FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
WARSAN SHIRE: Poetry is central to Somali culture, I grew up surrounded by it. My mother would leave little poems on envelopes and receipts all over the house. My childhood hobbies consisted of occasionally watching Oprah Winfrey show, routinely watching Crimewatch, reading R.L Stine’s Goosebumps and my favourite – writing stories and poems. Escaping reality through one’s own imagination is still thrilling and merciful.
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
WS: I stumbled into a poetry workshop at my local youth centre in NorthWest London. There I met my guiding saint, Jacob Sam-La Rose. I was 15, he took me under his wing as mentor and editor. Jacob introduced me to the amazing Nii Ayikwei Parkes, founder of flipped eye who published my first chapbook Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth in 2011. That was the first time I felt like a poet, also the first time I was proud of myself.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
WS: I feel so grateful and honoured. It’s such a privilege to live as a writer, moments like this feel rare and special.
FP: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?
WS: On some level, I’ve been working on this book since 2011. I wanted to interrogate my memories, explore childhood. I had questions, trauma I wanted to understand. I needed to move on, but not until I gave it voice. I finished editing the manuscript as I became a mother for the first time. I’m glad I didn’t rush it, I’m glad I took my time.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
WS: There are so many poets I admire, but to name a few – Pascale Petit, Jacob Sam- La Rose, Terrance Hayes, Hiromi Ito, Ai, Idra Novey, Malika Booker, Raymond Carver, Valzyna Mort, Patricia Smith, Sharon Olds, Patience Agbabi, Kayo Chingonyi, Karen Mccarthy Woolf, Carol Anne Duffy, Nick Flynn, Jay Bernard, Andre Breton, Anne Carson.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
WS: I just want to write for the rest of my life. To grow, learn more, feel better, be better, reach out and comfort others.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
WS: If this is a dream of yours, I’m proud of you for following your dreams. We need to find out what’s available to you – workshops, masterclasses, look online, local libraries, youth centers, council funded spaces, poetry journals, mentoring programmes. Read well and often. Read everything. Write everyday, release the steam. Keep writing until you find your voice. Take good care of yourself. Theres no rush. Don’t give up.