Poet, writer and researcher Selina Nwulu is illuminating the way for those affected by identity and social justices through sharing her own experiences through poetry, while providing a clear nuance and depth on narratives often perpetuated within the mainstream. It was just five years ago when Selina first moved to London after graduating from studying languages at Leicester University, that she began performing and sharing her poetry. Just two years later she was the Young Poet Laureate of London, a position that enabled her to connect her poetry with new audiences across the city with a profound effect. Identity and social justices are two themes prevalent in Selina’s writing that stem from her personal experiences; her Nigerian heritage, growing up in the ethnically sparse city of Rotherham and the common sense of displacement in our own skin that can naturally occur as a result. Now currently in a year long residency at London’s foremost language institute Free Word Centre where she is a writer and creator on a collaborative project with various scientists and artists, Selina takes a look at food in relation to both social issues and it’s literal effect on our emotional state.
Do you remember the first time you felt compelled to channel your feelings into a poem?
Growing up, I wrote quite a lot so I think that’s why I feel very comfortable with writing because it’s something that I grew up doing. I never imagined I’d share it but it was something that I did so even if something was happening at school or with a friend I’d write what I now see as poetry, but in my diary. I don’t know if I’d have put it this way when I was younger but now I can see that growing up in Rotherham being the only black girl in my school, the only black family on my street - there were a lot of instances in which I think that I was overlooked or misunderstood or characterised. So I feel like poetry, in a very quiet way, was my way of being able to express myself without apology and to feel grounded by that. I don’t think I’d have said that at the time because when you’re young you’re just trying to get on with it but looking back, I can see that poetry and wiring in general gave me a voice that I hadn’t quite developed in the outside world yet.
Poetry is often poignant in the way it can beautifully articulate our feelings, both universally and the ones we’re often too ashamed to have. What makes is so essential to you?
With poems of mine where I talk about identity or going back to Nigeria where my family are from, I’ve spoken to people afterwards who have said, ‘that really reminds me of my family’ so I feel likes there’s a universal appeal in the sense of where can we feel like we belong in our own skin and often people don’t feel that here for various reasons. I feel there’s that kind of universal message there, but I think if nothing else, the things I’ve written around social issues and kind of the refugees - it’s so important to think about the human story around a large issue. I think our minds are full of so many automatic associations when you think of immigration or refuses that you lose sense of the story, you lose sense of the person.
Generally, given our political climate and our disillusion with big power, alternative voices, alternative ways of telling stories, of reflecting on the world are the things people are turning to more than ever.
Are there certain themes you feel you naturally or consciously explore more than others?
I do feel that the news for better or worse is often something that triggers me to write so in a bit of a dry way, current affairs is something that I come back to. What I like to explore as well is a bit of wordplay and all the rest of it - to literally take some of the words that are being used and play with it. I’ve not really explored it yet, but I am also very inspired by dance, movement and theatre. In the near future I’d really like to incorporate that in my work, the ideas of how movement can influence poetry and words and vice versa. I love to dance and I love to watch it so I feel very inspired by that whether I’m dancing or watching. I’m really getting into writers of colour, particularly black female writers. This comes back to writers being able to give voice to experiences I didn’t know affected me. It feels very important that I read different writers of colour and see how they’ve worded and expressed the different obstacles they’ve faced. That inspires me and tells me that that’s something I can do and carry on doing as well.
Who are some of your female role models that have influenced your practice today?
I’m really grateful to have grown up with four older sisters. Being the only black girl in my school and it not being very diverse, growing up with four older sisters that I could look up to was a lifeline for me. I’m really really grateful for that. I’ve grown up now so it’s not quite the same dynamic as when I was a child, but in my formative years the role models I had were very much my older sisters.
Where does the future of poetry lie in your opinion?
I think that all indication is that there’s a resurgence of poetry and poetry is becoming more popular. I’m inevitably biased because i’m gravitating towards poetry circles so it’s always popular in those circles. I think poetry is more widely recognised and I think crucially different kinds of poetry are more widely recognised. Hopefully we’re widening the gap between page and stage poetry and the rest of it, and different forms being equally valued and appreciated. Generally, given our political climate and our disillusion with big power, alternative voices, alternative ways of telling stories, of reflecting on the world are the things people are turning to more than ever. I’m hopeful that poetry continues to connect with people and also continues to attract more people.
Written on the theme of memories invoked by scent, we invited Colombian artist Herikita to illustrate her response to Selina's poem Crushed Flowers.
I found you in a detergent,
smelt you in the chest of a freshly washed shirt.
My hands clenched it in reflex
the way lovers grab at sheets. Muscle memory
Your scent brings you back to me in a precise fashion,
reminds me of the edges of your frame.
The crackingly atoms in the gaps
between our profiles when our faces touch
I trace the slow droop from your forehead to nose
with my finger. Discover your lips as a full bodied wine.
Black cherry and aged oak swirl on my tongue,
drink deeply, love, drink
You’re whispering again like you used to,
as if the surrounding walls and furniture are too much
of an intrusion. Your whispers are draped
in a deep and mellow timbre. As rippling as an ocean current
I know you should not stay.
Before long our ghosts will return to yank open
our jaws and reveal the stench of words
we’d kept rotting in our mouths.
They’ll start hissing and jabbing at us,
remind us of the contours of our faces in anger.
Our smiles will start to crumble.
We grew a quiet love,
holding pain and disbelief at its root
so we only had crushed flowers to offer each other.
For tonight this is enough. So I make
scented water from dropped petals
and I sit with you till the ghosts come.