On a wet day in London, around 2013, the poet Warsan Shire turned on a voice recorder as her uncle talked about his youth in Somalia, his life as a refugee, and his addiction to the bitter-leaf stimulant khat. Shire, who is thirty-three, with dark curls and a high forehead, sat with him in his room at a boarding house in Northwest London, where several immigrant men lived. Her uncle had lost most of his teeth because of his khat addiction. “When you chew khat, you don’t sleep, it keeps you up,” Shire told me recently. “I asked him how it feels to do that.” He told her, “While you’re high, it’s like you build, with your words and with your dreams, these massive towers of what you’re going to do tomorrow, how you’re going to fix up your life. And then the sun comes up, and the towers have been toppled. And you do that every single day and never get anywhere, because you’re constantly lying to yourself.”
When her uncle was a teen-ager, he won a scholarship to study abroad; family members spoke of him as the relative who had great promise. But when a civil war broke out in Somalia, in the early nineties, he lost the scholarship. He immigrated to England, but he never married or had children. Shire’s parents had also gone to England as refugees from Somalia, and through the years she had often talked with her uncle about his past. In the boarding house, sipping qaxwo—Somali coffee, spiced with cinnamon and cardamom—he told her he felt that he had “failed at life” and was “cursed by the war.”
Much of Shire’s poetry has focussed on the experiences of immigrant women. In the past several years, though, she had become more curious about the inner lives of the men in her family. “There’s always been this thing I found particularly sad about some of the men I grew up around,” she told me. “They would wear these suits, and the suits were a bit too big and would hang over the wrists, and they looked like little boys playing dress-up to go to a job interview that they’re never going to get accepted at. Something about that also reminded me of how futile their lives must have felt in this new world. They don’t fit anywhere.” Shire’s first full collection, “Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head,” will come out in March. In one poem, “My Loneliness Is Killing Me,” she describes meeting her uncle at the boarding house, as Somali pop plays in the background: “Steam rises from qaxwo bitter with tears, carefully / rolling tobacco the same color as his hands / He sings along. Alone this time, alone every time.” Toward the end of the visit, her uncle told her, “Daughter, be stronger than the loneliness this world is going to present to you.” Shire quotes the sentence in the last stanza of her poem, and it inspired the title. “All these anthems of resilience,” she told me. “I just thought, These are the songs for the refugee.”
Shire is among a generation of young poets who have attracted large audiences by initially publishing their poetry online. She first became prominent through Tumblr, and now has eighty thousand Twitter followers, and another fifty-seven thousand on Instagram, numbers more akin to those of the star of an FX series than to those of a poet. Elisa Ronzheimer, a literary scholar at Bielefeld University, in Germany, told me that Shire’s poetry produces “something of value in this middle ground that is not super-hermetic, but also not what I think of as pop culture.” Shire is best known for collaborating with Beyoncé, in 2016, on “Lemonade,” a visual album in which the singer’s music is intercut with Shire’s poetry. The poet Terrance Hayes told me, “Shire possesses a Plathian kind of ferocious truth telling.” Hayes teaches at New York University, and is struck by how many of his students are devotees of her work. “Her reach is not just people who are watching Beyoncé,” he said. “It’s also people who want to be poets and are studying what she’s doing.”
While writing her book, Shire often drew on interviews with and observations of her relatives. Many had witnessed atrocities during the war, and had struggled to make a life for themselves in England. Her father had hung up photographs of places in Mogadishu, showing their beauty before the war and their destruction after it began. “Everyone is kind of like a before-and-after photo of the war,” Shire said. Some men, she noticed, tried to assimilate into British culture and avoid anything that reminded them of Somalia, but a sense of cultural alienation eventually caught up with them. In a poem called “Midnight in the Foreign Food Aisle,” she writes, “Dear Uncle, is everything you love foreign / Or are you foreign to everything you love . . . Love is not haram but after years of fucking / Women who are unable to pronounce your name / You find yourself today alone, in the foreign / Food aisle . . . praying in a language you haven’t used in years.”
