I’m not one to accost my icons in public. I once stood next to diminutive Margaret Atwood, she of the towering literary reputation, for fully ten minutes and could not say a word to her. There are, however, two of my heroes that I have made so bold as to approach: Nelson Mandela and Lemn Sissay. I’ve written about my encounter with Madiba, but here’s the one about Lemn Sissay, poet, playwright, broadcaster, recipient of an MBE (‘that’s for Mancunian Black Ethnic,’ he quips) for services to Literature and all-round VIP (Very Inspiring Person).
As a Humanities post-graduate of the University of Manchester I rejoiced last year when a poet, Lemn Sissay, pipped a politician, Peter Mandelson, to the post of Chancellor. And he’d done it with a northern accent and all that hair! A few weeks later I heard Sissay interviewed on Radio 4’s Desert Island discs. His take on his extraordinary experience of being fostered and in children’s homes plus his subsequent search for his parents, was fascinating. (See documentaries : ‘Internal Flight’ and http://lemnsissay.com/broadcast-2/video/) A few days later I spotted him in a coffee bar at Euston station. I confess I gawped for a while because I’ve never seen anyone read emails so expressively. He glared, beamed and grimaced at his laptop screen. Even from twenty meters across a commuter crowd, he radiated charisma, reminding me of Madiba. I couldnt resist. Sissay didn’t appear to be displeased by the interruption. He kindly shone his inner light on me for a few minutes and left me in an afterglow.
Fast forward to Friday night, and I’m at Wenlock Poetry Festival watching the tour de force that is Lemn Sissay, in performance. Before I attempt a review, let me confess that poetry isn’t my thing; it makes me nervous – too esoteric for a plain prose writer. (Don’t tell my creative writing colleagues, please.) Fortunately Sissay advised the audience not to struggle for understanding, just to enjoy the word pictures and soundscapes. I sat back and did, from the roller coaster of rhyme, assonance and word association that was “Architecture”, to the low static hiss of “Listener”, written to reach out to his lost mother somewhere on the receiving end of the BBC Word Service. (He did eventually find her, in Africa and claims to now have a family as wonderfully dysfunctional as anyone else's.)
Poetry was just part of the Sissay performance package. This man has got enough energy to power the Large Hadron Collider. He kept a packed theatre fizzing for more than an hour. He’s a consummate stand-up comedian with topical jokes, hilarious facial expressions, an ability to mime and mimic, and charm by the shed load. He’s generous with his hard-won wisdom, clearly loves conversing with crowds, and shows unshakeable faith in humanity. He was Sissational!
Of all the inspiring things he said this is one I needed to hear: “When you think of something, write it down. Write it down like it’s the most important thing in the world. Because if you don’t, it isn’t.”
Got it. Thanks, Lemn.
African novelist, writing tutor and UK academic.