I was eight years old when I tried to write a poem for the very first time. We were just learning how read and write in school, and my teacher asked us to write a short composition. I remember how I reluctantly put pen to paper and drafted some verses that looked more like doodles than text. The topic was about spring, and I wrote about the little things that help you realize that the warmer season has arrived: the chirping of the birds early in the morning and the first bloom of the spring flowers.
Back then perhaps I did not realize it fully, but it was my way of noticing and reveling in my own happiness at the beginning of spring. Those simple rhymes were my smiles and laughter whenever I saw new life coming out of the winter cold.
I can connect every poem I have ever written to a memory and a feeling. When I had my first crush, I was too embarrassed to talk to him directly, so I would turn to my notebook and write. Reading these poems a decade later might be a bit embarrassing, in the way you feel when you’re forced to watch childhood videos. But at that moment, they captured my feelings and helped me process them.
I remember a summer sunset in Seoul, years later. Walking slowly beside the river, until the sun fell under the waves. The nostalgia for my town, and the love for that big metropolis that had welcomed me so warmly. And the realization that came with finally being a “grown-up.” The image is so vivid and colorful in my mind, with the hues of red and orange and the specks of cobalt at the edges.
After coming back home, I sat down on my bed, and tried to think about the reason why it was so clear in my mind. I mulled over it and I could not figure it out. I finally drew my pen and painted that summer sunset the one way I knew would help me. As I stopped to choose the right words, the ones that would build the right rhythm for the main picture, the feeling became clearer to me.
It is a bit like painting. You have to mix the colors on your palette until you get just the right hue for the sky. In the same way, you mix and pick different words and sentences until they form the exact rhythm of the feeling you want to convey. Having to choose them carefully, you are made to evaluate them and think of why one word better suits a context than another. That precise nitpicking is the one that I always found useful, especially when in doubt about what exactly I was feeling. Whether they were negative or positive, poetry has always made my feelings easier to understand.
I remember a cold winter night in Harbin, the snow flurrying around me in a deadly storm, the wind trying to scratch over any exposed patches of skin. I remember feeling lost and powerless, in a world that was too big for an 18-years-old me.
When I put down the pen, the page in front of me was full of doodles and words scratched off. The finished poem lay in front of me. And instantly, I felt very light.
To me, writing poetry is a cathartic process that starts with a picture, and helps me let go of feelings. A bit like when you do yoga and the instructor tells you to relax and let all the worries leave your body.
This what writing poetry feels like.
Letting the words wash away anything that was being kept inside me, and releasing them in another shape, ink on paper.
Imagine a world where the pronoun ‘I’ isn’t used in writing.
The entire genre of narrative writing probably wouldn’t exist. Op-eds, personal essays, even music and poetry. Most of these writing styles are a product of our inner feelings and personal reflection, and are usually the styles of writing that we emotionally connect with the most.
It seems natural for this form of writing to always have existed, being so related to human opinion, but like almost everything else, it was invented by an author.
4300 years ago, in the Ancient Sumerian civilization, lived the princess of Ancient Sumr, Enheduanna.
She is history’s first known author, and she is the reason we use ‘I’ when we write.
Enheduanna was a triple threat of her time.
Her father, the king of Sumr, ruled when the old Sumerian culture and the new Akadian culture opposed each other and would often rebel against him.
Enheduanna was a triple threat of her time.
He appointed Enheduanna as high priestess, in an effort to bridge the cultural divide and bring peace to the nation.
Becoming high priestess meant that Enheduanna was able to receive an education in which she learned to read and write the languages of both opposing cultures, as well as learn how to make mathematics calculations.
It was with her acquired education that Enheduanna was able to unite both rebelling cultures via the 42 religious hymns she wrote, combining the mythologies of both cultures.
In those times, the form of writing used was cuneiform.
Its main purpose was for merchants and traders to communicate about their businesses over long distances – writing did not have a personal purpose, let alone a sentimental one.
