Warda Yassin took up the role recently, and will hold it for the next two years.
“I think writing, not just poetry but, in general has many positives and not just for our mental health but our creativity and happiness and it can add a lot. Reading is widely known to be this wonderful, transformative experience – writing can also take us places and it’s important.”
Warda is a warm and inspiring woman with a passion for literature and a dedication to empowering, particularly young, people to share their voice.
As we talk over coffee in the city centre, before it was put under lockdown, Warda tells the story of how she went from avid reader to successful, award-winning published poet and how her family and those involved in local groups encouraged her talent.
“My journey was not really the conventional path into poetry,” she said. “I always did a lot of reading and my parents encouraged that but it wasn’t like I was writing from an early age. I used to go to the library a lot with my siblings and my first connection to it was later on.”
When she started studying literature and language with history at university a flyer for Hive – a group that supports young writers between ages 14 and 30 – caught her attention.
She said: “I remember being like ‘this is a big deal, I want to do this’ and so I plucked up the courage and I went. It was really wonderful.
“At the time it was run by my now mentor Vicky Morris who I met there and she was really welcoming, I felt seen and encouraged. Through that little opportunities came up and it became this really wonderful part of my life and at some point it stopped being a hobby and became part of my routine.
"If I didn’t find a group that was inclusive, diverse and warm I don’t think I would have gone back.
“Often the people who get the most out of poetry might not be attracted to traditional groups so it’s really important those projects outreach into the schools that need it the most, the community centres, the youth clubs and be welcoming when they arrive.”
Fast forward some years, Warda is now a secondary school English teacher at Hinde House but has worked in other schools around the city and won the New Poets Prize in 2018 with her debut pamphlet, Tea with Cardamom.
Kayo Chingonyi, who judged the collection, said: “These poems struck me as wonderfully contemporary while gesturing towards something ancient in their frequent recourse to that which is passed down, as well as that which we improvise as our own pathways unfold. The poems invoke a world within a world making for a multi-layered perspective on life in the UK at the present moment.”
She has also worked with the BBC on a commissioned piece about Sheffield for National Poetry Day that has several references to places around the city – of “icing sugar snow” at Edward Street Flats, “the moon, a halo” over Tinsley Cemetery and the “landmark places we came of age – / London Road, Spital Hill, Broomhall / where we grew tall like tower blocks”.
Warda said: “Sheffield is my forever home, I was born in Sheffield and my family came in the early 1990s from Somaliland off the back of the civil war and we settled here, I went to school and university here and I really do love the city.”
Warda was officially appointed poet laureate of Sheffield at an Off the Shelf Festival of Words event last month.
It was a role created by the former Lord Mayor Magid Magid in 2018. Warda took over from Otis Mensah who during his time in the position released his debut poetry book Safe Metamorphasis and Otis Mensah Exists series of singles.
Warda said: “I’m honoured, it’s fantastic. I’m really excited.
“In other places like London they have a history of poet laureates, I think it’s time that Sheffield follows in pursuit of that and really engages with the young people in the city who have so much to say.
“Sheffield’s poetry scene is eclectic, diverse, fiery, we have open mic nights, it feels inclusive, it’s a nice place and so much so that when I go to other spaces I really realise how warm the poetry scene we have here is. I think a role like this will add weight to that and help to draw attention to it and help expand it. I hope we have a lot of poet laureates and each one works on different things to bring to the city.
“I want to use my opportunity as the poet laureate to work with young people to encourage them, and I want to work with organisations like Hive and other partnerships that share that vision of empowering people through words and documenting their stories and archiving, or even just being creative as an expressive form.
“You’d be interested to see how many, when given the opportunity, find themselves in writing and it gives them a voice or a form of escape or just something that is theirs.”
To read Warda’s debut poetry collection Tea with Cardamom, go to https://poetrybusiness.co.uk/product/tea-with-cardamom/ and to find out more about Hive go to http://www.hivesouthyorkshire.com/