The Future of Muslim Poetry, Lote Tree Press

Lote Tree Press specialises in poetry of the Muslim world. It developed from an online Muslim poetry forum on Facebook which had been running for over a decade. The connections between Muslim poets were made in the group, which led to the publication of the poetry anthology A Kaleidoscope of Stories – Muslim Voices in Contemporary Poetry in 2020 and the creation of the Press.


We were able to catch up with the founder and Director, Rabia Saida Spiker and find out more about her thoughts on the diasporic Muslim experience, representing a diversity of voices and the future of Muslim poetry.



Do you think there is a lack of inclusion of Muslim poets in the mainstream literary world?


Not so much a lack of inclusion as a lack of full representation. The mainstream literary landscape is overwhelmingly secular, tends to be quite cynical, and doesn’t have a lot of space for the expression of sentiments related to awe, the sacred and the divine, which are a central part of our experiences as Muslims.


Poetry has been a revered art in every world culture, but this is particularly so throughout the Islamic world. Can you tell us how you keep the Islamic poetic tradition alive and how you approach the heritage element to poetry?


There is a need to nurture our poetic side and rediscover our poetic heritage because it’s a huge part of who we are as an umma, and is part of our tradition right from the time of the Prophet ﷺ. Our poetic heritage is also incredibly rich and diverse, encompassing poetry from many different cultures. This is an area Lote Tree Press plans to focus more on, exploring different poetic traditions of the Islamic world further in order to make these more accessible to English speakers, with a focus on the devotional element which unites us. One way Lote Tree Press is endeavouring to do this is through presenting quotes from the poets of our poetic heritage in the original language, with transliteration and translation, together with language notes, to enable people to access this poetry in the original. Our shared poetic heritage is a way to celebrate the beauty of Islam and the diversity of our umma.


Why is sharing diaspora Muslim experiences through poetry important?


In our experiences as Muslims in the West we act as a bridge between the Western and Islamic worlds, spanning the so-called clash of civilisations. For this reason the place where we stand is crucially important in terms of fostering greater understanding in a fractured world. We can learn so much from each other’s life experiences and the wisdom gained from this is often distilled in poetry. It’s important that we honour people’s experiences and centre their voices so that we can hear what the real issues are in their lives, rather than imagining what these might be. There’s nothing quite like poetry for expressing things that can’t be said in other ways and thus getting to know people and connecting with and understanding their inner world. Poetry is also a tool for exploring and processing our own experiences and emotions and making sense of them, celebrating and validating the ups and downs we go through.


Lote Tree Press provides a platform for Muslim voices to be heard speaking about their experiences in their own words, and offers an antidote to the stereotyped, one-dimensional portrayal of Muslims we see so often in the media. Why is it important for Muslims to have a platform to share authentic voices?


Poetry is an amazing tool for fostering understanding on a level it is difficult to achieve through other mediums. It takes the reader into the inner world of the poet, and communicates on a symbolic and emotional level using words in ways that often evoke a strong response. We are an incredibly diverse community, from different cultures and backgrounds, with different life experiences and wisdom, all united by our common faith. It is important to correct the stereotypes for non-Muslims, and also to celebrate and recognize our amazing richness and diversity ourselves.



How do you ensure a diversity of Muslim voices are represented?


For the poetry anthology A Kaleidoscope of Stories we made a call for submissions and also approached individual Muslim poets to ask if they would like to make a submission to the project. The more different groups see themselves represented and see their concerns and issues expressed well in verse, the more they will see a way of adding to and developing this body of poetic expression. Poetry can be a form of reflection and meditation - a mind and heart work out. It makes us look at the world in new, non-linear and unexpected ways. It questions the nature of everything and is endlessly inquisitive and curious about the world we live in, the condition of the human heart and spiritual reality, exploring them from different angles and perspectives. Allah’s Creation is complex and multifaceted and poetry celebrates this. We can’t respond adequately to the complexity of the world and our experiences unless we first acknowledge, explore and understand this complexity. Facile solutions to difficult problems, that effectively just sweep everything under the beautiful Persian carpet, are not good enough. As a press we want to represent both those who follow stricter and less strict interpretations of Islam. We are very privileged in Islam to have a pure and simple monotheism and an easy way to stay connected to God through our daily prayers and supplications, and a moral and honourable way of life to follow that agrees with our natural fitra. This amazing gift should be made as accessible as possible to all. Islam is greater and more generous than some reductive depictions and interpretations of it, both from outside and from within our communities, may make it out to be, and it is not only the preserve of the pious. It’s big enough for all of humanity - in all our imperfection, each of us a child of Adam (as), into whom Allah breathed of His Spirit. It’s important not to alienate and push people away from God through judgemental and exclusive interpretations of Islam, which in reality embraces and offers divine guidance and redemption to the saint and the sinner alike. As a Press our goal is to celebrate the beauty of Islam and of our Islamic heritage, always with a respectful approach to the sacred and the divine.


