Lemn Sissay: Poetry with a Sharp Edge

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EIBF
August 21st
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Asif Khan, the chair and the new director of the Scottish Poetry Library, had put in a special request that he be the chair for Dr. Lemn Sissay, he’s that much of a fan. The next hour made it crystal clear as to why. Obviously thrilled to be in Lemn’s presence, Asif calmly and good-naturedly held his unbridled enthusiasm in check just enough to divide up the hour into its allotted equal segments of interview, reading and Q and A’s. Lemn sat and looked at the audience keenly and with glee, anxious to communicate and connect with us. As Asif made his glowing introduction, Lemn made faces and jokes at the mention of his many accolades, such as the official poet at the Olympics, associate artist at the Southbank Centre, Chancellor of Manchester University among so many others, laughingly describing his MBE as the acronym for ‘Mancunian Black Ethnic’. Although he was dressed in a well-cut black suit, rather than the technicolour outfits of some of his appearances, watching him talk, let alone perform, was a multicoloured and multidimensional experience; witnessing a volcano of joy, pathos and humour explode in front of you. Like watching molecules shimmering and dancing; Dionysus, Shango, and King Solomon all in one.
He read several poems from his new book of poetry, Gold from the Stone. Firstly, Rest, a short one about about feelings on the night of an award. Then Listening Post, written for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. As someone who has overcome tragedy and abuse, it packs extra punch with his inclusion of the redemptive message of survival after trauma; ‘we are not defined by scars. but by the incredible ability to heal’. ‘Invisible Kisses’, a touching one about ideal, selfless love shown through gentle, thoughtful acts of kindness. ‘If there was one who would clear the air when it’s full of loss and who could count love before cost’. His well-loved poem, Morning Breaks, created an internal eruption I wasn’t expecting. A poem about learning to let go and trust in the face of terrible pain. The way the poem builds, with its spirals of repetition, hints at where its taking you, but still takes you by surprise in the way it digs down deep and shakes your foundations. The tiny cracks in my reserve, in my internal fortress deepened as the poem went on, and by the time he repeated ‘I sway so, I know so, I will not drown. I will not drown,’ the entire edifice crumbled and I was as exposed and vulnerable as he was; trying not to weep too loudly.
With four minutes left and a vote on what to do with it, he decided to read ‘Fallen’, a new poem about women inspired by what had happened to his mother. A wonderful, powerful piece, elevating women as he listed the many goddesses of antiquity, placing women not as pretty ‘things’ to admire, to then sneer at, turn away or worse when they fall off the flimsy pedestal on which they’ve been placed, but instead exalting the full power and beauty of women as essential to a balanced society. He takes us so far and so deep with his performance, with an uncanny ability to stay and keep us all fully present, His presence is so strong, and his poetry so carefully crafted, that he takes us wherever he wants us to go. Blazing brightly with intense internal fire, he fans it outwards to warm us and wake us from our unfeeling slumber; sharing the flames so they don’t burn him up from the inside.
He never let us fall too low. He was hugely entertaining and would snap us right back up again with a silly joke, an exaggerated accent, almost launching into pantomime characters. Or simply pull the rug from under us just when we thought he was being serious. He was enjoying messing with the audience and we didn’t mind one bit. He said he used to be a very angry poet, but made a conscious decision not to be angry on stage when he realised he was being paid to play that role. He talked a fair amount about his own painful past, being taken away from his Ethiopian mother in a dishonest manner and neglected in foster care, only to be further abused in a children’s home. His sadness was palpable, asking us to empathise with the fact he had no family here to share in and celebrate his performance. The story of the loneliness of his life; a narrative that continues to underpin his talks and poetry. Yes, there was still anger and pain to manage, but he was passionate about us understanding that we are all complicit in creating these kinds of situations in some ways, and change we must. He exhorted us to understand that misogyny, racism and sexism are not just fancy words with no effect in reality; but that they ‘come in to the house’, creating devastating effects for the individual.
When he left care, his only two ambitions were to find his birth family and to write poetry, both of which he has achieved. He pokes fun at the somewhat marginalised ‘poetry patch’ that he inhabits, suggests that no one in their right mind would choose the life or a poet for commercial success, but appreciated it as a space to be ‘fully selfish’. He understands that you need some detachment from its reception; that each person that experiences it will have their own personal interpretation, much of which you may never have intended. He likened his poems to photographs; proof of his existence at various points in time. Because of his personal history and great success, he has become an unofficial ambassador for children in care, and an important role model, and encouraged us to challenge and dismantle the stigma that children in care carry, through no fault of their own.
I am astonished and slightly ashamed that I had no knowledge of Lemn Sissay before this point. I must have been living under some kind of rock for the past few years not to be familiar with at least one of his poems. He’s hardly a newcomer; here to read for the first time, but only the first time from his new collection of poetry, some best-loved and some brand new. A poet with 30 years of work under his belt, beginning with a poetry book published at the age of 21, hand sold to Warrington miners on the picket line. He’s also a journalist, playwright and presenter. In a way, I was happy that the material was completely new to me as the raw immediacy of his poetry in his presence could take full explosive effect; it took over my heart, body and mind in quick succession. I’d wanted to buy his book and go to his book signing, but I was afraid I would stand there mutely, talk some gibberish or begin to cry all over again. So instead I sat on the bus too stunned to do anything but stare ahead. I rode home with an unusual sense of quiet; as if I’d been washed from the inside. If poetry is to wake us, shake us up, and make us feel alive, then Lemn Sissay’s beautiful poetry truly did its work.
Reviewed by Lisa Williams
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