The Nation of Poets (Belt Magazine)

New story at Belt Magazine:

Photo by Darin Kamnetz

One night not long ago, I sat in a church basement in Cedar Riverside, a Minneapolis neighborhood where many of Minnesota’s fifty thousand Somali immigrants have settled since 1991, when the Somali Civil War began. The occasion was an open mic poetry night called Youth Voice, which featured mostly Somali-American high school kids reading long, spoken-word poems off their phones.

Poetry has a deep history in Somalia. The country was once known as the “Nation of Bards,” and here in the cold of Minnesota the power of Somali poetry remains strong in the community. Every Somali politician who comes to town knows they have to get poets to their rally, or no one will show up. In every program, there will be at least four poets who either read from their own poems or recite those by others on the topic. And back in Somalia, poetry remains important enough that both the Somali national government and the militant group al-Shabaab use poets’ words to help fight their wars.

I wanted to see how this river of desert poems was branching in Minnesota, which is why I was at Youth Voice. The host of the reading was a young woman named Filsan. She wore a headscarf and a skirt with pants underneath. She was brash and confident and used phrases like “Wassup?” and “That’s how I roll.” She told the audience that since the 2016 election, her Facebook feed had gotten “way serious.” She told a story about a guy at the Mall of America in a Make American Great Again hat who told her to fuck off. “When people say, ‘Your English is so good. Did you grow up here?’ I say, ‘I sold my Somali for English. I can’t communicate with a lot of elders. So this shit better be good,’” she said.

Read the rest here.