So, when she began to write religious hymns and poetry, Enheduanna took the deities her hymns were dedicated to and humanized them.
In doing so she made the gods who once seemed so intangible feel emotions – happiness, sadness, anger, betrayal, love.
Her writing made the hymns emotionally relatable to read and connect with.
By playing on their emotions, she was able to appease the people of both Sumerian and Akkadian cultures, honoring their deities, bringing them together as one.
It was when she wrote her three hymns, Inninsagurra, Ninmesarra, and Inninmehusa, dedicated to deity Inanna, goddess of war and desire, that Enheduanna established a style of writing that was personal and attributable to the writer.
Thousands of years later, it’s impossible for us to imagine a world without saying ‘I’.
Inanna was known to be a powerful deity, so mighty that she transcended gender boundaries and was considered to be the very force who animated the universe.
In these poems, Enheduanna placed Inanna on a pedestal, marking her as the most important deity.
This is said to be her greatest contribution to literature.
Above is an excerpt of one of Enheduanna’s dedicated hymns to Inanna. The full poem can be found here.
After the death of her father, Enheduanna was exiled in a coup, and it was when her nephew reclaimed the throne that she was reinstated as high priestess. She served as high priestess for 40 years, and after her death she was honored as a minor deity, with her poetry written, performed, and copied for over 500 years.
What Enheduanna succeeded in doing was taking the essence of emotions and translating them in a way that was able to unify two conflicting people.
She used emotion and ethos, and manipulated them in a way that began a form of writing that could connect with people’s emotions, rather than practical needs.
Know it was this Sumerian high priestess who invented it.
The creation of the written pronoun ‘I’ was the beginning of multiple perspectives being recorded.
It was the beginning of written storytelling.
So the next time you write in your private journal or read diary entries, the next time you study a soliloquy in Macbeth or read the emotional personal essays of critically acclaimed authors where the first person style is prominent, know it was this Sumerian high priestess who invented it.
Enheduanna changed history and humanity. Thousands of years later, it’s impossible for us to imagine a world without saying ‘I’.
I find that my most blissful moments remind me of the strong, calming scent of lavender. For one reason or another, I relate it to a lot of the more meaningful aspects of my life. To me, lavender is like a feeling; like the wind brushing up against your skin.
While I think that lavender is largely optimistic, I also find a certain sorrow that is comfortable, even humble, in its presence. I’ve come to appreciate it in every shape and form – the color, the flower, the scent. Its hard to place; not sweet or bitter, but rather musty.
Lavender manages to incorporate itself into my life seemingly on a whim and in the most fleeting of moments. We have a peculiar relationship. I am stomach-knottingly anxious in the presence of many, especially when I first meet them. But, withsome, I sense lavender, and I know that something great is about to happen. It is more of a feeling than anything else. Just talking to some people can be rejuvenating, and perhaps it is because our meeting reminds me of that warm, soft smell of a mid-spring day when the sun is bright and pure, and the entire day lies ahead.
Nowadays, when I am feeling an emotion that is simply beyond words, I say that I am overflowing with lavender.
According to etymology, the English word “lavender” is derived from the Latin “lavare,” which translates to “to wash.” It is a necessary refinement – a cleanse. I am purified with every utterance of the word.
Perhaps it’s not just me.In literature, lavender has been used significantly as a token of love. To me, it’s more like a notion of love at first sight.Shakespeare offers a bouquet of “hot lavender” in The Winter’s Tale.Cleopatra also roots lavender with love, as she is said to have used its sultry perfume to seduce both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Christians are also known to have used it as a repellent of evil.The plant is said to have been taken from the Garden of Eden and is sometimes found hanging in a cross shape above the doors of some Christian households as a means of protection. There are so many songs with the title lavender, my favorite being by The Beach Boys, and there have also been many poems written about it, too. Take, for example, this quote by an anonymous writer, “as rosemary is to the spirit, lavender is to the soul.”
