In this age of scrolling literature, a lot of perplexing questions come to my mind. As a person who grew up reading Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics, I find it hard to enjoy #instapoetry typed out in quirky structures on rustic pastel backdrop, squeezed at the centre or in the very corner of the tiny space on my noisy Instagram feed. I wonder if we would ever remember these poems; if we would ever come back to them for inspiration or teach them to our students in the future. Navigating through this new world of poetry must be scary for young poets who wish to embrace this new world and follow traditions at the same time.
Us caught up with Annum Salman, a bright young Pakistani spoken word poet and writer, to get a glimpse of the poet’s mind. She has recently published her first poetry collection Sense Me that is being loved and appreciated across the globe.
Annum talks about her poetry collection Sense Me and the process of writing poetry...
Tell Us about yourself
It’s always the worst answering this one, but I’ll try my best. I graduated this year from the University of Surrey with an MA in creative writing. I left the PR world in Pakistan in 2017 and was determined to travel to another country to pursue my dream of writing. I love performing on stage and have travelled across Pakistan and the UK to perform at multiple events - more recently as a featured artist. I wrote a couple of chapters of a novel for my dissertation but had to put it on hold to rethink the plot, but really wanted to introduce myself as a writer to the world and decided to publish my poetry first.
Tell us about your poetry collection Sense Me. What’s the source of inspiration? What are some of the major themes? Talk about your style of poetry.
Sense Me is a collection of poems I wrote in a span of two years. It is inspired by events around me, my life as a young Pakistani woman based at home as well as a foreigner in another country. It is also inspired by personal experiences when I faced sexism, harassment and underwent the trauma that is associated with the taboo of mental illness.
The main theme of the book is identity and it branches into smaller themes such as, gender inequality, mental health, race and culture, and love.
I always tell people that my poems are not like modern poetry that is very upcoming and popular on social media (inspired by famous poets like Rupi Kaur), because it is free verse combined with some stylistic poems that encompass techniques I learned during my studies, such as Beat Poetry. A lot of my poems tend to flow through several pages because they were written as performance pieces, and they have a more musical tone to them.
Your book has an interesting cover. Did you design the cover yourself? In the time of bookstagram, do you think it is important to have an aesthetically pleasing cover?
I chose the cover of my book myself and guided the designer, but it was essentially designed by the publishing house.
You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but everyone does. I always pick up a book when it catches my eye, so as a first time author, it was important for my book to stand out and represent its content. It’s also always a conversation starter!
What’s the reaction of the readers? How are readers in Pakistan different from the readers in other parts of the world like the UK?
So far, people have loved it. A few were daunted when they flipped through and noticed how long some of the pieces were but I’ve been surprised by how much they enjoyed the longer pieces. People have found it raw, true and emotional.
Readers in Pakistan have been able to relate more, because they see themselves in the young Pakistani writer talking about her experiences. It is also hard for white people to talk about racism, so some of the poems, have been harder to swallow for readers here. However, being a brown writer has its perks. I have created my own niche in the UK that is attractive and a lot of people are interested in the collection because it is by someone Pakistani.
Readers in Pakistan are also new to poetry. It’s never the first option to pick at a book store and really has to grab people’s attention - which is exciting as well as frightening.
Walk us through the publishing process. Were there any surprises? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
Poetry is usually initially self-published because most publishing houses you approach have rules of not accepting poetry submissions. My decision of publishing was very whimsical. I just woke up one day and thought it’s about time I do this. I sent some emails to self-publishing companies, got a call the next day from a publisher and made the down payment for their package on the phone call.
The surprise was that it wasn’t that simple. I didn’t do enough research because I made a hurried decision. I didn’t get a good enough package and spent a lot of money on something that could’ve been done a lot cheaper. I was happy with the quality of my book, but I further had to invest and find my own editor. I had to make sure my content was the best, myself. I was fortunate because I had a great community of lecturers and writing students around me but it was still hectic.
I spoke to a family friend to illustrate some of the poems and we collaborated on that. My marketing has been completely my own effort. I got nothing out of the publishing house from that side and it became a full time job. I decided to focus on just my book for a while. It was my baby and my priority and for a few months it had to be the most important thing in my life.
Is there something particular that good poetry ought to do?
Good poetry needs to hit. It needs to make you feel “something”. You can choose what that emotion is, from it being pain, to sorrow to nostalgia or love. Good poetry should make you pause and reflect on it.
Tell us about your own editing/rewriting process. How is editing poetry different from editing prose? Do you have any advice for young aspirants?
Writing poetry for me is a very personal experience. I have sat down and written something in under five minutes but they might’ve been the saddest minutes I have spent. The writing is usually very, I’d like to say, “fragile”. Because it’s so personal, it is hard for others to edit. I usually omit lousy words I may have overused and edit the structure of the poem but make sure that the essence of it remains so that it can portray exactly the feeling that took to write it.
