Award-winning journalist and poet Mohamed Hassan speaks to the themes of our exhibition Love & Loss in his new poem 'Dance me to the end of the world', commissioned by Auckland Museum.

The profound piece, beautifully shown in video form, explores the way we use technology to bridge connections amid the pandemic. It traverses feelings of loneliness and longing through to determination and hope.

Curator Manuscripts, Nina Finigan spoke to Mohamed about his new poem and his perspective on the writing form.


Distance and finding ways to bridge distance, to collapse space between people, are prominent themes in this poem. Can you talk a little about your thoughts on this and how words/poetry help us do this?

We live in a complex and contradictory world right now. We are endlessly connected by technology in ways that make us feel lonely, and divided by a pandemic that has brought us closer together. In lockdown, our online selves began to dominate more of who we are, and social media became the primary platform for most of our relationships. I wanted to explore these layers and how they affected the ways we maintain our connections over distance, in the midst of great uncertainty and while we dream of a return to the world we knew before.


This piece really reflects the now - a time of profound separation. The internet has been a saving grace for many of us and has a strong presence in this piece. Can you talk a little about your decision to explore these ideas?

The starting point for this poem was the Love & Loss exhibit, and the different types of correspondence that spanned great lengths of time and space, and the ways in which people have always tried to keep relationships alive despite migration and war. Last year felt like a kind of war all of us were entrenched in, writing to our loved ones and hoping to feel their presence through our technological lifelines. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have these tools that allow us to see each other and communicate, but I think in many ways it has only emphasised how much is lost through distance, and how much we value each others’ physical presence.

The theme of ephemerality came across quite strongly for me - particularly a sense of time/relationships slipping through our fingers which feels pertinent to the collective covid experience. The words of this poem seem to offer a remedy to this though - offering something concrete in a time of uncertainty, an anchor in a chaotic world (“A rope to latch to the nock”). Was this intentional? 

The poem uses a lot of imagery surrounding prayer and connection, some of it ancient and others contemporary, to talk about how time and distance impacts our relationships. In a real sense, I found myself halfway across the world from all of my loved ones, in a city I was still a stranger to, without a real end date to when I’d be able to return. There are so many others in my situation, with family, partners and friends in different cities or countries they suddenly find themselves disconnected to. In my life, those tiny moments of connection through zooms, phone calls and messages (my brother has been sending me videos of my beautiful nephews to keep me sane) have helped me navigate through it all, and are my anchor in the low moments. So have prayer and reflection, my Islamic practices that for me are another form of connection, inseparable from the way I see my world and the people in it.


Can you talk about your various references to people in this piece and how they fit into the wider themes?

There are a number of other fantastic tales of connection and separation that I refer to in this poem, from the storyteller Shahrzad/Scheherazade entrancing the Sultan with magical tales to distract him from his own worst instincts in 1001 Nights, the heartbreaking poetry of Mahmoud Darwish dreaming in exile of his home in Palestine, and of course, Ahmed Zaoui’s own stunning writings from solitary confinement here in New Zealand, where he was separated from the world and from his family for years, where he speaks of almost forgetting what the moon looked like. 

Watch Mohamed Hassan's 'Dance me to the end of the world' below. Keep scrolling to read his interview.

Dance me to the end of the world (2020); Written and directed by Mohamed Hassan. Filmed and edited by Joel Moriasi; AWMM MS-2020-4.

Performance is an important part of your work - like much of your work this piece is both a written poem and a filmed performance. How important is the performance of a poem to you and why? Do you usually make videos to accompany them?

I have always been drawn to the musicality of words, the melodies that come alive when poetry is read out loud. I’ve spent a long time in the performance world learning how to embody my writing in my voice and physicality, and it has made me a better writer for it. What I love about these spaces is that the relationship with the audience is material and immediate, and the presence and interaction of the listener becomes a vital part of the work itself. The way I write too becomes influenced by how a poem sounds out loud, how it fills a space and the purpose the silence in between words can serve. The poems in turn change and evolve depending on their medium, whether on the page, on the stage or visualised in a video. I keep trying to experiment with how these different forms intersect and what new directions they can branch out in.


And how does the creative process work when joining your words with visual imagery in your performances? Can you tell us about the locations in the film and their significance?

The film was shot in Istanbul, a city that I love dearly, where I was fortunate to spend three years of my life. Aside from its history, which is bountiful and alive, Istanbul’s beauty comes from its contradictions - it’s European and Asian identities harmonising and clashing, its heritage sharply contrasted with its modernity, its serenity and its chaos. It felt like a perfect place to shoot a poem about connection and separation in a place that invokes so much fantasy and spirituality, a place that has seen so much of human history playing out over its soil.

The imagery in the film is beautiful. How did you decide the ‘where, how and what’ of it?

