, there’s ways that we talk that carry through to my writing. I want people to hear that.
Q: Absolutely. I saw that you did a lot of work for Grenfell following the fire? Researching an article on British rap, I read that Big Zuu called the people’s response to Grenfell “better than the government’s”. What’s your take on the relationship between art and activism?
A: I think it’s important because you’re reaching a different audience- you’re connecting with people. The role of the artist and the writer is to connect to people’s hearts. Sometimes people just read and scroll past, but if they hear the emotion in your voice, and the passion, sometimes it gets through to people who might not usually empathise. It might help someone see from a different perspective. The role of rappers, creatives, and artists who’ve got involved with Grenfell is important, from Stormzy, to Lowkey, to people like Big Zuu. It’s very important, and as a poet, my voice can add to that.
Q: There’s a line in your One Show interview that really stuck out to me: when you said: ‘they don’t see the tower every day like we do’. I thought that in the same way the poetry could remind people, and keep people switched on to issues, even if they don’t see them first-hand.
A: Definitely- it’s a way to make things more visual for people that aren’t connected. Like, for a lot of people, Grenfell is just a headline. But people are impacted by it to this day, like the families, survivors, the community, and they can’t get away from it. You need to be reminded of them, because tomorrow everyone might be talking about something else, and they get left behind. Poetry is a way to keep people informed, so they understand that it’s a long-term campaign that needs long-term support. It’s how we, as artists, use our voices to support it.
Q: And it’s similar with your poem Balance for Better, for International Women’s day? There was a line about how Women of Colour make safe spaces, and I guess poetry can help?
A: As a poet who’s part of The Yoniverse, collective of South Asian female poets, that’s the reason why our collective was ever created: for other South Asian females who might feel unsafe. It’s for them to feel represented- it’s about finding somewhere to feel comfortable. Youth clubs are there for people to feel comfortable, and to speak on issues safely, maybe domestic violence at home. They can talk with people and form a community. Being an artist is like being a youth worker sometimes, just that you can reach more people and include more people.
Q: That’s part of the reason why I thought it would be great for you come down to Exeter this December, because the Uni doesn’t have a great history with representation and marginalisation: it hosted Katie Hopkins last year and will be hosting other right wing figures this Fresher’s Week. There’s that side to the University, but also the Creative Writing Society and the Afro-Caribbean society hosted a Women of Colour poetry night with great success. I guess poetry is important in spaces where people don’t feel represented?
A: Especially with spoken word- it gives a platform to a lot of people from ethnic minority communities to come and step forward, and think “here’s a safe space for us, we’re allowed to be orators and speak on issues that’s affecting us,” you know? Whether it’s about challenging white privilege working in an office or whatever, it’s about having a space where someone can say “you know what? This is what I’ve gone through today, and I’m taking off my coat and talking at this venue and performing, speaking my experiences into a microphone”. For a lot of people, it’s very therapeutic. It’s a place where you can challenge institutions and break barriers, from the education system to the publishing world.