The Woman Who Gave Poetry to Beyoncé’

When the credits roll on Beyoncé’s new visual album, “Lemonade,” which had its premiere on Saturday on HBO, one of the first names to flash on screen doesn’t belong to a director, producer or songwriter. It belongs to a poet: Warsan Shire, a rising 27-year-old writer who was born in Kenya to Somali parents and raised in London.

Ms. Shire’s verse forms the backbone of Beyoncé’s album and its exploration of family, infidelity and the black female body.

“I don’t know when love became elusive. What I know is: no one I know has it,” Beyoncé says in a voice-over in the film, lines derived from Ms. Shire’s previously published poem “the unbearable weight of staying — (the end of the relationship).”

She continues: “My father’s arms around my mother’s neck, fruit too ripe to eat. I think of lovers as trees … growing to and from one another. Searching for the same light.”

“Lemonade,” which credits Ms. Shire with “film adaptation and poetry,” may catapult her to a new level of pop-culture fame, but she is already known to many as a compelling voice on black womanhood and the African diaspora — one particularly resonant in the digital age. And her international following, captivated by her quiet charisma and compulsively shareable lines, may be as devoted as the Beyhive.

Ms. Shire has published chapbooks of poetry — including “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” in 2011 and “Her Blue Body” in 2015 — but much of her reputation was built online by publishing on Tumblr and using Twitter like an open notebook. In 2014, she was appointed the first Young Poet Laureate of London. Her first full poetry collection, “Extreme Girlhood,” is expected in the next year or so.

In the days after her work was proclaimed by one of the world’s most influential black female artists, Ms. Shire laid low. She did not promote “Lemonade” or even tease its existence on social media. On Tuesday night, she finally published a tweet with a link to “Lemonade” and the note “yosra i hope you’re proud of us.” Yosra El-Essawy, a friend of Ms. Shire’s and Beyoncé’s official tour photographer, had served as an early link between the worlds of the young British poet and Queen Bey. She died of cancer in 2014.

(Through her agent, Ms. Shire declined to be interviewed for this article.)

For Ms. Shire’s friends, colleagues and fans, “Lemonade” was a pleasant surprise. London poets “have been bowled over by Warsan’s collaboration with such a huge star, which, of course, was a big secret, so we had no idea this was happening,” said Bernardine Evaristo, a British writer and professor of creative writing at Brunel University London.

Nii Parkes, a founder of flipped eye, Ms. Shire’s publisher, helped handle permissions for Ms. Shire’s poetry to be featured in “Lemonade,” and kept the collaboration secret for several months — even from Jacob Sam-La Rose, Ms. Shire’s primary editor.

“It was a shock to me,” Mr. Sam-La Rose said. “Warsan can be sneaky. I did not know what was going to happen, or have any idea how it happened.”

Even people with toes in both worlds were surprised. Dream Hampton, a filmmaker and journalist, collaborated with Jay Z on his memoir “Decoded” and profiled Beyoncé in the magazine Giant. She had also discovered Ms. Shire on Myspace in 2009 and befriended her over Twitter and later, in London, over tea. She said that when Ms. Shire invited her to a private “Lemonade” screening in Los Angeles, she knew something was up, but “I was totally surprised about the scope,” she said. “I assumed there’d be ‘a’ poem.” Instead there was an opus.

Ms. Shire stepped into the poetry world when she was a teenager. More than a decade ago, Mr. Sam-La Rose, the poetry editor of flipped eye, put on a student poetry workshop at a northwest London community center, and Ms. Shire was the first to show up.

Photo

From left, Lisa-Kainde Diaz, Chloe Bailey, Naomi Diaz, Beyoncé, Amandla Stenberg, Zendaya (foreground) and Halle Bailey (Chloe’s sister, behind Ms. Zendaya) in a scene from “Lemonade.” CreditParkwood Entertainment

“Her work was stunning,” Mr. Sam-La Rose said. A few years later, the two began working together while Ms. Shire was studying creative writing at London Metropolitan University.

Ms. Shire graduated in 2010 and released her first chapbook with flipped eye the next year.

“The editing process was amazing and, at times, infuriating,” Mr. Sam-La Rose said. Ms. Shire would hand in a manuscript, and by the time Mr. Sam-La Rose could finish his notes, she would turn in another batch of poems for review.

In elite London poetry circles, the initial reception was underwhelming, Mr. Parkes said. But online, readers were enthralled. They pulled out lines and posted them on their own blogs. One of her most-quoted prose poems is “Difficult Names”: “Give your daughters difficult names. Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”

Early on, Ms. Shire experimented with form. In 2012, she recorded the spoken-word album “warsan versus melancholy (the seven stages of being lonely” and posted it on Bandcamp. Fan art circulated, too. Christine Mehr, a San Francisco digital content creator, shot an impressionistic short film featuring Ms. Shire reading her poem “for women who are difficult to love.”

To many readers, Ms. Shire’s clear voice in the online cacophony felt transformative.

“There was a consumer pull,” Mr. Parkes said. “People were saying her name all over the place. That’s when other publishers started to get interested in her work, when the bookstores started calling.”

Her physical presence, too, drew audiences in. “She has a quiet voice,” Mr. Parkes said. “At a lot of readings, if that’s the case, people will start to chatter. But because she’s so centered, they’ll grow quiet.”

Last fall, when Ms. Shire headed to Johannesburg to give a reading with a feminist collective, she found the seats and aisles filled with women (and a few men), many standing at the back and crouching at the lip of the stage to hear her speak.

“She reads like how Nina Simone sounds,” said Milisuthando Bongela, a South African culture writer who helped arrange the gathering. “Everyone in the audience started reciting with her as she read, as if we were fans at a music concert singing along to our favorite songs.” She added: “It was church.”

In addition to being named Young Poet Laureate, Ms. Shire won the Bunel University African Poetry Prize in 2013. A judge, the poet Kwame Dawes,said of the decision, “This was actually easy for me.” In 2014, she lived in Australia for a six-week stint as Queensland’s Poet in Residence. Her work has been featured in the anthologies “The Salt Book of Younger Poets” and “Long Journeys: African Migrants on the Road.”

Her new fame poses challenges. “My frustration and my fear is that people will reduce her to a pop phenomenon,” Mr. Parkes said. “As the work is cut and pasted and passed around, you can lose the context, the line endings, the tensions. There’s a great deal of craft in her work, and I’m keen for people to remember that.”

In “Lemonade,” Ms. Shire’s work was tailored for Beyoncé. The adaptation switches up pronouns (“you” becomes “I”), cuts lines, expands metaphors and swaps an “Allah” for an “oh my God.” But within hours of the release of “Lemonade,” Amazon.com had sold out of paperback copies of “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” and “The Salt Book of Younger Poets.”

Mr. Parkes had expected that demand, but because he could not disclose the project ahead of time, was unable to advise booksellers to fortify their stock. Now, Mr. Parkes said, flipped eye is currently in talks with American publishers to print “Extreme Girlhood” in the United States.

For now, Ms. Shire’s focus is on that book. “She’s not interested in being the writer of the moment,” said Nick Makoha, a British poet who has worked with Ms. Shire. “This is what she’ll be doing into her 90s.”

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