WORDS BY ISABELLE WATTENBERG
Usman Hameedi comprises a long list of accomplishments and identities. He is a poet, educator, son of Pakistani immigrants, New Yorker, spoken word champion, and scientist, currently working in research at Voyager Therapeutics in Massachusetts. This year he adds published author to his accolades, with his debut poetry collection, Staying Right Here, published by Button Poetry.
Poetry found Hameedi at a young age: He began in high school, working with the group Soulful Poets in Training (SPIT) under the tutelage of poet t’ai freedom ford. He has since founded and performed in numerous slam poetry groups and competitions, performing onstage across the country to spread and celebrate the art form. But writing a full collection of poetry thrust Hameedi into another new territory.
“Initially the book was really scary because … I can be even more vulnerable because I don’t have to say things out loud that I am hesitant to speak about,” Hameedi says. He said he erects a mental barrier when performing slam poetry that prevents—or protects—him from speaking about highly personal topics, such as family or personal growth. “As I got more into [writing the book], it felt very releasing,” he says.
Hameedi’s book focuses on finding home—not necessarily the act of finding a physical place, but of finding oneself and one’s truth even when a physical home is new or constantly in flux. He touches on elements of that journey, such as navigating American customs and biases and shouldering loss, as well as ways he has discovered home in unexpected places when he travels to perform.
“Home can be a very complex thing,” he says. He recalled finding unexpected connection and confidence at the 2017 Texas Grand Slam competition, far from his East Coast roots. “How can a place be home if I just got here? Home has to be more than an address because I’m more comfortable here [in Texas] than where I grew up.”
Hameedi says he’s excited to connect with a new audience and share the latest step in his growth as a writer at his book release at Icehouse on April 6.
“I think at the end of the book I felt kind of empty, but in a good way. I was able to get closure in a lot of things, and what’s next is an open canvas,” Hameedi says. “So many of those poems were in my heart in my 20s, and I wanted to say them but I didn’t have the physical words—or I didn’t know if anyone would want to hear them.”
Hameedi says he also wants other young people to recognize their voices matter and can find eager listeners. In addition to coaching poetry slam competitions, he promotes access to and adoption of slam poetry, particularly in classrooms. He currently serves on the Mass Poetry’s Board of Directors and partners with Springpoint Schools, where he’s helped educators incorporate slam poetry into the high school experience.
“I was Button’s first Pakistani author,” Hameedi notes. “To still be [a] first is a complex feeling. But it’s really exciting. I’ve had friends share my work in classrooms, and to have brown students say, ‘This is really good’—that speaks for itself.”
WHEN YOU GO
8 PM, Icehouse, 2528 Nicollet Ave., Mpls.
$20 advance admission + book // $25 at the door
$15 advance admission (no book) // $20 at the door