“It’s been a pilgrimage”: In conversation with Poet and Artist Mashnun Munir

Mashnun Munir is a lot of things; a poet, a podcast cohost, a Muslim boy from Orlando. Having discovered himself through art and his faith, he has just finished his first book of poetry, ‘headspun’ which is now forthcoming. After a quick succession of emails, I was fortunate enough to interview Mashnun and learn more about his projects, beliefs, and life story.

. . .

Let’s start with a short introduction. What is your personal journey so far? What is the first thing you would like people to know about you? 

I’m a Muslim, first and foremost. Following that, I’m a brown-skinned boy born in the Bronx, but all of my growth and learning pays respect to a low-income community in Orlando I call home, Morningside Park. I didn’t grow up with much. I couldn’t afford to dream, but my dreams have gotten me to where I am today. I don’t ever really share much about myself so I’m sorry if I end up just sounding like spilled ink. My journey has been tough, but enlightening, and full of deep realization. It’s been a pilgrimage towards trying to find my voice, one that I wouldn’t have ever imagined that I’d actually find. But here I am, growing, expanding, recognizing, thrilled to actually, like, talk, you feel me?

You are about to release your first collection of poetry called headspun. Tell us a little bit about your poetic journey. When did you decide to take up poetry seriously? Did you ever think you’d be writing poetry before? If not, what did you think you would have done instead? 

Growing up, my homies used to always be like, “This guy’s always so emotional.” That messed with me for a long time. I didn’t know how to speak. I think the anxiety of not being able to conceptualize what was going on in my life pushed me to frantically express myself in every way possible. That pushed a lot of people away, but they didn’t wear my shoes. 

I started writing poetry when I was 13. My homegirl at the time recognized that I had a lot on my mind, and suggested that I join my high school’s poetry club with her. I was terrible at writing, and that became more apparent when I heard what the other people in the club were saying. Their words and the way they spoke blew my mind. I was like, there’s no way I can compete. I was just a kid with shit in my head, I had no idea how to actually form it all into words. There was so much going on at home and in my community that I wish I knew how to speak. Trying to avoid all of the real stuff happening outside of school, I wrote about the typical things instead, like young love and flowers, and I didn’t have the capacity or confidence to write about the trauma and disparity I was experiencing in my neighborhood. 

When I was 18, my father separated himself from us, and that forced me through a rapid interval of growth. I’ll speak more on that one day. In this new stage of life I was experiencing, I learned that the depth of emotion I found in poetry gave me the space to move. I’ve been searching for this space for years, you know, the space to talk about real stuff. I realized that I couldn’t force it to come, it had to come on its own, when things aligned. I discovered this realm of poetry that houses ideas, broken family ties, hood politics, and Muslim struggles. In this realm of poetry is where I’ve found a home, and I’ve spent the last 5 years becoming more comfortable and expansive within it. 

I decided to take poetry seriously when I really realized how good I was at it. I didn’t think I’d ever find that epiphany, but I guess it just found me. I don’t think I would have ever not seen myself writing. However, I always thought that I’d just be some other random local poet, doing open mics and screaming about my life. I used to dream about writing my own collection of poetry, and it’s still pretty difficult for me to believe that I actually did. I don’t even care if nobody decides to open it up, this book is dedicated to 17-year-old Mashnun, still asleep, suffering from the paranoia of not ever being able to articulate my battling thoughts into phrases for people to actually, like, understand. 

Reading your poetry, I found grief to be a constant theme throughout your work. Do you find poetry to be an appropriate medium to process such strong emotions? What do you think is your personal purpose for writing poetry? 

Art is the only medium to process strong emotions. I can sit you down and tell you about who I’ve lost, what I’ve seen from my screen door, and the dirt I’ve done, but it doesn’t compare to the depth we can portray through art and poetry. We find harmony and connection within depth. It takes space and time to unravel things like grief, if we ever get to unravel it at all. I’m still figuring out what grief is, and the journey is endless. That goes for any strong emotion. Trauma, paranoia, anxiety, I don’t think any of us really know how deep this stuff can be. All we can do is be aware of it, and try our best to dissect it into bits and fragments for us to digest. That’s where I’m at right now, just dissecting it all. Not in search of a remedy, but I guess just answers. 

