Digesting History

I have recently been involved in an exciting project in collaboration with Poet in the city, The British Library and Sheffield Libraries. Digesting History  is a part of the Collections in Verse project, which aims to bring exhibitions to life through poetry. The work in Sheffield was inspired by the British Library’s sold-out exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.

As part of this event, I did a talk at Firth Park Library, with Kayo Chingonyi, an incredible poet, former Sheffield resident, and University of Sheffield Alumni. Kayo’s poetry covers themes including: coming of age, grime, roots and origins of language, and identity.

Kayo uses figures of local speech from Sheffield to inspire his poetry for this project, after conversing with locals in the Firth Park area, and cataloguing instances of Sheffield English usage from library visitors. Examples are the terms, ‘loppy’, ‘jennel’ and ‘siling down’.

During the event in Firth Park library (which was the last time Kayo and I took part in an in-person public event!), I spoke about local history in Sheffield, and explored how social change has influenced locals’ language use. This gave historical context to Kayo’s poetry, which connects the use of local language features to place and Sheffield communities.

A finale event was scheduled at Sheffield Library last year, which couldn’t go ahead because of Lockdown restrictions. However, the awesome team led by Ruby Baker from Poet in The City, made this event a virtual reality. It premiered last week and, to maintain a sense of community and shared experience, audience members were invited to watch along and enjoy a three course meal together,  accompanied by 3 courses of conversation: 

  • The ‘starter’ contains a presentation by Claire Breay, covering the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, and touching on: Underrepresentation of women, formation of kingdoms, and English language development. This is followed by Joe Kriss’ poetry, which explores how the formation of kingdoms in the early medieval period prompts us to consider the notion of national identity today.
  • The ‘main course’ includes my conversation about social change and language, and Kayo’s awesome poetry!
  • The ‘desert’ is a Q&A with Dan Marshall about how Sheffield Libraries have adapted during the pandemic, exploring libraries’ role in communities during this period. This is followed by Rachel Bowers’ epic song, telling the story of what is loved, treasured and lost, based on stories from local women.

A video of the event is now online, which contains all of the above, as well as an awesome film by Eelyn Lee called ‘Where Two Rivers Meet’, which tells the story of Collections in Verse: Sheffield, which saw collaborations between communities, libraries and poets.  In this film at [2:05], Kayo’s  section begins, showcasing sound clips of people from Firth Park speaking in Sheffield dialect, which were part of his inspiration. This is a must watch for Sheffield speech enthusiasts!

Here is the full online event

My talk about social history in Sheffield, which gives context to some of the ideas that Kayo explores, is featured  in the online event [53:04], which you can watch on Youtube if you are interested in hearing it. It was good fun recording this talk over zoom with Ruby, although it did seem strange to record a speech in advance for a sit at home audience! In the talk you will hear me discuss how Sheffield came to be a place, how the topography of the area has influenced the character of the city. I unpick how 100 years of rapid social change has influenced linguistic variation in Sheffield, including how local speech forms are socially stratified according to age, place, social class and heritage.  

Check out Kayo’s blog post on Big Issue North about this same event and poetry!


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