Lavender is swift, like a movement, carrying me in and out of perfectly imperfect moments. The vision of it is rather uplifting as well. It stands delicately tall among the rest, but it is not intimidating either. I adore its confrontation. In fact, I look forward to it.
How many books have you read where the protagonist tells the story from their own eyes?
Where the narrator has opinions that end up defining and shaping the rest of the characters, and it’s up to us viewers to catch the slivers of objectivity and piece together the whole story?
We rely on the narrator’s lens to show us the whole picture.
But, what if… we don’t know the narrator at all?
It was with these thoughts that I came across a Twitter thread by Persian Poetics that explained the removal of Islam from the famous poet, Jalaluddin Rumi’s writing.
Born in the early 13th century, Rumi grew up in what is now Afghanistan and eventually settled with his family in Konya, today’s Turkey.
Rumi is known for his life-changing, mystical, enlightened-esque poetry, but hardly known as what he truly was: a scholar of Islam, and a practicing Muslim.
The thread goes on to draw a massive distinction between Rumi’s original writing that was ingrained with the teachings of the Quran, and Rumi’s spiritual and religious knowledge. His original poems, written in Persian, were a vivid reflection of Rumi’s Muslim identity and spiritual beliefs. In the hands of colonialist ‘translators’, Rumi’s poetry was distorted, stripped of the culture it steeped in, and converted to a diluted version of his true poetry.
The interpreter responsible for most prominently separating Rumi from his Muslim identity and who made a career out of his ‘translations’, was Coleman Barks. He may have had a degree in Literature, but Barks had never studied Islam or Sufism academically.
Yet, somehow, this man who could not understand a word of Persian decided to ‘translate’ the work of Rumi, a poet who wrote fifty-thousand lines of mostly Persian, some Arabic poetry, and often used Islamic anecdotes in one of his final works: a six-book monumental poem titled ‘Masnavi’.
In a brilliant article for the New Yorker, Rozina Ali writes, that Jawid Mojaddedi, a scholar of early Sufism at Rutgers, told her that, “the Rumi that people love is very beautiful in English, and the price you pay is to cut the culture and religion.”
So, when I heard that Brad Pitt had one of Rumi’s more famously translated poems tattooed on his arm, I immediately began wondering how he’d feel when he found out what Rumi was actually saying.
On the right is Barks’ ‘translation’ and what Pitt has tattooed.
In the hands of colonialist ‘translators’, Rumi’s poetry was stripped of the culture it’s steeped in.
See what I mean?
In the words of Persian Poetics: my heart aches for those who only know Rumi via this orientalist garbage masquerading as a translation.
Let’s pull this back and examine the role of a reliable narrator.
Even as a translator, Coleman Barks wasn’t reliable. He tried to westernize centuries-old poetry that represented a religious scholar’s life work, in order for it to seem more approachable and easier to face by an audience that it probably was never even meant for.
It makes you seriously question: how much do we just not know? How much of the history and culture of the past has been deliberately mistranslated, before it was even misinterpreted?
A narrator’s job is to be reliable and tell the truth. A narrator should merely translate the scenes playing out; it’s up to us to interpret them.
The truth is that an unreliable translator can change the story instantly.
That’s how you preserve all of history – not just a single dimension of it. The truth is that an unreliable translator can change the story instantly.
It can trick you into mixing up the good and evil, the black and white.
But, most dangerously, an unreliable narrator can take all the shades of grey and distort them into one giant blob, making it unable to ever understand the story and risk losing its true essence forever.
You’ll never trust the story.
If nothing else, the weak, one-sides translations of Rumi’s powerful work are proof of that.
As an aspiring poet and avid reader, poetry books are what get me through everyday life. Words are my happy place and I cannot explain how helpful some of these books have been for my mental health. They each hold a very special place in my heart.
Here are some of my favorite contemporary poetry books.
Your Soul is a River is my all-time favorite. I adore Nikita Gill and her ability to use the weather and the infinite galaxy to make me feel things. She makes broken things and imperfect people sound so powerful. Whenever my depression is getting the best of me, I try and read a few of her poems to remind myself that I am more than what I sometimes feel like. This book has healing powers.
