A Conversation with Featured Artist Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu

Today, Animal Heart Press Managing Editor Amanda McLeod and Featured Artist Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu discuss how we came to poetry, and using our words in pursuit of our ideals.

Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash
Amanda McLeod: How did you come to poetry? 
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu: Poetry came to me in disguise, I'd like to say. My first form of writing was prose, and I still do that from time to time. Poetry came later when I tried to express myself in a slightly different form. It took me months to realize that I was writing poems, in fact.

AM:I came to poetry in almost exactly the same way - as a prose writer looking for a way to express things that weren’t working in prose form. What do you think it is about poetry that allows it to fill those gaps? 
I think poetry offers a sort of brevity and closed intimacy, and an avenue for therapeutic vulnerability in a way that prose doesn't quite give. And while it is true that sometimes a poet finds herself considering delving into prose because poetry isn't affording her the chance to go as wide as she wants, the reverse often happens as well. But then that is what it means to be human, right? To be constantly evolving while also looking for better alternatives towards navigating life and questions of identity and the sum total of humanity as they arise at various stages of life. I think that what keeps one loyal to a particular genre in the end is one's heart. How much do you love this? How much are you willing to sweat over this?

AM: Who are your poetic influences?
HSN: My poetic influences are Safia Elhillo, Pablo Neruda, Warsan Shire, and all the books I've ever read.

AM: You're appearing on a panel at the Ahmadu Bello University Arts Festival. What will you be discussing? 
HSN: I'll be facilitating a workshop on consent and sexual abuse awareness, as well as appearing on a panel to talk about navigating the issue of consent through creative writing.

AM: Your panel discussion is definitely topical. How do you think poetry helps us navigate those divisive issues as a society? In what ways can our words incite change? 
HSN: I've come to know that writing is the most moving thing in the world. To spark a conversation towards a unifying voice against these things, people have to be so deeply moved as to change their mindsets. And what better way to move them than with writing? Of course there are more chronic mindsets that are quite difficult to change,  such as misogyny, transphobia and the rest. But even they can be altered through writing.
There are men who simply do not understand the need for feminism, for example, because they are either so out of touch with the average woman's experience in a patriarchal world, or just prefer denial. In lieu of conversations, I direct them to texts. For example, I've been able to open a few people's minds to the reality and shift their stance through showing them a video of WanaWana Udobang's phenomenal poetry performance titled "This is Not a Feminist Poem" on YouTube. Because they were so deeply moved. Recently, I met a man who used to be so misogynistic I had to cut him off. When I met him, he had changed. He was splitting chores with wife, was no longer against her being educated and had in fact helped her study through her PhD program, was taking turns attending to their newborn baby with her, etc etc. What happened?, I asked him. "I started reading, Hauwa. That's what happened", he told me. And oh, what a joy it was.

AM: I read your conversation with Basit Jamiu, in which you talked about the accessibility of poetry, particularly in navigating topical issues such as feminism. In recent talks with other poets we've examined gatekeepers and arbiters of 'good' poetry, and how tricky that can be to define. I'd love your thoughts. 
HSN: I'm naturally against gatekeepers because they assume a role whose sole purpose is to limit the affairs of the people in the field in question, in this case, poetry. So much is possible within the world of poetry and there is no one way to approach it or define it. Generally, people should be allowed to write poetry in the ways that they want, while also being encouraged to pursue excellence at it. I believe if you love a path genuinely, you should seek to follow it with excellence.

The incredible poem by WanaWana Udobang that Hauwa mentions can be watched below. Trigger warnings: sexual assault and violence against women. This is an extremely powerful work. Please exercise self care as you negotiate it.