Virtual Shop Talk: Safia Elhillo


Please enjoy this overview of Safia Elhillo's work. Here you will find biographical information, links to poems and interviews, and writing prompts to explore.

poet Safia Elhillo looks into the camera with rays of light bursting behind her


Safia Elhillo is a Sudanese-American poet who currently serves as a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University. Elhillo received her MFA from the New School in New York City and is the author of one book of poetry, The January Children (2017), and one chapbook, The Life and times of Susie Knuckles (2012). Elhillo also co-edited the anthology Halal If You Hear Me (2019) alongside poet Fatimah Asghar. In 2016 Elhillo won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and in 2018 her book The January Children (2017) was awarded the George Ellenbogen Poetry Award from the Arab American Book Awards. Safia Elhillo has received fellowships and residencies from Cave Canem, the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, The Conversation, and many more. Much of Elhillo’s work deals with themes of displacement, home, womanhood, cultural identity, and generational trauma.


asmarani makes prayer

verily everything that is lost will be

given a name & will not come back

but will live forever


& verily a border-shaped wound will

be licked clean                   by songs naming

the browngirl     in particular        verily she

will not heal but                verily the ghosts will

not leave her alone verily when asked how

she got her name             if telling the truth             she

will say                 [a woman died  & everything

                                                want a home]


Write a prayer poem. Pay special attention to Elhillo’s use of page space.


application for asylum

how did you learn fear?

i crossed a body of water

how did you learn fear?

i grew a new American body it was the summer [      ] died

& now?

i don’t like to be touched

what do you do?

I keep having the dream where my brother is dead i wake up & can’t remember where he lives

where did you live?

broken dishes in the water

Follow this poem’s question and answer format to write a poem about a transformational moment in your own life.



my roommate one year in college

would say of my smallness

that any man who found me attractive

had a trace of the pedophilic


& i would shrink                                newly girled

twenty-one with my eyebrows

plucked to grownup arches          sprouting

back every three weeks

in sharp little shoots                       already men

have tried to steal me


Who came before you? What kinds of gifts and burdens did they pass along to you?


first adornment

it’s ramadan i’m nine years old drinking juice

of crushed & stained hibiscus      it darkens

my lips a bitten red         & i think i look

i look like my biglegged aunts     their heavy hair burnt

straight & draped with bright & beaded scarves

their men lost or upstairs sleeping or gone

to america to look for work         gone to England

to Saudi arabia to the emirates to look for work


Turn your own coming-of-age story into a poem; don’t forget the small details!



The Fourth River

Yale Macmillan Center


Africa In Dialogue