When Azura Tyabji stepped up to the microphone at a community forum this spring, most of the audience members had no idea what to expect.
Tyabji is small, with a halo of dark curly hair. Dressed in jeans and sneakers, she seemed an unlikely choice to end the evening. Any doubts dissipated as soon as Tyabji began to perform her poem, “What to do on bad days, in currently 11 parts.”
on bad days
deadlines take the backseat and you reconstruct yourself with
is ending, yes
But you have seen it end, and begin again in the morning
hundreds of times
The audience, most decades older than this Seattle teen, leaned forward to take in a poem that could have been written by one of their contemporaries.
Tyabji has been writing since she was a girl. “Occasionally I’ll find these tiny books I wrote in,” she says. “They’re, like, two inches, very small, with eight pages.”
She started to write poetry in eighth grade as part of an assignment. Tyabji credits her teacher with nurturing her ambitions and providing her the freedom to choose whatever subject matter she liked. She chose to write about her great-grandfather, and she remembers the enthusiastic audience response.
“That’s what really prompted me to continue performance poetry specifically,” Tyabji says. “It provided me with a space where I could evoke emotions from an audience. That was really powerful.”
Tyabji continues to write poetry at Nova High School, an alternative school in Seattle’s Central Area. Her work is most often inspired by what she calls “all these isms” — racism, sexism, homophobia. The poem, “What to do on bad days,” represents relatively new subject matter for her.
“While a lot of my pieces do try to tackle big systems of oppression, I come back to this idea that my poetry is for my growth and for my health. Some days that’ll mean writing about oppression; other days it means writing about my own insecurities.”
you may be overwhelmed by the whirlwind of the world and all of
you may not be able to leave your closet yet
but you can still invite others in
and stay afloat.
Tyabji is a Seattle native; her father is of Indian descent and her mother is African American. The eldest of three children, Tyabji feels lucky that her family supports her passion for writing. She also counts herself fortunate when it comes to teachers.
“I was in this spoken word poetry class,” Tyabji says. “And we had an end of the year performance.”
Tyabji read one of her poems. Afterward, her teacher pushed her to visit a poetry open mike night, sponsored by a local group called Youth Speaks.
“I went one Sunday night,” says Tyabji. “And I read my poem and people complimented me afterwards. I was like, wow, I want to continue being part of this!"
Youth Speaks is an arm of Arts Corps, a nonprofit arts education program based at West Seattle’s Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. Youth Speaks sponsors citywide poetry slams — contests for spoken word youth poets. It also provides adult mentors for the teen writers. The organization has been a lifeline for a quiet, introspective girl like Tyabji.
“Youth Speaks has given me this community of people who both give me safety and also challenge me to grow as a person, and grow as an artist,” Tyabji says.
Within a year of her first open mike night, Tyabji was a regular participant in the competitive slams. She did well enough to make the 2016 team of youth poets that represented Seattle at the national Brave New Voices slam in Washington, D.C.
stop on a highway overpass
and watch the road below: it is the vein of a creature greater than
and you are humbled
and continue with purpose
When she performs, Tyabji wears a necklace her grandmother gave her. It’s two-inch long capsule with silver wings on either side, that hangs on a silver chain. The capsule contains small pieces of coral and shell.
“I don’t know when I started to wear it every day,” she says, “but I always wear it when I’m in a performance or any kind of stressful situation.”
Tyabji has one more year of high school. When you ask her if she plans to study writing in college, she laughs.
“I feel like I should be giving this more thought!” she says.
Tyabji would love to publish some of her poetry, “even if that means printing it out on the school printer and stapling it myself.”
And she thinks about becoming a teaching artist, to mentor another generation of youth poets.
“And tell them that poetry doesn’t have to be something you grow out of. It’s something that can stay with you your whole life.”
you do not have an expiration date
you are already equipped
with all the tools to sustain yourself
you cannot help but make magic.