Lemn Sissay: Let there be peace at University Place
By Ruth Dacey
Ruth Dacey meets renowned poet Lemn Sissay this week and discusses his new work Let There Be Peace
Lemn Sissay (MBE) award-winning British author and broadcaster last Tuesday unveiled his two-storey-high work entitled ‘Let There Be Peace,’ a poem which had been meticulously hand-painted over five days by signwriter Gerard Brown. The piece adorns an inside wall in the University Place building on Oxford Road; appropriately for a place of study, the piece extols the virtues of peace and quiet.
Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, president and vice chancellor of the university who introduced Lemn Sissay on the day said: “We hope this uplifting poem will provide inspiration as well as academic, creative and intellectual stimulation to the many students and staff who see it.” The work is the latest in a string of poems by Sissay to decorate the streets and buildings of Manchester in his Poems as Landmarks Project. These include ‘Hardy’s Well,’ written on the pub found on the corner of Dickenson Road and Wilmslow Road, ‘Rain,’ on the side of Gemini Cafe at the corner of Dilworth Street and Oxford road and ‘Flags,’ which stretches over a mile inlaid in the streets from Market Street (near Debenhams) to Oldham Street.
Lemn Sissay gave an enigmatic off-the-cuff speech in Tuesdays unveiling and delighted the large crowd with a reading of the actual piece itself. The Mancunion were then able to catch up with him after the event to find out more about the project as a whole and the Manchester poet’s upcoming projects.
Could you tell us about how your ‘Landmark Poetry’ project began?
The beginning of the process started back in the 1990’s with ‘Hardy’s Well’. This was produced after a conversation about what we could do with the wall space between myself, the landowner and a friend of mine. I decided to take it seriously as a commission although it was done for free so I wrote the poem, laid it out and then presented it to them and it is instrument to the owner of Hardy’s Well at the time who put it up. He took the money out his own pocket, he paid for it and put it up on the wall and it’s a landmark that students can remember for their whole lives- they remember the pub and they remember that landmark and that means the world to me.
Since that starting point the project has grown so much that in 2008 Desmond Tutu unveiled my landmark poem ‘Guilt of Cain’ which recognises the horror of slavery in the city of London and now there will be a poem at the Olympics which will be revealed shortly after this one in Manchester this week.
How does it feel to be back in Manchester for the launch of your landmark poem ‘Let there be Peace?’
I am very excited to be back in Manchester for the launch because this place is always with me where ever I go, so even though I left seven years ago for love not money. It is one of the most incredible cities in the world and I wouldn’t be where I am now if it hadn’t been for Manchester! It has not left me and one of the first things I did when I became artist in residence at the South Bank Centre was put on a club night called 24 hour party people which paid homage to my home town as Manchester was at the heart of everything from the range of DJs to the spoken word performances. And you know this is because I don’t believe that if you leave somewhere you lose that sense of what you were in that place before, I believe it becomes greater.
‘Let there be peace’ is going to be displayed in the heart of Manchester student campus, what do you want people to take away from the visual poem?
I’ve written the poem with my own reasons in mind however people take what they want from poetry and so it can be interoperated in many different and unique ways. I don’t want to predict how people will engage with it, for me I just want them to connect with it. The importance and key to the poem is that it is in public because this draws people to environments that they otherwise would not engage with and the beautiful wall that the poem has been written on would never have been looked at in the same way. I hope it brings peace but peace is only something searched for in the midst of disruption and movement but also anarchy so the two things kind of go together.
How important is the visual aspect to your work?
A lot of poetry is read privately and there is beauty to that as two people will not read the same word in the same way as each will bring a totally different experience to a given poem however I find that process very static, you know between the pages of a book. That in itself is a very closed medium but by writing on walls and creating visual dimensions to my work I see it as opening books for people- it’s a window and a portal into who and what we really are. For me poetry should be in public and I think people may sometimes forget that poetry is all around us. It’s used in adverts to try and sell us car insurance and on Valentine’s Day for loved ones. We can also see it on statues to remember those who have died in wars and on grave stones, for instance Morrissey wrote songs walking round the graves of South Manchester. So actually poetry is around us all the time but a lot of people may not see this.
