What do you get if you cross a telephone call with one of Britain’s most celebrated modern-day poets and playwrights, Lemn Sissay, with a train journey from London to Birmingham? One of the most disjointed interviews that I, and probably he, has ever partaken in. Multiple tunnels, call backs and screechy passenger announcements later, I’d been made to laugh, brought to tears, and had a downright good chat. Now, I take you on that journey…
Seemingly one of the busiest men in the literary world, it was of no surprise on this sunny spring morning that Lemn wasn’t on his way to the Midlands to update his wardrobe, but rather to attend the launch of the Care Leaver Covenant.
The care system is as big a part of Lemn’s life and work. His mother was an Ethiopian who had come to England to study, but then found herself ‘in the family way’. She gave him up to be temporarily fostered while she finished her studies, but it wasn’t until 17 that Lemn discovered his birth name, and 21 before he saw his mother again.
Becoming a child of the state at only two months of age, he was given the name Norman by a Wigan social worker, before being homed with a white Christian couple in Lancashire. They were told to treat the fostering as an adoption, and Lemn lived with them until they sent him to a children’s home at the age of 12. For the six years following that rejection, Lemn moved around different childrens’ homes in the Lancashire area and was subjected to racism alongside physical and emotional abuse.
“I’ve been on stage since I was 18 or 19 years of age, and it’s never seemed awkward to speak about my story because my life up until that point had been part of public record. Everything that happened to me as a child was written about, I was like an experiment – 18 years of files all saying judgmental things about me. Rather than have other people write my story, I wrote myself from my perspective. If you don’t take ownership of it, then you’d go mad.”
Written in 2005, Lemn has performed Something Dark all over the world, and although it’s entrenched in the British care system, Lemn has seen it translate to all cultures. “In a big way. A woman came up to me after I’d performed it in Newton, Johannesburg, and told me about how when maids used to look after the homes and children of whites. The maid’s children would be friends with the children of the household, but when they got to about 11 or 12, if they were male, they were sent back to the villages because they were growing into young men. The household didn’t want them continuing their friendships with their own children. Which is very similar to what happened to me when I was put back into care. I think this woman in South Africa was saying, ‘I understand what happened because it happened to me’. We’re all children of functioning dysfunctional families; people tend to relate to it.”
“Rather than have other people write my story, I wrote myself from my perspective. If you don’t take ownership of it, then you’d go mad.”
Lemn was 12 years old when writing became his focus. “I had an English teacher, Mr Unsworth, who was a bald-headed, rugby-playing socialist, straight out of central casting for Kez. He encouraged me to write, and he also told me about a poet called Linton Kwesi Johnson, who I know now and have performed with all over the place. It’s beautiful really.” Although he grew up in villages that were built on the mines and mills, he only had eyes for one career. “Where I came from, being a poet wasn’t a thing. But for me there was no plan B. And there didn’t have to be because I absolutely 100% knew that this is what I wanted to be and I couldn’t see any obstacles. That’s the nature of youth to sometimes to have a very clear thought and then to follow that thought without hindrance.”
The arrogance of youth can take you a long way, and Lemn released his first book of poetry in 1988 when he was just 21 years old. Since then he’s had eight books published, was the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics, has written and worked on numerous plays – including Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy – and in 2007 he was appointed artist-residence at London’s Southbank Centre. He’s also worked with musicians, including Leftfield, and all this stands next to the work he does that is focused on care leavers, such as the Letterbox Club, The Sissay Scholarship for Care Leavers and The Christmas Dinner. “You might that being a poet or a creative is an isolated job, but it’s not, it’s very much about collaborating, contact.”
As to how the hell someone who works this hard and this diversely winds down, Lemn doesn’t neglect himself or his mental health. “I kick back with friends and family: I eat, I laugh, I also run. Exercise is good for the brain, for your head.”
“You might that being a poet or a creative is an isolated job, but it’s not, it’s very much about collaborating, contact.”
Lemn is excited about coming to Nottingham to perform Something Dark, but also to catch up with old friends. “Henry Normal is from Nottingham, he’s a very special human being. He does the Nottingham Poetry Festival, but he also started the Manchester Literature Festival, which is a major player on the international literary scene.” As to other projects, Lemn has just finished his memoirs, My Name is Why, which will be released in August 2019. “It was fucking hard. Jesus, really hard. I hated writing it, it was like filming a flock of butterflies.” But if there’s anyone who could film the proverbial butterflies, I’d put my money on Lemn.
Lemn Sissay will be performing at Metronome on Friday 28 June having recently won the PEN Pinter Prize. Read more about his success here.