It’s a rare poet who can write movingly about African migration to Europe and also tweet humorously about the VH1 reality show “Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta.” Every generation of writers and readers has mourned the shrinking place of poetry in our lives, and they may not be wrong. They also may not be looking in the right places. Young poets are on Tumblr and Twitter, composing affecting and funny verse as short as a hundred and forty characters and also stretching much longer. Verse that is then reblogged and retweeted by thousands of followers who see themselves reflected in the posts. Of this new genre of poets, Warsan Shire, a twenty-six-year-old Somali-British woman, is a laureate.
Shire was the actual Young Poet Laureate of London in 2014, the city’s first. Born in Kenya to parents from Somalia, Shire grew up in London, where she has always felt like an outsider, and embodies the kind of shape-shifting, culture-juggling spirit lurking in most people who can’t trace their ancestors to their country’s founding fathers, or whose ancestors look nothing like those fathers. In that limbo, Shire conjures up a new language for belonging and displacement. What she has described, in an interview, as the “surrealism of everyday immigrant life—one day you are in your country, having fun, drinking mango juice, and the next day you are in the Underground in London and your children are speaking to you in a language you don’t understand.”
Her poetry evokes longing for home, a place to call home, and is often nostalgic for memories not her own, but for those of her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, people who forged her idea of her ancestral homeland through their own stories. With fifty thousand Twitter followers and a similar number of Tumblr readers, Shire, more than most today, demonstrates the writing life of a young, prolific poet whose poetry or poem-like offhand thoughts will surface in one of your social media feeds and often be exactly what you needed to read, or what you didn’t know that you needed to read, at that moment.