We knew that we wanted to invoke the imagery of the pandemic and the dystopian sentiments a lot of people were feeling last year. From that emerged the idea to film something that reflected the loneliness and isolation of the pandemic with the haunting backdrop of a city as iconic as Istanbul. It would be super tricky to pull off, because of how insanely busy the city is all the time, so we spent a few days scouting for locations that would help us tell the story we were after.


Who composed the music?

The music piece that accompanies the film is an interpretation of Valse Triste by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, performed by British composer Paul Mottram.


Have you worked with the film-maker before? What role did you each play in creating the video?

The man behind the visuals of the film is Joel Moriarsi, an incredible filmmaker and editor originally from Kenya, who also happens to be a major YouTube celebrity in Turkey (look him up). We’ve worked together on a number of projects in the past, and for a long time he was the person I first messaged when I had a crazy idea I was excited about. When I found out I would be in Istanbul, I knew we had to work together again on this project, and I’m pretty chuffed that he agreed.

You are wearing a mask - had the pandemic begun when you wrote the poem? 

We filmed the piece in March 2021, exactly a year after the pandemic began, and with very strict covid restrictions still in place in Turkey and much of Europe, as it emerged from a pretty heavy second wave. I wrote the poem while in lockdown a few months earlier, as I mentally prepared to leave the safety of New Zealand and slowly made my way back to the UK, which was very much the epicentre of the virus at that time.


There’s a lot of contrast in the imagery - great beauty contrasted again quite stark - almost wasteland-like landscapes. Can you talk a little about this? 

Our aim was to invoke the sense of sudden isolation that many of us were feeling, and the uncertainty about the future of our world. We drew from a lot of the iconic images from earlier in the pandemic of deserted cities, and imagined what these places might look like if life never returned to them. We had become accustomed to these images in works of fiction, movies and literature, that were a form of escapism from mundanity. Now suddenly all of it feels a little too prophetic, and while we contend with covid, social unrest and climate change, we find ourselves staring at an unsettling future we now have to work together to prevent.

Dick Grace and Alice Crump are mentioned in the poem and their story is told in  Love& Loss. Tell us about how you came about developing this piece?

This film began as an invocation to make a piece of work that spoke to the exhibit as well as our current moment. I was able to dive into some of the archived works that ended up as part of the exhibition, and the story that entranced me was that of Dick Grace and Alice Crump, and the letters they exchanged during the First World War. Grace was a medical student living in the UK corresponding with his girlfriend back in New Zealand. He’s drafted into the war and continues writing these incredible letters to Crump from the front lines, promising to one day return to her after the war. It’s a pretty astounding piece of history that reads like a living memory of a love story more than a century ago, that feels so pertinent to our world right now. It began a thought process for me about what it means to try and hold onto these relationships when separated by seemingly immovable barriers - distance and time.


Often poetry comes from a highly personal place but it’s beauty lies in its ability to find resonance with those who encounter it. Is this a difficult balance to strike, knowing how much of yourself to give away?

The wonderful trick with poetry is that it’s a maze that you lead people through. Along the way there are revelations, trap doors and hopefully a fountain at the centre where people can rest and rejuvenate. If that sounds wilfully vague, that is exactly the point. You have so much power as a writer to uncover your truths and vulnerabilities, but retain enough magic dust to obscure some of their deeper meanings. If done right, you can leave easter eggs all over the place for people to find, knowing some are only there for you.

Finally - poetry is amorphous. It has many functions and many forms and means many different things to different people. What does it mean to you?

If language is the way we exchange meaning with each other, then poetry is the way we interpret it. My ancestors would gather in the desert to compete over verse, challenging each other to write grander and more beautiful prose that showcased mastery of the Arabic language, and depth of knowledge into the human soul. In high school, I found so much joy in pulling apart poems and trying to find their secrets, hoping to see the shapes and colours the writer was guiding me to. When I started writing my first poems, and hearing poems read out loud, I realised it was a medium that had no boundaries or rules. It was an empty space that anyone could step into and speak their truth, however small or large that truth may be. Like any good work of art, what matters is not what a poem looks or sounds like, how complex its structure or syntax is, how deep its knowledge of form. The only thing that matters is how it makes someone feel in their gut when they read it.


Our Love & Loss exhibition is all about the power of the word - either written or spoken - in helping us to communicate complex emotions like love, grief and longing. The exhibition presents the words we use almost as magic - capable of collapsing time and space between us and those we love.

Click here to 'visit' the Love & Loss exhibition online or find out how you can see the exhibition in-person here.


Images: Scenes from 'Dance me to the end of the world' (2020); Written and directed by Mohamed Hassan. Filmed and edited by Joel Moriasi; AWMM MS-2020-4.




Mohamed Hassan is an award-winning journalist and poet from Auckland and Cairo. He was the 2015 National Poetry Slam Champion and runner up at the UK National Poetry Slam in 2021. In 2017 he was awarded the Gold Trophy at the New York Radio Awards for his RNZ podcast series 'Public Enemy'. His collection of poems 'National Anthem' was published by Dead Bird Books in 2020 and was shortlisted at the Ockham National Book Awards.