With the Olympics just around the corner Forward Arts Foundation along with the Olympic Delivery Authority, announced series of commissions for the 2012 Olympic Park. Lemn Sissay responded to his commission by producing 3 poems; Spark Catchers and two untitled pieces. For Spark Catchers, Lemn was first inspired by the danger of death signs that are mandatory on the electricity transformer enclosures. His research and thoughts led him to the Bryant and May Match factory, which sits at the bottom South West corner of the Olympic Park and is a major architectural landmark. Lemn researched into the history of the factory and into the story of Annie Besant (1847–1933), a feminist and a socialist, who when she heard about the high profits of the Bryant and May match factory, as opposed to the pittance paid to their labourers, she published a series of articles that led to a public boycott and a successful strike of the match workers.
The landmark poem ‘Spark Catchers’ is written about a very specific group of women but what is the wider message that can be taken from the poem?
The universal message that’s written into the poem is that if something is wrong you have to fight for your rights. So yes even though the poem looks specifically at the women from the Bryant and May match makers factory (which is still part of the Olympic sight- it’s now a block of flats) it should be read universally as they inspirationally stood up for their rights led by feminist and later suffragette Annie Besant. Also the whole world has spark catchers at the moment, there is an energy happening, a vibe, a conversation, a standing up of people which should be recognised just as much as Olympic spirit.
Super Hero project
One of Lemn’s most inspirational community projects is his involvement as artistic director with colleague Caroline Bird in The Superhero Project which is a series of poetry workshops and art activity for look after young people in care in Ealing. The Superhero Project was launched nationally by Michael Rosen this summer.
How valuable is the experience provided for young people in care?
My job with the project is to inspire but also to be inspired and I have seen amazing work produced by people in care. They have created really brave things; I would describe it as poetry with guts. But you know what has come out of the project is also awarding winning material from these inspirational youngsters. For instance a couple of nights ago I was having dinner with Michael Morpurgo, the author of Warhorse who presented an award to Robert Marston who won the Foyles Young Poets Prize and we also have two other youngsters from the workshop shortlisted for The Wicked Young Writers Award. Myself and Caroline have learnt so much from these young people, they have taken this opportunity and produced excellence.
What did you yourself take away from the Super Hero Project?
The figure of fostered, adopted or parentless children is something that can sometimes be overlooked in our society today. But I know of guitarists from famous bands, famous actors and TV presenters, top lawyers, brilliant poets, television executives, magazine editors, national journalists, famous singers, millionaires, star novelists and Olympic medallists who were all looked after children. And then there’s the fictional ones, Harry Potter, Superman, Spiderman, Cinderella , The X men, Oliver Twist , Matilda, James Bond, Lemony Snicket, Celie from The Colour Purple, Moses…..the list is endless. I just think that there needs to be a radical rethink on what young looked after people are. Young looked after people employ extraordinary skills to deal with extraordinary situations. I myself see it as the sky is the limit. The work I was able to be a part of was extraordinary and the idea to send the poems from The Superhero Project workshops to competitions was originated and pursued by my peerless colleague Caroline Bird. We are both very proud to be able to say that a book, The Superhero Project, published by First Story will be launched on November 24th at Horizons in Ealing.
Tracing his roots
What was the experience like trying to trace your roots and find your family?
It’s taken most of my adult life to search for my family so I believe it’s been everything to me. It is incredibly important to me and it is now part of who I am and if you ever need to find somebody you should do it. I’ve found my father, mother, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties, cousins the full works and I am so thankful for that. It hasn’t been an easy journey in at any parts of the process, but I am happy to have done it.
Do you feel that you have changed through the process?
It has you know, I mean it took most of my adult life from leaving the children’s home at 18 years till the age of 32. I have travelled all over the world in the process, and put everything into finding my family. I always had my priorities from the very beginning; I never wanted to be on television or in books and things like that. Of course I am fortunate that I have had these opportunities to be but my main goal was to find my family, because ultimately there is no point being successful if there is no-one to be successful for. Finding my family has inspired me, I do write less now but I write with more focus.
What future projects do you have in the pipeline?
I have an offer to go to Ethiopia for the Dickens festival later on in March and I may be going again later on in September to perform in a play out there. I also have an exhibition going up concerning the Olympics in March which co-insides with the unveiling of the landmark Olympic poem ‘Spark Catchers.’ I do have a lot going on at the moment but always at the heart of my work is the integrity of the poetry, and I will only do what I believe is good to do. I don’t like to be running around doing lots and lots of different projects because it’s important to have a direct focus and do things well. Also for me it is crucial that I approach projects positively as this will lift other people’s spirits too.
Make sure to keep your eyes open for Lemn’s works and there may be many more on the way as he commented “I would like Manchester to be the poem city of Great Britain and the World. I would like there to be poems on all the buildings!”