Q&A with poet Laila Sumpton

“Use the arts to explore what you care about in human rights and keep on healing yourself and recharging.”Laila Sumpton

Rights! are delighted to share this Q&A with London-based poet Laila Sumpton about life, art, human rights and lockdown poetry. This feature includes a video of a poetry performance by Laila and contains links to lockdown writing resources for children, including a project for Refugee Week 2020.

Laila is a freelance poet who works with learners of all ages on poetry projects in schools, museums, youth clubs, hospitals, galleries and even parks! She writes and perform her own poetry and is currently working on a collection called ‘The Stampless’ that explores borders, histories, loss and identity. Laila studied English and Human Rights and tries to fuse the two together in her work. Her poetry projects are about getting voices heard and often are also human rights projects .

Laila works with the Ministry of Stories, National Literacy Trust and Counterpoints Art on children’s writing resources for the lockdown.

“Working with children and young people on writing workshops is, to me, child rights work, it’s about making sure they feel confident enough to raise their voices, explore issues real and imaginary and have the right to an education, participation and a cultural life- which are so vital to us all whatever our background.”

Below are links to two resources designed for children aged 11 and older:

Migration Tales

Lockdown Poetry

Why poetry?

“I’m dyslexic and was the last student in my school to be able to read and write- but somehow poetry made a lot of sense and I liked how in freeverse I could make and break my own rules and build pictures and stories in a lyrical and sometimes surreal way. I like how condensed poetry is and how you can carve and reshape it- which is great if your thoughts are slightly jagged and nonlinear sometimes! I like the challenge of trying to travel somewhere very quickly with only a few words and building up the meaning in poems layer by layer. I like how a poem can bring together so many themes and perspectives into a small pocket of text. This can be a powerful tool for painting someone a picture of a different perspective. A poem is very portable and good for all messages- whether urgent, exploratory, loving or irreverent!

Please can you outline some of the ways the projects you’ve been involved in fuse human rights and poetry?

I have recently worked with an NGO called Protection Approaches – who work on identity based violence through a project called ‘Our Newham’ . I lead poetry workshops in youth clubs in Newham on identity, mental health and the issues young people were facing in their area. The young people exhibited and performed their work to the councilors, and local Mayor- to help power holders see their lives and begin the conversations on what should change.

I ran a summer writing club for teenagers at the Ministry of Stories on the theme on migration and exile- alongside poet and rapper Mohammed Yahya and myself, the young people created powerful raps and poems which were mixed and uploaded on a platform of learning resource and tracks for writing poetry for Refugee Week.

My article on poetry and human rights for a SAS publication: Poetry for human rights. In: Contemporary Challenges in Securing Human Rights (Sumpton: 2015, 81-87).

I also worked with Rwandan survivors organisation The Ishami Foundation to support their speakers to share their stories through poetry and performance- our performances were a key part of the Kwibuka 25 memorial process and took place at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Trafalgar Square and the Google offices in London. We’ll be collating 100 stories so that the experiences and reflections of survivors and perpetrators are not forgotten.

What are you most proud of in your human rights journey?

An important and affirming part of my human rights and poetry journey was co-editing ‘In Protest: 150 poems for human rights’ with the University of London’s Human Rights Consortium. I organised a book tour across the country where the poets discussed their work and human rights issues they were highlighting. We received over 600 submissions from all over the word and I learnt so much about the different ways you can approach topics ranging from child soldiers to climate change through poetry. 

What advice do you have for the next generation of human rights defenders?

Use the arts to explore what you care about in human rights and keep on healing yourself and recharging. Work together with artists to explore issues and reach new audiences. Always challenge and explore the evolving language of rights, and make time to listen to more voices and find your own way of expressing yourself. 

Finally, please can you introduce one of your poems, and let the reader’s know a little about its genesis?

‘Morning prayers’ was written during the 2014 attack on Gaza as I tried to imagine what a mother may hope for during this time. I remembered stories of my mother’s Eid celebrations in 1960s Egypt, where she remembered the ‘6 day war’ and fused this with my imagining. A lot of my poems explore how people survive war, loss of homeland and identity.

Laila Sumpton is a freelance poet based in London. You can follow her work on twitter @lailanadia and instagram laila.sumpton

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