As the political landscape continues to undergo debate and internal party friction, literary founder, Shagufta K, and her fierce spoken word and poetry collective – Yoniverse – conjure hopefulness, warmth, “intricacy, experimental ideas,” sharpness and human connection. “We wanted to champion diversity and dialogue by introducing rich and individualistic narratives of previously unheard South Asian women to the mainstream,” she told us. “This could be successfully done through the outspoken medium of open mic. As a result, we decided to create nights dedicated solely to this – we dubbed them Golden Tongue.” With the professional culture of performance art also exploding and increasing in momentum, Shagufta was quite right to state that it’s a “landmark moment” for her collective. “We will have regular headliners and performer’s slots so that women of our cultural background can vocalise their many experiences in the most powerful way. The arts world in general is no longer exclusively a white middle-class industry, either. With digital platforms and social media complementing its growth, career options here are more viable and we want to be a part of that too.” Indeed, the first poetry night of its punchily cultural kind in the UK, the Yoniverse Collective’s energetic event symbolically took place on the 2nd March, this Friday just gone, immediately before the London Women’s March on the 4th. Opening to great success, with a copious amount of mic slots allocated, in what turned out to be a sold-out evening well in advance, consisting of free-flowing verse, luminous décor – a circle of lights surrounded the speakers as well as a beautifully intertwined string of red and yellow flowers which hugged the mike, forming the stage – Yoniverse’s desired outcome of positively “amplifying the voices of South Asian women by giving them the space to share their stories”, was undeniably a glowing success. Another fluid member of the collective, internationally recognised performance poet, Shruti Chauhan, headlined the evening, shortly followed by an army of emerging open mic acts. “Shruti has this incredible way of delivering these quietly powerful messages,” Shagufta commented. “She moves you forward through shared themes such as culture and womanhood until the proverbial penny finally drops.”
Together with the poignancy and gender exploration, the featured female performers were also humorous, various in tone and fearlessly delved into thematic particulars of bi-cultural heritage, immigrant life, mother tongues, motherhood, sex, hidden secrets, mixed accents and both the marginalisation and bonuses of having a contemporary global identity. One poet cautioned of ‘an ascension of whiteness/the height of which is the reaching your forthrightness, and me feeling just that tiny bit inadequate.’ Shagufta read at one point on the sometimes-exploited fragile place of women in South Asian culture: ‘the hands our boyfriends leaving invisible, empty promises across (...) our curves.’ Thus, not only are these women “nuanced and loud” about their cultural experiences, as the eloquent founder mentioned earlier, but also vitally contemporary and empowering in their substantiation of a severely underdeveloped subjective space. “That’s also the unique beauty of spoken word,” Shagufta added: “the performer’s ability to be forthcoming and vulnerable resonates with others and emotionally builds you up as well as the wider community. Hardships can be difficult to experience alone and hearing someone intimately share and own their personal truth makes everyone feel less isolated.”
This concept was physically embodied through the Yoniverse Collective’s resident DJ, and Gaysian rights activist, Reeta Loi, whose “music fused classic Bollywood tracks from the '70s and '80s with hip hop and electro beats, getting everyone up and jumping out of their seats together”. Such enrichment was also felt directly through the generous availability of samosas throughout the evening! “We are certainly planning another night soon – currently scheduled for May,” Shagufta proudly beamed. “Just reach out and speak to us if you’d like to be involved in the future. We also do monthly writing workshops, which is how the collective started, and can hold you through the process of preparing to speak.” The Yoniverse Collective is a highly impressive and experienced team. As well as Shruti and Shagufta, an award-winning artist and author of the poetry collection, Jam Is For Girls, Girls Get Jam, prominent spoken word artist Amani Saeed, prolific poet and lover of the dramatic arts, Afshan D’souza-Lodhi, multi-skilled and creative workshop specialist, Shareefa Energy, and Ted Talk-virtuoso Sophia Thakur, all contribute to Yoniverse’s unparalleled combined power. Thus, in seeking to overcome a cultural conundrum, this talented tribe of women at once contribute to the healing of an otherwise fractured world. “We want people to be able to relax, feel inspired, talk freely and feel at home,” Shagufta aptly finished. “We hope that our open mode of speaking can break down bigger boundaries and put forward all sorts of counter-narratives too. We want to meditate on issues and dissolve the echo chamber-mentality: whatever a listener’s ideological persuasion. The more diverse the spoken word scene, the better the quality and the impact on its audience.”
Tell us more about the origins of your spoken word night, Golden Tongue?
We wanted to start a modern movement to truly represent South Asian Women. Across the pond in Canada, you have great movement of such women - Rupi Kaur for example - but we didn’t have the same access to such platforms here. Yoniverse Collective wants to see what happens when we do support each other. So far, we have gained a lot of traction from the Midlands to London to further North. We are more than one box or alternative female personality.
Why the name Yoniverse?
We wanted to reclaim the word ‘Yoni’ in Sanskrit. It could be seen as female genital-centric, but we see it more widely in terms of female dynamism. We wanted to have some simple wordplay with ‘verse’ and universe too!
Do you feel there is a cross-over between performance poetry and acting?
There’s definitely an overlap, but where they differ is the honesty and vulnerability. In live performance, you have to be aware of connecting with your audience and be entertaining in that way. There can’t be an emotional disconnect between you and the page. But you also connect through opening up and stripping yourself of artifice.
What grabs you most about performance poetry?
You can break the literary rules: mix up commas and sentence structure as well as your delivery. Many view poetry as old-school, but modern verse and mediums take away from the pompousness of that traditional practice because you do have to relate. This is why there is so much cross-over with rap and grime artists and use of vibrant performance spaces. Grammatical correctness doesn’t matter so much as the intention of the work.
Tell us a bit about your background?
I grew up loving stories. My mum would take me to the library so books were always my little friends. I’ve now been writing poetry and books for 15 years where my voice has really changed over the years. I’ve changed through my twenties along with the world. After 9/11, I’ve looked at the changing contexts: at racism and Islamophobia. My works talks of identity and sense of belonging.