Byron Writers Festival 2018 saw Lemn Sissay warm audiences’ hearts with his poetry and personality. Born into care after his mother was forced to give him up, rejected by his adoptive foster family and finally released to his own care at eighteen, he is a living example of the healing power of poetry. Now the chancellor of University of Manchester, the performance poet’s personal mantra is ‘Lead by example; inspire and be inspired.’ Interview by Katinka Smit.
Do you think poetry is instinctive?
Poetry is as close to instinctive as a human can get because poetry is close to how we think. We speak in adequate sentences, but poetry is how we think – we think in images and symbols, we think on associated ideas. Poetry is as close an interpretation of our instinct that we get to. I think creativity allows for that.
How do you get in that zone where you can just open up and it comes out?
I think the action of poetry is in the practice, so you must try to write every day to keep yourself topped up.
There was a good question from the audience: ‘Is there poetry in Brexit?’
It was a good question; I think there is poetry in conflict. The reason poetry is important is because poetry is very personal and therefore also very political. Politics, for some reason, can actually ignore the person, where poetry can’t.
Why do you think that you as a performance poet were voted in as the chancellor of University of Manchester, rather than the business person or the politician who were also nominated?
I won that election because people researched who I was and decided that what I represented was more important to them than what the other two did. I do the best I can with everything I’ve got; I’ve travelled further than they have in terms of where I’ve come from. I think people saw that. I think they saw the determination, integrity, honesty.
In a TED Talk you listed off all the great characters in fiction who’d lost their parents in some way. Why do you think writers and artists are drawn to the abandoned child?
The abandoned child will often seek out answers from the wider community that in having a family you may not need to seek. Without that buffer to test out their emotions, they’ll test them out on the wider community and often find it failing or more confusing. Their stories are the classic hero’s story. I’m inspired by those who have suffered a very real prejudice against them from society. The orphaned child and the child in children’s homes are living, walking proof of the dysfunction at the heart of all functioning families; because of that they suffer prejudice from our familial society, which assumes they are naughty, or wrong, somehow a threat, un-marriable because they haven’t got a family line and so on. They’re a threat to the status quo. This is prejudice, and prejudice grows when it’s not questioned.
This goes back to Victorian days, to patriarchal society. Our social services and our charitable nature is predicated on a system which believed that you were un-Christian if you were a child without a family, if you were a woman who was pregnant without a husband. We are reviewing this in England, and you are reviewing it in Australia. Abuse could happen in churches and in children’s homes because we allowed those places to happen. We were part of the prejudice that allowed those predators to enact their violence on those children. We are responsible. It’s very interesting how we’re looking now at the church as if it was a bad place – we were the ones who put the children there.
There’s that expression, ‘it takes a community to raise a child’, but it takes a community to abuse a child too.
We are complicit. And unless we see that, then all of these charges against the priests, the women who run the children’s homes, the nuns, they don’t mean anything. It’s about us, it’s about wider society, it’s about prejudice.
What is the responsibility of poetry? Does it have one?
No, I don’t think that poetry has a responsibility. It translates the human experience for each poet – the human experience of nature, of politics, of spiritualism – that’s what it is. I don’t think of myself as a great writer, but I do think of myself as somebody who is meant to do what he’s doing.
You spoke about poetry as something that was always there with you, but what was your first inspiration to write?
I think it was various things, but I think that in writing I felt at home, when I had no home. When I wrote, I felt like I was where I was meant to be on earth. It sounds very weird but it’s true. It didn’t matter whether anybody read it. I felt a compulsion to write.
How did that translate to performing?
Well it’s just a coincidence that I was a natural communicator of my words. I don’t know why, that’s just how it is. I really was meant to be what I am.