Getting to Know Usman Hameedi, Author of Staying Right Here

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?

I first encountered poetry when I was in elementary school and then got more exposure to it in middle school. I enjoyed it. Poetry assignments were fun. But that was it. It wasn’t until high school that poetry became an art and form of expression. That’s when many of the rules and traditions of poetry were transformed. I felt freer to use words to share my story in a way that felt less confined and rigid. I first encountered spoken word during my high school years, and it very literally changed my life. I remember being a young person and wanting nothing more than to write. I loved shaping my experiences into stanzas and metaphors. I wanted to learn and soak up all that I could. I remember going to slams, watching Def Poetry Jam videos on YouTube, and reading so much. I couldn’t get enough, and it felt so empowering to discover that poetry and I belonged together. I was then fortunate enough to go to Brandeis University, where my Dean of Students was also a legend in the poetry community. With his support, I became heavily involved in the collegiate scene and then continued in the adult scene after I graduated. I’ve been lucky enough to be nurtured by so many in my journey.

Those memories are all so important to me. So much so, that I wanted to become a Board member of Mass Poetry so that I could ensure that students could have those spaces as well. I’m really proud of the work that we do at Mass Poetry because it keeps those memories of mine alive and gives opportunities for so many to connect with poetry and creative writing like I have been fortunate enough to.  

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?

I used to say a specific time, a specific mood, or a specific location, but the older I get, I realize that it’s hard to predict if that exact setting will ever come. In fact, waiting for that perfect time ends up being a great way to procrastinate on writing. The best time is when you have a moment. If that ends up being at a crowded coffee shop, awesome. Sitting in the car waiting for your partner, amazing. Actual moment of peace and quiet, definitely get to work!

You just have to make time for it and prioritize it. This also helps me focus when I do have time. I dive into what needs to get done quicker since I know time is precious.

Where do your poems most often “come from”—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?

My poems come from observations. That relates to the senses as well as life events. For instance, “wow, people stormed the Capital of the United States, that’s a funny thing being a Muslim American who grew up in a post-9/11 world as a kid.” Or “Jackson Heights smells and is so crowded but now I miss it.”

I think of poems as experiments. Poems are ways we can investigate the things we experience and then derive meaning from those experiences.

Which writers (living or dead) have influenced you the most?

In no particular order: Saul Williams, Harlym 125, Porsha Olayiwola, Suheir Hammad, Mary Oliver, Agha Shahid Ali, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Jadakiss, Olga Broumas, Sidhu Moose Wala.

What excites you most about your new collection? (Significance of the title? Overarching themes? Process/experience of assembling it?) 

The fact that it exists excites me the most. It’s still surreal to find it in bookstores or on my friend’s bookshelf. I’ve also had friends who are teachers teach my poetry in their classrooms. They have forwarded their student responses, which have been so priceless. More than anything, I hope my book helps people be braver and give themselves a chance to share their own work, especially for people who are South Asian and trying to be their own representation. I also hope it opens new doors for me. Excited for the journey ahead!

An Elegy for Verdery Knights

The human body
is an ocean. The mysteries
held in waves are frightening.
I’ve grown to trust these depths,
but I wasn’t always this brave.

In high school, I was a quiet creek
trying to find my voice.
We were all Soul Poets In Training,
would SPIT after school.
Poems and J Dilla instrumentals.
Ms. Ford blessed the space, and soon,
the rivers uncovered themselves.

This is where we met, Verdery.
You came in speaking waterfall.
Raging current,
flow of white-water rapids,
Oshun breath
Lyricism leaped from your mouth,
splashing us all in melody and rhythm.

But you weren’t the type to get hyped
in the awe of your own waters.
Less tsunami and more water bearer of language.

Verj, I was so unpolished
back then. Felt foolish
for thinking that I could swim,
That I even belonged
in the water. I treasured your words
like glistening seashells, precious gifts of ocean.

After graduation,
our lives sailed into new journeys.
We drifted, but I knew
waves always find their way back home.

I was in Boston
when I learned of your passing.
I imagined the vapors of a hot spring
fading into a cold Brooklyn evening.
None of us could fathom that water evaporates.
I learned doctors discharged you too early,
left you an unattended IV dripping empty

Words became
a suffocating burden,
Antartica on my neck.

Why am I still standing
and you are just mist?

But then I saw you.
Visiting me as the morning dew
on hundreds of daffodils in the
Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

You are a boundless brilliance.
I see you Verdery
water cycle stanzas now huh?

I watched those daffodils
stretch their stems up to greet you,
petals open like hands in worship.

Another reminder to
stand tall, be proud of all my stories,
be bold with all the colors I hold.

Thank you for being one of the first people
to believe in me. We weren’t best friends,
but we gave each other so much
kindness and laughter.

I turned your gems of wisdom
into my crowning achievements.
Wish you could see this.
These waters are my greatest joy.
Open canvas, I dive in. No hesitation.

That open mic night on Myrtle Ave—
my first of decades—feels like just yesterday.

you were the last poem of the night.
In the end you died a haiku,
17 syllables old.

Gone. Tide out of reach
Memory left in seashells.
I still hear you speak.

Because I know the difference between
death and gone is location.
The horizon is just another shoreline.
I’m sure of this.

Until I see you again,
I will
Visualize Every Rebel Daring Enough to Resurrect the Youth.
And when I see raindrops carve poetry into the concrete,
I will be reassured that this life
was only your first draft.

Usman Hameedi is a Pakistani-American scientist, poet, educator. He also serves on Mass Poetry’s Board of Directors. Since 2008, he has competed in and coached for collegiate, national, and international level poetry slams. Usman has been featured on The Huffington Post, Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, The Story Collider: Storytelling for Scientists podcast, and the Worcester Review. His first full-length collection, Staying Right Here, was published by Button Poetry in April 2023. Usman was a Mass Poetry Artist in Residence and worked with students in Hyde Park and Salem. He has also worked with other educators on how they can incorporate poetry into their classroom communities. Usman is shaping his career around his missions and ideals. His proudest moments are helping others see the genius within themselves!