Books editor Roma Havers interviews the poet Lemn Sissay on his new book Gold from the Stone and his role as Chancellor of the University of Manchester
I met with Lemn Sissay on Monday the 31st October at The Malmaison hotel. I had only had contact via an email exchange with a representative of his and I was pretty nervous. There had been some mix-ups with the details and somehow me coming had not got into Lemn’s diary. Despite this he was very kind, assuring me it was not my fault, and still offered to do this interview. We settled outside, and while I set up he asked me about my course and The Mancunion before we got down to the questions.
I first wanted to ask about a performance of his that I had seen a couple of weeks previously at Contact Theatre where he had performed from his new book Gold from the Stone as part of the 8th Black and Asian Writers Conference. Having read the book the day before I had been astonished by the power of his performance and I wondered how that plays into his poetry:”Are there some poems you write knowing that that’s going to be a performance piece?”
“Actually no,” he answered, “you know, most of the poems find their performative language in action of performing so they sort of speak back to me, they come alive in their own juices … One line can be said many many different ways so ‘Hello, how are you?’ could be as much screamed ‘hello how are you?’ as it could be whispered ‘hello, how are you?’ as it could be given different intonations in each world in each syllable of each word. ‘Hello how are you?’”
At this point, Lemn put on a performance for each manner that same phrase could be said, he spoke with a great deal of passion and investment. It was clear to me that it was important that he felt I understood exactly the intricacies he was getting at, as he stated, “there are better writers of the page than me and there are better performers on the stage than me. What’s most important is that the uniqueness of your voice translates to the page and the stage, that’s really important, you know, the idea of it being good or bad is really not something that I am concerned with, strangely, I have my criteria, I guess, for making my work better and better and better.”
Next I wanted to talk to him about the changes to the culture around poetry, particularly concerning the emerging populist movement of Spoken Word, with artists such as Kate Tempest performing her new work on the BBC. I wondered whether he had noticed a change in how the page form is received and how this has changed his experience of performance poetry.
“Poetry has always been on the stage and the page,” he replied, “so Shakespeare’s stuff was on the page and the stage so I don’t really feel anything other than joy at the fact that poets like Isaiah [Hall] who’s from Manchester who performed with Kate Tempest and the like, are both of the stage and of the page. You know, Kate has written brilliant plays that have five star reviews, records, books etc. Poetry will infiltrate so many different areas of society and culture that anybody who chooses to be a poet, chooses to be at the heart of culture not at the edge of it, people often talk about poetry as being this lonesome sport, I’ve never seen it that way.”
This sparked my interest in talking more generally about how poetry is understood, I wondered how he felt about poetry being seen as an elitist form, and how important accessibility is in the arts.
“Well I’m with our poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, I’m with Kate Tempest, I’m with Isaiah, I’m with Raymond Antrobus. Adrian Mitchell said, ‘most people aren’t interested in poetry because poetry isn’t interested in people’. I don’t necessarily agree with him there but I knew what he was fighting, “I think there is a class system in poetry which deems poetry by people who are, who have not been through certain sieves, societal sieves, as not being as good as people who have been through those sieves. And I don’t believe that. Sylvia Plath’s first poem I think she was when she was twelve. We’re kind of born poets really, we don’t really have that much choice, it’s what we do and it’s who we are.”
Lemn Sissay’s passion for the experience of poetry and the work of those around him was evident, but I wanted to know what could practically be done to change things, to get the word out, and to help people find these communities of poets.
“As writers we have the responsibility to write,” he answered, “and that’s basically the first responsibility of the writer and actually I’d say that’s probably it because your success as a writer doesn’t make you any less of a member of the community you came from. You’re part of the community so it’s your responsibility to exercise your creative rights, your creative power. Yesterday I presented the news review on BBC TV on BBC Breakfast and then I went to judge the Slambassadors poetry competition in Oxford Circus and I heard young people speaking with an urgency and a truthfulness and a clarity that was far more relevant than some of news that I’d been reviewing on the television that morning. So you know the Slambassadors for example is run by a woman called Joelle Taylor and she gets poets together or gets young people together and gives workshops, and she hails them and it’s supported by the poetry society and it’s that kind of dynamism that we need to counter the rubbish that poetry is only for a chosen few.”
