Writing Poems for a Three-Dimensional Form
Writers creating poems for Blessing Hancock’s Nicollet Lanterns faced the challenge of creating poems that must translate into readable text on a three-dimensional form. Imagine meeting criteria that the text should be ALL CAPS with no punctuation, and run in a continuous line spiraling around the sculpture!
Each four-foot diameter segmented orb enables an average of 12 lines top-to-bottom. The ideal total length for each poem is about 100 words. Hancock scaled each letter to be about three-inches tall and readable at a distance of ten feet. She determined that around twenty words are viewable at once, so poems with shorter lines would enable readers to get a sense of the sentence in a glance.
Shahid is a soft-spoken emerging writer with impassioned views driven by her upbringing and Muslim faith. Her poems and spoken-word pieces range from topics like the death of Sandra Bland and the ongoing Black migration, to a current series offering a tribute to mother-daughter relationships. There’s a strong ethical thread throughout her work, including the Nicollet Lantern poems – an intensity and strength, propulsion – that moves us toward awareness, empathy and action. I spoke with her about how faith, family, culture and activism are central to her work. Here are excerpts from our recent conversation and email exchange.
Regina Flanagan: I understand that you are a third-generation Black Muslim. Does your Muslim faith influence your writing?
Sagirah Shahid: My faith absolutely influences my writing. In a broader sense, Islam has historically influenced a variety of arts all over the world. From calligraphy to music, you’ll find ways in which communities and cultures are in discourse with Islam creatively, or at least draw from it.
I grew up studying and memorizing the Qur’an. By its nature, Qur’anic Arabic is poetic. Its verses are arranged in a way that is complementary to recitation. In fact, its memorization and recitation is an art form. There are Qur’an recitation competitions all over the world. When you look at how Qur’an is presented on the page, there is an attention to detail that is aesthetically pleasing too. In many ways Islam and Qur’an were my first experiences with art, especially with literary arts. Qur’an trained my ear to pay attention to sound and was my introduction to poetry.
I also grew up immersed in Black culture and Black Muslim culture. My mother made an effort to find children’s books and music that were either super-Black or Muslim or both. Or sometimes she would just makeup her own songs and stories. One year, my mom would be vacuuming to Whitney Houston, the next we’d be listening to a “Native Deen” tape, a Muslim rap group. Black culture is also in discourse with Islam and has shaped Muslim identities all over the U.S. and beyond. A lot of people don’t realize that. In the book Muslim Cool, Race, Religion and Hip-Hop in the United States, Su’ad Abdul Khabeer unpacks this way more eloquently than I ever could.
RF: Did you grow up in Minnesota?
SS: Yes, my whole life except for two years. From 1998 to 2001 my family lived in Hamtramck, Michigan. Hamtramck is a tiny town basically surrounded by Detroit, and it’s super diverse. Bangladesh. Polish. Bosnian. Yemeni. Black. Various cultures and communities all living together in this tiny town within this giant city. Essentially my family moved there for religion. My family changed from Hanafi to the Maliki School of Fiqh or Islamic law, like switching from Catholic to Baptist. My mom wanted my brother and I to learn Qur’an and be involved with the Muslim community there.
The Twin Cities’ Muslim communities were just starting to become more visible in the 1990s. In Minnesota, Muslim communities were relatively small prior to the arrival of Somalis and East African Muslims. In Michigan, various Muslim communities had been established for generations. Your faith, your spiritual practice – was the norm in a way it wasn’t in Minnesota yet. My parents didn’t want us to feel like outsiders when we were growing up, and wanted an environment where we could thrive fully, including spiritually. But now, I’d say local Muslim communities have grown significantly in Minnesota and are on the rise.
RF: There’s a strong thread of the ethic of the Qur’an in your work. You employ that ethical awareness in whatever you do; paying attention to issues of fairness and social justice and employing language as a way to highlight those issues. Your personal creative life and work-life appear interwoven. For example, you are an editor for the Saint Paul Almanac, a democratic publishing experiment that gathers community stories. Were your parents involved in social and cultural issues the way that you are? Did you inherit this focus from them?