The collection melds verse and reportage to create a portrait of the Somali diaspora. “I didn’t get to hear my grandma’s voice or my grandad’s voice; most of my family I didn’t actually get to meet, because a lot of them died in the war,” Shire told me. “And I want my children to be able to hear these people’s voices.” She also wanted to record her relatives’ experiences. “In my community, the only time they’re asked these kinds of questions is at Immigration,” she said. “These are extraordinary stories, and these are people who are still alive—somehow.”
This past November, I visited Shire at her home in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, Andres Reyes-Manzo, and their two young children. Shire’s hair was slicked back into a ponytail, and she wore gold hoops. She dislikes crowds, but at her home she tells stories for hours in her Northwest London accent, often at high speed and volume. Reyes-Manzo, who works for a philanthropic organization called the California Endowment, took calls in his study and attended to their older son, Ilyas, who is two. Ayub, who is eight months old, started squealing, and Shire picked him up from his playpen in the pink-walled living room. “He’s very talkative,” she said. “We Somalis are a big-mouth community.”
Shire’s father grew up in a family of nomadic herders, and became a political journalist in Mogadishu. Her mother, Shire told me, took care of the home. In the late eighties, her father was working on a book about political corruption, eventually published as “The Cost of Carnage,” when the government found out and threatened him with imprisonment. He and her mother left for Kenya, and had Shire there, in 1988; the family then moved to London, where her brother, Said, was born. In 1991, Somalia’s civil war erupted. Militias affiliated with local clans overthrew the military regime of President Mohamed Siad Barré, and then those clans, Islamist groups, and other factions began fighting for power. In the course of four months in Mogadishu, some twenty-five thousand people were killed, more than two million lost their homes, and another million and a half left the country, including much of Shire’s family. Many Somalis call this period burbur, which mimics the sound of buildings collapsing. Naima Nur, a close friend of Shire’s, told me, “There’s a line by a Somali singer that goes something like ‘Smile when you are bleeding.’ That totally encapsulates our culture; people will be hurt and going through so much, but still have to show a strong face.”
Shire’s parents settled in a North London neighborhood that was mostly white, and unfriendly toward newcomers. As a young girl, Shire excitedly asked an aunt to take her to the birthday party of a girl who lived across the street; the girl’s father opened the door and turned them away. After her father dropped her off for her first day of school, a little boy called her “Black girl.” She cried for her father to return and told him what happened. He replied, “You are,” and walked away. “I sobered up so quick,” she told me. “If he’d dealt with it any other way, I’d be such a different human being.” Shire’s teachers complained that she was more interested in making her classmates laugh than she was in doing her schoolwork. But she liked to fill her notebooks with stories, sketches, and poetry. On weekends, her father took her to the library, and she enjoyed reading the books she’d checked out in the bath.
When Shire was seven, her parents divorced, and her father moved out. (The two remain close.) Two years later, Shire told me, after months of eviction notices the police removed her family from their home. They were homeless for more than two years, and drifted between hostels and the homes of family friends. Shire and her brother stopped attending school, and watched soap operas all day or entertained themselves by riding up and down the elevators of old hotels that served as homeless shelters.
Eventually, the family got a spot in public housing. Shire’s mother often took in other Somali refugees, including friends, family members, and strangers, Shire told me. She even brought home a woman she met at a bus stop. Sometimes, Shire said, the experiences were “magical.” With one woman, she drank Italian coffee and painted her nails. But others took discipline too far, screaming at or hitting Shire and her brother. “It was not lost on me that, in the Somali war, there were victims and perpetrators,” Shire told me. “You don’t know who’s coming through your front door. You don’t know if this is somebody who just spent a lot of time revelling in human blood, or somebody who was raped twenty times.”
In 2000, Shire’s mother remarried, and had three more daughters. Shire said that her mother came to rely on her as a “shift mother.” “It was really hard going to school, trying to be a young person while also feeling like you have three kids at home,” she added. She cooked meals, cleaned the house, got her sisters to school, and made sure they had birthday celebrations. “She was very good at parenting. We used to dance a lot in the living room and sing really loud while doing a conga line,” her sister Sammy, who is now studying international relations, told me. “You wouldn’t see that she was stressed out.” But Shire was constantly late for class; she missed an A-level exam to look after her sisters, and had to repeat courses that she failed.
She struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder and premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a severe form of P.M.S. There was also tension around her appearance. Her family valued her light skin but thought that her hair was too coarse and that she was too heavy. “My mother is very pretty, and beauty is very important to her,” she said. “I knew that, as her daughter, I was expected to be an extension of that.” In her teen-age years, Shire developed bulimia. In the poem “Bless the Bulimic,” she writes about this period with characteristic dark humor: “forgive me my prayers / To the God of thin women . . . forgive me please / Famine back home.”
At twelve, Shire read Chinua Achebe’s poem “Vultures,” which contains a passage about a Nazi officer giving his children candy, and was moved by the poem’s moral ambiguity. Soon she began writing poems of her own. When Shire was fifteen, she attended a poetry workshop at the Wembley Youth Center, near her house. She was surprised to find that the teacher, Jacob Sam-La Rose, a poet and an editor, was Black. “I was always just a mess, but he never, ever gave up on me,” Shire said. She joined the Complete Works mentoring program, founded by the Booker Prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo, and began meeting weekly with the poet Pascale Petit to discuss her work. Evaristo told me, “She just seemed to tap into a very female psyche, one that has experienced hardship, and has been able to articulate something beautiful as a result.”
Shire graduated from London Metropolitan University in 2010, with a degree in creative writing. In 2011, the small British press flipped eye released her first chapbook, “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth,” but when the publisher, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, sent out copies to cultural tastemakers “no one responded.” Flipped eye did not want to market Shire on the basis of her ethnic identity, which Parkes felt would be reductive, but he worries that this prevented people from opening the book. “If we can’t figure out how to tell people about the work because of what it contains, then we have no business publishing it,” he said.
Shire came of age at a time when much of literary poetry was published in collections with tiny print runs, was read primarily by people in university settings, and was inaccessible to a general audience. But in the twenty-tens several young writers began posting their work on Web sites like Tumblr, directly to readers. Later, poets began publishing on social media. Many of the poems on social-media platforms were sparse enough to fit into a tweet or an Instagram square, and direct enough to hold the attention of someone scrolling distractedly. A poem by Lang Leav, a popular Internet poet, reads, in its entirety, “If they were meant to be in your life, nothing could ever make them leave. If they weren’t, nothing in the world could make them stay.” An untitled poem by Rupi Kaur reads, “people go / but how / they left / always stays.” Kaur now has more than four million followers on Instagram, and her collection “Milk and Honey” has sold two and a half million copies in twenty-five languages.
“Most lyric poetry used to be high art for the few, for a certain educated part of society,” Ronzheimer, the literary scholar, told me. “It’s now become an art for the people, by the people, and a part of the everyday life of many people who read it on the train or listen to it at home.” Many poets of color, and those from working-class backgrounds, feel that the Internet allows them to bypass industry gatekeepers, and to experiment with form. Tommy Pico, a thirty-eight-year-old Native American poet, first published his work on Tumblr, and then wrote the acclaimed book “IRL,” a long poem composed in the style of a text message. Megan Fernandes, a poet and an English professor at Lafayette College, told me that Pico “brilliantly uses Internet slang in a formally inventive way.”
Some of this poetry, including that of Leav and Kaur, was shaped by the Internet. “A lot of poetry that might not do well on the Internet is a poetry that follows streams of consciousness, and is less clipped,” Fernandes told me. The work that drew readers was “poetry with fast insight—it’s more rhetorical, and didactic, even.” The medium also encouraged poets to track their follower counts and engagement rates. Poems that went viral were often catchy, literal, and feel-good. They might have a Hallmark quality. The British poet Anthony Anaxagorou told me, “Much of it lacks sophistication and is overly dependent on clichés.”
Shire started a Tumblr in 2011, the year her first chapbook came out, when the Web site reflected a pre-ironic millennial aesthetic: a rose-hued photograph of a woman looking out the window in Paris, a picture of cute dogs under an umbrella. She treated her Tumblr as a mood board, posting selfies, music, and poetry, much of which she had composed in short bursts. The incantatory “For Women Who Are Difficult to Love,” which she wrote in ten minutes, is still one of her most well-known poems: “you can’t make homes out of human beings / someone should have already told you that / and if he wants to leave / then let him leave.” Certain lines from her poems began to spread among users: “My alone feels so good / I’ll only have you if you’re sweeter than my solitude”; “You think I’ll be the dark sky so you’ll be the star? / I’ll swallow you whole.”
