Sheffield's poet laureate Warda has her way with words
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A British-born Somali poet, Warda Yassin has been surrounded by poetry all her life. “It was a self-expression thing,” she says. “Being Somalian, I had people around me who wrote poetry, so it was normalised.
“It was not necessarily something I was going to do, but I was encouraged to read, we were a reading family and still are.”
Her family came to Sheffield in the 1980s from Somaliland due to the civil war and settled here. She was brought up in Broomhall where she still lives, surrounded by her family.
Now 28, Warda is a teacher at Hinde House School in Shiregreen, a job she loves.
She is the second of eight children and went to school at Springfield Primary in Broomhall, before going to Silverdale School in Bents Green. They were happy days.
“I’ve really fun memories of my childhood, of family, grandparents, community,” she says. “Our neighbours felt like family, they are loving memories of growing up in Sheffield.”
Warda then went to university at Hallam, doing English and History. “Very Sheffield, born and raised here, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to stay,” she said.
Despite being surrounded by poets, Warda only really got into it aged 19 when she met city writer Vicky Morris, founder of the city’s Hive Young Writers project.
“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.”
She added: “I knew I had a teaching role, being the big sister, but when I read poems, seeing my language and culture on paper, I wanted to do that,” she said.
“It wasn’t until I joined Vicky’s group that it became a hobby and then a habit.
“Her group was focussed on confidence building, poetry was a reflection and it was such a warm and inviting space. I was dipping my toe in the water and got so much encouragement.
“As the years progressed, I got opportunities to read, I got published in anthologies, so from a small private part of my life it became something else, it had transitioned to something shared.”
Warda announced herself by winning the New Poets Prize in 2018 with her debut pamphlet, Tea with Cardamom. “It was a wonderful moment and a surprise, not something I had expected to happen, but it helped my transition,” she said.
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.”
The recognition continued as in 2020, Warda won The Women Poets’ Prize and was made poet laureate.
This month, her poem Weston Park was on a billboard in the city centre as part of National Poetry Day. “It is really flattering, an honour. Poetry has given me confidence,” she says.
Warda links this confidence to being a teacher in the Shiregreen community because it helps her connect with people who become like a family. That connection, she says, helps a pupil’s confidence. “So having my poem on a wall in the city is immense,” she says.
Her poetry references Sheffield, including the title Weston Park and mentions of Edward Street in Netherthorpe.
“I connect to places. I’ve been inspired by the cityscape for so long, it is not something I do on purpose but I find myself referencing parks and streets. We have a beautiful city with incredible landmarks that are inspiring.
“I make connections in the city, not necessarily buildings or names, but people bring it to life for me and my work is focussed on the people who inspired me, people I love who compelled me to write.”
The poet laureate role was created by former Lord Mayor Magid Magid in 2018. Warda took over from Otis Mensah and is grateful for his help.
“Otis and Majid were really supportive. Otis is such a warm and supportive individual. He reached out to artists for support.”
When appointed, she 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.”
So what was the reality? “It has been great. Wonderful opportunities. I was commissioned to write poems for the Tinsley Canal and appear at Off The Shelf. Incredible opportunities so early in on in my career because I am still learning.
“The opportunities to engage with the city have helped me in my poetry and as an individual.”
She’s back at Off The Shelf on October 30 when she and other poets will read new work inspired by dub poet, poet and storyteller Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze.
Alongside, Warda is Sile Sibanda, Danae Wellington and other guests.
It will come during half term and is something she is looking forward to, but Warda will be keen to get back to the classroom, where she teaches Year 7 to 11.
“I love it, there is a warm culture of care. I work with an incredible department who inspire me every day.
“The students are incredible, they appreciate poetry and I’m often inundated in the corridor with poems.”
Her favourite poet is Sharon Olds, the American poet who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Olds teaches creative writing at New York University so there is a parallel.
Ask her about Sharon if you get the chance during her last year as poet laureate. Warda aims to use it well. “I hope to engage with more Sheffield communities, grow as a teacher, a person, a writer.”
And given a choice between teaching or writing poetry, she wants to do both. “Teaching is a vocation, a wonderful and beautiful part of my life.
“Poetry is as important so I can see myself continuing that balance.”
She finishes by asking for a mention of her Year 11 group, who will face their GCSEs next year. “They are gorgeous and engage with poetry.” No wonder with a teacher like Warda.