Projects like Slambassadors put young people on a platform where their voices are heard and where they can use art and poetry to address issues the that they face. However, I was concerned by the state of arts in education in the current climate. Different factors, including fees, and removal of subjects like History of Art from GCSEs and A Level syllabuses have caused arts degrees to become more and more the site of privilege.
I told Lemn about the National Creative Writing Graduate Fair — held at Manchester Metropolitan University this Friday — which is a charging forty pound entry fee, his thoughts on the matter were as such: “Well I don’t know what to say about that, I didn’t know that that was a practice that universities do.” But I wondered what we could do about this continuing practice, “well creatives need to speak out, they need to speak out so I would assume that students like you will make it known if you feel that that is unfair.”
From this point I asked Lemn about his role as Chancellor of the University where he recently passed his one year mark at the job; his enthusiasm concerning this subject was apparent, particularly as, after the interview had ended he brought the subject up again, mentioning the T-shirts — available at University of Manchester Gift-shop — featuring his quote, ‘inspire and be inspired’, which he said made him “so freaking proud”. I asked him what the role had entailed so far and what it meant to him.
“I tell you there is no sort of rule-book to say what a chancellor is or should do beyond a series of responsibilities of the doctorate degree ceremony and being on the board of the general members. So my job, I guess what I’ve done is, I try to lead by example in the hope that everyone can lead by example. I don’t think that’s unique to me as a chancellor … I just try to do what I do as best as I can do it in the hope that students, university lecturers, alumni, etc can see.”
“I love walking around the campus and meeting both lecturers and students, people stop me all over the country to say, oh you’re the chancellor of the University of Manchester, I think that what I’ve done probably in the first year is get people to know about the University; that we are not like any other university, we are unique, we’re not just a sausage factory, we are about the rights of the students, we are about freedom of speech and we are about empowering those who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to go to university.
“I know that there are student fees but we’re also, you know, we have social responsibility as one of the top goals and I think we’re one of the only universities that have that, others have social responsibility as one of the additions to their role but we have it as our central goal.”
I was intrigued by this thought and wanted to probe it further, it is clear in his work and his chosen conversational topics that he cares deeply about what he does, but I find that terms like ‘Social responsibility’ can be troubling if they are not addressed in their complexity. In light of this I asked Lemn to explain what social responsibility meant to him.
“Social responsibility means that the people, for example of Moss Side, are served by the university because they’re right in the shadow of the university, that opportunities for people who otherwise wouldn’t have opportunities are made, care-leavers for example, the university does quite a lot with care-leavers and they have dedicated workers who work with care-leavers. Plus we do Christmas dinner as well for care-leavers and a lot of that is being helped by the university, so it’s quite incredible, Christmas day there’s a Christmas dinner for care-leavers, so if any students are here on their own for Christmas and they want to volunteer to help with that they can help us on Christmas day and it’s a great day.
“I’ve got to say, what is incredible about this university for me are the people that work in it, aside from the students — that’s a given — but the people that work for the university are so incredibly talented and dedicated to making the university a great place for people to be at but also to making the world a better place, sounds crass to say that; people like James Thompson, one of the lecturers who works in war-torn areas to help people who’ve been through trauma around the world, you know, and there’s research happening which is solving medical issues which will make our world a better place, period, it really will.”
The work of Lemn Sissay in events such as The Christmas Dinners has been marked by his profound openness when it comes to discussing his personal history and experiences in the foster care system. His recent article for The Guardian in particular offered a moving and deeply personal insight into his early life. I asked when he felt a responsibility to talk about those things because they are often left out of the narrative. His response was heartfelt.
“Yeah, you know it’s really interesting that for me anyway that what is not spoken about is often what needs to be spoken about, so you know people don’t speak about the care system but it needs to be spoken about in the open air, it needs to be. People need to know that we, foster children, adopted children, children who have been in care, should not have to carry the shame and it’s not our shame, it’s societal shame so society needs to deal with it not us.
