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“Poetry is political because it’s so immediate.”

In search of localised wisdom, Cherwell spoke to one of Oxford’s own. Poetry sensation, Birmingham Young Poet Laureate (2018-20), Foyle Young Poet of the Year (2017) and English student at Oxford, Aliyah Begum talked all things ‘literature as a side hustle’ with us. 

How did you become a poet?

“I’ve always been writing ever since I can remember. I think I wrote my first poem in year two. It was very simple like, you know, six lines, abab,” that’s poetry talk for the rhyme scheme, “nothing too groundbreaking. I had been writing stories, but then I magically realised that poems are a lot shorter, and therefore less hassle.” That’s some realisation for a seven year-old. 

Before the Bodleian, there was Aliyah’s local library. “In the West Midlands, we have Poetry on Loan; they have little postcards that they get local poets to write poems on. I used to collect those in the library. 

“And then I think Secondary School is when I got more into it. We had a spoken word club. And so – as lame as it sounds – we would meet every Friday lunchtime. Then I started going to open mic nights in central Birmingham.”

The poet truly punched above her weight. “They were always adult poets doing their thing, and then I’d go on stage with like, ‘Oh, this is my first time on open mic night. I’m 11 and I’m going to read a poem about anti-capitalism or anti-racism or something.’ So I think the spoken word scene in Bermingham was where I really grew as a poet. It led to the Poet Laureateship and me taking poetry seriously for myself.”

Aliyah said that current Poet Laureate for Birmingham, Jasmine Gardosi was central to her precocious appearances at open mic nights. But, naturally, placed ‘mum’ in the category of champion. Watching Aliyah metamorphose from shy Year 7 into poet extraordinaire, “I think she could see how much performance boosted my confidence and how much I loved it.”

But, over the course of ten years, with an Oxonian hiatus planted in the middle, “the landscape has changed. Some of the more grassroots open mic nights are now in Symphony Hall or theatres. It’s cool to see the old ones get bigger and the new ones pop up.”

Thoughts? “It’s the natural progression of how things go. Poetry Jam, that was a kind of community. It would be in the Java Lounge and small coffee shops – probably breaking a million health and safety violations because there were no fire exits. People would be sat on the floor in between rounds.”

There’s a demand for this. “So they would scale up the venues each time and then they’d probably get more funding and the Arts Council would get involved. But it’s nice to see grassroots open mic nights still pop up in pubs and social clubs. I think that’s something I really missed in Oxford.”

What’s different about Oxford’s poetry world?

“The thing I love about poetry is it’s so inclusive and warm and welcoming. Being used to Birmingham, where a lot of people look like me, especially in the poetry scene and coming to Oxford where you go into the lecture theatre and it’s a room full of white girls – I found that quite intimidating in first year.”

Then, Aliyah gushed at the “exciting and vibrant” potential of Oxford’s writers: “they produce such beautiful, amazing pieces of work.” But, when you’ve been milling around with 20-something professional poets since you were 11, university poetry will seem very fledgling.

“It’s a really exciting scene but it is a little bit insular – maybe that’s just Oxford in general – I think there could be more collaboration. Like, there could be so much more collaboration between societies and magazines, and even with the local community. Oxford Poetry Library, for example, does brilliant writing workshops and community sessions.” Inside and outside the University, “the poetry scene in Oxford is brilliant, and there’s so much opportunity. We’re really lucky to be in this city of poets.” 

Is your poetry framed by a cityscape – Birmingham or Oxford?

“In terms of the literary world, there are maybe two districts: spoken word and performance poetry, and then a kind of more so called highbrow or literary poetry.” Aliyah pauses then to say “even the term ‘highbrow’ is a whole thing in itself because it comes from racist phrenology.” 

“Poetry that I learned in Birmingham and grew up with was spoken word and communal. Whereas at Oxford, it does feel like there’s a tendency to turn towards the literary and to try to replicate those institutions. For example, the Oxford Review of Books is like the London Review of Books. In Oxford, poetry is trying to lean more towards the institutional side of literature rather than the communal side of it.”

So, Aliyah is doing the work of building a bridge between the two. “I think there is a space for both spoken word and orthodox literary poetry to co-exist – and they must – but, at the moment, I don’t like how supposedly highbrow poetry is valued more than spoken word perhaps.” 

COP26, Young Poet Laureateship – how do you reconcile your poetry with institution?

The ‘institution’ of Young Poet Laureate was not without its pitfalls. “I did work with schools and libraries sometimes, but most of the time, it felt like I was more of a spokesperson or presenting, which I love to do. But I think I wish I had the chance to be more kind of actually engaging with young people and advocating for poetry directly with them.” 

Aliyah seems unsettled by our constant need to be validated by pre-existing institutions. “I think what I’m going to realise as I’m getting older is that it’s fine to not seek validation from these institutions. It’s not as bad with poetry as it is with novels or art but prizes or certain organisations tend to provide validation. I love poetry because it can be radical and grassroots. And, not to bang on about capitalism, but the value of poetry is contingent on how much money it can raise. So trying to feel proud about poetry and being able to love poetry outside of those institutions and prizes is something that I think is really important. It’s something that I’m trying to try to get better at – challenging where I think I get validation from.”

Again, this comes in the form of community where validation is just as much about the groups of people you engage with. Another institution Aliyah is involved with is The Poetry Society.  

“I love the Poetry Society. I interned with them over summer. You can really tell that they care about poetry, they care about young people, and they just want to give young people more opportunities to write and to make poetry more accessible.” Sometimes, pre-existing frameworks are invaluable to establishing community. Like with Foyles Young Poets, “it does introduce you to a kind of network of like minded people.”

Even still, poetry seems to be Aliyah’s means of challenging this notion of ‘institution’ in a way that is unavoidable. 

“I think poetry is inherently political. Even if you’re writing about a rosebush that you see outside, the fact that you’ve got the chance to, you’ve got time away from work, you’ve got time away from other responsibilities, that’s – I don’t want to say privilege because I think it should be right – but you’re lucky to be able to write poetry.”

Alongside nine other young poets, Aliyah Begum was chosen to perform at COP26. “It felt like a glorified careers fair. There were companies trying to sell themselves to you. It was just very icky.” 

So poetry becomes a method of political protest. “I did a Poets for Palestine event at Worcester last year. And that was inspired by Anthony Anaxagorou who did a national Poets for Palestine event. Poetry is a way of honouring and listening to voices that are being suppressed. 

“Poetry is political because it’s so immediate. You can write a novel but a) that takes time to write b) you have to find a publisher and give people time to read it. Whereas a poem, you can share it online or in person; it’s a lot more digestible and is a more immediate way of conveying your opinion.” 

Can one make a career out of tearing down the walls of conformity through poetry?

“All I know is I want to work with people and words. I just know that poetry is going to be something that always stays with me.”

You can’t say fairer than that.

With thanks to Aliyah Begum for this interview. 

Aliyah’s poetry can be found on the Poetry Society website. 

You can find her most recent work, Apples and Snakes, here.

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