Talking with Lemn Sissay - A Lifelong Project

This article first appeared on Metaroar. Lemn Sissay is a stalwart poet and performer whose work has been enjoyed throughout the UK and across the globe for almost twenty years. Those who have never been to a spoken word gig will know of Lemn. He is funny and serious, truthful and mischeivous, profound and playful. His poems are universally accessible but never shallow. His autobiographical play 'Something Dark' has been touring internationally for the past 3 years. It tells the traumatic story of Lemn's childhood and the quest to find his mother, and birth family when he was 21 years old.

I meet Lemn one cold winter's morning on London's South Bank. The sun fails in its attempt to break through the clouds and the sky is low and grey. Lemn is wearing sunglasses. Two days previously we had talked about his new scratch performance 'Why I Don't Hate White People' on the roof of the Lyric in Hammersmith. Today he greets me like an old friend and I am genuinely excited at the prospect of spending the next two hours with him.

'Why I don't hate white people' is a 20 minute scratch. Lemn shone when I saw it. Twenty minutes went like five and I didn't want it to end. Afterwards there was a Q and A session. One woman in the front row, the wine smudging the edges of her waffling consonants said, in a far back accent. "I want to know about how you distinguish between being African, British or Caribbean."

"Well,' he replied calmly, "I am not Caribbean, I am actually African."

The woman was drunk and undeterred "You see" she continued "I just see you as British" hoping that her colonial spirit would be adhered to at all costs. As other members of the audience asked questions and contributed to the discussion about how and where racism lurks Front Row Woman could be heard echoing throughout the Lyric studio "I mean to me you are British. You just are. Everything about you..." her voice trailed off with another glug of red. Lemn was patient, extraordinarily so. He explained that the day that one can define themselves for themselves is very important both personally and politically. He underlined the point that people can be more than one thing. It made no difference to this audience member.

When I recall this incident over soupy coffee a few days later, he comments "If I had been less articulate in my response what would have been clear is that she wasn't listening to me. It was really important that I didn't bully her, that I didn't get angry with her. So look at all the things I didn't do to at least open my mouth. What I want to articulate is that invisible language between the words that are spoken. I am interested in what happens in the spaces in between."

He continues "That’s what 'Why I don’t hate white people' is about. It’s saying that there are a lot of rules that are established about how you perceive other races before you even had the language to articulate what those rules were. That’s why families introduce religion early on. You have two choices good or bad. All these ideas are stuffed in to your childhood through a series of individuals who then you have a lifetime of relating to."

It is not surprising that Lemn’s clear vision is now getting a chance to be aired. Living many an artists creative dream he is presently Artist in Residence at the South Bank a position of which he is enormously proud. 'The umbrella frame for my job is to inspire and be inspired and one cannot happen with out the other.' he tells me. When I ask him if he is enjoying the responsibility and challenges of his new role, he replies "This is like the BBC for the arts. Jude Kelly has said I want artists here, I want them to develop and grow. There is no better place to be. For me. On earth. Right now."

I cannot resist asking him which writers he would programme for a fantasy event at the South Bank, dead or alive. He answers without pausing for breath.

"Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Isabelle Allende, Khaled Hussein, from San Francisco, oh my god that would be great ! Benjamin Zephaniah. Linton Kwesi Johnson Alice Walker, Toni Morrison."

"Do you actively hunt down looking at new performers and new artists?"

"Basically I see who keeps coming in to my orbit and then I take a look. I don’t find myself inspired by the desperate events where the only desperation is to be successful rather than to say something that matters. I don’t mind if someone writes about a tree but I want to know it matters to them beyond me appreciating it."

We talk about the war in Iraq and the sad fact that despite incredible opposition few poets actually wrote or spoke about it. This frustrates and angers him.

"It's important for us as poets to ask questions that are not being asked and to rail against whatever the popular opinion is. John Burnside said, 'poetry is the ultimate statement against globalisation.' The act of writing itself is the biggest force against this because what you are doing is exploring your individual voice against the adverts, against the globalisation if ideas. And that is a wonderful thing. If a poet doesn't recognise that's what it is, then they are reaching for popularity and flirting with the antithesis of what poetry is."

I wonder how Lemn copes with his notoriety and how he deals with the constant beckoning of the Bitch Goddess.

"Popularity is very seductive but it’s not the driving force that will give you longevity. I don't write to be popular, whether you like me or don’t like me is not where my head is. If I didn't write I wouldn't be alive. The more I do, the more I realise what I have to do. Nothing is the endgame, there is no end, there is no project where you've arrived.

The thing is, fuck everybody, I'm humble only to my work. That's where I'm a boy. I feel like I'm the dresser of the poems and they're the king and I dress them the best I can."

This spring Lemn decided to give up drink. It shows. He cannot contain the enthusiasm of a man released from the confines of alcohol. He jumps up two stairs at a time, looks trim and happy and wants to world to know that he is now free from its clutches, that he thinks clearer and, although this poet's mood still bobs below the surface now and then, he does not have those demon days any more.

"You know that at 40 years old I stopped drinking. I looked at my life and thought what is destructive that you are doing. Alcohol is a venus fly trap. Not drinking is such a wonderful thing, it’s been such an improvement on my experience artistically and of myself and of the world around me."

It is a lot to ask someone to reveal all to a complete stranger. It was not even that I expected him to. After the interview I found myself going through the transcript, wanting to protect Lemn from his audience. I wanted to jump in and say "No don't say that, you are making yourself too raw. Hold back." I kept wondering was there nothing to protect?

Lemn is in full flow now and I am flattered and overwhelmed by his honesty. "I am one step away consistently, in my head, from begging on the street for money. And people don’t perceive that about me. So I have to look after myself, I have to be my own parents and handing all of that responsibility over to alcohol is a very scary prospect. I don’t have any family. I found them and they don’t talk to me because of the play that I wrote about finding them. I don’t have anyone who knew me as a child. Nobody."

His fear of destitution is something I have often heard from those denied the rightful safety of childhood. He lights a cigarette and the tape recorder chugs its old fashioned way to the end of the cassette. It feels like the whole interview is pivoting on this one fact:

"What people forget is that family is about relativity, it’s not about whether they are nice or good to you, and actually you have a life time to patch it up. If you don’t have that oh my god, it’s mind blowing."

I note that whilst Something Dark was highly autobiographical Lemn’s creative concerns have become more about the social world and less about himself directly.

"Creativity is at the centre of what we are as human beings. As an artist you have to fight for the right to do that and it doesnt happen about fighting out there. I knew at twenty two I wanted to write Something Dark. Every time I had a book out, every time I won something there was no one backstage. The more successful I became in my art the more obvious it was that I had nothing. With Something Dark I was waiting for my artistic ability to catch up with when I could personally translate the story without it hurting me. It took twenty years for that to happen."

"When it’s raw, its still a wound." I observe.

He nods "Absolutely and you know we are constantly mending, it's a life long project."