Can you tell us about how you developed A KALEIDOSCOPE OF STORIES – Muslim Voices in Contemporary Poetry. What kinds of themes are presented within the anthology?


This poetry anthology includes the work of eighty Muslim poets from diverse backgrounds.

It grew organically out of a Muslim poetry group on Facebook. After about a decade of people posting their amazing, inspiring, and sometimes gut-wrenching poems, it was felt that these should be shared with a wider audience, and so the idea of a poetry anthology came about. We then opened up for more submissions from Muslim poets outside the group in order to make the book more representative of contemporary Muslim poets writing in English. Poets in the anthology come from many different backgrounds, based in countries all over the world, many with multiple cultural identities, and range from young adults to those who are grandparents. Themes include love, loss, identity and belonging and our relationship to Islam and God.




All the Birds Were Invited to a Feast in the Sky – Soukeyna Osei-Bonsu is a book which excavates identity and diasporic belonging. Why is the notion of belonging relevant to the migrant Muslim experience and how is it captured in the poems?


Rootlessness is endemic in the modern world, with urban populations often having intersecting identities and multiple cultures they belong to. This is particularly the case with Muslim communities in the West, with a sense of belonging in the countries they have grown up in and a connection to countries of their spiritual and cultural heritage. These identities are complicated and sometimes difficult to straddle. Celebrating our shared Islamic heritage can help to anchor us, while sharing our specific experiences can foster greater understanding both inside and outside the Muslim community. Poetry can have a therapeutic effect and can be used as a tool for processing difficult emotions, through identifying and acknowledging them and working through them, both for the poet and for readers. A poem can also be a tool for societal change, highlighting social issues and institutional injustices in a meaningful and impactful way.



Which poets past and present do you recommend we read?


There is so much to explore in every Islamic culture - Urdu poetry is extremely rich, as of course is Persian poetry. Historically there are devotional diwans of figures such as Shushtari and Abu Madyan, and the rich heritage of female poets such as al-Khansa, Aishah al-Bauniyah and Nana Asma’u. In terms of modern Muslim poets writing in English, Lote Tree Press’ anthology A Kaleidoscope of Stories offers a wide selection of poets from different backgrounds. Daniel Abd al-Hayy Moore (ra) was a pioneer of Islamic poetry in English, and Shahbano Aliani’s (ra) work is also highly recommended.


What does the future of Islamic art and culture look like to you and what future possibilities does poetry present?


Islamic artistic heritage is vast and incredibly rich. It stretches from Morocco to Malaysia and beyond, and should be acknowledged and celebrated for many reasons. The arts offer such an important third space where we can channel our creativity and express ourselves, gaining self-knowledge to help us navigate the challenges of modern life. Meanwhile our Islamic heritage contains so many artistic and spiritual treasures to replenish us and to offer to the world. The arts allow us to look at things from new perspectives, highlighting things we may not have noticed and re-examining old assumptions and ways of doing things, and for this reason are an essential part of a living, breathing tradition. Islamic poetry, both past and present, deserves to be recognised for the central role it has historically played and for its great potential for artistic and creative expression for Muslims today.



Bio

Rabia Saida Spiker is an Arabic to English translator and the Director of Lote Tree Press. She is an Anglo-American second-generation Muslim who was brought up in the Shadhili-Darqawi tradition. Her love for devotional poetry from the Islamic world, especially sung in the original, stems from the weekly dhikr sessions her parents held. Studying Arabic and Persian at university has allowed her better access to the extensive poetical literary canons of these languages. She lives in the UK and has two teenaged sons and a cat named Zamzam.



For more information check out https://lotetreepress.com/


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