"I started writing poetry in eighth grade," our February Poet in Residence, Azura Tyabji, tells me over the phone. She'd always considered herself a writer - she wrote and assembled her own books as a child, and she participated in the school paper as soon as she could - but "I never really considered myself a poet." It was an assignment to read a poem in a student showcase that inspired her. She credits her language arts teachers for "validating that yes, what I was writing was, in fact, poetry, and that it deserved an audience."
Tyabji continued to write poetry, but a couple years after her first reading, she became involved with the local writing organization Youth Speaks, and then everything became clear. At first, she attended a poetry slam and she found the competitive atmosphere to be too intimidating to participate, "but then I went to an open mic and it was one of the most welcoming, beautiful, nurturing communities that I'd ever witnessed. And I decided I want to join this beautiful community and give back to it and be a part of it." She's been a part of Youth Speaks ever since.
Ask Tyabji what poets she's reading right now and she enthusiastically supplies a list of names. "Locally, Tara Hardy is someone that I've been reading again and again and again, and I just want to see Anastacia-Renee speak at the Seattle Public Library." The two poets inspire Tyabji as performers, as writers, and as people. "I'm just in awe of how they craft their imagery and I think that they both really have this whimsical style that I hope to learn from," she says. And she reads the work of Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna "whenever I want to be inspired to observe my city."
Nationally, Tyabji is a big fan of spoken word artist Olivia Gatwood, whose 2017 collection New American Best Friend is a big influence on her work. "She writes very intimately about girlhood - she writes about period panties, and she has a poem called 'Ode to my Bitch Face.' She's so bold in how she describes and prioritizes girls." From Gatwood, Tyabji is learning how to "uplift women and girls to fight against shame."
Tyabji is a writer on the verge of a big shift. She's graduating high school this June, and she's staying in Seattle for her gap year before heading to a college that is "probably out of state." Is she concerned about leaving her community behind? "I'll be really sad to let Youth Speaks Seattle go when it is my time to leave," she says. "But I know that the community here will keep growing and keep preserving itself and also find new paths, and I can always come back and visit."
She has no doubt that she'll be able to find a community of poets no matter where she goes. "What I've learned for myself is that I can't write poetry alone. I'm always absorbing what other people have taught me, and I think that's how we all work as poets: absorbing and is being influenced by each other," Tyabji says.
But no matter where she ends up, Tyabji knows where her roots are. "I consider myself a Seattle poet," she says. "Not just because I was born here and grew up here, but because I try to write about my city, especially with how it's changing, how it's being transformed into a city that's not necessarily friendly to the same people that have lived here for a long time," both through gentrification and institutional racism.
"But I'm trying to challenge myself to write about what I love about the city. Yesterday I just watched a poem by Laura 'Piece' Kelly called 'Central District.'," Tyabji says. "She writes so lovingly about her community in the Central District and about growing up in Seattle, and that's something I want to challenge myself to remember as well: although the city has so many things that it needs to work on, there is beauty in it as well."
Tyabji sets a lot of goals for herself. She wants to do writing residencies, and publish a chapbook, and learn how to teach poetry. She's currently starting to co-teach a class on slam poetry at her high school, and she says "I can't wait to see what I'll discover about my own work when I teach others."
When Tyabji reads her own work, she radiates an air of confidence that many poets twice her age will never be able to muster. What's her secret? "When I'm preparing to share a poem for the first time, I really sit down with what I have written and I read it over - in my head first and then out loud."
As her own first audience, she says, "I read the poem until I really am confident that this piece brings me joy." And it's important "when you're sharing your work with other people to go somewhere where you're surrounded by people that love you unconditionally. Find your community - even if it's small. I'm really blessed to have the Youth Speaks community, and we really give love to every poet."
Tyabji likes to remember that all poets have anxiety about their work. "We're never going to get to a point where we're not anxious, where we're a hundred percent confident about anything. I could choose to despair over that fact, or I can use it as a motivator," she says.
"I think it's great that I will never be perfect," Tyabji says. "I think I can learn so much from that. I can always keep challenging myself."