INTIMATE AND TRUTHFUL
How spoken word artist Amani Saeed is changing narratives.
by Nickie Shobeiry
Based in London, England, Amani Saeed is a spoken word artist and author of poetry collection, Split. She is—and I quote—a ‘London-born American-British-Indian-Middle-Eastern-etc’ writer, with work that ‘treads the line between masjid and miniskirt’.
Before she was a spoken word artist with platforms like the BBC, The Economist and Huffington Post, Saeed and I went to the same university in a quiet patch of England. It was at an open mic night in Exeter, a handful of years ago, that I saw her perform what was to be her first ever spoken word poem. My friend and I, tucked safely in the back of the room, watched as Saeed hopped onto the stage.
“Any brown people in the room?” she asked. My friend and I looked around the room—no-one put their hand up, and we both realized this would be quite unlike anything we’d experienced before.
I ask Saeed what inspired her to get onto stage that fateful night. “My friends in the audience and two glasses of white wine,” she tells me. “Kidding—kind of! I had never come across spoken word before moving to Exeter. When I was in my second year, I went to watch the annual city slam. There was a poet, James Turner, who won with three brilliant poems about the rare side effects of some fungal cream he was using. It may sound strange, but his poems and the slam as a whole really affected the poetry I was already writing. There was something about the sincerity, authenticity, and specificity of the work that spoke to me. The next poem I wrote ‘came out’ as a piece with flow and rhyme, something that fit better in the mouth than what I had been writing before. So I started going to open mics around the city to keep hearing spoken word, and one night my friends—who had heard the new work—plied me with wine and signed me up for a slot. That was the start of my poetry career.”
Since then, Saeed has gone from strength to strength, her work being described by critics as ‘electric’, ‘strident’ and ‘brave’. From the start, Saeed has been unapologetically truthful about what it means to be herself.
“It’s important to me to present the image of a Muslim woman who does not fit the media binary of ‘terrorist’ or ‘oppressed,’ because frankly, that’s my reality,” Saeed explained. “I’m neither a terrorist, nor am I oppressed—and yet I exist as a Muslim woman. We’re inundated with articles and headlines that tell us otherwise, and it’s easy to forget that we, that I, can be anything else; that we can pray, drink alcohol, wear a hijab, and have sex. We forget that we’re allowed to have rich, multifaceted identities. The poetry I write helps me remember this, and hopefully allows me to help remind others of this, too.”
Saeed’s success and growing fan base would certainly attest to this—not only through her spoken word poetry, but also through her reflections on various parts of her life, shared with followers through Instagram stories.
“Nearly half of all UK adults use social media to consume the news,” Saeed says. “The nature of algorithms calculating popularity and pushing content means we’re used to being presented with vague, polarised statements—which are great clickbait, but an irresponsible use of platforms. I don’t say anything I don’t mean, and I don’t try to make bolshy political statements without presenting nuances and bringing topics down to a human level.”
For Saeed, this has meant being transparent about her own experiences. “I personally get lost in abstract arguments about large topics such as feminism; I need concrete examples to root myself in. People can’t ignore the truth when it’s specific. It’s more powerful to talk about say, one abusive relationship and the individual behaviours presented which were rooted in toxic masculinity—the forbidding of allowing a partner to have male friends, checking their phone, dictating what they wear, giving them the cold shoulder when they don’t want to have sex—rather than to talk about toxic masculinity as a vague concept that people can choose to dispute and ignore.”
Saeed points out that it’s easier to ignore collective experiences and generalities. “We’ve ignored statistics on unexamined rape kits, ignored rape being used as a war tactic, ignore that one in five women in this country [England] have experienced sexual assault. This is not to say that there isn’t also power in collectivising an experience to affect change—it’s part of the reason the #metoo campaign has gained so much traction. But the individual stories against Harvey Weinstein are what stick in your throat the most. It isn’t that Harvey Weinstein assaulted over 80 women; it’s that he invited one woman, Asia Argento, into a hotel room, pulled her skirt up, forced her legs apart, and performed oral sex on her as she repeatedly told him to stop. You can’t ignore that. The details are too compelling, too loud, play in your brain until you have to respond. Until you have to change. For this reason, spoken word, the act of telling one story that resonates and lights a spark in someone else’s heart, is one of the most powerful touchstones there is.”
This concept—of telling an impactful story, no matter how difficult the subject—is an act Saeed does not shy away from. Her book, Split, focuses on two subjects: being the ‘constant other’, a ‘foreigner’ and a ‘westerner’—and the other, on trauma and healing.
