07 May 2012

A rebel with applause

SAT in his local shop, Palm 2 in Lower Clapton, poet and playwright Lemn Sissay watches the lunchtime hustle and bustle unfold. Chatting to the shopkeepers and customers, while sipping his ‘usual’ coffee, Lemn seems very much at home.

‘Yet ‘home’ for the Olympic-commissioned poet is somewhere that has taken many years to find. Born in Wigan, Lancashire, Lemn was placed in foster care aged just three-months, at the request of his Ethiopian mother while she studied. He lived with a religious, white family for 11 years – after which he grew up in childrens’ homes.

At the age of 17, he left the care system and moved to Manchester, where he made his name as a writer. But despite his tough upbringing, Lemn is keen to emphasise that it did not shape who he is today. He says: “I’m not defined by my scars, but by my healing.”

Lemn has written poetry since he can remember, publishing his first anthology, ‘Rebel Without Applause’, at 25. He says: “I was born a writer. Poetry was my way of interpreting the world around me. I get miffed when people view poetry as some sort of light thing. You try and face a piece of paper on your own and write what you truly feel and then tell me that was easy. I don’t think of poetry as some sort of airy, fairy issue, it’s at the beating heart of who we are.”

He moved to Hackney in 2004. He says: “I don’t want to live in a mono-culture, like where I grew up, because people cultivate this fear of ‘other.’ I’m honoured to be accepted here – it means a lot to me that shopkeepers know my name and I know theirs.”

Lemn was made an artist and resident at the Southbank Centre in 2006. In 2010, he was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to literature, and also made an honorary Doctor of Letters. This year, he became the first of five poets – including Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, John Burnside, Caroline Bird and Jo Shapcott – who were commissioned to write poems for installations at the Olympic Park.

Lemn’s poem, ‘Spark Catchers’, was inspired by the match girls at the Bryant and May match factory in Bow. He explains: “I was offered the entire Olympic site to seek out a reason to write a poem. I found the story of the match making factory and read about a woman called Annie Besant who wrote an article entitled ‘White Slavery in London’ about the terrible working conditions of women there. They symbolise what I know about the East End – that it’s a worker-led place.”

And what does it mean for Lemn to be ‘tattooed on to the skin of the Olympic Park?’ He chuckles: “I’m proud to be not only the first commissioned poet for the Olympic Games, but also the one that lives around the corner. History is a living thing – when you go to a museum you’re essentially entering a time machine. And that’s what happens when you enter the Olympic site through my poem.”

Although Lemn’s upbringing may not have shaped who he is, it’s clear that having a place called ‘home’ is something he feels passionately about.

“Isn’t it amazing – I’ve been to a lot of cities in the world, but Hackney feels just right. To be accepted by a community is to feel its strength. The nature of diversity is literally the nature of humanity. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world,” he concludes.

To follow Lemn’s blog, visit: http://blog.lemnsissay.com/

Lemn Sissay was the first of five poets commissioned to write about the Olympic Park

Lemn Sissay was the first of five poets commissioned to write about the Olympic Park

Lemn Sissay was the first of five poets commissioned to write about the Olympic Park Lemn Sissay wrote Spark Catchers for the Olympic Park

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