independent

Wednesday 24 July 2019

Word warrior

New Ross spoken word poet Sasha Terfous tells David Looby about how being from a mixed race family has given her a powerful voice which has fronted a worldwide women's rights campaign

Sasha Terfous
Sasha Terfous

Having had one of her poems used in a global women's rights campaign, Co Wexford spoken word artist Sasha Terfous's star is on the rise.

The 23-year-old New Ross woman writes razor sharp, rhythmic poems about everything from being a mixed race woman growing up in Ireland, to poems championing the rights of individuals to be who they are without fear of judgment,

Sasha had a love of words from childhood, ever since her grandfather Laurence Malone started bringing her to New Ross Library from school once a week to pick up a new book.

She credits his influence in making her the artist she is today. 'He got me my first library card. He used to come down and collect me from St Joseph's NS and would take me to the library. He got me a new book every week and we would walk up to his house in Pondsfield and we used to read the book together. I got into spoken word poetry out of that initial love for writing. I have always had a love of writing and for books and the different worlds that can be created within writing. I always made my own books with Pritt stick, A4 pages and markers.'

At the young age of 12 Sasha started delving into poetry. 'It was a hobby for a number of years. When I was 17 I decided to get serious about it; as far as spoken word poetry was concerned. There was no scene in New Ross. I had some friends who liked to write but we weren't really taken seriously when we spoke about it. It was more "isn't it lovely she can write a poem". I had to leave New Ross to be taken seriously. There was a small scene in Waterford but people took acts a little more seriously and they were more respectful of what I was doing.'

Sasha spent a summer living in Waterford and returned to New Ross determined to develop her craft. She has worked several jobs over the years as she repeatedly says artists are not supported enough in Ireland.

She moved to Waterford when she was 19 and started performing at open mic nights at the Central Arts venue.

Sasha travelled to Dublin and Cork to perform, describing her first experience on stage as terrifying.

'I was definitely nervous. My first gig was organised by Word Up in Dublin. I had a panic attack on stage. A poet, who has become a close friend of mine, came up to me backstage and talked me down. From that point I realised that I needed to start performing more and became familiar with my words. I wasn't used to them standing up for themselves; not just on a piece of paper.'

Sasha threw herself into Waterford's open mic scene, drawing on her difficult teenage years being a gay person of mixed race, growing up in a broken home, for inspiration.

'My journey was very difficult. I think there was a lot of confusion involved. I was very confused about why certain things were said to me in school. It came from a lack of knowledge and general ignorance. I think people need to have conversations with their children more.'

In poems like Identity, Sasha speaks about being called a monkey. As if speaking to a young version of herself - she says in the poem: 'Your hair is as old as humanity itself/Each strand has the stories of your ancestors/I am not white enough for the white kids or black enough for the black kids/I may not know what it means to be black but I sure as hell know what it means to be me.'

Sasha said several aspects of her life, from being gay to being of mixed race, inform her poems, but she never sits down to write on any one particular part of her life. 'It comes (to me) organically. It's not something I have strived for through my life. It's more in retrospect when I look at my own experiences growing up in Ireland and my own family and when I sit down to write half the time I don't even know what I want to write.

'I try to help people think and encourage them to have an opinion.'

She said being gay is just another aspect of who she is. 'Being a person of colour growing up in Ireland, being queer, being an Irish woman; these are all aspects to me. They have all dictated my experiences and how I have navigated myself through the world and how I have had to navigate my way through the world. They have a domino effect in my work.'

Describing her writing as free style, she finds the form the most liberating. This includes thinking about feminism, masculinity, femininity, race, what it means to be a woman or part of the LGBT community.

'It's about the fact that my generation and the generation before mine and the new generation; we have defined what it means to be Irish. Before these three generations it was one particular look and one particular sound (in Ireland). One way of living. I have friends from different backgrounds, of all different colour skin. We all had a similar upbringing and identify with Irish culture in one way or another.'

In her poem Medusa Sasha uses very dark, visual imagery to powerful effect, referencing black oppression.

