Warsan Shire: London’s first young Poet Laureate


Warsan Shire was announced this month as the first ever Young Poet Laureate for London. Chosen from six young finalists, the 24-year-old poet was born in Kenya to Somali parents and grew up in London, where she still resides.

As a poet laureate, Shire will be travelling the world and sharing her poems at public appearances. There are many already familiar with her work, considering her poems have been translated into Italian, Portuguese, Danish and Estonian. Shire’s first residency will be at the Houses of Parliament, the same place she was appointed her role by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

Shire’s first book of poems, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, was published in 2011 by Flipped Eye Publishing. Although a young adult, Shire’s maturity is reflected in her ability to document the lives of women across generations. Through the sensitivity she approaches each subject, readers can easily delve into her poems and identify with the struggles of an aging woman, a mother and even a newborn baby. Each page is filled with these women tackling a wide breath of issues ranging from sexism and love, to war and immigration.

Shire read her poetry for the first time when she was 16 at a poetry slam, but has been writing since she could remember. Her father is a journalist and her mother secretly wrote poems, so her love of the craft is not surprising to the family.

With a BA in Creative Writing, she said in a previous interview that going to school

allowed me to study my craft, to embrace critique, to study the English language.”

Writing from personal experiences, or telling the stories of those she witnessed, Shire is courageous to peel back so many layers of herself.

In an interview last year, she claimed to hold poetry workshops to help those recover from traumas. She explains that writing is

the cathartic ritual of letting go and using memory and confession as a form of creation.”

The Young Poet Laureate competition was launched by Spoke, a poetry and spoken word programme commissioned by the London Legacy Development Corporation. It strives to create opportunities for people to gather to either watch or perform spoken word and be inspired.

The chief executive, Dennis Hone, showed his enthusiasm for the young winner and the future of the capital city:

It is our vision for east London to be a thriving cultural district and Warsan as the first Young Poet Laureate for London will play a key part in that transformation.”

Here’s an excerpt of her poem, “What We Have” in which she urges people not to let grief overpower their lives and to move forward despite the tragedies they faced.

What We Have

Is that what we’re here for? To sit at kitchen tables, counting on our fingers the ones who died, those who left and the others who were taken by the police, or by drugs, or by illness or by other women. It makes no sense. Look at your skin, her mouth, these lips, those eyes, my God, listen to that laugh. The only darkness we should allow into our lives is the night, and even then, we have the moon.

Watch a video of Warsan Shire reading from her book Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth

Nilay Tuncok