CANAL WORKS 2: a dua [prayer] on the water

The Canal & River Trust and The Poetry Society have commissioned Sheffield poet Warda Yassin to create a new crowd-sourced poem to be installed along the Sheffield Tinsley Canal. In this second and final blog, Warda reflects on the workshops she delivered along this stretch of canal and on the boat trip that helped inspire her poem, interspersing some of the writing of her workshop participants.

Warda and the writing workshop

I know you, toes edging over
the dock’s side, a footstep away
from my surface and blind depths.

from ‘Public Surface Broadcast’ by Helen Angell

I have thoroughly enjoyed running several poetry writing workshops with young writers and members of the public, supported by my mentor, the poet Vicky Morris. For these workshops, I gathered both poetry exercises that I hoped would spark ways in to writing about the canal, and sources of inspiration, like the terminology associated with waterways and their dwellers. My favourite word from this is sluice: an artificial passage for water (as in a millstream) fitted with a valve or gate for stopping or regulating flow – how wonderful and onomatopoeic is that!

my body carries the can for you, floats your boats,
denies you answers. My body offers you fern leaf.
feather, earth and air together.

from ‘Canal’ by Julian Dobson

In research, I discovered another immigrant connection to the canal itself through Mariam Shah, who I found on BBC news, a Muslim mother from Rotherham who has become a canal boat skipper.

Mariam came with us on one of the young writers’ workshops and told us all how, on the water, she feels most at peace and the canal connects her with her Pakistani seafaring father. I distinctly remember her telling us how she found spiritual connection with Allah on the canal and will make dua (a prayer) there in the water. I knew this needed to go in the final poem. Whatever a person’s beliefs, I don’t imagine any of us can miss the inner peace found by walking or sailing through such nature-filled waterways.

On board the boat trip, Mariam is second right

Our boat sighed a breath and waves lapped against the canal walls.

by Renee, year 10

For this poetry workshop, rather excitingly, we took Mariam and girls from the Mixing Roots Project on a canal boat trip with the lovely Swinton Lock. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and everyone loved our serene adventure, learning about the waterways from the Swinton Lock team who generously answered all our questions and explained the mechanisms of the locks and practicalities of canal life. Learning about how the locks work – designed to support the fluctuation in different altitudes of water – we likened them to baths with a giant ‘plug hole’.

Tranquil ripples lapped the base of the elegant archway.

by Ellie, year 10

For me, it was one of the most memorable poetry workshops I’ve ever been involved in. The algae and greenery beneath the water felt like mermaids swimming alongside the boat. I can just picture us, drifted along searching for words to describe such tranquillity. From Merila’s poem: So when you hand me the floating frog, the algae – / dressed dragon, the grasshopper’s hop, / I beg and I beg near the river boat’s bed / for you to hear me / to see me / to take me with you.

My time experiencing and contemplating canals has led me to seeing them as water-bus portals that can carry everything from memories, trinkets and charms to the weight and lightness of dreams. Like light on water, they carry our ever-changing moods and emotions, from our dappled happiness to our deepest, mud-clouded grief.

Mariam’s story ended up flowing into Noor’s poem as she wrote: Waves are navvies of hope, locked within Mariam, completing her father’s legacy. / Waves, the void that switches life into an abyss of imagination. / Waves pulsing the blood of the earth, gasping for air.

Through the workshops, it was really refreshing to see so many interpretations of water. I even took my inspiration and photos into school to work with my English Y10s. They came up with some gorgeous descriptions inspired by images of the Sheffield canal including: The canal released a soft sigh. The remnants of tiredness echoing over the still surface. The heart of the city had borne witness to many lives; heartbreak; love; hate; deaths. The hearts that were poured from the banks bathed the city in a gentle glow- the souls of civilians scattered over the canal in divine luminosity. (Chenay, Year 10) and The canal was the life stationed in between the buildings. The walls all built around could not emanate the radiance this azure canal brought. The water it carried, whilst simultaneously refurbishing the boats that land on it. It echoed within us, joyful spirit spilling all over us. (Emmeline, Year 10)

The next stage of the project will be to reveal and install the poem. Meanwhile, a big thank you to the Canal River Trust and The Poetry Society who invited me to be a part of this project. Thank you to Julia Bird from the Poetry Society, Jade Wilkes from the Canal & River Trust, and Vicky Morris who mentored me through the process. Also, a big thank you to all those who participated in my workshops and sent me their fabulous poems: Carole Whiteley, Farah Zubair, Helen Angell, Julian Dobson, Lauren Hollingsworth-Smith, Mannat Pal, Mariam Shah, Merila Gramy, Noor Al-Yafai, Susan Hunter Downer, Zoey Cox, Nikita Zankar,

Flows through the canal;
A liquid mercury floor
upon which we witness
the walk of the soul.

from ‘The Downward Sky’ by Mannat Pal

Warda Yassin is an award-winning British born Somali poet and secondary school teacher based in Sheffield. She was a winner of the 2018 New Poets Prize for her debut pamphlet Tea with Cardamom (Poetry Business, published 2019). Her poetry has been published in places including The North, Magma and Oxford Poetry, and anthologised in Verse Matters (Valley Press), Anthology X (Smith|Doorstop), Halfway Smile and Surfing the Twilight (Hive). In October 2020 she took on the role of Sheffield Poet Laureate.

Read part 1 of Warda’s blog here.