Oubah Osman began exploring poetry when she was a teenager. As it is for many during that tumultuous time, writing was a way to process the emotions and events that comprise life experience. “I was able to communicate through poetry,” Osman says, reflecting on her early writing experience. “I think journaling was helpful and then when it moved into creating poetry, it was even more helpful. So it was really just for myself.” While her initial foray into poetry was for herself, her first chapbook of poetry, Hereditary Blue, positions the poet in conversation with other artists, art forms, and the world around her.
For example, the poem “For Vincent Van Gogh” is written as a dedication to the painter and his work, but also as an acknowledgement to his experience with mental health; dying before his work was exhibited and not being able to live comfortably. “I wanted to write something in dedication,” she says, “and not sensationalizing him or his work. But rather to embed myself within this work.”
This embedding is an intentional invitation to immerse oneself in the poem, as the speaker says, “Look into my palm and read these as thread/ as scripture, or as you’d like. I, too, am/ landscape and thundercloud.” When discussing the speaker’s literal immersion into Van Gogh’s paintings, Osman notes, “I think we interact with artwork in a way that’s more accessible and in a way that’s more encouraged [than the way we] interact with poetry.” She describes “a wedge in there” that creates distance with poetry. “It’s interesting to talk about artwork as a means of accessing literature,” she says, discussing the ekphrastic poem.
When Leanne Toshiko Simpson invited Osman to her undergraduate creative writing class, she encouraged the students to recreate lines from “For Vincent Van Gogh,” using the ekphrasis poem as an entry point. “As this was in dedication to art, [she encouraged them] to write a poem in dedication to this poem. They wrote the most amazing stuff, it was unbelievable. I remember nearly crying when reading it.”
In numerous ways, the institutionalization of poetry has caused many readers to examine and analyze work, but not leave space for emotional reactions or recreation as Toshiko Simpson fostered in her class. “As soon as [her students] realized this was about artwork, I feel like they were allowed to access it,” she says. “Like there was a certain permission that was established for them. I could see by the questions that they were asking that they were intrigued by this relationship between art and word.” Osman wants us to give ourselves the permission to approach poetry with the same methods that we use for visual art: to describe how a metaphor makes us feel, to be curious about the shape of a line on the page.
While it can be easy to think of “art” as a Western, canonized body – Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Rembrandt – Hereditary Blue challenges this notion while responding to it, making artwork familiar and familial. The cover of the collection is adorned with a photo from Osman’s family album, which also serves as a vehicle for ekphrasis throughout the collection. “A lot of Somali people have these photos where it’s their parents, aunts, and uncles sitting for their portrait with flowers around them,” she explains. “They really remind me of Malick Sidibé’s work,” she says, recalling the Malian photographer whose portraits captured the beauty and nuance of life in Bamako.
“I’ll never be able to talk to my parents when they were that age,” she continues. “I feel like I always go back to this level of dialogue between the image and myself, that is informing the person I am and also informing the way I see the world.” While the subjects in these images are often separated, “they’re tethered by this image and by their communication – trying to reach out to one another.”
The idea of reaching out is one that is both literal and metaphorical in Hereditary Blue. Osman says, “I write a lot about hands in general. I just love physical contact with people. I love. It just feels so intimate and sweet. There’s a lot that’s transmitted through hands.” While the collection is threaded with the theme of miscommunication, Osman notes that sometimes it’s about “the things that are unsaid but felt.”
These gestures of communication appear in what Osman describes as “the hands [having] a certain language that exists in spoken language and written language.” From the floating mother’s wrists in “Hereditary Blue” and the image of Saturday tucking the speaker under a thumb in “Bookmark,” to the speaker of “Periphery,” who begins existence between a thumb and forefinger. Osman is a poet who masterfully weaves the corporeal into these poems.
Towards the end of our conversation, Osman tells me, “I believe in the power of words.” One strength of her words—beyond her technical skill in weaving them together, the vivid images she conjures up—is her willingness to let words be accessible. Hereditary Blue has the familiarity of an old friend, invites the reader to feel deeply, and presents itself as a conversation waiting to be had – and that is true power.
Natasha Ramoutar is an Indo-Guyanese writer by way of Scarborough (Ganatsekwyagon) at the east side of Toronto. Her work has been included in projects by Diaspora Dialogues, Scarborough Arts, and Nuit Blanche Toronto and has been published in The Unpublished City II, PRISM International, Room Magazine, Living Hyphen, Understorey Magazine, and more. Her first poetry collection Bittersweet will be released in 2020 by Mawenzi House.