Lemn Sissay – ‘The Report’ and ‘Gold from the Stone’: an appreciation

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Though wanting so much to attend, I was unable to go and see Lemn Sissay’s The Report at the Royal Court theatre in London. This was a ‘live’ show in which a genuine psychologist’s report about the abuse he suffered as a child and teenager over eighteen years in the care system was read aloud to an audience. More importantly, this included Lemn Sissay himself on stage. This would be the first time, quite remarkably, he as well as all those others would hear this information. The report had been ‘lost’ for years but recently discovered [that, presumably, a whole other story]. Sissy organised for its findings to be revealed on the night of the show, the role of the psychologist reading the contents played by actress Julie Hesmonhalgh. To refer to ‘played’ and ‘actress’ in this context is, obviously and poignantly, to engage in the most profound paradox.

I was therefore thankful to read such a fine review of this event by Sissay’s friend Simon Hattenstone in yesterday’s The Guardian, and it is much more a personal, empathetic response to the occasion than the more conventional, critical observation of a theatre review. I would urge anyone interested to read for themselves [I bought the paper precisely for this, but it can be read online here]. There is an opening, touching summary of Lemn’s Sissay’s early life and move into care, as well as an affectionate appreciation of how this has impacted on his friend’s life as an adult to this day.

Hattenstone refers caringly to his friendship with Sissy and states he is one of the funniest and warmest people I know, extraordinarily animated with a life-affirming laugh. I know Lemn a little, and to know Lemn even a little is to know a lot because he is a genuinely huge character. Much of this comes from the sheer human energy of the man, but it is focused most impressively through his creative energy: he doesn’t just talk – he impassions, constantly, and observes so often through the poetic prism of poetry, and I don’t mean in his writing, though clearly it is here, powerfully, and in his performance of this. Ask Lemn about words, or just a single word, and you’ll hear what I mean. Ask him about anything and you’ll hear!

Hattenstone is also most honest in referring to the damaged side of Sissay’s life, and again I would urge reading what he has to say in his article for that empathetic insight. I have only ever been on the positive and uplifting receiving end of Lemn’s energy, enthusiasm and generosity of creativity and attention.

I first met Lemn 27 years ago when he visited and worked in my school, running a writing workshop and performing/reading his poetry. That time is a little vague [the intervening years sandpapered away by a different culture to those heady days of being largely creative]. I am reasonably sure, however, that he attended on one of the first Comic Relief Days, and his evening reading for students and parents ended up as a riotous stand-up routine, loved by all there, much to do with his experiences of being a black guy in Devon, yet also a mix of anecdotes and amazing performances of his poetry, written then in particular to be performed – most recited rather than read. It was stunning, and it was inspiring. How sad but also triumphant it is to read now about how much he would also have been suffering as a person then.

I have had the pleasure of working with Lemn a few times since those earliest encounters: he generously gave two poems for me to include in my GCSE teaching text on examination poetry [I don’t believe he got paid much at all for one, if at all; the other was definitely a freebie]. The poem that appeared in the main text was the powerful The Waitress and the Knights of the Round Table, a poem about racism, included in his collection Morning Breaks in the Elevator [1999]. The issues it raises are as pertinent today as then [and before and beyond, sadly] and if you ever get the chance to hear Lemn read this aloud, you must. The poem carries dramatically on a personal reading – and it is poetically so delicate and vivid as it sets its scene – but a performance from Lemn delivers with such an evocation of their madness the lines that truly stab you through your anti-racist sensibilities, and indeed any caring about abuse to another one you could and should always have. Hearing about Lemn’s own abuse in the care homes and how it has affected him throughout his life has added a further level to my understanding of how that poem resonates, over and above the racism he encountered in his life.

The second poem, also from …Elevator is Sandwich Love and this was printed in my Teacher’s Guide where ideas for creative writing were offered, this delightfully playful poem from Lemn demonstrating the richest possibilities of using simile and similar.

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I’m obviously proud to mention these poetry gifts from Lemn, and to quickly add I had the pleasure more recently of working with him where my co-author and I filmed Lemn for a major online digital resource [for Cambridge University Press] to illuminate and expand on ideas presented in our GCSE book about Writing in the new examinations [being assessed for the first time next month]. Another reason is that the two poems mentioned above are also published in Lemn’s recent collection Gold from the Stone.

