The veins run blood from Africa, I was fed in Africa, Torn from Africa….We have long forgotten that we are not from Africa, we are Africa….. There is no reason to go searching for my history in hidden caves….. I await the day I can sit back and overdose on Africa. We all know that only shepherds should rely on what they heard. Neighbours are relatives, tribes are families, Africa is within us. I am 54 nations in one. My mother is known as the cradle of life……." Excerpts from the poem 'I am Africa' Ahmed "Knowmadic" Ali
Jacana Books was delighted to have the pleasure of Edmonton Poet Laureate, Somali-Canadian Ahmed "Knowmadic" Ali recently for an Over Coffee Interview. Born in Somalia, lived in Italy, this poet is grateful to call Canada home. Three things come across when you speak to Knowmadic: his humility, wisdom and his generosity. Knowmadic’s wisdom is the type that comes from spending time with himself and with elders in his community. He is the son of a nomad father and a farmer mother from Mogadishu in Somalia. His background it appears, gives him a more nuanced approach to life. His rare ability to interpret words and make them come to life is indeed a gift from God.
Knowmadic is versed in the Somali oral traditions (spoken-word) and in western poetry. His time in Psychology and Political science at the MacEwan University gave him the skills he uses to captivate his audience worldwide. With his stage name Knowmadic: a name which amalgamates knowledge and his nomadic roots, Ahmed sits comfortably with the greats. A bit too early to begin to speak of his legacy, most of us know that the seeds he has planted will outlive him.
A community organiser, public speaker, youth worker and a full-time father eagerly anticipating the birth of his second child, the Knowmadic story is a story of fearlessness, hope and courage which everyone in Edmonton and indeed the world needs to know. When he first came to Canada, he spoke only in Italian and Somali. A testament to his versatility, he has mastered the English language speaking and understanding it better like he was a native speaker. His life exemplifies the time-tested truth that in Edmonton, Alberta, all things are possible. Extremely passionate about his identity, language and poetry, Ahmed is the co-founder and current artistic director of Edmonton's only spoken word collective: Breath In Poetry. JacanaBooks is grateful to Knowmadic for sharing his time with us.
JacanaBooks: ‘I Am Africa’ is one of your most powerful poems. What inspires your poetry?
When I started out as a poet, I was often referred to as the African poet, prior to that, I had always found it weird that instead of being a poet, I was labelled ( by others) as the African poet. I didn't understand the intention. I wrote the poem as a criticism. I wrote the poem telling them, "don't tell me what you read, don't assume that I am African, don't try to label me." I embody Africa. I carry within my veins, Africa! I am Africa!
JacanaBooks: Who are the poets you look up to?
There are quite a few. They are less literature and more philosophical. I enjoy reading Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes amongst others. I love reading. It helps to shape my understanding of things. But, I love listening and watching more. I love storytelling. I love to feel the intention behind peoples’ words. Language for me is the tool to get information across. When the words are on paper, it is up to me to find out what the word means. My inspiration? I look up to my father, he is a poet in his own right and I look up to him in many ways.
We are all walking artists, our experiences shape our writing”. Ahmed Knowmadic
JacanaBooks: Who were the others you referred to just now?
As an African poet, more often than not, you have to be careful. There is prejudice and racism everywhere. If you call it out, you are less likely to get opportunities and to be listened to. In my term as Poet Laureate, I meet with a lot of boards and in those boards are a lot of white people. So instead of saying that, in my poems, I refer to "the professional people" in the world.
The higher up you go, the whiter it becomes. It is like mountain climbing. I am a living poet. My poetry is not dead. I want to get poetry out to everybody, not just to people who look for my poetry. Poetry has to be accessible. I go to places where people don't expect poetry. I performed recently at a climate change event, teachers conference, I took my poetry there. You never know who might be inspired.
The"other" people are the privileged academics who look at me like an African, they are the ones who don't recognise that my language is thousands of years older than the English language. They are so fixated on how things are meant to be like, you need to be traditional. What does that even mean?
"I don't raise fits, I raise points." Knowmadic Ali.
JacanaBooks: Do you feel Canadian enough?
That is the weird part of being the first generation. Even within my own community, I am not Somali enough. Edmonton is still new, you can pioneer here. Calgary is more cowboyish. Everyone is connected in Edmonton. We are all linked to a certain way. It is a collective effort. If you want it in Edmonton, you can get it. Whatever it is. We don't try to hoard. The reason why I sit on boards is that information makes us powerful. The reason why I am able to live successfully is that I am surrounded by people who are smarter than me and inspire me to be more.