SS: I don’t know if anyone can inherit anything like that but I will say those core values and the things I witnessed growing up influence me. Part of being Black and Muslim means you are aware of what’s going on politically and how Blackness was birthed into this nation. Our actual bodies are politicized because we don’t settle for violations against our bodies. My grandparents’ decision to convert to Islam was in some ways a reaction to the racism and discrimination Black folks were encountering during the civil rights era.
My mother has a kind heart and is very devout in her implementation of Islamic traditions and concepts surrounding communal responsibility. Growing up, we moved around a lot – almost every other year, and we didn’t have a lot in terms of money, and that was fine. But even under those circumstances, my mother always invited people in. People she had met who were hungry or struggling in some way and have them live with us for a time. We always had people in our house. My mom was and still is committed to supporting women, children and families. Throughout her life, she had done a lot with youth; building opportunities for them and advocating for them with non-profits, her job, or in her home.
I’m working on a series of poems entitled “Bean Pie” inspired by my Mother and Black Muslim culture and community. Many of the poems examine mother-daughter relationships. Bean Pie is made with white navy beans. It’s yummy; imagine sweet potato pie only with beans. Black Muslims invented it. The Black Muslim re-emergence of the 1940s-1970s emphasized an entrepreneurial spirit, self-sufficiency, taking care of your body, and building community. Selling bean pies was one way to accomplish that. The pies are more popular on the East Coast, Chicago or Detroit, places where there’s larger African-American populations. The pies are rich in protein and a celebratory staple of our cuisine.
Soaked in water,
dried beans have the potential for holiness.
When I was a girl
I watched my mother fall in love with god
as if god were a dying language.
Every morning before dawn
she would find transliterations
of prayers in wet beans
and whisper them into
the batter of a devoted pie.
The pie only knew how to pronounce
the sounds of god. As it baked,
I knew it was enough for me
to purify my nostrils in this fashion,
splash the pearly gateways of my mind
with the smokiness of a pie’s promise.
To appreciate a beautiful moment
you have to know its absence,
taste the quality of life
burning down your throat
long after it’s gone
and this does not mean
you get to summon it back
beauty doesn’t work that way. And like any daughter
I reflect on how
I have a hard time recalling
the way the base of my throat is supposed to catch
the brimming sounds of this particular Qur’anic
I have managed to memorize
the scent of every home I prayed in.
RF: How did you learn to write? And why do you choose to write?
SS: I didn’t realize I was a writer until I was in college. Now looking back, it makes sense why I gravitated toward writing. My culture, my household and faith basically trained me to be addicted to critical and creative thinking. But when I got to college, writing was something I struggled with. I majored in English and realized my reference point wasn’t from a Eurocentric point of view and as a result I struggled and resisted. That resistance made me a better writer and also appreciate the generosity of writing professors and mentors who nurtured and supported me throughout that process – they taught me the formal vocabulary to hone my craft.
I seize every possible opportunity in my community to continue what I hope is a lifelong pursuit to live, learn and grow as a human being. I’m especially grateful to the robust local arts communities here – the Loft Literary Center, Mizna, the Saint Paul Almanac, Pangea, Intermedia Arts, Black Table Arts (to name a few). I’m grateful to the many writers, especially writers of color who have taken me under their wings and continue to create space for writers like me to grow and learn in community.
All that is to say, I didn’t choose writing. I got lucky enough to be surrounded by incredible human beings with stories that weren’t necessarily the focal point of our country. I write to affirm myself and to call attention to these stories. I stumbled into writing because it was my first line of defense, the first way I gained true agency in the world. The whole process, the act of creating, the act of receiving stories – feels sacred. I’m grateful for the opportunity to improve my own ability to do both.
