Q&A with Hafsah Aneela Bashir about the Poetry Health Service

We caught up with Hafsah Aneela Bashir ahead of the launch of her Oldham Coliseum Homemakers commission, the Poetry Health Service, which goes live next week.

What first gave you the idea for the Poetry Health Service?

The Poetry Health Service was born out of the most challenging time we will probably ever see in our lifetime, at least for me anyway. When the government ordered lockdown in March 2020 and we were all suddenly confined to our homes, I wondered what I could do as an artist to feel safe yet connected to the community that I was so deeply part of. How could we still artistically create the same intimacies, remotely, at a time where staying alive was paramount? What did our creative practise now look like, working (or not) from home, home-schooling, while trying to make sense of the world around us? Would things ever get back to normal? And who would be around when it did? Troubled by these thoughts, I asked myself what could I do right now so I had a sense of purpose?

I chose to read.

Everyday, for 75 days straight, I picked one story and selected poetry to read for one hour to anyone listening on my Instagram account @redwizz1. As I did this, listeners shared their thoughts with me, many of whom were isolating alone at home or tuning in between work, or taking a break from family life. As I shared poetry, I tagged in poets, writers and publishers, inviting everyone that listened to write haikus about how they were feeling. Inspired by the poetry, listeners turned to writing. Even those who had never wrote a poem in their life. Poetry was passed through us, carried from one to another, a catalyst for conversation for those finding lockdown challenging. As the haikus came in, I continued to upload these sacred gifts. Sacred because I knew how difficult it was to write at a time where the world was on fire. Covid-19 was sweeping through communities of colour and the government’s poor leadership and their delay to act was causing more anguish. Not soon after, George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police sparked outrage globally and Black Lives Matter protests filled the streets. I was reminded yet again how in times of great entroublement and crisis, poetry has its purpose and people turn to it for protest, comfort and healing.

Poetry’s continuous cycle, where it knows no borders, made me wonder what it would look like to have a Poetry Health Service that does just that. Provide poetry to the people by the people for the people. And that’s how the idea was born.

What do you feel the benefits of poetry are to your life?

Poetry has been a blanket of comfort for me, my entire life. I have turned to it when I cannot put into words what I am feeling but know that someone somewhere, among the rich cannon of literature we are blessed with, has done that for me already.

Whether that’s Derek Walcott telling me to appreciate and value myself and my experiences – to ‘feast on my life’ in Love After Love or Kahlil Gibran enlightening me through On Children that ‘your children are not your children’ but ‘life’s longing for itself’ so I didn’t become an overbearing mother. Or whether it’s been Maya Angelou reminding us we are phenomenal women or Audre Lorde telling me in A Litany For Survival ‘it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive’ – I can’t remember a time where I didn’t have poetry to draw on.

Poetry has allowed me to explore my South Asian roots too – a way forward for intergenerational conversations between myself and my wider family. When family members found out I’m a poet, they started sharing Alama Iqbal and Bulleh Shah ghazals with me from memory that they had learnt at school and sent them to me as watsapp voice notes. Many phone calls still begin and end this way. I have always loved the poetic form of the Quran too and turned to Rumi for his spiritual poetry rooted in the Islamic faith I follow.

I have turned to poetry when I’ve needed an escape hatch, or want to connect or learn something new or want to feel an emotional change or just to feel sheer  pleasure. It’s helped me deal with grief when things have been too overwhelming for words – an oxy moron in itself. Capturing that that cannot be spoken. My poem ‘To You’ from my poetry collection The Celox And The Clot, helped me process the death of my very dear Uncle Barkat a few years ago. Poetry has been ventilation for me. A way to breathe easier through this journey of life.

Do you think we’ll need a Poetry Health Service even after the pandemic has ended?

Poetry will always be needed for as long as we as human beings, need to put our feelings into words to communicate with ourselves and each other. The PHS is there for just that. A simple way for us humans to stay connected. I hope it’s around long after I am, carrying our experiences from one to another so we feel closer no matter where we are or who we are. A step closer to understanding our full human story.

Is there a poem that’s particularly helped you through lockdown?

Yes. Danusha Lameris’s Small Kindnesses without a doubt.

I love itas simplicity and power. A reminder that beauty in the small things will always get us through. Lockdown has been indicative of that. Be that the ‘bless you’ we utter when someone sneezes because in essence ‘don’t die’ is what we are actually saying. Or for the ‘waitress to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder’. Every time I read this poem, it reminds me how we can always operate from a position of love and kindness. I saw so much of it during lockdown, strangers becoming friends, neighbours becoming family. Lameris reminds me that perhaps these are the ‘true dwellings of the holy, these fleeting temples we make when we say, “Here, have my seat”, “Go ahead – you first”, “I like your hat”.’

The Poetry Health Service is an Oldham Coliseum Homemakers commission, and will be available to the general public from Thursday, 29 July via the HOME website.