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A poem for your soul

A few months back, I discovered my first Nayyirah Waheed poem. Somewhere between pictures of food that looks too good to actually eat and faces filtered to near perfection, I found a poet I’d never read before, on Instagram. Instantly, her words held me, and I greedily gorged on them till there were no more left.

You won’t learn much about Waheed online. Through a few brief interviews and bionotes, I know she’s a U.S.-based poet of colour, and her only two collections are titled salt., and Nejma. The most I have found out about Waheed is through a recent post on her own Instagram page. In it, she talks about self-publishing salt. in 2013, and the “virulent rejection, disregard” and “negative unsolicited reactions” that followed. With salt., Waheed was upsetting the proverbial apple cart: standard practices, grammatical rules, accepted styles — the very idea of poetry. With no capital letters, an erratic use of full stops, and almost no other punctuation, Waheed was using a kind of bare-boned, stark style that hardly ran over a few lines, and sometimes just a single one, broken and arranged on the page in a way that became rhythm itself — “where/ you/ are./ is not/ who/ you are”. She doesn’t even pretend to work with rhyme schemes and stanzas and verses. Could this really be poetry?

That first poem I read, titled “fresh”, was just two lines long — “there/ are/ feelings. / you haven’t felt yet./ give them time./ they are almost here.” I don’t know why I didn’t immediately think that it was a quote from a longer piece; after all, in its brevity, it looked like one. Instead, I knew, even without really knowing Waheed’s work at that time, that this was it; that these few lines were enough, and there was no need for more. I also knew that what I was reading was, without a doubt, poetry.

Now, almost three years later, it turns out that people across the world felt the same certainty. Waheed’s post on her struggle was on the occasion of salt. hitting its 500th review on Amazon, and breaking the self-publishing record in poetry. Her work is now studied in schools and colleges, quoted widely, and clearly intensely loved.

It’s difficult to “review” Waheed’s poems, and it’s perhaps not even fair. Chipped away of everything superfluous, each of her poems is an expression in its purest form: distilled and concentrated. Her themes are complex — countries and diaspora, immigration and cultural appropriation, love and pain and healing and anger. They read like sparks and bursts of emotions, and speak to a visceral part of you, one that doesn’t need to be examined, just felt. If this isn’t poetry, what is?

swati.d@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Oct 26, 2021 7:35:04 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/A-poem-for-your-soul/article14517162.ece

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