Thanet Writers Spotlight Lemn Sissay

Connor Sansby highlights the life, works and legacy of poet and playwright Lemn Sissay, and spotlights his connection to Thanet.

Within the contemporary British Poetry landscape, it’s fair to say Lemn Sissay is one of the most notable figures. It’s easy to rattle off his list of accomplishments, from his MBE to his successful campaign to become University of Manchester Chancellor, a highly publicised affair against Peter Mandelson. Beyond that, Sissay has been one of the most prominent poetic voices of our age, and over the last decade, his work keeps finding its way to Thanet.

The child of an Ethiopian immigrant, he was born in Billinge, outside Wigan, Lancashire. The social worker assigned to his mother found foster parents for the baby, while his mother returned to Bracknell in Berkshire, to continue her studies. The social worker in question renamed the baby Norman, his own name, and told his foster parents to treat him as an adoption case. His religious foster parents again renamed the boy Mark – after St Mark the Evangelist, ascribed author of The Gospel of Mark – adding their own surname.

After his foster family had three children of their own, Sissay was relocated to a children’s home at twelve years’ old, with his foster parents telling him they would never contact him again. He would stay in four children’s homes until he was 17 when, with no surrogate family, he was given the files kept on him, amongst them his birth certificate with his legal name and letters from his mother asking for Lemn to be returned to her.

Using his legal name, Lemn set about finding his birth mother, whom he found four years later, working for the UN in Gambia. He would later turn the events of his childhood into the documentary Internal Flight and the 2005 drama Something Dark.

Lemn discovered poetry young, writing from the age of twelve as an outlet to express himself, but it was upon receiving a tattered copy of The Mersey Sound – the seminal anthology from Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri – that Sissay found a sense of belonging. In its first poem, at the mention of an orphanage, Lemn Sissay knew he was heading in the right direction. Sissay would use his poetry as a way of remembering the changing faces of the people around him.

At the age of seventeen, he used his unemployment benefit to self-publish his first pamphlet, Perceptions of the Pen, which he sold to miners on strike in Lancashire shortly before he moved to Manchester. Aged nineteen, Sissay started a gutter cleaning service and upon each of the hundred leaflets he would distribute every day, he would write a poem.

Lemn’s career would continue to grow; he published his first full length collection at age twenty-one, became a full-time writer at twenty-four, received his honorary doctorate in 2009, with a single GCSE and two CSEs to his name, and in 2010 he received his MBE in the New Year’s Honours List. In 2012 he was the first poet commissioned to write for the London Olympics.

Also in 2012, Sissay was commissioned by the arts organisation Workers of Art to write a poem based on Margate and the surrounding villages. The product saw him immersed in the communities of Margate, St Nicholas-at-Wade and Minster, conducting interviews and gathering stories with the intent of building his poem ‘For Work For Love’ from the folklore of the communities. One notable example is the story of the Margate Clock Tower being calibrated by a penny, in the lines “Beneath the clock tower a penny shudders / On its pendulum then beneath Turner.” The poem also immortalises Arlington House on Margate seafront. The work was then broadcast onto the Turner Contemporary for three nights, and performed in each of the communities: in St Nicholas, the poem was performed as a song by Thanet Big Sing Community Choir, led by Emily Peasgood and Tony Castro; in Minster, the work was turned into a dance affair featuring nuns from Minster Abbey and intergenerational dancers; and in Margate itself, Lemn Sissay performed his work in its original form against the backdrop of the Turner Gallery.

He revealed on his blog that originally the work was going to be titled ‘The Tracey Sea’ and take inspiration from artist and poet Tracey Emin and her youth spent in Margate, but as the work grew, it no longer seemed necessary to use her as part of the piece, though in interviews afterwards Sissay left subtle hints that the narrator of the piece might still be the renowned artist.

In 2015, Lemm’s voice was once again linked to the Turner as part of Claudia Molitor’s audio installation, ‘Sonorama.’ Sissay was one of a number on contributors, reflecting on the journey from London St Pancras to Margate by train. Each track of the work corresponded to a different section of the journey, with Sissay’s work capping off the journey as the train pulls into Margate, with a poem entitled ‘Immigration RSVP.’

Two days after the Manchester terrorist attack, he returned to the Turner to open the summer exhibition, aptly titled Every Day is a New Day. His speech reflected on the need for art, as a form of escapism and necessary part of life. The exhibition itself was one focusing on change, and at that pivotal moment in the aftermath of devastation, Lemn’s word encouraged people to take solace in the arts. Alongside this, he also met groups of Thanet children and helped transform neglected sites into new artistic spaces as part of Artgate, swapping stories and jokes before taking part in a tour of the gallery.

As Margate celebrated Journeys from The Wasteland, a festival dedicated to T.S. Eliot’s magnum opus, the Turner Contemporary uploaded an interview with Sissay, as he spoke about how poetry can be a transformative tool and its rising popularity, using the internet as a new canvas. The questions he responded to were put forward by a group of young people working with the gallery.

Lemn is endlessly engaging and warm, with a unique ability to inspire children, which makes him a perfect visitor to Thanet. He has become a sort of digital ambassador for poetry, posting short poems inspired by the dawn of each morning to his Twitter and blogging frequently. Lemn Sissay continues to work locally, being appointed Poet Laureate for Canterbury in 2017, holding talks and performances at The Marlowe Theatre alongside other projects, so perhaps it’s only a matter of time before he comes back to Thanet.

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Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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