Flo Cornall speaks to Warda Yassin, Sheffield’s new Poet Laureate, on what she has in store for her new role, creative practice in the time of Covid-19 and encouraging reluctant writers to pick up poetry.
As Covid-19 brings a stop to the creative industries, Warda Yassin’s recent introduction as the Sheffield Poet Laureate comes as a beacon of hope to the arts scene in Sheffield in such uncertain times. Following her collection of poems Tea with Cardamom, which won the 2018 New Poets Prize, before being published in 2019, her path to Laureateship was set. For the next two years, Yassin will fill the role,becoming the second to do so following Otis Mensah.
The announcement came as a tremendous honour to her: “I grew up in Sheffield, and was born in Sheffield. Often the landmarks, industry, landscape and the neighbourhood I grew up in features in my work. I’ve had a journey in writing poetry that has stemmed from Sheffield, I started when I was 19 and now I’m 27”.
Yassin’s journey to this role has become full-circle for her as a poet. From celebrating poetry in her childhood home to developing the young voices of today: “I started quite late, like at 19. I’m from Somali and gabay is our traditional form of poetry, it’s really free and everyone can write poetry in Somalia and you don’t have to be literate. There’s no rules or anything. So it was very much around the house, it’s a poetic language and early on I had quite a budding interest in poetry.
“My uncle was a poet, my mother writes poetry to uplift the family and that purpose has simply been to just celebrate and share love. There are many different bases for poetry in people’s life and it would be fantastic to see more people getting involved in the city and more.”
About the prominence of the local poetry collective and organisation Hive, Yassin discussed how this group has nurtured her poetic practice and become “absolutely instrumental to my poetry journey.”
“It wasn’t until I found Hive, and through it Vicky Morris, who subsequently became my mentor and one of my biggest poetic influences that I saw I could actively become a part of poetry.”
The development of Yassin’s confidence in her own poetic voice was particularly inspiring. As a poet and writer myself, I was naturally intrigued as to where it all began for Yassin so it was comforting to hear her story of beginning poetry quite reluctantly and shyly.
That confidence in herself and her work, Yassin noted, “was founded and centred, not in the university I was going to at the time or the school I was studying, it was out of the classroom that I fell in love with poetry.” A story which I’m sure a lot of poets can relate to in some form, to finally having that belief in the stories you are writing.
She said: “I know I was writing for years before I was brave enough and not as scared to go out there.”
In fact, one of Yassin’s priorities during her laureateship is to work with reluctant writers who are worried about making their first brave step to getting involved in poetry.
Reflecting on how she was once that person at 19, she states: “I know that often those that need poetry the most, are the ones not necessarily readily finding it right now and they need that.
“I think when you get that initial surge and wave of ‘I’ve done this in my bedroom’ or ‘I’ve been writing this and I want to share it’. I think it’s so important to take that step and reach out to that range of organisations. There are opportunities for young people, and anyone, to immerse themselves in art.”
About the wide array of creative organisations in Sheffield, Yassin knows that there’s a lot going on in this city and is determined to shed light onto these organisations and collaborate with them during her laureateship from the likes of Hive, Nyara, Utopia Theatre, and So Africa Festival.
Moving onto how Covid-19 has impacted the nation. It has been a difficult year to say the least, with the city’s arts industry being put on hold from theatres to local open mic nights. Yassin’s initial responsibility was one of self-care, safety and precaution. Acknowledging that her creativity was put a little bit on the backburner because she was preoccupied with more pressing things.
“As that loudness subdued to the realisation of this as the new normal, I found myself in nature and getting back to reading poetry. There were some great collections that I was reading this summer. I found myself writing when I got back to that safe space and wasn’t so anxious about other things.”
DINA Theatre commissioned her to write a lockdown piece, ‘Cavendish Court’ which explores visits to her grandmother during the pandemic from her window, looking fluidly at the idea of relationships, closeness and distance.
Lockdown also let her slow down, both as a full-time secondary school teacher and giving herself valuable time to immerse herself in reading. She humorously admits: “I wrote more than I ever did towards the end of lockdown just as it was ending. I was like, why didn’t I have this in July, in all that time?”
The pressures of lockdown certainly did put constraints on practically everything, everybody was grappling through the same things such as loneliness, distance and detachment.
Discussing the power of poetry to unite people, Yassin said: “Poetry has the ability to connect everyone together, you don’t have to necessarily write it to be a part of that feeling. It’s whatever it gives you. I am interested in my lineage, my faith, my neighbourhood, my family and my sense of self.”
We then discuss the possibility of new writers in the time of Covid-19, specifically when lockdown was happening. Yassin thinks lockdown probably did create or introduce people’s writing instincts and that has the ability for new writers to “find themselves through their words because it was isolating, unprecedented and terrifying.”
She said: “There is something that brings people together, and even though writing is a lonely process, it is also not lonely if that makes sense. There is that human connection and connecting with other people as well.”
Connecting with other people can often be facilitated by the incredibly rich arts scene we have in Sheffield, for new writers in particular there are a number of workshops that are welcoming safe spaces to develop your poetic practice.
Whilst poetry is something Yassin does write personally alone at night, it is also something she would greatly encourage to do in workshop spaces:“You got to be around people that inspire you. It is important to be around people who make you excited about writing, excited about poetry. That kind of enthusiasm, and craftsmanship inspires me as well.”
That initial leap into immersing yourself in art, understandably, is often the hardest part. Yassin accredits to the often exclusionary and traditional highbrow stereotype that poetry is reserved for certain ‘types’ of people. She argues it is the opposite case and demolishes the notion that poetry can belong to a single group.
She states: “There’s such an idea of poetry that people think about before they get involved in it, that there’s a certain way you have to write, or a subject material or style.
“Poetry has a lawless form. It belongs to the people, it belongs to everybody. I think everybody would benefit from it, whether or not if they want to create something different. You don’t have to be published, or win awards to write poetry. It can simply be to connect and understand.”
So what’s next for Warda Yassin as the Sheffield Poet Laureate?
She plans to collaborate further with Sheffield art organisations and communities. Currently, she is working with Hive on an ongoing project called ‘Mixing Roots’ where she is working with 14-23 year old people of colour, exploring and writing their stories.
As well as teaching workshops, she wants to showcase the talent and writers that we have in the city. Of particular concern to her is the budding writers thinking about making their first brave step toward “showing up to something, sending that email, sending that tweet”; she wants to bridge that quite daunting leap.
She believes encouraging young people to be part of the conservation is particularly important, especially continuing the accessibility of safe spaces for young people and encouraging them to “find themselves in poetry.”
Reflecting that she was once in those shoes, she said: “I’m aware that I wouldn’t have become a writer or a poet if I didn’t have a group of people who believed in me and encouraged me, both within and outside of the household and communities I’m a part of.”
Yassin wants to explore and experiment within her own poetic practice further as well: “I’m still learning, I’m learning to open my subject material and I’m trying to lie a little more because I’m so obsessed with truth.”
During her laureateship, Yassin is also on a journey as well. Looking to “not necessarily represent the city, but amplify the poetry in our city”.