Borders collapse in voices of young poets

Hamda Yusuf, a third-year international studies major who is Somali American, often works on her poetry about identity at the Quad on the University of Washington campus. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)
Hamda Yusuf, a third-year international studies major who is Somali American,works on her poetry at the UW Quad. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)

“Poetry is so ingrained in the Somali culture I can’t not write poetry,” says Hamda Yusuf, her eyes glittering behind big tortoise shell glasses, “There’s poetry in the way my mother makes food, there’s poetry in the way my father… makes tea, there’s poetry in so much of what my family and my people do — I can never stop.”

That urgency — to share the beauty and struggle of her community and her own life — is evident in much of 20-year-old Yusuf’s poetry. Her poems are as likely to explore memories of her childhood in Somalia, as they are to take on “quinoa and kale chip” Seattle culture or tackle misconceptions about her headscarf. And Yusuf is only one of a growing number of young Seattle-area poets who draw on complex international identities and themes in their work.

“We work with a lot of young folks that are first generation and second generation immigrants,” says Shelby Handler of Youth Speaks Seattle, a collective for youth spoken word poetry (Yusuf was a member until she recently “aged out”). Handler says many of their young poets explore international identities through their work, “In Seattle it’s really important to honor that…wider perspective and international lens.”

For Everett-based poet Ibtihal Mahmood, that international lens is turned on war.

“I’m a child of war,” says Mahmood, 31, who was born in Kuwait but raised in Jordan when her family was forced to resettle due to the first Gulf War. It was the second time that Mahmood’s parents — both refugees of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War — had to make a new home due to conflict.

In response to that experience, her family’s history and what Mahmood calls “a world in crisis,” her poetry often takes on global conflict, but with a subtlety that feels less like direct political critique than rumination on the very nature of violence.

“The goal is to write something that can apply to human conflict, the human condition, at any time and in any place” says Mahmood before reciting her recent poem “War” which references “black honey” and dispatched “hornets” — both timeless symbols of desire and danger as well as contemporary allusions to oil and drones.

Where Yusuf and Mahmood infuse global politics and themes into their work, 25-year-old Boeing Engineer Zubair Ahmed says that the power of language (and of being multilingual) is the greatest international influence on his work.

“You know how you can have different thoughts if you speak different languages?” asks Ahmed who says that listening to his parents speak Bengali (his family won a visa lottery and moved from Bangladesh to Texas when he was a teenager) inspires and influences his English language poetry. He claims to “suck” at writing poetry in Bengali.

“In Bengali we have this phrase, gaa-e laghe,” says Ahmed explaining that one English translation might be: Someone’s words hit or touched me physically. It’s clear that bilingual wordplay like this ignites his imagination, “like words can hit your body in Bengal,” he says with excitement in his voice.

While Ahmed’s approach to language is intrinsically international, the recent work he shared with me (by phone, in his car parked overlooking “beautiful Silver Lake”) included a sea “that lists names,” homeless teenagers and mountain deer “that dream of eating more than grass.”

It evoked strong Pacific Northwest imagery — or at least it did for me.

And that collapsing of borders and expansiveness of meaning is what makes these international voices so powerful, distinct and universal.

“I’ve found that whether I want to write something for everyone to understand or just a few people to understand, everyone understands it anyway,” says Yusuf from a bench on the University of Washington campus where she’s a Junior in International Studies (she hopes to become the Ambassador to Somalia someday) “Because they will place themselves inside that poem.”

If you want to place yourselves inside their poetry, check out Mahmood at her reading at Dahlak Eritrean Cuisine on Beacon Hill this Saturday at 4:30PM, find Ahmed’s book “City of Rivers” on Amazon and look up on your next Metro Bus ride— Yusuf’s poem on the topic of “home” will be part of the “Poetry on Buses” project launching this November.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at