One of the biggest names in NZ slam poetry is set to compete against some of the world's best.
Mohamed Hassan has spent most of his professional life as a journalist, sharing other people’s stories. But he shares his own story through slam poetry.
Having won New Zealand’s National Poetry Slam last year, Mohamed was invited to perform with the best of the best at the Individual World Poetry Slam in Arizona. When he takes the stage there next week he’ll become the first person from New Zealand to ever compete.
I talked to Mohamed (who in regular life is a reporter for RNZ) just before he jumped on a plane to slam poetry glory.
You’re from Cairo and you moved to Auckland what can you remember about that experience?
I was born in Cairo and raised there until I was about eight years old. In 1997, me and my family moved to Auckland.
In Cairo we lived in an apartment block amongst a sea of apartment blocks. I was living on the ninth floor in this big city that was just packed full of people. There was almost no greenery at all; everything was just concrete and then around that concrete was just desert.
The only thing I knew about New Zealand was from advertisements we had for milk which just had pictures of green pastures and absolutely no context.
How much of that experience influences your writing?
The language barrier was really difficult for me. I knew a little bit of English from school but I could not communicate with my teachers and peers so I had to pick it up very fast how to speak, and figure that out.
Over the years growing up, especially as a young Muslim with everything that’s been going on in the world in the last 15 years, it’s definitely shaped who I am.
I had to figure out who I was. When I started getting into poetry it made it a lot clearer for me it didn’t give me answers but it gave me a platform to explore that journey about trying to understand myself.
When did you start writing and how did that process begin?
I don’t know when I started writing or why, but it happened naturally. I just cherished the opportunity to write.
Over time I just started writing poems and not showing anyone; it was very cathartic for me. At university, I started listening to a podcast featuring spoken word poetry.
I searched around for places that I could do it, I just turned up with a shitty love poem I read it at the audition and everyone clapped afterwards and people said nice things to me and I was told I should come again, and all of a sudden I had this entire world open up to me.
I realised this was a place you could speak your mind, speak your peace, speak your story and people were genuinely interested and would listen to you. I was addicted and empowered by it, I couldn’t stop.
Writing is quite a private thing, but poetry and especially slam poetry is a very public because you’re sharing parts of yourself with so many people - is the process quite crafted for you or do you just keep going?
Sometimes I just write and write and I can’t stop. Every chance I get it just spills out.
Sometimes it's difficult, some poems are really dear to me and I have to mull it over to figure out how I want to say what I want to say, other times it’s about letting it simmer.
I find the more I’m performing the more I’m thinking about the audience and the purpose of wanting to perform. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
You’re a journalist, you’re a poet - both are deeply personal professions is this path fraught with difficulty?
Journalism is something you get into and you sign away your social life and sanity; it takes over your whole life. And as a poet or an artist you don’t have work hours at all and you have to put yourself out there too. I don’t value my sleep as much anymore, because I’m doing two things I’m head over heels in love with.
And you’re going over to Arizona to compete in the Individual Poetry Slam ...
Going to Arizona is terrifying, a very terrifying thing for me to put myself through. We’ve been building the New Zealand scene up to just create a structure where it would be possible for us one day to let people compete.
I’m the first person being sent to that competition from the National Slam - it’s a big deal for us.
It’s an honour for me to go and a massive responsibility.
*Interview edited for brevity and clarity.
You can also check out Mohamed's interview with Kim Hill: