Event Review: Live with The Sheffield Laureate – Otis Mensah and Warda Yassin in conversation with Magid Magid 

Written by: Amber O’Conner

On October 12th Off the Shelf hosted ‘Live with the Sheffield Laureate’ at the Crucible Theatre as an event to honour both the outgoing poet Laureate and the new electee. The evening celebrated hip-hop artist and poet Otis Mensah, the first appointee of this honorary position, and it saw him reunited onstage with Magid Magid, who introduced the role in 2018 during his time as Lord Mayor of Sheffield. The pair were joined by Warda Yassin, winner of the New Poets Prize in 2018, who has been selected by Otis to take over the prestigious position for the next two years.

The poetry-filled evening began with a performance by Otis, who read and sang a selection of his poems, covering various themes. Nonetheless, each poem was imbued with his distinctive musicality, and with each presentation of a piece of his work he adapted his performance, drawing out the unique rhythms with an altered cadence. Otis’ performance truly highlighted the mutable nature of poetry, an art form that is experienced differently depending on whether it is read or heard, and his performance was a testament to the brilliance that is live art, through his moving delivery of his already-evocative work. During the conversation section of the evening, the audience was also able to gain an insight into the creative processes behind Otis’ poems, including his overreaching aim to evidence the intellectual credibility of hip-hop, to help legitimise a medium he believes is sometimes overlooked despite its artistry. I personally challenge anyone to hear one of Otis’ readings and then deny the validity of his allusion-filled lyrics, or his choice of delivery. The brilliance of his poetry only becomes amplified when delivered through his passionate yet equanimous hip-hop style.

Following the evening’s conversation, Warda also shared her poetry with the audience. She adopted a more tranquil reading style than that of her Laureate predecessor, but one that nonetheless complimented her work. Modest in her brilliance, Warda softly but assuredly performed her poetry, which can be characterised by its vision. Warda’s poems, which often take the personal as their scope, speak to truths the audience likely already knew but had not thought to articulate. As Otis remarked, Warda can “readily encapsulate life”, which he hopes will connect with people in Sheffield and make them “feel less alone”, when they engage with her work.

To read Warda is to be confronted with themes of family and love, but to hear her speak about her work is to fully recognise how much emphasis she places on human connection, which positions her well for this position in the community. Warda’s love of poetry, as well as her love of Sheffield, was obvious in her discussion of the significance poetry has in the lives of the local school children she teaches, and her repeated references to her family and friends, to her life rooted in Sheffield. Touchingly, many of her readings were also interspersed with messages of thanks to those who have supported her, including several local arts organisations. For Warda, poetry evidently acts as a tool to unite and inspire people, both of which are needed now more than ever in light of the pandemic.

This evening was therefore one of reflection and anticipation. The event highlighted the success achieved through Magid Magid’s inception of this role and Otis’ work, and it highlighted the enthusiasm with which Warda will continue the position. Through a night that celebrated Sheffield’s literary talent, this event highlighting the artistic community’s commitment to continuing such work marks a bright future for poetry within the city.

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