Peace be upon you
Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah
body be a peephole into where I live how I live
surveillance is only an answer to questions
you wanted to find people you refuse to see
my skin is this nation’s consciousness
reminding on some level
we never wanted to be here
fattening up blood soaked pocketbooks
but what’s the plight of a slave if not to make due
dua for the unborn and bulletless
what’s the difference between a bird’s nest and potted roots yanked free
in this nice climate
I can’t wait for you to notice
my life is fear and muffled survivals
RF: I’d like to talk about some of the references in this poem for Nicollet Lanterns.
SS: Peace be upon you. Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah is one of three options for a Muslim greeting. Translated it means: Peace be upon you, and God’s mercy upon you. Whenever someone greets you, you are obliged to reciprocate, or do better.
RF: Lines in the poem are messages for people who understand it the way you do, and there are messages for people like me who are curious and open to learning more about your faith and world-view.
SS: I’m interested in what’s going on with Black and Muslim people right now. The peace greeting affirms us. But I was also trying to find entry points to capture the violence of the times we’re living in, and how disruptive it is, how it makes us feel out of place.
Being a Black person, we have roots in this country but also we don’t. Like a bird’s nest this is our home, but it is also very temporary and was constructed out of necessity, for survival. Bird nests also look a lot like the way roots look in the ground. I used that subversive image to point to the disconnect that is the Black American identity. I’m speaking to the Black community at large, or people who can relate to that. We’re displaced people and because we come from slavery, we will never be at home here. This is indigenous land. But we have nowhere to go – so we make our homes out of these uprooted things.
The first thing many Black Muslims did was relieve themselves from their “slave names” – famously adopting “X” until they choose their own names. The X represents the unknown because the names ascribed to our communities were a direct result of slavery. We were robbed of many things including our very names. Our ancestors didn’t come to the Americas with those surnames, so true freedom and true self-love came symbolically, through choosing a name that wasn’t associated with American slavery. That’s a trend that’s not unique to Black Muslims, it’s across African American culture.
RF: We exist, and we need to make our roots no matter where we are, and the desire to make connections is intrinsic.
SS: Exactly. That’s why I made an effort to center our existence in these poems. In one of my poems, I give a shout out to Masjid An’Nur (Masjid of Light) which is a Muslim place of worship in North Minneapolis. It is a historically Black Muslim masjid and it’s very inclusive.
I requested that the lanterns with my texts be located near the 7th Street intersection with Nicollet Mall where the buses stop that carry people to the Masjid and into the Northside. I also wanted to pay homage to people who use the bus to get around as a primary means of transportation. Recently, some larger buses have been added to accommodate the number of people going north. But before that, people were sardined into the buses in a very oppressive way, and to be honest this still happens sometimes. I wanted to give my fellow bus riders a shout out and I felt strongly about making one of the poems a tribute to the Northside. It was my first home and no matter where life takes me, Northside will always be the home of my heart. All three of my lantern poems seek to center Black people.
We shouldn’t have to say
thirteenth amendment couldn’t protect us
from the war on drugs
after our leaders were jailed or shot
our country pressed its fingers up against our spine
but you should know we still want a new flag:
Brave Like Martin
Bronze Lit Movement
Beautiful Like Malcolm
Blessed Lone Mamas giving us life
we want this new flag on bended knee and repenting
the old one lost all credit
the first time
it racked up the debts of genocide and when we get it
may the streets be soaked in rosewater may the streets be cloaked in the sage
we have lit
The full text of the interview is available here.
Sagirah Shahid website
Shahid reads a version of Bean Pie as well as Say Her Name (Dedicated to Sandra Bland) and a moving tribute to her Mother, I’m Going to Build You a House, as part of The Loft Mentor Series.
From interview on Yes and Yes online blog, February 6, 2017
True Story: I’m a Black Muslim Woman Living in Trump’s America
Cross-currents of place, nature, identity, modernity and belonging course through the explorations of feeling and language in the work of Moheb Soliman. The poet and performance artist, who was born in Egypt and grew up in the Midwest, believes that our experience with the physical geography of place is critical to how we form identity.
