Surviving lockdown with Sheffield's poet laureate Otis Mensah

Sheffield's poet laureate has been inspiring people to keep on keeping on during the coronavirus crisis, with new music and poetry and highlighting the benefits of being creative.

By Molly Williams
Friday, 19th June 2020, 10:38 am
Updated Friday, 19th June 2020, 2:55 pm

Otis Mensah was made the city's first poet laureate in 2018, by then Lord Mayor Magid Magid.

Before Covid-19, the hip-hop artist and spoken word poet was travelling around the city, country and oversees to perform to big crowds and teach university students about his craft but as restrictions banned large gatherings, cancelled events and stopped face-to-face teaching, Otis says it has been difficult to adapt.

“It’s been really turbulent in the last few months because of coronavirus and the whole social distancing,” he says, “knowing no shows, live performances or public appearances are going to be taking place - which are not only my main source of income but my main sense of purpose.

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Sheffield’s Poet Laureate Otis Mensah

“I get a lot of my drive from knowing I'm going to be performing and sharing my art publicly and having that emotional exchange, so it’s been difficult, but I’ve been enspirited by the overwhelming need to try to adapt and it’s beautiful to see how different creatives have done that.

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“When I first found out about the pandemic and the measures being put in place, I was really resistant to the idea of adapting and it felt really hard for me to think about how I’m going to create outside of sharing music and poetry publicly.

“It was quite depressing and I spent the first two weeks just inside the house, going out for my daily walk, but not really thinking about anything creatively and I think that took its toll and eventually I had a realisation this wasn’t going to be a flash in the pan and that forced me to adapt.”

Many artists have had to apply for support from funds such as the Arts Council and rely on virtual performances as a means to stay connected to audiences.

Although playing to a screen is not quite the same as playing on stage at a venue, Otis and others have made it work.

He says: “It’s an interesting experience, the joy of being able to perform your work is still there but it's strange not having that casual response or interaction from the audience, so you have to find different ways to motivate yourself to keep performing.

"But it’s a beautiful thing these means are available and it just plays into the narrative of how much of an internet generation we are and how that’s not always a negative thing - it does have its pros and cons and one of those pros is we’re able to share art."

One such virtual event has been launching his debut poetry book Safe Metamorphasis.

These strange times have also offered fresh sources of inspiration and perspectives which have helped shaped his most recent piece of work: Otis Mensah Exists.

He is releasing the series of singles by emulating how people watch television episodes and sharing one every three weeks.

Each is accompanied by original animations by Sheffield artist Jim Spendlove and ‘reveals a piece of the puzzle one by one’, addressing themes such as existence and legacy.

Otis says: “My perception of art and why I create has sort of shifted in a way, I think originally I always used to create under the impression I was doing it because it's therapeutic and cathartic and although that is true and is a big part of why I create, I think I started to realise art and creating is to document my existence as a human being and it came from a sort of place of, definitely inspired by the times we’re in, fear your existence on this earth and your legacy could be threatened - all your hopes and dreams could be shaken at any time.

“Given how unprecedented these times are and how unexpected they were it started to make me think I wanted to do something that documents my existence and perhaps that's a big part of why I'm creating.”

Internet Cafe is the latest in the series, which Otis describes as a ‘journey into a feeling of disconnection and millennial malaise, on a backdrop of mellow and minimalist instrumentation’, which takes inspiration from Web Junkie, a film about internet gaming addiction.

He has also been inspired by the increased sense of community and spending more time in nature during lockdown and was commissioned by the BBC to write a poem on how people have come together during the crisis.

“If you look at history, whenever we are going through turbulent times people muster up the courage they need to keep going and art is one of those means to keep on keeping on," he says.

“It’s a way to find meaning in the current situation and inject more purpose into your life. It’s been incredible seeing people step to the line and share different forms of art, murals, rainbows, philosophical quotes - things to keep you contemplating.

“When there is so much fear rising to the surface it can be hard to think about anything outside of that and I think that’s when we start to struggle and internalise so it’s really important that artists have been doing that.”

He encourages everyone to get creative, but avoid pressure to be productive.

“If you are a poet or an artist, don’t pressure yourself into being productive and creating non stop,” he says, “these are unprecedented times and that can affect how you feel mentally so be kind to yourself and give yourself that extra time to talk with family and friends over the phone and try to spend more time in nature.

“The label of being an artist is so less meaningful than just creating and creativity is really strengthening and inspiring unification within the community - know that your art, on whatever level, is meaningful.”

As for the future, Otis says his time as poet laureate is almost coming to an end and the next person to step up to the role has already been chosen.

The changeover will come in October and, without giving anything away, Otis says: “I feel sad that it’s coming to an end, but it’s been such a meaningful journey.

“I’m really excited to see how the journey continues after me and for that legacy to carry on. When Magid made me poet laureate it was such a political, but also inspiring moment, because he created something that never existed and it showed we can break moulds of elitist tradition and artists can have their voice shared.

“It also put emphasis on the world of art that exists in the north, I think more often than not people tend to play into the echo chamber of what’s going on in London and we can forget there are incredible things happening here in Sheffield.

“I’m so excited to announce the next poet laureate. This is someone whose poetic work is so meaningful, rounded and is so powerful for the community of Sheffield. I think it’s going to be incredible.

“There’s going to be so much support behind the next poet laureate and I think it is someone who is loved and cherished within the Sheffield poetry community.”

To listen to Otis’s latest music, go to otismensah.bandcamp.com

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