What’s the best experience you’ve gained through your writing?
Meeting people and making connections. It is overwhelming to comprehend what words can do and how they can make someone feel less alone and loved. My words have been read by so many people across so many places; they have just appreciated it so much. I have heard so many more stories from people who decided that they wanted to open up to me and share their thoughts with me. It feels great to know that every new home that my book reaches has an owner that interprets it in their own unique way and will remember some poem that speaks to their heart.
How can one promote their work when there is so much competition?
One has to understand that even as a creative writer, your writing is not just yours when you bring it to the public and at the end of the day, it may be your bread and butter. Like any business, one needs to find their USP. You have to start selling your uniqueness. You need to be doing something that is different from others and monetize on that. I monetized on how my poetry collection is diverse in themes and writing styles. In the UK, I monetized on being a modern Pakistani feminist poet talking not only about gender but also about race.
Which poets or poems most inspire you? What are you reading at the moment?
I am currently reading Fatimah Asghar’s poetry collection “If they come for us.” Other than him, Phil and Sarah Kay have always been an inspiration. I have heard their poems way too many times on days I couldn’t write.
A poet I wish I could write like is Kaveh Akbar.
Do you have a particular process or place where you like to write, and does a poem start life in longhand, notes, or straight to the computer?
A poem usually begins in the small device I cling on to day and night. On my phone, usually in the toilet where I’m spending a lot of time doing solitary thinking or when I’m in my bed and I’m unable to sleep. Sometimes if I’m too tired, it is written as a quick note, a great line that suddenly appears in my mind in the middle of the night - which doesn’t make sense the next morning. If it is a great inspired moment, it’s always completed as soon as it’s written.
I don’t have any particular place where I write, I wish I could have the discipline to confine myself somewhere to write.
Tell us something about spoken word poetry. We can see that it’s a popular art form in the UK and we get to see a lot of spoken word poetry videos on social media. Can you share a few tips on composing spoken word poetry?
Spoken word poetry has been famous since hundreds of years, except people just didn’t consider it poetry but storytellers in the older days would speak out their stories, animate and tell them and it would often be blurred with theatre.
Spoken word poetry is a poem that is written to be performed, so it’s musically crafted. Like a song, it has a high and a low and unlike normal poetry, there is usually a beginning, middle and end and a tempo. It’s less abstract and more focused on sounds that words make. It’s also more emotive; it’s dramatic and uses very picturesque metaphors.
It helps when you’re writing a spoken word poem to understand that this will definitely be shared. It is being written to be shared with an audience so you must emphasize on where you want your audience to react and how you want them to react.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
The writer’s curse is the worst! I go to inspiring events. I find a place where there is an open mic happening or a feature show of some great poet and I visit the place, listen to other amazing poets and suddenly have this urge, I had thought I had lost, to write.
If nothing interesting is on, I listen to a lot of poetry. I also paint. I feel that creative expression in any other form helps to un-bottle all the pent up feelings that I’m finding hard to express and once I create something, even if it’s not writing, it creates an opening for more creativity to flow.
One poet that more people should know: Who is it?
Bhanu Kapil. Her writing is unique and her prose poetry is delicious.
If you could pass along only one piece of advice for other poets, what would it be?
Find your own voice. It’s easy to get influenced by popular poets and it’s easy to want to get fame, likes, retweets. There is less time in the world and because of social platforms, a lot of young poets with talent are getting sunk into the well of pop poetry. Poetry isn’t a competition of who can say the deepest thing in two lines. Articulate the way you want to, truthfully and honestly, and you will be read and appreciated.
Sense Me includes beautiful illustrations by Artist Aaiza Alam. It is available worldwide on Amazon and Barnes&Nobles, and in Pakistan, it is available online and in store at Liberty Books.
The following is an excerpt from the poem Anna which is probably my favourite because it is audience’s favourite and also because I further went on to recording it on video with a dancer. It’s really close to my heart.
Anna, you have been a bird in flight since years,
Not allowed to settle down because your wings are too bright for some
You always wanted to be the centre of attention
But now you hate standing out
Because being different means you have to carry a shield to protect yourself from the bullies
You thought school was over,
Life is a new battlefield where the bell never rings to call it to quit
Anna, you did not just opt for ease, you chose to stop being resonated to images of terrorists, just by the sound of your name
Now it feels like a cactus stuck in your throat when you try to spit it out,
Knowing it will poke you anyway when somebody else asks you to spell it out
You’ll spell out E-M-B-A-R-R-A-S-S-M-E-N-T
Isn’t it funny that somebody else’s mispronunciation makes you feel small?
Anna... nobody will understand the art of camouflage as well as you do
You can’t even see yourself in your own reflection anymore