Wild Words: Sophia Thakur Discusses the Radical Power of Poetry and the #OwnVoices Books That Have Inspired Her

Sophia Thakur, a performance poet and author of Somebody Give This Heart a Pen (Candlewick; Gr 9 Up), discusses the power of poetry, her artistic journey, and the five #OwnVoices works that have inspired her. 

Around halfway through my teenage years, poetry liberated my parents from four long years of terror. A pen was strapped between my basketball-bent middle finger and piano thumb, and offered as a trade in place of my destiny. Pages wrapped themselves around me quicker than I cared to consider, and I became one of those lucky children who found a passion that pleased their parents (until I had to have some awkward post-graduation conversations).

I was always a keen reader, apparently. Fifteen and in love with Robert Muchamore's “Cherub” series, Paulo Coelho, The Book of Proverbs, Malorie Blackman's "Noughts & Crosses,” and anything written by Rumi. But this love of words on a page actually came second to my love of what words became once they found lips. That’s where I first met poetry. Tucked between an eight bar and some piano chords, dancing past the lips of great musicians and performance poets. I would always be impressed by the ability of lyrics to speak directly into my soul. Or a performance poet's mind-blowing capacity to tell a story or deliver a message in such a delicate but wild way.

Wild.

That’s what I’d call those first few years of falling in love with words. Absorbing Def Jam Poetry clips. Forcing myself between the marital sheets of monologues and hip-hop. The blend of the two birthed spoken word poetry, and it felt like an art form made manifest from my very being. I was literature but I was hip-hop, and performance poetry understood this dual identity decades before I did.

Like most art, poetry appeals to the heart before the head. But unique to poetry, it also ruminates around the mind as a conversation would, given its familiar discourse. Perhaps this is why we were encouraged from a young age to memorize bits of poetry for various reasons. In school, a mission statement or school mantra was fixed to our lips so that we never forgot how to behave. In religion, we memorize proverbs that protect us and prepare us for life's fluctuations.

Sometimes we write down song lyrics that remind us to be brave, to believe, or simply remind us that we aren’t alone in what we are going through. And the latter is the true revolution of art. Its ability to become a mirror. Perhaps this is why poetry is unearthed during every social movement in history. It acts as a pin; it teaches us, reminds us, and inspires us. The line “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish” was pinned to shop doors during the civil rights movement. Although it's dark in context, this bit of poetry pins us to the reality of history. As does “Let freedom reign” and “Yes we can.” 

Words, once infused with poetry's delicate power to penetrate, change the world by first changing our minds. The phrase “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression,” became a knife during these recent Black Lives Matter protests. The simple observation pierced holes in millions of inflated, defensive egos, and forced people to look inward and identify the real reason why they weren’t siding with the oppressed. Poetry does that. It wields empathy around its wand and with great precision, launching it into the world’s wound.

I’ve been a vessel for poetry’s power for almost a decade now. The practice of performing poetry live has taken me all around the world speaking to every kind of audience. From Glastonbury to the Indian Literature Festival. From business conferences across Europe to running creative workshops in Ghana. The ability to find the right words for our more abstract feelings and experiences has revealed how pleased the world is to hear their own stories told back to them. That’s where my debut collection Somebody Give This Heart a Pen comes in. A physical copy of our heart. People from all around the world have said that it inspired and challenged them. These are the books that have done just that, for me.

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. If activism is finding yourself in situations that demand a stronger and braver you, Adeyemi writes activism textbooks through the medium of fantasy.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s all in the title. Adichie reminds everybody that feminism is less about trumping women over men, and more balancing the playing field. She writes with such clarity and compassion that you almost wonder why these examples and thoughts didn’t already live in your mouth. Which I guess is a goal of art, to extract what’s already within.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. She documents so perfectly (almost too perfectly) literature's role and reason for activism. Queen Angelou was a walking protest in the 60s. She was a Black woman in racist America doing everything in her power to hold on to her blackness. Her memoir records her experience in a way that can only infuriate and inspire.

Knicks Poetry Slam 2012: Brittany Barker. (This isn’t a book. But I’m JUST talking about an author.) She took second place for her breathtaking spoken word response to homelessness, but this poem sits on the podium of my heart. She reminds us that every time we leave our “house,” we enter the home of a homeless person, and this does not make us better than them. It makes them more graceful than us.

Teaching My Mother To Give Birth by Warsan Shire. A collection of poetry that will force you to pick up your phone, call your mum, and thank her for whatever she may or may not have gone through in the pursuit of protecting you. I’m endlessly inspired by where and how Shire pushes poetry, from collections to Beyoncé’s visual albums.

I, like most sane artists, wholeheartedly aspire to write for Beyoncé one day.


Sophia Thakur has been performing since the age of 16 and has a wide reach across social media. She has presented two TED Talks and has worked closely with young people, sharing her poems and the creative process. This is her first published collection. She lives in Middlesex, England.


Read our review of Somebody Give This Heart a Pen.

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