Wordplay: Otis Mensah on how to write poetry

Interested in writing poetry and creative expression but unsure where to begin? We asked Sheffield’s first Poet Laureate Otis Mensah for his advice to any budding artists out there.

#1 Forget any preconceptions of poetry
One important thing is to try and unlearn or forget about any preconceptions of poetry, and also what it means to write poetry. I think in the past it has been perceived as something that is elitist, middle-class, or for the highly-educated. Some might see it as a whitewashed art form, but it’s important to remind ourselves of its roots: an art for the people and one of the oldest forms of storytelling. Today, in the 21st century, we put expression on such a high pedestal. We hold our favourite films and musicians very highly, but more often than not, people feel like they can’t contribute to that; it’s something they feel can only be admired from afar. That’s not true.

#2 Get in touch with your emotions
Poetry is a form of expression that is accessible for everyone, and once you’ve let go of those preconceived ideas, it’s all about getting in touch with your emotions. What we think and what we feel matters imperatively, especially because when you express feelings to others you’re no longer alone in going through that because you create a sense of community by sharing. Put your pen to paper and try to get in touch with how you really feel and do a stream-of-consciousness exercise: empty your mind on the page, just let whatever is there spill on to it, don’t judge it, don’t worry about punctuation, don’t worry about whether it sounds good – just try to connect with how you feel and express that.

“Poetry is a form of expression that is accessible for everyone, and once you’ve let go of those preconceived ideas, it’s all about getting in touch with your emotions.” – Otis Mensah. Image: Miroslav Kiss/GRIT MULTIMEDIA

#3 Try and connect with like-minded people or poets around you
It’s important to speak with people who are also open to expressing how they feel, because, for me, poetry isn’t just intellectual masturbation; it has to be a form of emotional community. When you look at society today, there aren’t too many safe spaces where we can express ourselves freely, even when you look at things like the education system which is very much based on the merits of exams and academic results. That doesn’t really give you the space to let people know how you really feel, and because of this you have a lot of people who never have the chance to learn emotional intelligence, so we need to embrace the arts as a safe space to connect. In Sheffield there’s an incredible collective for young writers called HIVE, who welcome people from 14-25 years old to get involved regardless of what level you might perceive yourself to be at. It’s more about going somewhere to express and improve your skills and methods of expression.

#4 Share your work with others
As mentioned, there are places like HIVE where you can meet and share with like-minded people, but there are also open mic events like Gorilla Poetry where you can listen to and contribute with spoken word and creative writing pieces. There’s also the Sheffield Poetry Society who run an open mic night at the Green Room in the city centre, so there’s plenty to get involved in. But first of all, try to learn to express yourself without judging yourself – that’s really important.

Otis Mensah will launch his first poetry book, Safe Metamorphis, and exhibit new material with a performance at Café Totem on 17 May. 

Tickets for the event are available from otismensah.com

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