“I didn’t intend to publish a book,” Saeed says. “In a very James Bond way, I was handed a publisher’s card and invited to send my manuscript in to a closed submission process early (possibly too early) in my poetry career. The writing process was erratic. I didn’t have a collection together, just a handful of poems I had to scramble to clean up to submit. I needed twenty poems to send to this publisher, so I hastily wrote four more poems to make the submission deadline. I took all of them out after my manuscript was accepted and replaced them with work that was more organic and truthful. Writing the book was also when I really learned how to edit—after a masterclass with Roger Robinson at an Arvon retreat, I re-edited the whole book two weeks before the printing deadline to make sure my line breaks were right.”
In her review of Split, UK-based playwright, poet and author Joelle Taylor wrote that Saeed has “grown a new tongue to replace that which was surgically removed by institutional racism, loss and womanhood.”
“I am privileged to have been raised to speak my mind and assume I’ll be heard,” Saeed says. “Because of this, I feel a responsibility to be loudly honest, to say something that is easy for me to say that is perhaps difficult for someone else to say. This is not to speak on someone else’s behalf; this is to voice the things we say to each other in private but never out loud.”
While writing itself can be solitary, the very performance of spoken word poetry is community-driven. Taking it one step further, Saeed is part of The Yoniverse—a spoken word collective by South Asian women, for South Asian women. In Sanskrit, the Yoni can be literally translated into the English ‘abode’, ‘source’, womb or ‘vagina’. It is the symbol in Hinduism of the goddess Shakti, the feminine generative power.
“Being part of a collective has changed my perspective on what we owe each other as a community,” Saeed says. “You’re no longer thinking about your work or even your actions in isolation; you’re thinking about how they affect the others in the group. It’s a way to hold yourself accountable to an agreed ethos. The Yoniverse exists because its members believe that we shouldn’t have just ‘one brown girl speaking for the village.’ We should be empowering as many voices as possible, providing a multitude of alternative narratives, and championing the diversity of our experiences.”
Saeed is a force of nature on the page, stage, and the screen (check out her performance of ‘Premature’, a piece written for BBC Asian Network to mark the 100-year anniversary since some women got the right to vote).
And with this same truthfulness, she comments on the challenges she has faced in her work: “The biggest challenge I’ve faced is one I’m still overcoming—myself,” Saeed says. “I have crippling impostor syndrome. It is next to impossible for me to take a compliment. For this reason, writing Split was a difficult journey; holding the print version in my hands for the first time, I did not believe that I had written a book. I don’t mean this in an ‘ohmigod-this-is-so-amazing’ way. I mean this in a completely self-deprecating, self-denying, self-destructive way. I did not allow myself the enjoyment and the magic of the experience. I only brought 15 copies of Split with me to my own book launch because I thought no one would buy one.”
This self-doubt is something that many creatives—hell, many people doing anything ever—come up against, again and again.
"But you know what?” Amani added. “I sold out, and there were people left still wanting copies. I have video evidence of people saying nice things about my work. Someone told me my poetry was like a mother’s cooking: wholesome, satisfying, and something you didn’t know you really missed until after you put down the fork. I say this now to put it out there, but also to remind myself: it was important to me to write this book, and I want it to be read. People write first and foremost for themselves, but more often than not, they also write to connect with others. We write to be heard. I could have tucked these poems in a bedside drawer, but I chose to spend the past two years grafting through revisions, edits, and line breaks in order to make the work public. This is how I am overcoming impostor syndrome. I remind myself that I have a story to tell, and something inside me is burning to tell it. I need to honour that. So I do.”
Today, Saeed is exploring different formats. “I’m interested in writing speeches and playing with rhetoric. I’ve been combining my poetry with music, and feature on a couple of tracks by Leo Kalyan on his EP The Edge. I’m also focusing more on page poetry since joining Barbican Young Poets. The next year is about being influenced by as many things as possible: trying as much as possible, challenging myself, and taking as many opportunities and risks as I can.”
And as for tips for all the spoken word artists out there—and life advice for the rest of us? “When you’re on stage, perform a poem as if you’re speaking it down the phone to a friend. Apt advice for a performer, but also in life—every interaction, every moment, should be intimate and truthful. There is no joy or merit in putting on a mask to perform your life.”
Watch Amani Saeed as she explores her own ancestry in this beautiful poem from her debut collection, Split. This is Chai Tea.
Video created by Muddy Feet Poetry •
Nickie Shobeiry is a journalist and author, focusing on immigrant identities as expressed through art, culture and politics. Today, Nickie continues to develop pioneering film and TV projects, and collaborates with community initiatives across the UK and North America.