Performing for the first time with us is Lemn Sissay, 18:10-18:55 Saturday. If he’s new to you/ you’d like a reminder, read on:
In his own words:
“Lemn Sissay is an award winning writer. He was awarded an MBE for services to literature by The Queen of England. He is chancellor of The University of Manchester and an honorary Doctor from The University of Huddersfield, The University of Manchester and The University of Kent. Amongst other awards are a NESTA new radical award, in 2017, he won a point of light award from The Prime Minister. His poetry and 2019 Memoir My Name Is Why are published by Canongate Books.
He was the first poet commissioned to write for the London Olympics and wrote the official poem for the FA Cup. He is poet Laureate of Canterbury. If you Google the name “Lemn Sissay” all the returning hits will be about him because there is only one person in the entire world named Lemn Sissay.
Lemn is a poet, playwright, artist performer and broadcaster. He has read on stage throughout the world: from The Library of Congress in The United States to The University of Addis Ababa, from the Botanic Gardens of Singapore to literature festivals in Sri Lanka, from Wembley Football stadium to Maryland Football stadium, from the theatres of Bangalore to the theatres of Dubai, from a literature festival in Bali to a stage in Greenland AND Wigan library. He read poetry at Sir Paul McCartney’s book launch at The Queens Theatre in The West End.
As an artist his Landmark poems can be found on walls in public spaces around the world from The Royal Festival Hall in London to The British Council Offices in Addis Ababa and throughout his home city of Manchester. His Landmark poem “Gilt of Cain” was unveiled by Bishop Desmond Tutu in The City of London: Sissay’s installation poem ‘what if’ exhibited at The Royal Academy and toured the world in Galleries from from Tokyo to New York.
In Music Lemn is featured on the Left field album, Leftism which sold millions. In 2017 he featured on the album “Traveller” by Baaba maal. A violin concerto performed at The BBC Proms by Viktoria Mullova was inspired by and named after his poem ‘Advice For The Living’. Another poem ‘Spark Catchers’ featured in the 2017 proms as the self-titled inspiration for a concerto written by Hannah Kendal, performed by Chineke! Orchestra. and a Bikila award with the Ethiopian music legend Teddy Afro.
In theatre Lemn has written various plays. ‘Something Dark’ (Battersea Arts Centre and Contact Theatre) is on The National Curriculum as a choice text published by Oberon Books. He adapted Benjamin Zephaniah’s hit Novel, Refugee Boy (West Yorkshire Playhouse) which toured to rave reviews with his play “Why I don’t hate white people” (Lyric Hammersmith). As an actor In 2017 he played Scully in Jim Cartwright’s ROAD directed by John Tiffany at Royal Court Theatre. A reading of his psychologists report was an extraordinary moment in British Theatre. The audience heard his report read by Julie Hesmondhalgh at the same time he did, on stage. “Report at The Royal Court” sold out in 24 hours and became national news.
In radio and TV: A BBC TV documentary, Internal Flight, and radio documentary, Child of the State, were both broadcast about his life. Lemn’s TED talks in The Houses of Parliament have been viewed by over a million people and his Desert Island Discs on BBC radio four was chosen as Pick of the Year. He co-presented BAFTA award-winning Ten Pieces for BBC Television which was described by BBC Director general Tony Hall as “the biggest commitment the BBC has ever made to music education in our country”. He has made BBC radio documentaries on WH Auden, JB Priestley, Bob Marley, The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron to name a few. His 2017 radio two-parter “Lemn Sissay’s Homecoming” was nominated for a Palm D’Or.
Philanthropy: Lemn started The Christmas Dinners for care leavers in Manchester in 2012. Now they take place throughout England. In December 2017 the prime minister wrote to him “By founding ‘The Christmas Dinner’ project, you have created a successful and sustainable model which is making a real difference for hundreds of young care leavers who would otherwise be alone on Christmas Day. In total seventeen Christmas dinners took place in the UK in 2018. Lemn is Trustee of The Foundling Museum and Patron of Twenty Stories High Theatre Company. In 2017 he launched The Equity and Merit Scholarship scheme in Ethiopia with University of Manchester. University of Huddersfield hold the Lemn Sissay Scholarship for Care Leavers.
His photograph is exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery. He has been shot by many photographers including Don Mcullin, Rankin, Greg Williams, Aida Muluneh, and Steve McCurry. His painting was in the National Portrait Gallery as part of The BP Awards.
He has judged many literary competitions including The National Poetry Competition, Forward Prize, The Ted Hughes Poetry Prize, The Golden Man Booker Awards, Cardiff international poetry competition, The Creative Future Literary Awards and the Bridport Prize.
In 2018 he brought a legal case against the government for ‘stealing me and my childhood”. The government settled the case out of court for a six figure sum. Lemn Sissay is a writer and a winner. Lemn lives in London, Manchester and Ethiopia.”
To my epic shame, Lemn Sissay is one of those poets whose names have been everywhere, and yet I haven’t seen him live or even looked out his work. It’s a bit of an oversight in my poetry education, to say the least. Luckily for me, there’s no shortage of his poems out there online to help me catch up, and in case some of you are as inexcusably behind as I am, hopefully my précis will help point you in the right direction.
I once had a baffling conversation with a friend, somewhat younger than me, who was studying music, and had only recently, somehow, heard the Beatles for the first time. What did you think? They screwed their face up, indicating a general lack of Being Impressed. I’m not sure what the fuss was all about – they just sounded like Oasis… I still don’t know if they were joking or not (though they had plenty of opportunity to clue me in during the ensuing discussion), but I had the strongest flashback to that when listening to the first video: I dunno, he sounds a bit… familiar… until it dawned on me: Yeah, like the first time you saw Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze perform and you’d no idea who she was then either… (long story, I’ll tell you some other time). Like the first time I read James Joyce or Chaucer. Like the first time I heard Muddy Waters or Janis Joplin. Basically, chances are really good I’ve been hearing Lemn Sissay’s voice in a lot of other poets for, well, pretty much as long as I’ve been listening to British performance poetry.
I’m struggling to describe what he does, because it feels somewhere between drama and music, both in the delivery and the words. There are plenty of recent examples of soaring, elegiac stuff to inspire the students of Manchester University, that – even with the swaying music beneath it – manages the gorgeous balancing act that lands it this side of cheese (I honestly found myself wanting to go back to study science again!), but there’s the close-up-and-personal intimacy of love poems (no, your eyes are damp!), the tricky intricacies of work that makes you think about the world and your place in it, and the genuinely grin-inducing whimsy that flips your feelings once again. I’ve been through an emotional rollercoaster just listening to a handful of stuff! And it’s even better in the recordings of him performing live; he’s charismatic, witty, and dynamic – almost doesn’t seem fair, somehow… 😉
I’m really looking forward to what is bound to be a masterclass headline set next month in a rammed tent.