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April is National Poetry Month: Suheir Hammad

I was in a hotel room in Washington, DC when I first experienced the poetry of Suheir Hammad. It was late and I was flipping channels on the television since my partner had fallen asleep after a long day of navigating the museums of our nation’s capital. I stopped on HBO when I saw Mos Def on the screen. This was my introduction to Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.

I don’t remember who came before her, and I don’t remember who came after her. I do remember the poem she performed, and I remember that it blew my mind. I’d never been a big poetry fan. I always felt bad in my women’s studies classes when everyone was praising Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. I could get down with their prose, but the poetry was lost on me. Until Suheir Hammad.

Born in Amman, Jordan to Palestinian refugee parents, Suheir’s family immigrated to Brooklyn when she was a child. Her own cultural history combined with the flourishing hip-hop culture in the streets of 1980s New York. This is the environment in which Suheir began to write and perform poetry as a means to speak about the evils she saw in the world around her — domestic violence, sexual abuse, racism, and homophobia — but it wasn’t until after September 11, 2001 that her words struck a particular chord with a powerful figure in the entertainment biz and thrust Suheir into the national spotlight.

Reflecting the sentiments of so many who had been silenced by the attacks and subsequent kneejerk call to war, Suheir’s raw and intense “First Writing Since” spread like wildfire around the Internet. It passed from social workers to community organizers to artists, and eventually made its way into the hands of Russell Simmons. The poem said in just six minutes what we had been thinking, but were unable to articulate clearly. It espoused the fear Suheir felt for her brothers, two Arab American men in New York in the aftermath of the United States most shocking attack on its soil in six decades. There was a fear that many Americans felt for their lives, but there was a special kind of fear felt by brown-skinned and Muslim women and men that Suheir gave voice to in “First Writing Since,” the poem I heard in that DC hotel room as tears streamed down my face.

That poem haunted me and I sent it to everyone I knew. Then on another respite from Atlanta (where I lived at the time), I saw Suheir perform it live in New York when Def Poetry came to Broadway. I saw her in March 2003, the month the US invaded Iraq. I needed more of her words, more of her wisdom, more of her validation, and more of her comfort in a world that was going mad with violence. That is what poetry her does to me. That’s the kind of power poetry can wield.

Called the “embodiment of the global reach of feminism” by Gloria Steinem, Suheir Hammad is fierce… and not in that silly Tyra Banks kind of way. She has written for and been featured in several publications, including New York Magazine, The Amsterdam News, Stress Magazine, and Essence. Her work has been anthologized in over twenty books and Suheir has three poetry collections of her own: Born Palestinian, Born Black; Zaatar Diva; and the recently released Breaking Poems. Check her out, y’all.

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