Words of Life and Death: Poetry and Culture in Crisis: Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan

by Dr Beth Dodd

In times of crisis poetry speaks into matters of enduring concern, the great themes of life and death. At the same time poetry speaks directly into our current context where the use and abuse of words, miscommunication and incomprehension, can be a matter of life and death. In many spiritual traditions, words have power to bring life but also to pronounce death. These reflections by Dr Beth Dodd are drawn from a series of poetry readings hosted by the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture in September 2020, in association with Sarum College, which talked about matters of life, death and poetry, exploring how words can bring life and hope to a fearful and divided world.

Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan is an educator, writer and poet from West Yorkshire. Suhaiymah was the runner-up of the Roundhouse National slam 2017 with her viral poem, This is Not a Humanising Poem (YouTube reading). In 2018-19 she was a Nicola Thorold Fellow at the Roundhouse and is currently an Associate Artist at Freedom Studios. She is the author of a poetry collection, Postcolonial Banter (Verve, 2019), co-author of the anthology, A FLY Girl’s Guide To University: Being a Woman of Colour at Cambridge and Other Institutions of Power and Elitism (Verve, 2019) and hosts the Breaking Binaries podcast, a series of conversations around the dangerous dualisms in our language.

Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s poetic style is one of straight-talking. It is the voice of challenge, critique and protest, through asserting the right to self-expression. It is a voice that leaves little ambiguous and little undisclosed. As she writes in the introduction to her recent poetry collection: ‘I’m not interested in writing poetry for people to puzzle over or feel intimidated by – I’d rather you puzzle over your reactions and responses.’ *

For Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan the poet is prophet and educator. She uses what she calls ‘context boxes’ in her collection, which contain explanatory information about the background to the poems. This is a way of adding into the text the kind of asides that a poet would often deliver in performance. The implication is that a poem is best understood in relation to its position in history or in life. Many of these boxes go beyond providing background information to explaining the poet’s subjective response to the events they describe. One of these, for the first poem in the collection, This Poem is Not For You, explains her response to the experience of Poetry Slams where ‘poets often perform our identities and trauma for an audience to consume … [which] reproduces many problematic dynamics of people of colour “performing” for white voyeurism.’

Her poetry has an explicit political agenda, addressing issues of Islamophobia, postcolonialism, race and gender, but more generally directed against ‘systems’ and systematic thinking. Her Breaking Binaries podcast calls out damaging and dangerous uses of language in contemporary culture, calling for a language that better reflects cultural realities. This aspect of the poetry of Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan raises the question of whether the best way to combat oppression and to change modes of thinking is simply to call a spade a spade. Poems such as This is Not a Humanising Poem contain a lot of direct statements and direct addresses to the audience, attempting to shine a light on realities hidden in plain sight, to expose the ridiculous, the illogical and the ideological.

Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan is also a poet who wears her faith on her sleeve. One of the poems of the collection is written in response to the case of Shemima Begum: A Prayer For Those who Jeer at the Death of a Baby whose Teenage Mother you Feel Did Not Show Enough Remorse (clip below). It is an ironic prayer of blessing not for the sufferers but for those who ignore their suffering, a prayer that exposes cruelty and sits in judgement on those without compassion.

At points it can feel like the poetic tone sets up the very binaries it is seeking to break down, but behind this lies a confidence in the truth of feeling and a commitment to sincere self-expression. This is reflected in the several poems that Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan has written ‘about the difficulty of writing [a] poem’. A Story For Ourselves This Time, about the experience of women in Pakistan, begins, ‘I do not know how to write us’, but ends: ‘I want to write us/even if I do not know how to begin’. The difficulties of language are exposed in this poem, but also the poet’s own struggles with communication and identity, revealing the  commitment to write as a courageous act.

A Prayer For Those who Jeer at the Death of a Baby whose Teenage Mother you Feel Did Not Show Enough Remorse

* Note from the Author, Postcolonial Banter (Verve Press, 2019).

Dr Beth Dodd is Director of Studies, Centre for Formation in Ministry, and Lecturer in Doctrine and Theology, Arts and Culture at Sarum College. She convened the Words of Life and Death: Poetry and Culture in Crisis series on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture (OCRC) and in association with Sarum College.

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