The poet speaks about the scars, healing and words that have allowed him to survive
For the love of poetry: Lemn Sissay in Dubai
It is not sunny, but Lemn Sissay is sheltering behind dark shades, hunched over as he inhales cigarettes to feed his near-40-year habit.
There are times, friends say, when he disappears altogether, depression paralysing him for months; times when he folds himself into himself. “I spend all day in bed today,” he once wrote plaintively on his blog. “All day. I can’t get out. It’s not tiredness. It’s something else. Something Dark.”
Something Dark was the title of the autobiographical play Sissay took 20 years to write, finally able, in 2004, at the age of 37, to shine a torch on his tortured childhood.
In it, the award-winning British poet confronts his past head-on, a process which has never stopped.
His story has become one that enshrines all the failures of the care system – that word “care” is a misnomer he has long railed against – one which makes clear to the children within it that they are a burden upon the state, not its most precious commodity.
It began when Sissay’s Ethiopian mother, Yemarshet, went to England in 1966 on a scholarship to study but when she discovered she was pregnant as a result of an alleged rape (in Something Dark, the violent word is blacked out but still legible), she was dispatched to Wigan in the north of England to a mother-and-baby unit. When Sissay was two months old, his mother sent him to be fostered so she could finish her studies.
Social services told his foster parents, who were white, deeply religious Christians, to treat it as an adoption, despite his mother’s refusal to give him up permanently. Sissay was renamed Norman Greenwood and stayed with the family until the age of 12, when the “cute black baby they fostered for religious reasons was becoming a young man”.
When he helped himself to biscuits from a tin, stayed out late and began smoking, they decided the Devil was inside him and sent him back to social services, saying they never wanted to see him again.
“A whole infrastructure was just taken away from me,” says Sissay, now 50, and in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. “I lost everybody.”
He has forgiven them, sort of. “You can forgive one day and be angry with them the next. Forgiveness is not the be-all and end-all of your relationship with your past.”
But he has yet to make peace with the next six years of his life, when he was shunted between care homes and physically, emotionally and racially abused, eventually ending up, at 16, in a remand centre where strip searches were routine, despite not having committed a crime.
At 18, he was ejected from the care system and left to find his own way in the world. The only thing he was left with were two pieces of paper – one a letter written by his mother in 1968 begging for his return and the other telling him his real name (Lemn is Amharic for “why”,
a word that has haunted him ever since).
Sissay has spent most of his adult life trying to secure his file from social services, even making a radio documentary in 2010 called Child of the State about his quest. Initially, he was told it had been lost, then, three years ago, he got a call from Wigan Council telling him it had been found and he was due compensation for his treatment. He is expecting authorities to settle out of court within a few weeks.
“I am working towards getting some answers,” he says. “I am more at ease with my story now, I guess.
“Bringing the case against the [British] government is really important to me. It’s not really about anything other than hearing them apologise. It’s knowing that it registers, truly registers, within the institution. That’s the only reason I am pushing this.
“When they left me at 18 years of age, they left me with absolutely nothing and they had been my legal parents. I have to see it through. They should not be able to get away with doing this.”
From a young age, poetry was his salvation. He began writing at the age of 12. At 17, he printed his poems in a pamphlet called Perceptions of the Pen and sold 1,000 copies to striking miners and millworkers. It was a way of documenting his existence in the absence of any paper trail. “In poetry I stuck a flag in the mountainside to mark where I had been,” he writes in the foreword to his latest anthology, Gold from the Stone.
And he began performing – and found acceptance through audiences. Sissay is magnetic on stage. Anger courses through his earlier work, you hear the rage and venom dripping from his words when he performs them live, but he can easily switch to warmth and wit, or deep tenderness. His 1988 poem Invisible Kisses is oft-read at weddings, despite being about the loss of love.
He is broken in a profound way, but he makes sense of the fractures by proffering his emotional scars for all to see, as visible as the marks on his wrists. “I think most people are damaged,” he says. “It’s all relative. We all get broken and heal and break again.”
Those scars were never more painfully exposed than in May last year, when Sissay staged a one-off performance called The Report. Over two hours he heard, for the first time, a psychologist’s report, commissioned as part of his compensation claim, read aloud to him on stage in front of an audience of 350 in the Royal Court theatre in London. The report held a looking glass up to his entire life, including his failed relationships, in excruciating detail. It was performance art at its most raw, so much so that the actress Julie Hesmondhalgh, who was reading the report, broke out of character to ask if she should continue.
Sissay says: “The stage is a very safe environment for me. I thought, I can’t do this on my own. I could allow it to happen because I felt safe. It was like a controlled explosion. It took away some of the impact that it would have had if I had been on my own in a room. I just got a lot of love from the audience.”
Above all, it seems, Sissay feels a need for others to bear witness for his pain to matter; to mark those flags in the mountainside (one of his poems refers to “bearing witness to the screams/ Of children cut on shattered dreams”).
He suddenly becomes self-conscious. “Something has happened since the report. I’m slightly concerned that if you Google me, it looks like a car crash. But if you don’t learn from what you have been through and try to carry your story, you will just crumble. And I am not a crumbler.”
Indeed, he can be both fragile and brittle, vulnerable and exuberant, funny and reclusive. He was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2010 for his services to literature and has published several anthologies and plays, including an adaptation of Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy. He was the official poet for the London Olympics in 2012 and the FA Cup in 2015. His lyrical words are now inscribed in granite and concrete walkways in London, Manchester and beyond. Three years ago, he was made chancellor of Manchester University and now holds two honorary doctorates. He is also on the jury panel for the Golden Man Booker Prize alongside Robert McCrum and Kamila Shamsie, all remarkable achievements for one who once felt himself on the outside of the establishment looking in.
Does he feel he is now part of the very establishment which once left him in its shadow?
“It was never written that I would be those things,” he says. “I just try to take one day and one opportunity at a time, do the best I can and fend off the imposter syndrome.”
Four years ago, remembering how bereft he felt at Christmas, he began hosting festive dinners for care leavers aged between 18 and 25. Last Christmas, the newly formed Lemn Sissay Foundation hosted 12 Christmas dinners around the UK for 500 young people, with taxis ferrying guests to high-end venues, extravagant banquets and expensive gifts.
“There was nothing institutionalised about the events,” Sissay says.
It is, if you will, his own loosely formed family of sorts, as are the fans he has across the world.
But a closeness with his own family still eludes him. He tracked down his mother when he was 21 (she was then working for the UN in Gambia), but he was a guilty secret to be kept from his siblings, an outsider still.
“Families are all about the stories you tell each other, about each other.
“When you discover your family as I have, it’s quite difficult for them because you bring a whole new story and it’s complicated for everyone to manage that.”
Last year was a milestone: The Report and turning 50 were both significant markers to show how far he has come. This year, he will be writing his autobiography and working on a documentary in which he teaches young people in care to perform poetry in public. He will also be writing a work for the Great Exhibition of the North in the UK.
He is more comfortable in his own skin, he says, but “it’s important not to fear change. You can still have a blind spot, still have a lot to learn”.
And the greatest lesson of his first 50 years? He thinks, takes another drag from his cigarette and quotes a line from the blurb of his new anthology: “I am not defined by my scars, but by the incredible ability to heal.”
Tuesday, March 6, at Dubai Opera, Lemn Sissay will be performing in For the Love of Words along with Carol Ann Duffy, Roger McGough, Imtiaz Dharker, Simon Armitage, Nujoom Alghanem and Khalid Al Budoor (emirateslitfest.com).