On February 7th and 8th, Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges were visited by Safia Elhillo, a talented young Sudanese-American poet and spoken-word performer. Safia has been making a name for herself both nationally and internationally with her poetry, and she is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She is the author of Girls That Never Die, Nima on the Other Side, and The January Children, and edited the poetry anthology Halal If You Hear Me with Fatimah Asghar. The Bi-Co was lucky enough to have Safia Elhillo teach poetry workshops as well as perform her own work during her stay.
Safia’s poetry workshop took place on February 7th in the Benham Gateway conference room at Bryn Mawr, bringing together students and faculty from across the Bi-Co to write and share. The event was organized by Dr. Inés Arribas of the Bryn Mawr Spanish department and the Haverford English department’s Professor Nimisha Ladva, who is also the College’s oral communication specialist. Safia began by presenting the group with four different poems, which all shared themes of loss, memory, and time. Using these poems and autobiographical details, attendees were instructed to write a poem of their own about a particular loss and the impact it had on their lives.
This simple exercise—read, reflect, write—ensured that every person at the workshop wrote and shared with the group, even if it was just a single line from their poem. The room was quiet as each person read from their work and the rest listened intently. Citing students’ reactions to the poetry workshop, Professor Ladva explained that she and Dr. Arribas “see evidence of the arts helping people connect both to their own experience and to each other.” Ladva and Arribas have extensive experience with spoken-word poetry and storytelling, respectively, and share a strong belief in the capacity of the arts to create community.
The day after the poetry workshop, the VCAM screening room at Haverford was packed with students, faculty, and guests ready to see Safia perform. The energy in the air was palpable as Professor Ladva stepped up to the podium to introduce Safia and late arrivals hurried to seats in the front row. The lights were dimmed, and Safia’s voice rang out as she read, often moving directly from one poem to the next without announcing the change. Occasionally she informed the audience that she was sharing the first or second draft of a new poem. After Safia finished her reading for the night, Professor Ladva encouraged audience members to discuss the poetry and ask the poet questions.
For Meg Byrum ’21, this Q&A session was especially valuable. Reflecting on the audience’s discussion, Byrum explained that Safia’s poetry is about “the poet’s identity both shaped by interpersonal relationships and in tension with nations and borders.” She noted that Safia’s poetry “gives a lot of insight and hopefulness for thinking about how we connect to each other.” Professor Ladva has also found Safia Elhillo’s poems to be fruitful for classroom discussion; her first-year writing seminar, “Immigration and Representation,” shares themes with Safia’s poetry. Beyond her impressive body of work, Safia’s commentary on the writing process proved inspiring and accessible. Byrum stressed the vulnerable, grounded, and energizing nature of Safia’s discussion of writing.
Audience members were able to purchase copies of The January Children following the performance, and Safia graciously signed books and chatted with attendees. There was a clear sense of community—as Professor Ladva mentioned, spoken-word poetry appeals to a variety of people and creates a shared experience of a traditionally literary art form. Both Safia’s workshop and her performance ultimately emphasized the fact that good poetry has the power to invigorate and inspire everyone. As Byrum put it, “I felt like going home and writing, which I haven’t felt in years.”
Note: Safia’s visit was possible thanks to the Tri-Co Mellon Foundation Seed Grant, Haverford College Mark and Lillian Shapiro Speaking Initiative, Haverford College Distinguished Visitors Program, Haverford College Creative Writing, and the Bryn Mawr College Endowed Lecture Fund.