“So I mean not everyone wants to talk about their past and that’s fine but I’m just in a situation where that’s all I’ve ever done because the first eighteen years of my life, my entire life, was public record, so why should I shut up, you know, when I’ve had files written about me since I was, you know, one month old so now I’m an adult, as I’m having to unpick all of the things that they did that were wrong to me, I’m doing it in public. It’s funny because when you talk about your story as I do, I don’t expect other people to talk about their’s, you know, I’m not trying to say that that makes you a better person or anything, it’s just that that’s the way it’s been for me. It’s a beautiful thing to do, it’s actually quite beautiful.”
I briefly wanted to engage with some of his individual poems from Gold from the Stone. One in particular that stood out to me called, ‘The Show Goes On’ of which the opening lines are: “The Arts Council criteria for funding is to conform/ Which means if they pay the revolution, the revolution will perform.” Did he feel that this is true of the state of funding for Arts in this country?
“I decided to include poems that I’d written obviously from when I was much younger, but I like that poem because it was just angry, you know, but it is trying to say to people that, I don’t believe that that’s the Arts Council criteria anymore, but I do believe that people sleepwalk into allowing that to happen. Soon as you start to justify for money, it’s a very tricky contract and I think we should be aware of the contract we’re setting up, as we take the pay from the government.
“I’ve got to say this that the arts council has probably been one of the central supporters of what I do throughout thirty years of being on stage and that is because the arts council fund the theatres that I have performed in, they’ve funded the projects that I’ve had some small part in, they have been undoubtedly the biggest supporter of the arts in Britain in the community and I’m fully aware that as a black man, as a guy who was brought up in care, that I would never have had some of the opportunities that I have had through being in care.”
On that note I asked how he felt about the recent efforts made by lots of arts based companies to improve their diversity and create diversity-led projects. He first wanted to make a statement about positive discrimination, “positive discrimination has been around all my adult life, it’s just not been around for women, or for black people, or for gay people, or for anybody who’s not ‘white male’[…]It’s important that when people talk about positive discrimination that they realise that it’s been already happening. The only reason we talk about it for women or for people who are marginalised is because it’s already well established for somebody else. Diversity is at the heart of who we are, I don’t even think of it as an add on, if I go into board meetings and what have you, I do look around the table and think OK so this is a thing, you know, if it’s all one kind of person, it registers with me and I think it registers with the university as well.”
How then did he feel about projects that engage with identity politics and perhaps ask people to identify themselves in a way in which they might not feel comfortable?
“Oh well identity is a very complex and beautiful sort of signifier of what it is to be human and we should be complex, you know, there should be blurred lines and there should be complications and there should be boxes that you don’t feel at ease filling in, you know, don’t fill it, tick them all. You know I say that sometimes on stage, tick all the boxes, black, white, gay, straight, male, female.”
Did he think projects like that are doing the work or is there more work to be done?
“I think that some of the diversity projects that promote diversity can become institutionalised themselves, you know, so we need to think diversely as well as be visually diverse. For me, it’s a way of thinking, be open.”
Finally, I wanted to ask him some advice for students and young people wanting to perform poetry, particularly in light being part of a team going to UniSlam, a nationwide Slam poetry competition.
“Right, it’s this,” he started, his eyes lighting up, “imagine it like you’re snake charming, like you’re charming a snake, you play a tune. If you stay in exactly the same rhythm what happens is the snake starts to hypnotise you, okay, so you will read in the same rhythm of the poem and the lines will come out and whatever and however it works, it works, it works — that is a way of killing your poem.
“Use that as the backbone of the poem and build the body of the poem, sounds quite surreal, what I mean is this, is that any time you can stop, turn and carry on, turn and carry on, you can change the intonation you’re saying the sentence that you’ve written in a poem so give it voice, instead of hypnotising it. It’s such a big deal that you know, you understand me?”
It was this last moment, when he asked me genuinely whether I was on the same page as him, that I felt like I understood his character. I have a lot of time for Lemn Sissay because he had time for me to engage openly in some challenging topics. Right before I went to pack up, he asked me to turn my recorder back on, he wanted to make a comment on a workshop that he had meant to do last year but had fallen through because he had been told too late about it: “I just want to apologise to everyone about that actually I really do”, he said, genuinely, “that’s the lecturers and the students. It was just one thing, I’ve done many many many things this year; it’s the one I didn’t do that I feel bad about.”