Interviews, like love, don’t always run smoothly. Just ask this poet

By Richard Jinman

Zia Ahmed: “Everything is political. Even football.″⁣

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This isn’t going well. Zia Ahmed, the performance poet and playwright, is sitting opposite me in a cafe in London’s Camden Town. Trains rumble across a nearby bridge as I study the side of his face, an aspect I’ll become all too familiar with over the next hour.

I’ve just asked his age, an innocuous, but pertinent question for an exciting new British writer. He looks stricken, turns his face to the window and drives a fist into his eye socket. “Ah…” he sighs. “Is it, ah.” Silence. An espresso machine hisses in the background. After some coaxing we settle on an answer – he’s in his “30s” – and move on.

To be fair, I had some inclination that he was a shy, reticent character. Videos of his spoken word performances show a bearded man with a mass of black ringlets and anxious eyes enduring the spotlight rather than enjoying it. His hands tug at each other as he intones and his gaze appears fixed on a spot somewhere above the audience’s heads.

Zia Ahmed: “Everything is political. Even football.″⁣

Does he enjoy performing or does he have to force himself to do it? “It’s both innit,” he says. “I get very nervous. I get stage fright or whatever. But you do it and it’s done and there’s something about it that’s thrilling.”

Falling in love is the easy part. The challenge is everything that follows

Has it got any easier? “Err.. Yeah, well I’ve got more tools. Some days are good and it’s fine and others…” He looks out the window again. “If I’m nervous I’ll go a bit slower to calm myself down. It’s funny ’cause people think everything you do is an [artistic] choice … but sometimes you just have to slow down to get through it.”

Later, when we’re getting ready to leave, he smiles and suggests I should have emailed my questions. He could have written a piece of poetry in response and spared us both some discomfort.

The fact is, this son of a bus driver from Cricklewood in north London writes with dazzling clarity and perception. His distillations of the British Pakistani experience are by turns articulate and downright hilarious. Navigating the racial fault lines of contemporary Britain, he allows both sides to see each other and recognise the assumptions, sleights and microaggressions embedded in our daily interactions.

His most ambitious work to date is a play called I Wanna Be Yours, which opens at the Melbourne Theatre Company next week. It’s the story of Haseeb, a young British Pakistani poet from London and Ella, a white actor from Yorkshire. For them, falling in love is the easy part. The challenge is everything that follows: the obstacles of differing faith, culture and class and the navigation of their own prejudices and preconceptions and those of their family and friends. Love conquers all, they say, but does it? Can it?

I Wanna Be Yours stars Eleanor Barkla and Oz Malik as young lovers dealing with cultural divides.

If the title of the play sounds familiar it’s because it’s also the name of a poem (and more recently a memoir) by John Cooper Clarke. Clarke, who made his name as a “punk poet” in the 1970s, is revered as the original gangster of British performance poetry; a mouthy Mancunian who wrote about squalor and stupidity and made verse seem as exciting as a gig by the Buzzcocks or Stiff Little Fingers.

His poem I Wanna Be Yours is a declaration of love that uses banal items such as Ford Cortinas and coffee pots as similes of his devotion. For example: “I wanna be your vacuum cleaner, breathing in your dust”.

Ahmed first heard the poem in an English class in Year 8 when he was shown a video of Cooper Clarke performing it. “It’s the poem that got me into poetry,” he says now. “I remember loving that lesson so much. He wrote like himself, sounded like himself.” Years later, when Ahmed was looking for a title for his first play, he thought of Clarke’s ground-shifting poem and chose I Wanna Be Yours.

It wasn’t his first exposure to poetry – his father walked around the house singing along to tapes of traditional Pakistani poems in Urdu and Punjabi – but his Cooper Clarke-inspired epiphany is what made him think about writing for himself.

There were hiccups along the way. He considered studying drama, but realised his shyness would make auditions torturous. A sociology degree at London’s Brunel University was the alternative, but he dropped out after a term.

Poetry re-entered his life when he visited a friend who was taking part in a performance poetry course at the Roundhouse, a north London arts centre. It was run by the British spoken word artist Steven Camden (aka Polar Bear) and Ahmed was enthralled. He watched a video of Camden performing Jessica, a recollection of a boy’s fumbling first crush, and began to see performance poetry as a forum for his own ideas.

“I thought I wanna have a go at that. I loved it.”

Since then, he’s become a leading light of London’s live poetry scene. He won the Roundhouse’s annual slam poetry competition and was shortlisted for London’s Young Poet Laureate in 2015. Three years later he was chosen to be part of the Emerging Writers Group at London’s renowned Bush Theatre. I Wanna Be Yours – originally written as a monologue – made its stage debut there in 2019.

Eleanor Barkla and Oz Malik during rehearsals with director Tasnim Hossain.

Ahmed doesn’t demur when I suggest the character of Haseeb is largely autobiographical. “It’s a version of me. Parts of the play are completely made up and parts are my experiences and the experiences of friends and people I know.”

So, has he had a relationship with a Yorkshire actress? He laughs. “No, not myself. But honestly, just about everyone I meet nowadays is an actor, a director or a writer of some sort. It’s become my social scene, my world.”

When he wrote the play he was determined to avoid what he sees as theatrical tropes pertaining to race and racism and a tendency to focus on violent confrontation. He might have had Haseeb assaulted by a member of a far-right Islamophobic group, such as the English Defence League, for example, but that wasn’t the play he wanted to write.

“I made a conscious decision not to have any violence or racial slurs in the play,” he says. “There are certain theatre groups that think all drama is conflict, it’s all extremes. I was more interested in the subtle microaggressions, whether that’s in relation to race, gender or class.”

And so it goes. Haseeb is mistaken for a drug dealer more than once and marvels at the sight of white women wearing bindis at a music festival. They visit a curry house because Ella’s mother says it is recommended by Gordon Ramsay. Haseeb gets a job by putting an Anglo-Saxon name on his resume.

This accrual of indignities is what strains Haseeb and Ella’s relationship. It makes them ask “is it worth it, can we survive this?” Ahmed, to his credit, does not offer easy answers.

Can he see a time when he tires of being viewed first and foremost as an Anglo Pakistani writer – a conduit to help predominantly white audiences understand his experience? What if he wants to write a play about his other passions: football and Love Island, to name just two? He ponders the question then says: “I don’t mind being seen that way, but I do understand that viewpoint. I have friends who are writers and directors from my background who are sick of it already.

“Would a theatre commission a play from me about football? How would they feel if there was no mention of race or faith?” He pauses. “But you know what, I think everything is political. Even football.”

I Wanna Be Yours is Southbank Theatre, May 11-27;

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