'When she looks upon you, eyes of stone/Search for yourself within them for she laboured snakes from her loins and set them free amongst the mice/Mother of mothers, daughter of daughters, aunty or all aunties, your knowledge is the stain of serpents' blood on white cloth. How porous and gentle is the ego of a god, searching for himself within you. They will write of the tragedy that is your venom and baptise you the victim of conquered flesh/Your beauty will be immortalised by the guilt of drowning for they know more of punishment than the pounding of waves against the ocean floor.'

'I like to paint and as a very visual poet,' Sasha says. 'As a woman in Ireland with everything that has gone on. I think the story of Medusa really struck a chord with me. This is a legendary woman who has been written and spoken about for thousands of years and her story is still relevant.'

She writes every day, saying otherwise poetry is just a hobby. 'Sometimes I will challenge myself by wiring a haiku,' she said with a hearty laugh.

'I just live in the moment, so I write whether I am in my car or out for a coffee and I get an idea or when I wake up from a deep sleep. I feel consistency is key as well; having that particular time to sit down and write. That is what takes it from just being a hobby to saying "I am serious about this" almost like a nine to five job.'

Sasha is currently unemployed, looking for work, but has worked consistently up until recently ever since she left St Mary's Secondary school.

She said it is a common misconception that most artists in Ireland are on the dole. 'Very few of my friends are on the dole. Being an artist in Ireland is not sustainable. Schemes are put in place for us but many artists are holding down full-tine jobs because you can't live off it (the dole). You can't own a house or build a life up.'

Sasha said she learnt a lot of lessons growing up in a single parent home. 'Both of my parents are very active in my life. It thought me a very important lesson that no matter how big your family or house is - if you have tried to make a relationship work and it hasn't you don't just have to stay in a relationship.'

Her poem Warrior Women has gone viral, something she is very proud of. Warrior Women pays homage the history of Ireland's women; from those who laid the foundation of the traditional fierceness that runs within the veins of Irish women, to those who continue to push for the furthering of women's rights, even if in their own, unconventional way. She speaks about women owning who they are in every aspect of themselves; women who are proud of themselves and who encourage other women to be the same way.

'It was for JWT Folk, a media production company based in Dublin who do a lot of promotional stuff got the HSE. This poem was specifically for the Female Tribes campaign, the world's largest global survey ever done one women. They surveyed women from all across the world: trans, queer, straight, all colours. The only criteria was they had to identify as a woman. Women were asked about their experiences and how they feel the role of women is now compared to before; how they fit into their careers, education, as mothers and home-makers as well as appearance.'

She made a powerful contribution to Hot Press's Ana Liffey Drug Project and LSE's Drug Policy Town Hall in Waterford last year while raising awareness for substance abuse and drug addiction. Terfous also performed at UCD Beats In The Alley on June 8.

As a woman of mixed race, Sasha said she is proud to have a voice. 'I do have friends who have said to me that it has been hard (growing up as a black person in Ireland) and that they can identify with what I am saying. I performed at Africa Day in Waterford and I got a great response. It makes me proud to have a voice but I am not speaking on behalf of black women, mixed women or Asian women. 'I am going to write about my experiences so I can educate the audience about what it's like. I there are some women in the audience who can connect with that that is even better. It's not always even women of colour who connect. I had a man come up to me after a performance in Limerick who said he really connected with my poem as he grew up as an Irish Catholic home in London in the Seventies and some of his friends in school were talking about dirty Irish Catholics and as he had an English accent so none of them knew. Even though we come from two completely conflicting states of existence he could relate.

'I don't aim to have a voice for anyone. What I have learned throughout my life is I can only have a voice for myself but with that voice I can encourage people to stand up and speak for themselves.'

Sasha is yet to perform in Co Wexford but is very open to the prospect.

'I'd also like to do a workshop. If there is an opportunity to perform I would love to, so you know what I mean,' she says, speaking in a strong New Ross accent.

She said her poems are finely balanced between the words and the rhythm.

'I can stand up on stage and have the best rhythm and enunciation of every word but if what I am saying isn't important what is the point. A lot of the time when I am writing a piece the rhythm or the way I am performing it informs what I am saying. There may be too many syllables in one particular word doesn't fit the rhythm so I change it. I self edit quite a bit.'

For more information on Sasha Terfous, visit her Facebook page.

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