What people are saying: “Nikita Gill’s words are filled with understanding, courage, hope, loss, recovery, pain, healing, and love. Such an incredible collection of poems for everyone who’s going through rough times and think they’ll never make it. You can make it. You will make it.” – valreads
I love all of Naveed Khan’s poetry books. Honestly, the way he writes is magic; all of his books flow so beautifully and make me way more emotional than I would like to admit. But Everything is Excruciating & Awkward in Doorways, in particular, is special to me because it portrays mental health as a casual part of life.
Naveed writes about trauma and heartbreak in a way that is not romanticizing it but showing you that it does not define you. It was something that I really needed to read, and appreciated.
3. Nayyirah Waheed’s Saltaddresses healing and embracing all the messy parts of yourself.
Salt is what made me fall in love with Nayyirah, but her book Nejma is equally as majestic. Nayyirah is endlessly talented and unafraid to put down raw feelings and turn them into art, and Salt does it by discussing heartbreak, colonization, and self-love
What people are saying: “Her work says what we’ve been thinking in the best, most beautiful way possible. My heart gushes over each page. She’s beautiful, clever, and encouraging.” – Renee McKenzie
As an immigrant of sorts, I can relate to many of the emotions although I do not claim to have felt things as strongly as her. It gives you short stories in the form of poetry and is just incredible to read.
What people are saying: “To understand yourself and where you are, you must first start at the beginning. This artist can take a situation and make it every woman’s story. If you are looking for a good read, read this. It could help you understand yourself or possibly someone else.” – smanson
5. Questions For Ada by Ijeoma Umebinyuo embodies all of the pain and loss of women everywhere.
Questions For Ada for me is about womanhood and self-empowerment, using the pain and loss and turning it into something bewitching. It builds great respect for all the women who have got us to where we are in life. It explores sacrifices, diaspora, and harsh realities.
The poem that stood out for me is “First Generation”, an ode to all first generation immigrants that made me fall in love with Ijeoma Umebinyuo.
What people are saying: “I loved this book from beginning to end. As a twenty-something, Nigerian-American, I can really relate to a lot of the poems Ijeoma Umebinyuo used. I think a lot of women of color are able to relate as well because so many of us face the same issues growing up in one culture at home and another one outside of the home. Her literary talent had me completely enthralled from beginning to end. I plan on buying this for all of my sisters.” – HELEN
Anthony Anaxagorou is one of my favorite poets in existence.
He is better known for his spoken word and seriously if you haven’t heard of him – YouTube him. It will change your life. Anthony has a way with words that is so eloquent that it is almost inhuman. I have yet to find someone contemporary who his work can be compared to.
Heterogeneous is a stunning collection of poems that tackle a range of important issues in this day and age.
What people are saying: “Saw him live and he blew my mind. If you can, get his book. Even better, of course, is to see him perform his pieces live.” – Illi Syaznie
Preparing my Daughter for Rain is a collection of stories and lessons to teach future daughters, and is written in the form of poetry. If I could describe the way this book makes me feel in one word, it would be calm. Key Ballah discusses so many important issues but everything is written with a touch of self-love. It is an important book that I hope to pass onto my daughters, should I ever have any.
What people are saying: “Kay Ballah’s words are more of a fight song, born from pain, struggle and experience, all of which are described with unparalleled beauty and rawness. She writes to the daughter inside each of us.” – gloombunny
This beautiful collection depicts the gritty, resilient sides of ourselves when having to deal with a world that isn’t always going to be kind to you. These poems range from soft and soothing to tough and breathtaking – every single one makes me feel a different emotion that I never want to stop feeling.
Lana Cindric is one of the most talented poets of our times and I cannot wait to see what more she produces.
What people are saying: “I wanna be this book when I grow up. The poetry in this book is so alive it’s like it’s breathing with you. I’ve found so much inspiration about life and living in these pages.” – Jill V Abernathy
Have you ever had to grieve a love? The ending of something that you thought would last forever?