Shire’s early Tumblr poems may be her least interesting. At its best, her work refracts her experiences through, as Hayes put it, a sense of “surrealism and slantedness that is not bare-bones therapeutic confession.” Her blog reads more like a textual and visual diary. “Her Tumblr was really about a vibe,” Roger Robinson, a British poet, told me. “It seemed less about her poetry, and more an expression of how she was feeling at a moment.” As with most poetry on the Internet, public attention tended to focus on its themes, rather than on any formal innovations. “Because of the way market populism works, we now think about poems not necessarily in how technically achieved they are—we think about them via their subject matter,” Anaxagorou said. “That’s a major way critical culture has changed.”
Nevertheless, Shire’s work was influential. Nur, Shire’s friend, recognized her own experiences in Shire’s poetry and sent her a Facebook message. “She’s writing about the secret lives of Somali women,” Nur told me. Reyes-Manzo, Shire’s husband, shared her poems with a youth group that he was working with in California’s Central Valley, in 2013.After hearing that Shire had been looking for music recommendations, he sent her a playlist. The two dated long-distance for years before Shire moved to L.A. to be with him. I told Shire that I was struck by the fact that many of her closest friends had initially been online fans. “I didn’t really think about it,” she said. “I’m happy that—whatever it is I’m doing with my work—it’s bringing the right people to me.”
After two years, Shire left Tumblr. She had been drawn to the platform by its insular group of users. “Tumblr was a particularly important space because it allowed for people to write these long pieces, for people to reshare them, to vote things up, to comment,” Parkes, her publisher, told me. But Shire’s “little corner of the Internet,” as she put it, had begun to feel too exposed: “The way my shit is set up, it’s overwhelming for me. As soon as it started to feel like, ‘Oh, wow, there’s, like, a lot of eyes,’ I was, like, ‘O.K., I don’t feel comfortable doing this anymore.’ ” Today, she rarely uses social media, but her poems still circulate on Twitter and Instagram, generating thousands of likes.
One afternoon at her house, Shire lit an incense burner, made me a cup of milky Somali tea, and told me that she liked feeling disturbed. As a girl, she watched horror movies in the mornings. “My dream would be to make a horror film that makes people pass out,” she said. “But I do worry that, if I were to make a horror film, it would be so scary that people would become genuinely possessed.” These days, she binge-watches documentaries on subjects like the mistreatment of African maids in the Middle East or the victims of acid attacks in South Asia. “I feel like I have to stay on top of oppression,” she said, seemingly only half joking. One of Shire’s favorite films is “The Milk of Sorrow,” a Peruvian drama about a woman who becomes ill after inheriting the trauma of her mother, who was the victim of sexual violence during a war. “I was raised by a lot of people who had P.T.S.D.,” Shire told me. “Over and over again, seeing the way that trauma has affected my family, my community, has shown me that it doesn’t have to turn you into a monster who re-creates the same bullshit.”
After Shire found fame on Tumblr, she also gained more real-world acclaim. In 2014, she was named London’s Youth Poet Laureate. The following year, she gave a reading hosted by a feminist collective in Johannesburg, where scores of people began saying her lines with her. “I think she was surprised that people were reciting the poetry,” Milisuthando Bongela, who helped organize the event, told me. “It was like a concert. She kept stopping and laughing.” But Shire was dismayed at how often she was portrayed in the press as a refugee who had somehow become a writer. Reporters sometimes asked her if she could rap. “Bitch, why are you asking me if I can rap?!” Shire joked.
Some of her most ardent fans were Somali women, despite her ambivalent relationship to traditional Somali cultural beliefs. Shire sometimes wore a hijab in her youth—her parents told her that it was her choice—but she stopped in adulthood, and her poetry often discussed taboo subjects. “I remember doing a reading early on; I was probably fifteen or something, and it was a mainly Somali audience. I rocked up doing a poem about female genital mutilation, and I remember it dawning on me only halfway through, Oh, O.K., people are quite horrified,” she said, laughing. “But then also looking around and thinking, Some people are really jubilant that I’m saying these words. I’m not here reading erotica, it’s for a reason. So be uncomfortable.”