I don’t think I necessarily have a purpose for writing. I kind of just see it as my purpose in general. It’s like, I don’t even know how I manage to write most of the things I end up writing. These words and phrases really aren’t mine, they just flow through me by something greater than you and I, shifting to a language that we understand. I’m a firm believer in God. One of my homies called me a vessel a few years ago, and I recently discovered what that means to me in the context of my own life. Growing up a deprived, yet faithful brown-skinned boy, fighting against the way of your community, you lose your voice. I know so many boys like me that got caught up in their environment. Wanting to be closer to God, but still getting into trouble because they didn’t know better. It’s hard to comprehend this type of lifestyle. Like, wanting to be a good kid and pray with your mother, but being so infatuated with the fast life. Wanting to be devout and obedient, but staying outside in the hood all night because your life at home is a hurricane, so you sought shelter on the street. It’s hard to articulate these ideas into words for people to understand. But I’ve found out how to articulate these ideas into words. So then, I guess my purpose is to show people what this life is like.

Let’s talk a bit about your personal background. You mentioned being a product of a low-income community in Orlando, FL, with roots in a family immigrating from Bangladesh to the Bronx. We see some of that experience appear and described in your poems. What are some lessons your experiences have taught you? 

My community was my first love. After some bad moves in New York, my family was forced to move down here and find sanctity in this run-down neighborhood in inner-city Orlando, where I found myself. I didn’t have much, I knew my parents didn’t have it, so I did everything I could to make sure I didn’t ask them for it. I saw a lot growing up. Trap houses, prostitution, violence, everything in between. I had no idea that this stuff wasn’t normal. It’s pretty much all I saw, every day, every night. It took leaving my community and exploring other realms of my city for me to compartmentalize the thought that all of these things are not what life is actually like, you know? 

I used to lie a lot when I was younger. My homie used to call me out on it a lot. I blame it on the self-consciousness that was so deeply woven in me due to the inability to explain how traumatized I was by the things I’ve witnessed throughout my upbringing. That drove a lot of people away in general. Does that make sense? I was experiencing so much, and I was trying so hard to be someone I wasn’t, just to feel like I wasn’t actually living the life I was unfortunately living. 

Everything I know today comes from my experiences. I used to work in the café of a bookstore right in front of my neighborhood, and a lot of the traffic was people from the block. When I would work nights, some of the last customers before we closed were women who were working the night on the street right outside the bookstore. One of them in particular was always so kind to me. You know when someone is trying really hard to look happy, and act like everything’s okay, but they don’t realize that you could see right through all of it? I don’t think she knew I could see how deprived she was. Or maybe she did, and she was so used to putting on a smile. I learned what an abyss looks like, and how deep it can really go. I learned what desperation looks like, and the lengths that people will go just to stay afloat. 

It’s like, low-income communities are designed to keep people trapped within them. I rarely saw the police growing up. Are they consciously staying away because they don’t care to fix the issues that are horrifically apparent in these neighborhoods? Why was I watching teens get high on the regular like it was a daily routine? I didn’t want to be another statistic. I didn’t want to be another afterthought. I was so fragile. Even though I was steadily going down the wrong path in life, my upbringing showed me what the type of life I was living would lead to, and it gifted me with the intuition I have today. I have the strongest intuition of anyone you’ll ever meet, I promise you that. So to answer your question, I am the embodiment of my experiences. What you see is the product of what I’ve seen, and I hope people recognize that.

Alongside your poetry, you also co-host a podcast called Difficult-ish with Mohuya Khan (@labyrinthave). Tell us how that came about. What are you trying to accomplish with your podcast? What sort of conversations are you two trying to begin? 