"Poetry is whatever you want it to be." Knowmadic Ali
JacanaBooks: How did you feel being a Poet Laureate?
They did not want me to be a poet laureate. I got shortlisted thrice for it. They said I was not traditional enough. I was like whose tradition, mine? Whose? I got angry, but I reminded myself that they are ignorant. I went to my mum and I said mum I have lost this twice, she said to me, if a million people are trying to stop you, they will fail. You will get what is meant for you. Be humble. The third time around, I won it and I was glad it happened when it did.
"Home is where the heart is, my heart is always with me. Home that is wherever I go." Knowmadic Ali
JacanaBooks: What do you do as Poet Laureate?
From poetry workshops to reading poetry at Climate Change events, my work is all over the place. I love being a Poet Laureate. I am grateful that I am able to go all over the community and bring poetry into spaces that it's not commonly found. The most beautiful thing is that my family left Somalia because of the war, in 2016, I got invited back to Sudan to do a poetry workshop. I am overwhelmed sometimes by the privilege that I have, but I am grateful because I have always wanted to be in a position to give back to the community.
"It is the discipline that differentiates you. There are so many good poets out there." Knowmadic Ali
JacanaBooks: How do you bring poetry to our level? Some immigrants don't have spare change.
I work with some organisations. I volunteer, I host initiatives that are not privileged, I am MC for those events, I try to take poetry everywhere I go. Poetry is completely accessible. Spoken word is accessible. People don't need to buy books, I am privileged because I don't have to carry a book. I can just speak. People are realising that poetry is all around them. RAP means rhythm and poetry and some young people don't know that!
It is about redefining what poetry is. It is not confined to paper. Oral language has been around for thousands and thousands of years. I make sure that I get involved in initiatives that are outside my own. Poetry is my life. I love poetry. I am poetry.
"I have brown skin and an Arabic name… I am a proud Somali…." Knowmadic Ali
JacanaBooks: What has been your greatest challenge/ achievement?
My greatest achievement would be to live as an artist, to be a full-time artist. It is a privilege. A moment of greatness was when I was told that they were teaching my poetry in a refugee camp in Kenya. I have been to so many places and met a lot of wonderful people. That is a blessing. The challenge is that right now, I am comfortable as an artist. Now, I need to remind my self that I need to keep improving and growing and get out of my comfort zone. I do so well with other things. My blessing is that I am a full-time artist and the curse is that I am a full-time artist. It is the discipline that I need to keep being the best. The discipline is what makes you great. The struggle is what defines us. It is what made us. The process of hunting and getting that meat is what makes us. It is hard to define that success. One day you are in high demand and the next, you may not be.
"I am Africa." Knowmadic Ali
JacanaBooks: Any regrets?
No. I am exactly where I am supposed to be. I am content and grateful for every success that I have had and every mistake that I have had.
"Africa is within us. My mother is 54 nations in one." Knowmadic Ali
JacanaBooks: What next now for you?
My term is complete in July 2019. To some degree, I feel that there is a legacy already. Every Tuesday, people come out here (to the Nook cafe) for our poetry night. It has been running for ten years. In that time, I may have missed only four Tuesdays, a month. It gets packed. It is very diverse. To some degree, it is a legacy. I am working towards a spoken word festival. We are doing that as well. We would be working with the Art Gallery, we will have Exhibits and bring in artists. I am working towards creating an exchange program for artists between Canada and the United Kingdom.
"I never question your judgement, thank you for giving me life." Knowmadic Ali
JacanaBooks: Where can we keep up with you?
My website is the best place to keep in touch with me.
JacanaBooks: Are their enough opportunities in Edmonton here for immigrants?
Edmonton is still new and young. There are individuals who can help you get through the communities. There are people scattered. Our communities are tight-knit. It is finding that information. Edmonton is very important to me. I was built in Edmonton. The people in this city made me who I am. Edmonton is a fertile place. The people are welcoming. The system needs a lot of tweaking. But it is great. Our government recognised Black History Month for the first time in 2017. We are starting to be valued.
Edmonton is home to me. I am growing to grow here. There is 100% hope. If you are dedicated and passionate. There is no such thing as impossible in Edmonton. I am going to better myself and go for what I want to be.
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