Shire had travelled to Italy, in 2010, to give readings, and during the visit her translator, Paola Splendore, invited her to meet members of the Somali community living in Rome. “She was a very shy, very reserved girl—a totally different person,” Splendore told me. The Somali Embassy had closed during the civil war, and dozens of asylum seekers had begun squatting there, camping out in the gardens of the crumbling mansion. Some slept in abandoned cars, others on the back porch, or in the garage. There was no electricity, only one bathroom, and a single tap for cold water. Most of the men had applied for asylum but were not eligible for work permits or aid.
Shire had always been curious about Italy’s relationship to Somalia. Italy had held part of modern Somalia as a colony from the eighteen-eighties until 1942 and continued to interfere in its politics for decades afterward. When Shire was young, her mother sometimes scolded her in Italian phrases. Shire asked the refugees about their lives. They told her, You get to Italy after escaping God knows what. Immigration puts you in a detention center. When you are released, someone tells you, “You need to go where the Africans are,” so you go to the old embassy. During the day, you go out to panhandle. Recently, a young refugee jumped from the embassy roof to his death. “I had always been around the experience of being a refugee,” Shire told me. “But that was the first time I had experienced how truly dangerous and treacherous it could be.” That night, she began writing the poem “Home,” an early version of which reads, in part:
As the migrant crisis in Europe intensified, the poem circulated online. In 2015, the Times editorial board quoted from “Home” in a piece urging Western countries to give safe harbor to refugees. A U.K. parliamentarian tweeted a line. Benedict Cumberbatch read from the poem onstage at the Barbican, where he was starring as Hamlet, and then reportedly said, “Fuck the politicians.” In 2017, at American protests sparked by President Donald Trump’s ban on travellers from Muslim-majority countries, demonstrators held up signs with lines from “Home” or read verses aloud.
Parkes, Shire’s publisher, was gratified by the response: “She’s able to speak to the experience of being displaced, being regarded as something other, in a way that very few people can.” But Shire was frustrated that her poem was mostly used to mourn the deaths of Middle Eastern refugees. “I wrote those words for Black immigrants, and the most I’ve ever seen those words used was when the immigrants and refugees were lighter-skinned with lighter eyes,” she told me. “Obviously, you want your work to be used in any way to raise funds for all suffering people, but I want people to know who I wrote that about.”
Six years ago, during a visit to Los Angeles, Shire got an e-mail from one of Beyoncé’s managers, asking if she wanted to collaborate with the singer on a new project. “I thought I was being pranked,” Shire recalled, cackling. “Get the fuck out of here, are you joking?” Beyoncé was working on the “Lemonade” album; Shire was friendly with Kahlil Joseph, one of the directors of the film that would accompany it, and he had shared her work with Beyoncé.
Shire met the pop star in a huge industrial studio. Beyoncé wore casual clothes and red lipstick, and, at one point, her mother dropped by. Shire and Beyoncé had a mutual friend, Yosra El-Essawy, who had recently died from cancer at the age of thirty-three—El-Essawy had been Beyoncé’s tour photographer, and she had written Shire a fan letter after reading her Tumblr—and the two women reminisced about her. “It helped me grieve,” Shire said. Beyoncé began to play an early cut of the album. Much of it was drawn from her troubled relationships with her husband, Jay-Z, and her father. “She played the first song, ‘Pray You Catch Me,’ which is, until today, my favorite song off of it,” Shire told me. The song recounts the experience of realizing that a lover has betrayed you. Beyoncé sent Shire home with a copy of the album and asked to see what she wrote in response.
Shire had long composed her poetry to music, so the process was familiar. “I really drew from my own experiences,” she told me. “Women lose their minds often because of men.” She thought back to an on-again-off-again relationship with a controlling man. She had conversations with her husband about their problems, and “what it means to forgive.” She reflected on her parents’ divorce, and imagined what it would have taken for them to stay together: “That was a place for me to be able to play around with this version of events where things do work out.” In the end, Shire had several pages of material, which she divided into invented stages of grief: “Revenge, apathy—and I sent it over.”
