Sudanese-American wordsmith Safia Elhillo takes audiences on a journey of lost and found with her poems. Through her poetic prowess, Safia has enraptured international audiences while sharing the stage with heavyweights like The Roots, Gil Scott-Heron, and Faith Evans. She is a Cave Canem Fellow and a poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly: a journal of black expression. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Safia about her life in words and sounds.
Who is Safia?
I am an American-born Sudanese woman, a Sagittarius, a reader, and a student first and a writer and teacher second.
What does home mean to you?
There’s a Naguib Mahfouz quote that I love: “Home is not where you were born; home is where all your attempts to escape cease.” By that definition, though, I don’t have a home. I’ve wanted to escape every place I’ve ever lived in, including recently with New York, where I thought I was going to stay forever. The restless feelings come back, without fail, every time. My mother says a lot “I made home,” and I like that, it helps me. It makes home feel less like a fixed location that I have to find, and more portable, more abstract, and means to me that I can make and unmake home as many times and in as many places as I want.
Can you remember the first poem you wrote? What was it about?
I can’t actually remember the very first but I do remember having to write a poem in school when I was maybe eleven or twelve years old where we had to retell a chapter from The Odyssey in our own words as a poem, and I chose the section on Nausicaa. The first poems that weren’t for school assignments I’m 100% sure were about some boy who’d hurt my feelings.
How is the process of composing slam poetry different from composing more traditional verse?
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit—not so much in terms of “slam poetry” versus “traditional verse,” but in terms of poems that work on the stage versus those that function best when experienced on the page. I think, when choosing poems to read aloud/on a stage, I tend to lean towards the poems of mine that are most clearly “about” something and that are either centered around narrative or have a clear “event” in them. As far as the composition process, I don’t really think at the writing stage “this poem is for the stage” or “this poem is for the page”—the poem comes out how it comes out, and later on, when I’m preparing for a reading or a performance, is when I decide whether or not I think it will work well onstage. Then again, I haven’t competed in a slam since 2013, and haven’t written for a slam since maybe 2012, so this also might be my distance from that process completely eroding my thought process on the matter. I also couldn’t say that I write traditional verse either, to be honest, I think my work exists at this point at an intersection, where I was trained as a spoken word poet and therefore do like for poems to sound good when read aloud, but I also have newly encountered the joys of just being able to experiment with what a poem does on page, what it looks like as a piece of text, as a shape, how it uses white space, fonts, etc.—things that don’t show up when one is just hearing the poem being read from a stage. This is all to say that I don’t really know and I’m still deep in the process of figuring it out.
Do you get stage fright?
Not fright, exactly, but I usually get a rush of energy that I used to think was nervousness, and if I didn’t steady myself then my voice comes out sounding shaky and weak. I’ll usually take some deep breaths, plant my feet, and will not open my mouth to speak until I feel completely ready. Rushing myself never helped with the feeling of nervousness so now I’d rather take a bit too long to start than start before I feel ready.
What’s your favorite poem?
I have so many and the list only ever gets longer: “Blue” by Carl Phillips, “First Red Dress” by Ladan Osman, “Gravity” by Angel Nafis, to name a few, but also like 1,000 other poems.
What inspires you?
So much! Moments of mistranslation. Hip-hop. Conversations/arguments I hear from the window of my ground-floor apartment. Water. Television. Accents. The sound of a saxophone played well. The sound of an oud/lute being played well. Singers whose voices aren’t beautiful but carry weight. Children. My family, all the time. Biopics. Old photographs. Etc. etc. etc. the list goes on forever. Everything, really.
If you could go anywhere in the world, where would that be?
I want to go everywhere. I’m shopping for a new city to live in at the moment, so really, anywhere. Preferably by the water. Preferably warm, but also with seasons. Rain sometimes but not all the time. Big open sky maybe, but I also do really love densely packed, dirty cities. So the sky thing isn’t a deal breaker.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Burning coffee grounds over a piece of coal will keep away flies/mosquitoes. Also, “nervousness is just excess energy; channel it.”
Follow Safia via her website or social media