Full Title: “Warsan Shire talks to Bernardine Evaristo about becoming a superstar poet: ‘Beyoncé sent flowers when my children were born’ (via Guardian)”
When an email from Beyoncé’s office first landed in Warsan Shire’s inbox, she assumed it was some kind of prank. It wasn’t. Beyoncé – the real Beyoncé – was inviting Shire, a 27-year-old British-Somali poet from Wembley, north-west London, to collaborate. The result was the revolutionary 2016 visual album Lemonade, on which Shire is credited with “film adaptation and poetry”; her verses are read aloud between songs. Shire has also since contributed work to Beyoncé’s 2020 film Black is King and wrote a specially commissioned poem, I Have Three Hearts, to announce the singer’s 2017 pregnancy with twins.
But even before Beyoncé came knocking, Shire was starward bound. After a responsibility-laden adolescence, spent combining writing with co-parenting her three younger siblings, Shire published her debut chapbook of poems, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth in 2011, aged just 23. In 2013, she was appointed the first Young People’s Laureate for London and in 2015, her poem Home became a viral anthem for the refugee crisis. Shire’s first full poetry collection, Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head, comes out next month. In between these professional milestones, she also found time to meet and marry a Mexican American charity worker called Andres, move continents, and have two children.
For the bestselling author Bernardine Evaristo, all this is a delight but no surprise. “Beyoncé chose to collaborate with Warsan because of the richness of her work,” she says. “It transcends these perceived barriers and boundaries around women’s experiences.” Evaristo was 60 in 2019 when she found her own global fame, by winning the Booker prize with her eighth book, Girl, Woman, Other. Evaristo’s route to the top had been slow and winding, so she determined to blaze a more direct trail for those who came after. With young talent exactly like Shire in mind, she initiated The Complete Works poetry mentoring scheme in 2007 (Shire was a mentee) and founded the Brunel International African Poetry prize in 2012 (Shire was the inaugural winner). This year, Evaristo completes her trek to the apex of the British literary establishment, by assuming the presidency of the Royal Society of Literature (the same august organisation that in 2018 elected Shire as its youngest fellow).