In conversation with SLAMbassadors judge Sabrina Mahfouz

SLAMbassadors 2017 judge Sabrina Mahfouz tells us what she’s looking for in a winning entry, how to write for performance, and about the importance of grabbing opportunity when it comes.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. First of all – you’re a very busy woman! Can you tell us a little about what you’re up to at the moment?

Yes, the days don’t seem to be able to get any busier – and then they do! I’m currently working on an opera called Woman at Point Zero, a children’s show called Zeraffa Giraffa – both adaptations of books. I’m writing a pamphlet of poetry for the Science Gallery’s Blood exhibition and have a few theatre shows in various stages of developments and plenty of poetry judging, including SLAM of course!

How did you come to poetry? Who were your first loves and inspirations, and how did they shape the way your own work developed?

I was always an English Lit geek at school – no matter how much trouble I got in, my English work never suffered! I loved it all, the old and the new. After years of studying I fell out of love with words a little, but randomly seeing Laura Dockrill perform on a public stage at the Southbank Centre drew me back in, and that’s when I discovered there was such a thing as performance poetry.

So many different types of writing have always inspired me – journalism, drama, poetry, fiction, birthday cards from my parents. I can’t pinpoint how one style or writer in particular has influenced me, but they’re definitely all in there somewhere.

You are a poet, playwright, director, essayist, and countless other things. What place does poetry have in your life? Do you watch a lot of spoken word? And at what points in your day do you find time to write creatively?

Poetry always occupies a special place. There’s nothing else like it for short bursts of inspiration, comfort, energy, solidarity – whatever it is you need at that moment. I can’t consume loads of it at once, just a little every day, and mostly from books or on my phone from websites. I watch performances at events at least once a week and love listening to the poetry produced by participants at workshops I facilitate. After having a kid, I can’t so much as find time as use it – on the bus, the Tube, in bed – I write whenever I can on my phone, in my head, on a pad.

Cameron and Aukyle, SLAMbassadors champs of 2016, photo by Chris Holka

You’ve written an essay in The Good Immigrant and edited The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write – both are collections where writers talk freely about their experiences as people considered ‘minorities’ in Britain today. The SLAMbassadors theme is identity, which can seem quite broad – how would you address this topic if you were composing a poem on it?

It is broad and that’s why it works so well: everyone can focus on an aspect of identity that immediately strikes them as something they need to talk about. Understandably, race, gender, religion, nationality, sexuality, and class – or more accurately, other people’s perceptions and expectations of these things – inspire the most responses.

I suppose I might approach the topic of identity from as multi-layered an angle as possible, trying to find the links between everything. Then perhaps I would focus in on one aspect eventually.

When you edited The Things I Would Tell You, you chose to include the poem Uomini Cadranno by Seema Begum, a fourteen-year-old who you met while working on SLAMbassadors in schools. What about her poem – and about the SLAMbassadors programme generally – inspired you?

Seema’s poem stood out to me because it embodied so many of the discussions I’d been having with girls at schools across the country in such a sophisticated, hopeful, yet completely uncompromising way.  When she began the SLAMbassadors programme she was reluctant to share any writing, but with the encouragement of her class she ended up performing so powerfully that all the teachers came to watch.

I think SLAMbassadors is so wonderful as young people get to discuss sensitive, epic issues they don’t often have the chance to discuss. They get to write down what is personally important to them and build their confidence by performing those words to others, who are in turn inspired to do the same.

Tasnima Ahmed and other SLAMbassadors 2016 finalists, photo by Chris Holka

SLAMbassadors is now 16 years old. Do you have any favourite SLAMbassadors champions who have pursued performance poetry and still work in the field?

Anthony Anaxagorou is both my partner and a poetry inspiration! Vanessa Kisuule is such an exciting force of creativity and I really enjoy Megan Beech‘s work. Kayo Chingonyi is one of my favourite poets in the UK, so I guess the answer to your question is YES!

How would you advise poets who usually write for the page to take inspiration from spoken word?

A difficult one! I think poetry written originally with the page in mind can be performed engagingly and don’t necessarily need any stylistic changes. It can just be about treating each thought, each image, and each thread with intention, clarity and meaning vocally.

However, if someone is interested in doing the more direct, literal strand of spoken word then I’d advise them to say what they want to say quite freely – but to bring elements of their usual way of writing into it as well. Imagery, internal rhyme, metre and metaphor are welcome in spoken word too!

As this year’s judge, what are you looking for in a winning SLAMbassadors entry?

I’m not sure a judge ever knows what they’re looking for until they see it – much like life in general I guess. But I definitely think people who are truthful with their writing and performance always stand out.

Finally, what would you say to anyone on the fence about submitting a piece to SLAMbassadors?

Now is not the time to be on the fence about anything at all! Take the chance to have your say and share your talents – even if it doesn’t lead to winning, it can lead to so many other things you’d never otherwise experience.

SLAMbassadors 2016 champions, photo by Chris Holka

SLAMbassadors is The Poetry Society’s national youth slam for 12-18 year olds. The slam is open every year to any young person in the country, and aims to uncover the next generation of MCs, rappers, performance poets and spoken word artists. To enter the slam simply film yourself performing your piece and submit it online.

Six acts will be chosen from across the UK to take part in an intensive, two-day masterclass with the spoken word artist Joelle Taylor. The winners work will be showcased at a live performance in central London alongside Joelle and Sabrina Mahfouz, and receive continual mentoring from The Poetry Society.

Last year’s winning entries can be seen on the SLAMbassadors YouTube channelPrevious winners include Anthony Anaxagorou, Megan Beech, Kayo Chingonyi, Aisling Fahey, Tommy Sissons, Vanessa Kisuule and NAGA MC.

Sabrina Mahfouz was raised in London and Cairo. Her work includes the plays Chef, With a Little Bit of Luck, CleanBattleface and the love i feel is red; the poetry collection How You Might Know Me; the literary anthology The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write and the BBC shows Breaking the CodeRailway Nation: A Journey In Verse and We Are Here. She received a Fringe First Award for Chef and won a Sky Arts Academy Poetry Award.

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