Meeting that girl was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me. We’ve lived such different lives, but we ended up essentially at the same place in life. She’s so good at the things I wish to be better at, with one of those things being opening up. I don’t talk to people like that, and I rarely trust people enough to say anything more than my name. 

With her, I realized how different my upbringing as a South Asian was. I didn’t grow up with many South Asians near me, and the ones that were nearby were going down a completely different path than I was. The right path, per se. They were all excelling academically, lived in the suburbs, and had good relationships with one another. I had a 1.6 GPA at the end of my junior year of high school, I’m from a block that they would stay away from, and I couldn’t find a way to connect with any of them. You feel me? 

But at the same time, there are a lot of brown kids I know that grew up like I did, both near and far, and when I recognized that I’m able to talk about this unheard lifestyle of a brown kid, I ran with it, and the podcast came about. You don’t hear about that lifestyle too often, it just gets shrouded by the stories of the brown kids who did good. What about the ones that did bad? What about the ones that couldn’t stay after school for tutoring because their family shared one car and couldn’t pick you up if you missed the bus? What about the ones that were too creatively divine to even think about school? You don’t hear about them, and I want to talk about them. 

The two of us are artists in our own right, and we dissect various South Asian narratives in a way that you don’t hear about from other podcasts. We’re not STEM majors, we don’t come from money, we don’t have anyone guiding us through the process. But we’re figuring it out, and we want to spark the conversation for the ones who are having difficulty figuring it out themselves, you know? 

So far, you are a poet and a founder/co-host of a podcast. Are there any other artistic mediums you’re interested in exploring? 

I picked up painting over quarantine, and I’ve been loving it very much. It started as a joke, and I am not good at it whatsoever, but I enjoy the process, and I guess others do as well. I kind of treat it as an extension of my poetry. Like a soup and salad combo, both are great themselves, but it’s a different experience in my eyes when it’s simultaneous. I somehow ended up having some of my paintings showcased in the Orlando Museum of Art earlier this year, which was a pretty proud moment for my mom. She always saw my passions as hobbies, which is totally fine. I never expected her to get it, but I think taking her to the museum and showing her my artwork on the walls helped her out a bit. I’ve been getting a lot of love for my paintings on Instagram, I have no idea why honestly, but I guess I’m doing something right. I think I’m going to start taking it a bit more seriously in 2022. 

Apart from that, I’m really into music. I haven’t begun producing anything myself as of yet, but like, when I decide to actually take it seriously, it’s done for. I write a lot of songs and raps while I’m working, it helps the time go by. I have some friends that make music themselves, and they tell me their doors are always open for me. I’ll walk through them soon. I think I’m just focused on this poetry stuff right now. I have the word “patience” tatted on me because I’m always trying to do everything at once, my mom helped me realize that. I’m getting better at slowing down. 

Anything else you’d like to tell readers that we have not covered? What’s next for Mashnun Munir? 

I’m a big dreamer. I don’t want to speak too much about what’s next for me, not because I’m trying to be some super cool, mysterious guy, but I just hold my dreams really close and personal. They’re like my lullabies, you know? I just want people to enjoy the things I choose to show, and really try to look at it all from a different set of eyes. Everything I do and run with is incredibly layered, especially the book. It’s not a one-time read. It’s not a two-time read. It’s a heavy read. It took me so long to write, and I want people to give it the respect that it deserves. I’m big on respect. You have to be when you’re from my type of lifestyle. Shit ain’t sweet over here, poetry is more than flowers and rain. Give dark emotions their respect, this is a place for them to thrive. Don’t play with words, mine are some that you’ll find yourself coming back around to when you’re feeling down, at least I hope so. 

Are there any shoutouts you’d like to mention here? Anyone in your life you’d like to send love to? 

All praise to the Most-High, God is the greatest. 

. . .

If you wish to learn more about headspun and Mashnun Munir, you can follow him (@mashnunmunir) and the podcast Difficult-ish (@difficultish) on Instagram.

Featured photographs by Olivia Bastone (@olivia.bastone).

Christopher Soriano

Leave a Reply