Poet Lemn Sissay in Bendigo to discuss the power of literature

EXPRESS YOURSELF: Lemn Sissay is impressed with the quality of literature which comes out of Australia, citing the nation's multicultural background as one of the key reasons. Picture: NONI HYETT
EXPRESS YOURSELF: Lemn Sissay is impressed with the quality of literature which comes out of Australia, citing the nation's multicultural background as one of the key reasons. Picture: NONI HYETT

Children have fantasies of becoming astronauts, sports stars, firefighters, actors or actresses.

The list goes on.

But for Lemn Sissay MBE, 51, he always knew he wanted to become a poet.

“That’s how I see myself, I do a lot of things but being a poet is my stock-in-trade,” Sissay said.

“At 12 years of age I knew I was going to be a poet.”

Born in Wigan near Manchester, England, he spent his early years with a foster family and in his teens lived in multiple children’s homes.

Stolen from his mother, he met her for the first time when he was 21 years old.

“It was the most beautiful thing to find my mother and family.”

A lack of a “classic education” didn’t prevent him from expressing himself, self-publishing his first poetry pamphlet, Perceptions of the Pen, at the age of 17.

“I am somebody who is doing what they were always meant to do, I knew what I was going to do very early in life and I didn’t realise people didn’t follow this same path,” he said.

“I’m lucky in many different ways.”

Sissay said he was inspired to be part of an art form that affects everybody.

“Poetry is not a minority sport,” he said.

“For example a lot of the hymns that are sung in church are poems. The Christmas song In the Bleak Midwinter was written by the poet Christina Rosetti. Cats is based on poems written by T.S Eliot, which were rewritten and inspired a set of poems which became the musical.

“Often very complicated ideas are communicated through what seems like a simple poem.”

But ultimately, “poetry is around us all the time, it’s everywhere”.

Throughout Sissay’s life he has been given the opportunity to express himself through poems which are featured across England and throughout the world.

He was approached in the mid-2000s to collaborate with sculptor Michael Visocchi on a monument which would be built in Fen Court, London. 

“The poem was commissioned to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the 1800s. The City of London, was where the financial benefits (of slavery) went through all of the banks,” he said.

The poem includes biblical references – inspiration came from the story of Cain and Abel – which was intertwined with language relevant to the London Stock Exchange.

I am somebody who is doing what they were always meant to do, I knew what I was going to do very early in life and I didn’t realise people didn’t follow this same path.

Lemn Sissay

The granite monument features the sculpture of Visocchi engraved with extracts from Sissay’s poem Gilt of Cain and was unveiled on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of transatlantic slavery by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu.

Books have been written about the Gilt of Cain's relevance to society. Picture: NONI HYETT

Books have been written about the Gilt of Cain's relevance to society. Picture: NONI HYETT

Sissay said the poem’s relevance to society was more important than ever.

“We really need to be looking after each other during these days of Brexit and Trump,” he said.

“Society is breaking down. It’s very fascinating to be a part of but also very intense at the same time.”

He was also commissioned to write a poem by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in the lead-up to the 2012 games.

“The Olympic site was being built and I was approached to write a poem which drew upon inspiration from its location in East London,” he said.

“I found an old match factory on the edge of the site where one of the first strikes happened in trade union history.”

The London matchgirls’ strike of 1888 was caused by a range of inadequate working conditions which led to serious health issues for the workers.

They were struck down by a condition known as “phossy jaw” which was caused by exposure to white phosphorus used in the manufacturing of matches.

"When you give something away that's yours, you will often get a lot back but you can't predict how you will get things back." Picture: NONI HYETT

"When you give something away that's yours, you will often get a lot back but you can't predict how you will get things back." Picture: NONI HYETT

Sissay in researching the factory’s history, stumbled across a women named Annie Besant, who wrote an article about the strike that appeared in The Link, titled White Slavery in London.

In the article he found a line by Besant in which she called for a  “poet to hold up their conduct to the execration of posterity”.

“When I read it, I knew straight away that was a poem I had to write,” Sissay said.

“I’m a couple hundred years late, but never late than never.”

He weaved in metaphors which struck a chord between matches and the Olympic flame.

Sissay’s remarkable journey has been publicly rewarded. He was appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire in the 2010 New Year Honours for his services to literature and, despite never going to university, is now a  Chancellor for the University of Manchester.

He is passing on his passion to the next generation as an ambassador for The Children’s Reading Fund’s Letter Box Club, a program which delivers parcels of educational material to children in care or in post-adoption support.

“It gives children, who otherwise may not have had the opportunity to read books,” Sissay said.

“The more they read it will help their imagination and communication skills while increasing their knowledge. It shows them the joy of reading rather than it being a chore they have to do at school. I’m honoured to be able to open that window for people.”

Sissay is in central Victoria to present his discussion Public Poet at the Bendigo Writers Festival.

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