Because I have, and one of the things that provided me solace was in the pages of Early Mourning Hours. It is an emotional book which portrays heartbreak, finding yourself, and having faith in God in a way that really leaves you speechless. Many a time, the words were so raw that I couldn’t keep reading through my tears.
But it was worth it because everything I felt, I saw reflected back at me through these words. It is a special sort of talent to make the reader feel as though you are rummaging around in their brain.
What people are saying: “Thoughtful, self-aware sentence poems reflecting mainly on the author’s emotional pain as she moves into adulthood. Somewhat reminiscent of Rupi Kaur, perhaps because the writer is also a young woman. However, Samihah Pargas has very much her own voice, which I’m sure will strengthen over time.” – CE Dawson
I mean, this cover is a stunning enough reason to buy this book.
Fatimah Ashgar explores important issues of being a Muslim woman, the partition, grief and so so much more. Through her own unique lens, Fatimah allows you into her life and I cannot thank her enough for this honor. This collection goes through a variety of emotions, some which you connect to and others, which you feel just as intensely.
What people are saying: “A debut poetry collection that looks into what it’s like to be a Pakistani Muslim woman in America. Filled with anger, joy, confusion and love. For such a short book, it packs a wallop.” – Amber Garabrandt
It was painful to write this because to narrow down my favorite poetry books to 10 felt like a betrayal to all the other amazing works out there. Have you read any of the poetry books above? Do you agree or have I missed a crucial book out?
I love all things spoken word, so, so much. At a lot of open mics and slam competitions, you get to meet some amazing writers and performers and great people in general. With the snaps, the “Don’t be nice, be nasty!” cheers, and the yelling. I tend to feel very much at home whenever engaging in the spoken word community.
But poets are not all the same in this respect or in their craft. It is not easy to craft a written work of art.
And although there are various types of poets with their various forms of general makeup, there are five types that I always see at a poetry slam. Always! It’s a total given now.
So, without further ado, here are the five types of poets you’ll see at a poetry slam. Especially for those going out to one downtown or somewhere else in your area soon.
1. The Spiritual One
This person is always ready to perform a piece about finding your center, and a piece that has extraneous metaphors about Jesus, Buddha, or something about finding your center in this ever-evolving world we live in. You’ll usually tend to like these types of poets, because they’re pretty chill and is always grateful for your presence when you meet them, and willing to present to you some new ideals.
They say things like “Gift me with your name” and “I am blessed to meet you.” How sweet is that? Just be careful when they go first, because sometimes, they have some really long poems about how they or their mother are like a tree, and you never know when they will end sometimes. Not that the poem about the trees isn’t great, or that “time is nothing but a concept” in the art world, but the three minute time limit seems longer than usual.
2. The Self-Entitled One
Their poetry does not suck. In fact, their poems are excellent. They have the right amount of cultural references, while maintaining a nice fluid structure, and sometimes a pretty sweet rhyme scheme that is intricate and not simple. However, outside of their performing, they suck as people. They’re real competitive jerks. They believe that they are the absolute best poets in the room, thinking “Oh, how could God create such excellence that so few can understand?” about themselves.
They are way too critical of other poets’ work when they don’t have to be, they are too critical about mainstream content when they say things like “I could write something better,” and yet they still accomplish one of their goals of getting laid that night. Stop perpetuating the “people like assholes” trope, people!
3. The Green One
This type of poet is very new to spoken word poetry. They may be a little shaky when first getting onstage, but they’ll be sure to be welcomed with open arms. Or if they aren’t shaky, they’re the most excited person there, waiting for their name or their team’s name to be called. People are sure to shout “Ay, new shit!” (it’s a compliment, trust me) and “You got this, poet!”
