Warsha Mushtaq sees pure poetry in nature

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Warsha Mushtaq is Saskatchewan’s young poet laureate and a passionate advocate for climate justice. Her poetry is inspired by her culture and family history. The Writers Guild of Saskatchewan says of his work; “In a voice that is at once theologian, mystic and linguist, his poems weave their way through Koranic parables, Islamic culture and traditions, the unwritten letters of borders, migrations and social movements. From ghazal to qasida, his poems preserve stories of Islamic dynasties, family histories, displacements and Sufi philosophy.

This 18-year-old is also one of Starfish Canada’s 2022 Top 25 environmentalists under 25.

This piece is part of a series of profiles highlighting young people across the country who are tackling the climate crisis. These extraordinary humans give me hope. I write these stories to pay it forward.

What does a young poet laureate do?

Through my writing, I hope to travel deep into the natural world – where the questions of what it means to be human, to be animal, to be plant or fungus, to be a celestial body, to be other, and to be art are tangible in the world. ‘air.

Working closely with the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild, I participate in poetry readings with other poets and look for opportunities to share my poetry with other young people. I also attend events that use art to encourage people to think differently about human relationships with nature.

I study both humanities and science because we need both. Poetry can capture emotion and sentiment to move people faster and more effectively than if we relied on science alone. The Industrial Revolution forced us to adopt a narrative of separation from the land and from each other. But it’s not too late to reclaim our old ways of knowing that we are not, in fact, separate.

I am interested in environmental philosophy and metaphysical issues – often influenced by Indigenous thought – that have crept into discussions of nature and justice. What is nature? What is the environment? Where is the division? My poems often challenge the assumption that ‘me’ and ‘nature’ are separate identities. Our skin is colonized by civilizations teeming with bacteria and our mouths are full of pollen, viruses and spores, and without the internal bacteria running through us, we’d be fried.

Warsha Mushtaq takes her book to a lake in Saskatchewan. Photo by Anna Dolgova

Tell us how you became a writer?

Warsha Mushtaq, 18, is Saskatchewan’s Young Poet Laureate and a passionate advocate for climate justice. #YouthClimateAction

When I was very young, my mother would sit me in front of an object and ask me to describe its details. A clock would be seen as a combination of its case, its hands, its numbered dial, its base. She encouraged me to start recording these observations in a diary when I was about six years old.

I would sit for hours on the hill behind our house to see the trees, mushrooms, moss, sunsets and write down my descriptions of what I saw and felt, even linking them to the humans in my life.

go home:

spring sky. Moths. flickers of a soft mist –

chickweed, milk petals on her lips,

Hummingbirds in the eaves.

(Is that Felicity?)

I have come to see my emotions as transitory. Writing them is both respectful to them and provides some distance so they are less likely to overwhelm me. Now, when I’m anxious about climate change, it’s comforting to register the feelings knowing that my words will build my resilience and maybe support others who might read them and feel less alone.

How did the way you were raised influence you?

My Muslim faith teaches me to remember that we are all with each other and with the natural world. My father was raised in a farming family in a small rural village in Pakistan. He taught me the moral obligation we all share to take care of the earth and each other. Often his teachings were in the form of parables, which I often try to retain in my poems.

A story about gratitude he would tell me growing up:

He took out of his pocket the seed of a Himalayan cedar,

the palms opened again,

closed with the coming of sunset,

He said:

make it grow in your heart,

and if you feed it with all your quiet care,

the fruits it bears will keep you both,

and all those around you full,

and when you get old,

throw your seeds in the river,

so that they can be taken away,

to a glade full of soft grass,

and a new grove will be cultivated.

As a very young child, Warsha Mushtaq says her mother would sit her with an object and ask her to describe its details. Photo courtesy of Warsha Mushtaq

Do you have any advice for other young people?

Don’t compare yourself to others. Your own voice matters. Ask yourself what your contribution could be. No matter how small it may seem to you, it could make a difference. A poem may contain only a few words, but it may be very important to someone else. I never know – I just give my words as a gift. Art nurtures the seeds of curiosity and wonder in everyone. They are like gifts of sunlight on the sycamore tree, the wildest and most beautiful occurrences in the world.

What would you like to say to older readers?

Take the time to reflect on what young people are saying. Act to support us rather than criticize us. Always keep hope. I would say that with consciousness there is hope, and with hope all good things are possible.


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