The film borrowed Shire’s structure, and blended the poetry and the music. The second chapter begins with lines from “For Women Who Are Difficult to Love”: “I tried to change. Closed my mouth more, tried to be softer, prettier, less awake.” Afterward, Beyoncé appears in a yellow dress, singing about confronting a cheating lover, and smashes car windows with a baseball bat. The Times wrote that Shire’s words “radically reframe the songs, so they are no longer one woman’s struggles but tribulations shared through generations of mothers and daughters.”
After the album came out, sales of Shire’s first chapbook increased tenfold within a week. In 2020, she contributed poetry to Beyoncé’s musical film “Black Is King,” which was released with Disney’s remake of “The Lion King.” But after “Lemonade” Shire largely receded from public life, declining all interviews and most invitations, including one to the Met Gala, and avoiding social media. She told me that she had been brought up to believe that being boastful could summon the “evil eye.” “People will think, Isn’t she lucky? Went to America and just met Beyoncé on the street,” she said. (When I talked to Evaristo, she told me, “Warsan is unpredictable, because she went to America, and then, suddenly, it’s like Beyoncé drops her album. How does that happen?”) Shire celebrated the collaborations privately, then set to work on her new collection, drawing inspiration from what she called Beyoncé’s “forgiving approach to looking back.”
Before I left L.A., Shire sat with me at her living-room window and pulled out a turquoise shoebox filled with family photographs. She had been carrying the photos around since she was twelve; they were the only things she had kept with her when her family became homeless. She pulled out several pictures of herself as an impish girl at the London Zoo, at the movies to see “Aladdin,” at her brother’s birthday party. “I think people should have more photos of themselves as children around,” she said. “There’s no way you can hate that version of yourself. And there’s no way that you can’t give that version of yourself grace and patience and empathy and understanding.”
Shire’s favorite photographs were the ones that recounted her parents’ love story in Somalia: the couple looking stylish at their wedding, at a dance party, on the beach. “I get lost in these,” she said. In 2013, she travelled to Mogadishu for the first time: “It made Somalia real; it’s not just a figment of my imagination that I romanticized. It was so important for me to smell the air, feel the ground, be in the water.”
Shire had written “Bless the Daughter” in part to work through her family history. She drew on conversations with several aunties who were viewed as “unhinged women”: some were uncommonly independent; others behaved erratically. Shire remembered one who was always going to parties with men who picked her up in convertibles, and who had a hidden tattoo that she revealed to Shire. Another sat in a corner, rocking and convulsing. Shire interviewed an auntie who lost her husband to the war, then lost custody of her children to her husband’s family. In a poem called “Bless the Ghost,” Shire imagines this aunt being haunted by her past: “In the shower, it lathers her back / sometimes embracing her / from behind, weighing / her down.”
She also thought of the houseguests who stayed with her family, and occasionally frightened her. “There’s a bunch of people who are stressed, who are experiencing racism the second they walk out the door, can’t get a job,” she told me. “They’re all here now, and there’s going to be some falling out.” A woman stabbed her partner as Shire and her brother played outside. (He survived.) In her poem “Angela Bassett Burning It All Down,” Shire writes about that couple: “One stabbed her man in the groin, said / the look of disbelief in his eyes made it worth it. / Bitches’ Hysteria the men called it / Natural response the women named it.”
Some of the material on the theme of girlhood that appears in “Bless the Daughter” feels familiar from Shire’s first chapbook. Anaxagorou, the British poet, suggested that early fame creates the expectation that an artist replicate her early successes, which can feel paralyzing. “I think for many young poets who might experience a disproportionate amount of mainstream attention, they run the risk of reproducing a work that’s too similar to the last,” he said. But Shire’s exploration of her community feels fresh and incisive. The poet and novelist Julia Alvarez told me, of the collection, “There’s a rawness and power that is burning on the page.”
Shire is now at work on a book of prose poetry about mental illness. “I’m really personally committed to removing as much stigma or taboo from things that I feel, at times, ashamed about,” she told me, putting her photographs back into the shoebox. “I identify with the unhinged women that I’m writing about; I am one.” The book may also explore a miscarriage that she had in 2018, and her experience of motherhood. With “Bless the Daughter,” Shire had said everything she needed to say about her upbringing. “It was the last, last piece of dirt to throw on that period of my life,” she said. “I feel completely at peace. Moving on.” ♦