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This is a career-spanning collection of Lemn’s poetry and is a major work from one of the UK’s leading writers and performers. And let’s just pause a moment on that assertion: among the many formal and informal accolades awarded to Lemn over the years – and he will no doubt value most those from friends and those he has supported who have been and are still in care – he was the official poet of the 2012 Olympics [his poem for this in the collection], was awarded and MBE in 2010, and is the Chancellor of the University of Manchester, this latter a role he takes on with passion and active energy. And this really does just scratch the surface.

I can imagine those who might denigrate such awards like the MBE [and I am generally no great fan], but for me, and in Lemn’s particular case, this one and other recognitions respond to the complete honesty of their earning. From a ‘jobbing’ poet with a first book published in 1988, Lemn has undertaken the hard, intermittent and itinerant journey of the aspiring writer, often unrecognised by a larger public but never ever unappreciated by those lucky enough to experience his readings and workshops. He now travels the world to deliver these same enthusiastic readings and workshops to that wider and very often adoring contemporary public. Lemn’s commitment to this – especially the constant travel that isn’t as romantic, no doubt, as it might seem – fully earn these public recognitions. My main point, and something I have wanted to say since first reading Gold from the Stone, is that Lemn has popularised poetry: made it accessible and enjoyable and inspiring for many. There are poems in the collection that are clearly written for performance, and equally for entertainment. His ‘wordplay’ poems are great examples of this, but they can and do also work for their convictions, like Airmail to a Dictionary from Rebel Without Applause [1992] but which I first read, and how I first came to know of his work, when it appeared in the wonderful Stride collection of poems for young people The Bees Knees [1990]. This is when Lemn, and other poets from this collection, came to work in Devon schools, Lemn to also work at mine solo.

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I was lucky to grow up at the time of The Mersey Sound where poets like Mitchell, Patten and McGough were making poetry fun and meaningful and inspiring. There hasn’t been this kind of popular-culture aspect to poetry for some long time since. Rap and rap-poets, poetry slams and other performance elements to more recent poetry [and its spread on YouTube and social media] have raised the profile. Indeed, in last Sunday’s Observer Magazine the lead article was all about Kate Tempest and how she has brought poetry back to the ‘masses’ [well, sort of…]. Whilst I’m sure she has played her part in this, and I am mindful that Tempest has written a promotional blurb for Sissay’s latest collected works, I would have to say it is Lemn who has consistently brought poetry to the widest possible audience and to provide a significant range in doing so. If you want to read one of Lemn’s ‘popular’ poems packed with craft and meaningfulness try his one for the 2012 Olympics, The Spark Catchers.

I could go on, and had in fact some months ago been thinking of saying similar and more in a fuller review of Gold from the Sun, but yesterday’s Guardian article on The Report has expanded away from that intended poetry focus. And I am glad.

It also allows me to close on a final ‘I know Lemn, even if a little’ anecdote, and I will frame and justify it with a quote from yesterday’s newspaper article. There is a quote from the Report in that article which I will edit for my purposes, and it reads He meets some of his needs for acceptance and love through the superficial and impassioned relationships he forms through being famous and I now appropriate this affecting observation for a more playful purpose – one I’d like to think Lemn would smile about – and that is how I once made him a cheese sauce when, invited for a meal to his place then in Manchester, his had failed. It is an anecdote in my craving for some vicarious feed off knowing the now famous Lemn, if only a little, and I have told it many, many times.

I also saw Lemn reading a few years ago at The Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival, he quite unaware I was there and our not having seen one another for many years. Early in that reading he stopped, having suddenly spotted me in the audience, and said hello and had the briefest but very public catch-up. It was so warm and friendly and unexpected – and ego-boosting, for me of course! One of the funniest and warmest people I know says Hattenstone, and this demonstrated that warmth and generosity for me in that one small surprising moment.

I know the immediate above is the more meaningful anecdote, but I remind you I do make a great cheese sauce, and did so once for Lemn Sissay.

 

Watch Channel 4 News’ segment on The Report broadcast last night here. It is moving, and the interviews with Lemn show him also moved, and angry, but typically upbeat and perhaps a little freer after his experience.

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