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Beyoncé collaborator Warsan Shire releases her first full collection of poetry

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

You might know Somali British poet Warsan Shire's work from her published chat books or the popular Tumblr account she maintained for a few years. But you'll likely recognize her words best in the mouth of Beyonce.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEYONCE: I don't know when love became elusive. What I know is no one I know has it. My father's arms around my mother's neck. Fruit too ripe to eat.

MCCAMMON: That is from Beyonce's 2016 visual album "Lemonade," which featured Shire's poetry. Now Warsan Shire, whose work often focuses on the experiences of the immigrant community she grew up in, has her first full collection of poetry coming out. It's called "Bless The Daughter Raised By A Voice In Her Head." And Warsan Shire joins us now from Los Angeles to talk about it. Thanks so much for being here.

WARSAN SHIRE: Hi, Sarah. Thank you for having me.

MCCAMMON: So let's talk about that title. What does it mean to be raised by a voice in your head?

SHIRE: For me, this book and this title just kind of represents how I felt growing up and how my mother felt growing up and her mother, which is this very much parentified child who has a lot of responsibility, must take care of all their siblings, take care of the home. So for me, this is - was like an ode to those who have been able to make the voices in their heads their friends, make the voices in their heads their strength.

And the voices in their head kind of symbolize a lot of different things for me. On one level, it obviously relates to mental health. I've struggled with OCD and eating disorders and anxiety and a host of other issues since I was quite young. And so poetry always was very, very cathartic and therapeutic for me in that way. But ultimately, it's about surviving girlhood with just yourself, and how did you do that? But clearly, you were carrying so many other voices and people with you.

MCCAMMON: I notice, too, that many of your poems have the word bless in the title, and they're titles like "Bless The Bulimic," "Bless The Ghost," "Bless Your Ugly Daughter." Those don't necessarily sound like blessings, but I wonder why you chose that word.

SHIRE: I think they're still blessings to me. I wanted to look back on difficult moments. And for me, the poetry is working through it. We don't all have access to therapists. We don't all have access to medication. But I think what most of us have access to is a pen and a paper. And so the biggest thing that I asked for my family members is when things get really, really tough - and I know this sounds cheesy and you're probably not going to want to do it - but just write how you're feeling. Even if it makes you completely cringe, just write about it. Even if you're scared that somebody's going to see it, write it and then burn the piece of paper.

I mean, because for a long time, I didn't have a diary because I was worried that somebody was going to read it. But the second that I started writing it and then, like, kind of getting rid of the piece of paper, each time, it felt like such a massive, deep release. You know, I'm - will always struggle with eating disorders. But when I was really deep in the chokehold of bulimia, I was very, very, very deeply ashamed of that. And so I wanted to write about that, go back to that and just bless that girl. She was in pain. So it's blessings in retrospect, almost.

MCCAMMON: Could I ask you to read a little bit from that poem, "Bless The Bulimic?"

SHIRE: Yes. (Reading) Bless the bulimic. Insolent youth spent on my knees - sleep deprived, sick. Forgive me, my prayers to the God of thin women. (Non-English language spoken) of jutting ribs. Forgive me, please, famine back home.

MCCAMMON: It's such a complicated place to be.

SHIRE: Very complicated, very complicated. And right now, there's a horrific drought happening in Somalia. And so I really, really, really grappled with trying to make sense of that and how I felt like I was wasting food. Now I have more grace for myself and understand the - you know, the two things can exist at the same time. But I wanted to mention that.

MCCAMMON: You know, your poems sometimes take the form of vignettes that focus on a specific family member and their experience. Why did you feel like it was important to tell their stories, the people around you, and not only your own stories?

SHIRE: Oh, because I spent all of my childhood years seeing them constantly undermined and degraded and rejected. And I felt like my family members, who had these really full, amazing inner lives, personalities, taste, perspective, stories to share - they were being completely flattened.

I was able to come and live in the U.K. from a year old. I want to write. I've always wanted to write. And my father is a writer, actually. He's a writer and a publisher. He writes strictly in Somali language. But he's a big, big reason why I believe in archiving and documenting stories. For me, I am documenting stories of Somali people because I feel it's my responsibility to do so. And also, these stories are my stories. They're everything that I come from.

MCCAMMON: And you draw inspiration for many of your poems from your family's experiences as refugees, leaving Somalia and then settling in England. And I wonder if you could read the first stanza of your poem called "Home."

SHIRE: (Reading) Home. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well. The boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory is holding a gun bigger than his body. You only leave home when home won't let you stay.

MCCAMMON: Wow. It's even more powerful hearing you read it, especially right now.

SHIRE: Yeah. This poem was written after I had visited Somali refugees living in Italy, maybe about a decade ago. And so often it's the exact same story over and over and over again, but it's one that we seem to not be able to grasp. Right now it's happening in Ukraine.

This poem also represented the experiences of my actual family. My family had to flee when I was a year old. Since I was a child, I always heard about the war in detail. I don't think my parents fought to protect us from it because it was going to affect every part of our lives. So they introduced us to these really harrowing ideas from a very early age. I grew up in a home where my father had put before and after photos of Mogadishu - before and after the war. We would just grow up in this kind of, like, museum of loss and grief, like, showing us exactly what war can do, what man can do to one another.

Also, I know very intimately what happens after the war - the things that people don't speak about, how people have to continue living, those that are still alive, and everything that they have to carry and how they are themselves like ghosts. And ultimately, today, there are children in Ukraine who are experiencing possibly the worst day of their lives, or it could get worse. But we need to understand that this could happen to any of us at any time, and so we need to be there for our fellow human beings.

MCCAMMON: Warsan Shire - her new collection of poetry is "Bless The Daughter Raised By A Voice In Her Head." So wonderful to talk to you. Thank you.

SHIRE: Thank you, Sarah. It was lovely speaking to you, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEAN BAUDIN CLARKE'S "PLUS TOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.