Wordplay: Warda Yassin
Produced in association with Sheffield’s first poet laureate Otis Mensah, Wordplay is a monthly showcase of up-and-coming artists from the city’s literary scene. For this month’s issue of Exposed, Joseph Food spoke to award-winning poet Warda Yassin.
Hi Warda, could we begin with how you first got into writing poetry?
I was always an avid reader who practically lived in Sheffield Children’s Library, so I started off just enjoying other people’s work and still do. I acutely remember reading Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses as the first book with a black character and feeling like it was somewhere I could belong or exist. I loved Francis Hodgson Burnett and devoured Louisa Alcott May’s Little Women, spending ages fighting over characters with my sisters.
Poetry is very much part of Somali culture and was always in the background of my childhood. My grandmother would sing poetry to me and my uncle was a poet, so it wasn’t a surprise to anyone when I started to dabble. When I was 19, I dipped my toe into a local poetry project for young women run by Vicky Morris (the founder of Hive). The sessions were supportive and relaxed and one project turned into another and another, and I realised I was discovering my passion for writing about all the places, people, and moments that matter most to me.
Family and cultural identity are often big themes in your writing. Can you tell us a bit more about your experience of both and how that inspires you?
I’m drawn to people and stories. I’m incredibly close with my grandmothers and they have shared their tales and girlhood adventures with me so I’ve felt compelled to write them down for them. Somalis have a rich oral and written history so it’s been fascinating to hear stories about my father’s village, and how they resisted, rebelled, loved, fought and lived. Poetry was multi-layered and used to resist governments, rally soldiers, woo lovers, honour friends and celebrate life. It’s not uncommon to hear poetic freestyles at weddings nowadays.
At the same time, being a first generation Somali woman, I’m drawn to writing about the realities of my wider diaspora and community: how we love, fight, hurt, grieve and mend. I’m keen that people know my poems and experience are exclusive to me, and I don’t speak for everyone from a similar background. I’ve always written for myself, and if anyone can relate, then alhamdulillah that’s such a beautiful bonus.
Do you have to be in a certain environment or headspace to begin writing?
Not particularly. My poems have been written over the years at home and in workshops, work, on trains, planes, and mostly at night. My iPhone notes are shambles of random lines and bullet points everywhere. Each poem comes out differently and this is part of why I love the process. If a poem won’t come out, I usually read or focus on something else in my life until it is ready to be written.
In 2018, your pamphlet Tea with Cardamom won the New Poets Prize. How did that feel, and have things changed for you much since?
It was such a lovely surprise to win and to be chosen by poet Kayo Chingonyi whose work I really admire. Tea with Cardamom is a celebration of culture, but it is not afraid to have a wandering eye and ask questions. The experience of publishing my pamphlet has opened new opportunities for me, as writing was previously a private part of my life, and the response from my family, friends and community has been so warm mashallah. They are rooting for me, which means everything.
Are there any writers or artists who have inspired your work?
So many! Some of my favourite poets include Hadrawi, Nizar Qabbani, Warsan Shire, Ocean Vuong, J Cole, Sharon Olds, Kim Moore, Danez Smith, Liz Berry, Nayyirah Waheed, Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf, Vicky Morris, my Hive peers Danae Wellington and Safia Khan, and so many more. I love novelists and I adore the works of Alice Walker, Jane Austen, Khaled Hosseini, Jean Sasson and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I love the transformative nature of reading and how every new book leaves you a little more changed and a little more knowing of this world. I’m currently reading Kartography by Kamila Shamsie and I do not want it to end!
What would you say to anyone interested in creative expression but unsure of where to begin with their writing?
Find the writers whose words, works and poetics touch your heart and read them viciously. Find a local writing group and nurture a creative family to mentor, support and champion each other. Sheffield has a diverse cultural scene with places like Verse Matters (one of my favourite places to read at with its warmth) and SoAfrica Festival which is a celebration of African culture, arts and music. Last year it was lit seeing Sheffield borrow the spirit of Africa for a while so I do hope we see the festival again. And then there’s Hive who create safe, creative and supporting spaces with a plethora of opportunities (competitions, mentoring, workshops to name a few) – a must for younger writers. Find your voice and remain true to the topics, stories and styles which inspire your heart and keep writing for yourself foremost and the reader to follow.
What is next for you?
I have been working with young women from my local community on Mixing Roots – a collaboration between Off The Shelf and Hive. It’s been the absolute highlight of my summer and refreshed my love of poetry with the joy that comes from writing, capturing, healing and laughing together with bright young minds. I’m editing their tender and important words into an anthology to be showcased at Israac Somali Community centre on 15 October at 6:30pm, and everyone is welcome! I work as an English Teacher in a Sheffield school so I’m also gearing up for a new year and term. I love my job. The school is flexible with texts, so I find myself introducing a lot of poems I wished my teachers had shown me in school. Writing-wise, I’m working on a first full-length collection (which feels odd to say!).