Founder of The YoniVerse Poetry Collective and Kiota Bristol, Shagufta K Iqbal was longlisted for the Jerwood Compton poetry fellowship. She is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, workshop facilitator and Tedx Speaker.
Her poetry collection ‘Jam Is For Girls, Girls Get Jam’ (one of Burning Eye Books bestselling collections) has been recommended by Nikesh Shukla as ‘a social political masterclass.’ Her poetry film ‘Borders’ has won several awards, and has been screened across international film festivals, including London Short Film Festival, Glasgow Short Film Festival, Athena Film Festival. She is currently writing her second poetry collection and debut novel.
We talk to Shagufta about her exploration of both personal and political through misogyny, mental health and migration. Can you tell us about your journey into poetry and spoken word?
I have always been writing from as long as I can remember. Being Dyslexic I found I enjoyed playing with language, as I struggled to get my head round the rules of English. So, making my own rules allowed me space to enjoy language. In my late teens I joined a group called Bristol Black Writers, and that space really encouraged me to continue my studies in creative writing, which I continued at University.
Your poems are thought provoking, rich and vivid in their imagery, where do you find inspiration?
All kinds of places really. Mostly art, Islam, novels, poetry, music (especially qawwali and Punjabi folk songs), light on water surfaces, the weather, or a karak chai.
You are known to be vocal about the hypocrisy & misogyny in the spoken word scene, can you tell us more about that?
Really!? Do I? Well, I guess, I feel as poets it is our job, to talk about the beauty in the world, which requires us to call out any injustice in the world that threatens that beauty. I have had a lot of support from my poetry collective Yoniverse, and close friend, poet and publisher, Bridget Hart. This work is always easier with the support of a network. I know I get it wrong sometimes, and having that honest group of colleagues to call me out on it, is important. I value this in my industry, and hope it informs my work.
Your debut poetry collection Jam is for Girls, Girls Get Jam (Burning Eye Books) is fiercely honest, giving witness to the immigrant experience and giving voice to the women who made journeys into unknown lands through the eyes of their daughters. How do you address themes including identity and islamophobia through this collection?
Well, this is a good place to encourage people to buy a copy, and discover for themselves! In the meantime, I can say that the collection centers the stories of the women I grew up around. Their strength, their hopes, and their journeys. It also charts some of my early years as a new mother, and reflects on how delicate human relationships can be.
Much of your work is personal, intimate and, sometimes, both bruising – and tender – as is ‘Loving Lonely, a Conversation’. Can you tell us more about this and how you explore the mother-child relationship?
During Lockdown I was commissioned by the Bagri Foundation to create a poetic piece that gave insight into parent-child relationships. How we navigate the complexities of modern families, was documented through a series of letters and poems between myself and my children during the times that they did not live with me. I want to be open in my work and talk about single-parent/ co-parenting households. It was something I did not really witness in a positive light while I was growing up. So there has been no real road map, or experience I could learn from others - a lot of it my children have taught me. And I am indebted to them for this wisdom, courage and selflessness in making our family work.
You use the arts as a tool to reach out and engage with audiences who feel their experiences are not reflected within traditional and mainstream arts. Why are these audiences not visible in mainstream cultural spaces and what can be done to address this?
Mainstream spaces do not give voice to our experiences. Often under the guise of, these narratives are difficult to sell to audiences. Or that the communities are “hard to reach”, placing the responsibility with those communities.
What needs to be done, is definitely not another diversity panel! Author Nikesh Shukla and many like him, have given so much of their time and attention to highlight how this can be achieved, so it is now time for those organisations to listen, implement and support the feedback and advice they have received. Our society has a rich diverse complicated history, and it’s about time we face up to it. Art, and stories are a great way to open up that part of our past, to shape a fairer more inclusive future.
Mental health and well-being are also key features in your work, why was it important for you to address these subject matters?
I grew up in a community, where addressing your mental health was seen as a weakness. Sacrificing your health, both physical and mental was seen as a strength, as a generosity to your family and community. Becoming a parent myself, and suffering from post-natal depression, highlighted how important it was for my children to have a healthy parent. It meant taking responsibility for my coping mechanisms. Again, I turn to Islam, because Islam teaches you the importance of a life that is meaningful, it is about accepting some losses and looking forward to what Allah has planned for you. “With difficulty, comes ease.” It is about finding those moments of ease, through prayer, and professional support from mental health specialists. For me, poetry is a great way to discuss these issues, by making it a normal conversation that we should be having, hopefully we are able to give support to those of us who need that extra help in those moments in life.
You sit on the board for Cape Farewell, which is an art response to climate injustice. How did you embark on this role and do you raise awareness of climate injustice in your poetry?
I try to look back to the Qu’ran, as it is a shining example of poetry and justice. So, for me it only makes sense, to draw on the example set by our ancestors and our prophets. How we live in this world, should always be that of a guest, as a care-taker. It has taken me a lot of unlearning, and it is very tough being in such a capitalist- consumerist society to go back to the land. And I have to be honest, I am still learning. I’m no model citizen, but I’m thinking more critically about my role in climate injustice.
You are also working on a debut novel and your second poetry collection is already well under way. Can you give us an idea of some of the concepts behind your new writing projects?
Again, family relationships are at the forefront of my debut novel. Set on the Greek Island of Leros, it is an examination of an intersection of human lives, and how we try to find hope in new beginnings despite the sometimes brutal nature of life.
The poetry collection I am working on with family members, and it explores stories of joy through food.
Which performers and writers have had the biggest impact on you?
My list is LONG! I am very fortunate, as I know some very amazing writers, and I am in a position to inquire, discuss and learn from their processes. One of these writers is Zeba Talkani, author of ‘My Past is a Foreign Country’, Sabba Khan, ‘The Roles We Play’, Hanan Issa, ‘My Body Can House Two Hearts’, and I love how playful Adrian Earle is, in his collection ‘5000 Hurts’.
How can poetry and spoken word impact the future of Islamic art?
Poetry is shaped by Islamic traditions and cultures, there has always been an ongoing conversation between these two worlds. It is not a new one, but the ways in which they intersect is constantly evolving and exciting. I’m looking forward to how the younger, new generation will interpret and manifest that in their work.
For more information check out www.shaguftakiqbal.com
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