Experiencing wilderness and tuning into the wilderness can be transformative to your identity. It’s a radical experience to be in the natural world. We can re-calibrate who we are and the axioms we orient around.
As an immigrant to the United States, one’s experience of history and country is usually through the dominant power structure. I’m trying to explore the place I’m from or that I’m trying to claim, and in the process, discover how other narratives exist right alongside of my own. How do I understand where I’m trying to be from if I don’t understand how others have built up a history over their experience of this place?
– From MN Original profile of Moheb Soliman produced by Twin Cities Public Television that aired on April 8, 2017.
His emerging career as a poet has been oriented toward performance and installation work. Soliman carries poetry out into the world, beyond the pages of a book, through participating in events like Northern Spark and seeking out opportunities for poetry to appear in public landscapes and places.
In 2016, Soliman created 25 poems that were installed in five Great Lakes National Parks to celebrate the US National Parks Centennial. The poems were written with specific sites in mind. Having an authentic encounter with each place was important to Soliman and speaking quietly to people who are out there enjoying the space in their own way.
Attention visitors / attention /
the quieter things get / the
louder / the colors / the flora
the fauna the arena of serene
applause of water lapping wind /
Pause friends / up ahead/
the same place twice / twice /
Affection guys / there’s a cloud
of joy /underfoot / clear to
Canada and back / to Native
America / Thank you for tending
to / again / and again
From Attention Visitors Attention, an installation of poems disguised as official signs in the five Great Lakes National parks. This comes out of Soliman’s larger project HOMES, acronym for the Great Lakes, which was begun while circling the bioregion for four months in 2015 during a Joyce Foundation Fellowship.
Poetry takes you to the limit of human experience and uses language in the way that it exists in our minds, our psyche. Our thoughts and feelings are made clear only through language and it’s our primary medium for exploring the world. Poems can go beyond narrative and the ordinary syntax of language to communicate something phenomenal about the world.
My poems work through things, places, moments, images, and associations, seeking to capture the tangents we hold together at a given moment or place.
In his compelling proposal for the Nicollet Mall project, Soliman wrote
In a public poetry installation setting, I think this approach succeeds in forging an intimate and immediate connection with people, drawing out a mutual curiosity or experience of the world as we’re all navigating through it.
I also think delight and play are vital components of public art; to me, there’s great potential for that in playing with language as the limitless, raw material of our common understanding.
During the project’s kickoff meeting in August 2016 with artist Blessing Hancock and the other three poets, Soliman expressed a curiosity about urban development and the transformation of the city. He remarked
I want to be part of an explicit re-building. I am aware of and pre-occupied with how we experience spaces for the first time. I aim to write poems that are humble and subtle and maybe the tenth time you see it, you catch it… poems that sneak up on people.
For the Nicollet Mall lanterns, Moheb Soliman has composed stream-of-consciousness fragments, almost like an internal dialog of random thoughts. They first coalesce into patterns, and then cumulatively, into a totality called forth by the reader’s own perceptions and interpretation. While his previous work created for landscape settings has lightness, playful qualities and humor, the poems for Nicollet Mall have a pointed urgency. It is poetry about and for an urban condition. The writer is moving through an environment where he feels perhaps less “at home,” missing the acceptance and continuity he finds within landscape and nature.
Life is just long enough to waste
I am the recycling & the garbage
One has no limits & no freedoms
You are the endangered & the danger
You have the fire that burns the reigns
I am the stray you succored from the valley
You are a shining night of trombones
One has a voice without a language
One is an animal not a vegetable
I don’t have roots
I have no soul
I am The One Who Loves
You are The One Who Lives
You are the heartburn & the milky way
Bind me to my senses
Show yourself in my mind in the flash in a mirror of a camera
Blind me to my selfies
One is not long enough for this world
Life is two handfuls borne to everyplace
I post my constellation over the cities from a far dark vista
I call for delivery tonight
I call the emigrant home
Profile of Moheb Soliman on MN Original
The Loft Literary Center’s Lit Chat: Meet Moheb Soliman