And one of the three things might happen with this poet: (a) the poet struggles with the mic and musters through their well written piece, (b) the poet performs superbly with their well written piece making you all “Whoa, you’ve never done this before?”, (c) the poet starts off slow, and then as they hear other people snapping, they become more confident and finish the poem well.
4. The Theatrical One
I really like these kind of poets. They have a poem memorized at its fullest, like a monologue. It’s as if they remember where every I was dotted and every T was crossed when they first wrote it. Sometimes their poems have more than one voice in it they’re portraying by themselves, or one solo persona voice. They really find their niche here.
They have the largest gestures and often the most creative structures as to making the audience not know where their poem is going next in the three minutes they have (three minutes and ten seconds if they need a grace period). Poets aren’t allowed to use props in competition, but that’s actually not a problem for these poets. Their whole body, the various intonations of their voices, and their play of a poem are their props. They’re good to go!
5. The Sexy One
I’m not talking about in forms of looks. Although, sometimes, you may run into someone with a really nice, sleek skirt, or a sexy jacket. I’m talking about the content of their poems. Love, intimacy, and passion are their best pieces. Especially if they have the soft, sultry kind of voices you hear in chocolate commercials, or romantic film voice overs. If you ever need a Valentine for your sweetheart, they are your go-to. You may start to think “Please, please, go out with me.”
Or, even worse, you may whisper to your significant other, “Why don’t you describe me, my body, or my soul like this?” If they tell you that they have never gotten someone’s phone number after reading one of their poems, they are LYING. And totally accomplished getting laid if they wanted to do that, or even if the opportunity came to them.
I have competed in the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational with my university’s slam team for the past two years now, and I have been an active member of spoken word circles for almost four years now, and these kind of people never cease to exist. And it’s always exciting to get to know these people and more people to see what they’re all about in their poems.
I need your advice. I have slowly started to appreciate myself in terms of who I am, my looks, faith, abilities, opportunities, family and friends. However, there are those days when I criticize myself so harshly that I notice. What can I do to act and be more positive? Thank you!
Thank you so much for this question!
I am so glad to hear that you have made strides in your confidence! That is an incredibly powerful step in nurturing your wellbeing, and I hope you keep working at it and building on it.
At the same time, we all have days when we feel we are not at our best. It’s easy to fall back into negative patterns, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot work your way out of a slump.
I hope the following five suggestions can help you feel more positive:
1) Treat yourself as you would treat a friend.
Would you ever say the hurtful things that you say to yourself to a friend? Most likely not. Be your own best friend. Be the kind and supportive friend you need. Make sure that all of the things you say to yourself are filled with compassion and understanding. Be patient with yourself.
Check out this great deck of Daily Affirmations from Planned Parenthood. You can download the cards here.
My favorites are:
“You are an expert on yourself. No one knows better than you who you are or what you need,” “Sometimes bravery is ‘I will try again tomorrow,'””When I show myself compassion, I resist all the ways in which I have been taught to judge and police myself,” “You are not ‘too much’ – you are exactly enough,” “Feelings are information – my body or my heart is telling me something – and I get to decide how to use that information,” and “I can be proud of my healing process even if it starts and stops.”
3) Don’t internalize your negative thoughts to traits about yourself.
Try not to critique your personal attributes, characteristics, or features.
Instead, make a list of things that are bothering you. For example, are you feeling stressed about an assignment/work, family, or friends? Identify the causes/sources of your frustration, and work through how you can solve those individual issues. That is much more productive than putting yourself down and hurting your self esteem in the process.
4) Make a list of three positive things that have happened to you, or that you have achieved, today.
It may seem small, but listing down all the good things that are happening in your life can make you appreciate yourself and your environment more. Is three easy enough to do? How about listing five, or ten positive things?
Aastha Parmar describes herself as a writer who comes with a disclaimer. She also contributes a little to the world’s craziness everyday, and is fascinated by Harry Potter, orange juice, winters and railyards/churchyards, according to her blog. To top it all, she’s an amazing poet who bleeds talent.
Here are just a few of her soulful poems that will leave you wanting for more.