Hanan Issa Welsh poet laureate

Hanan Issa Q&A: ‘People relate to authenticity’

Photograph courtesy of Hanan Issa

The Welsh National Poet on creativity, Eurovision and being rubbish at interviews

In July 2022, Hanan Issa was appointed National Poet of Wales, becoming the first Muslim to hold the role. Issa, who is from Cardiff and of Welsh and Iraqi heritage, is one of the country’s leading creative figures. She published a collection of poems titled My Body Can House Two Hearts in 2019, has co-founded the diverse open-mic collective Where I’m Coming From and written for the Channel 4 comedy We Are Lady Parts, about a Muslim women’s punk band.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity

How did you get into writing?

Since I was a little girl, writing has been that space that’s always been comfortable, that helps me make sense of the world, of what was happening to me and of what was happening around me. I have notebooks filled with very terrible poems. The change for me was realising that writing was something that I could use as a way to connect with other people, rather than just as a personal way of getting my feelings out.

What brought about that change?

It’s sad that it was a negative experience. The then Prime Minister David Cameron was on a news segment talking about how Muslim women didn’t integrate into British society enough and I just remember feeling so angry and frustrated and helpless. I couldn’t walk up to him and say, “Well, excuse me, I think what you’ve just said is absolute rubbish,” so I put it into a poem. I showed it to a friend, who said I needed to put it out there, so I did. I shared it on Facebook and got comments and messages from women saying, “Thank you for putting it into words.” I thought, “Wow, this is kind of powerful” — that way of connecting through language, through words, through performance. 

Who are some of the poets that you admire?

Two of my favourite Arabic writers are Zeina Hashem Beck from Lebanon and Nazik al-Malaika from Iraq. Americans like Audre Lorde, Ada Limón, and Joy Harjo. A Welsh writer that really influences my work is the critic Raymond Williams, who wrote a lot about the concept of culture itself. 

How did you become National Poet of Wales?

It’s not something that I had on my bingo list of things to do. Every few years, a poet is selected by Literature Wales. The call went out and I nominated three people for it, then I got messages from other people saying, ‘Oh, I’ve nominated you.’ I went to a series of interviews and was surprised that it all just came very naturally, because I am rubbish at job interviews. I thought, “Maybe I could do this.” I got the call the day before my son’s birthday. It was funny, because my husband was in the car with me and I had to pull over to answer. When they told me, I was just silent. He was like, “She’s here, but she can’t say anything! She’s in shock.” It was an incredible moment. 

You’ve also written for film…

When you are someone who has a lot of creative output, sometimes it doesn’t quite fit the vehicle that you’re used to using. There are times when I’ll have an idea and I’ll try to squash it into a poem and I’m like, “Oh, this isn’t working.” Then I think, “What could this look like? What could this be?” I tend to work very visually, even with poetry. Because a lot of my work focuses on a mixture of real life and folklore and mythology, I think it lends itself very nicely to film. It’s mainly about just not limiting yourself. I love that sense of not quite knowing what I’m doing, turning to people who do know, then developing those skills and learning. 

I wrote a short film called The Golden Apple, which is a modern take on an old fairy tale. I’ve got another short story that will be out on BBC Radio Four soon about a little old Bengali lady who has experienced a loss and subsequently sees unicorns everywhere. 

Do you have a favourite director?

One who has really inspired me is Hayao Miyazaki from Studio Ghibli. I’ve actually got his pictures on my wall behind me. He can tell very intense human stories. There are no clear lines between good and evil and all the characters are very realistically human and complex. He tells stories that are really deep and intense about nature and our relationship with each other, but he does it in such an uplifting, light way that captures your imagination. I’ve always loved fantasy and seen it as a very easy vehicle to tell stories.

What’s it like being a Welsh Muslim poet?

It’s an interesting balance, because I think people do want to simplify you and label you as something. It’s getting that balance between expressing myself as an individual, but also trying to engage people with questions that I’m interested in as a Muslim woman. The Golden Apple was partially inspired by a hadith that I heard, where the prophet Muhammad said: “if the Day of Judgment begins, or the world ends, and you have a seed in your hand, you should plant it.” That idea that everything around you is dying, and the world’s ending, but you should still plant that seed, even if it’s not going to have time to grow, because of the sense of care that we should have for the Earth that we live on just blew my mind. That was the kernel of the idea. 

I think of things that inspire me as a person and I am not afraid to have overtly Muslim or Arab or Iraqi things in my work. That is a concern for writers today — whether if they write about openly Muslim aspects of life, other people won’t relate to it. I think, really, when it comes from a place of authenticity, people will find a way to relate to your work.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I’ve just completed a poem for the Eurovision project. It’s a project called Home from Home with the National Poetry Library in Liverpool. They paired up photographers and artists with poets. We were sent an image by a Ukrainian photographer or artist and had to respond to it. I thought that there was something quite beautiful about being a Muslim woman responding to a Ukrainian artist’s work. Even though, on the surface, we might seem like very different people, I think there are a lot of crossovers in the ways that we’re viewed, particularly by the media. I think it’s important to try and dispel these attitudes of divide and conquer. 

What would your dream project be?

Oh, anything to do with the American poet Terrence Hayes. Every time I read his poetry, I realise just how little I know about poetry. I also have this passion for a Welsh form of poetry called cynghanedd, which is all about the sound arrangement of words. I’d really like to see more English-language poets engage with it, because I think it’s a very untapped area of creativity.


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