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Lemn Sissay on Simple Things, Salander, Silence and Superheroes

You may have walked all over his words in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, where etched paving stones speak silently under noisy footsteps. Perhaps you’ve caught them flying with gulls across the angular ‘glass-skin’ faces of Margate’s Turner Gallery, or watched his letters raining down the walls of an unassuming urban caff. Or maybe, as you followed the 2012 Olympic flames en route to the games through the park, had your intrigue ignited, snatching a glimpse of ‘Spark Catchers’ – his landmark poem at the site, written in honour of the match girls whose industrial action 125 years ago still inspires workers, women, and millions of oppressed people around the world, to stand up for their rights.

If you’ve listened to Leftfield’s multi-award winning album, Leftism, you’ll know his 21st Century Poem which overlays their electronic riffs and ripples. He has presented a radio documentary about the life of Bob Marley and another on the legendary Gil Scott Heron,  and his own works and personal story have prompted orchestra concertos at the BBC, TED talks in the Houses of Parliament, and two documentaries about his life as a Child of The State.

Associate artist at the Southbank Centre, he is author of five poetry collections and an award winning play, ambassador for The Children’s Reading Fund, trustee of Forward Arts Foundation and World Book Night, and founder of Cultureword! His work with young people has changed the lives of thousands, guiding ‘Superheros’ out from dark corners and supporting care leavers across the UK. He was awarded an MBE for his impact on literature, and is an honorary doctor of letters at the University of Huddersfield, who run The Sissay Scholarship for care leavers.

Yes, it’s Lemn Sissay – Manchunian, Ethiopian, poet-of-the-people, whose words dance off the page to be shared by the masses: un-pretentious, accessible, potent, human. 

Run-Riot have had the pleasure of chatting with Lemn about some of his projects, including upcoming installation The Simple Things in Life: Salander, which will visit the Roundhouse at the end of this month forThe Last Word – London’s first ever spoken word festival.

Run-Riot: Your new installation, Salander, is a piece you’ve put together with poems written by young people in care or care leavers under the age of 25. It’s produced by Fuel as part of their ongoing project The Simple Things In Life, which has seen artists across the country build small worlds in sheds with a range of creative works. When commissioned to inhabit a Simple Things shed, did you know immediately that you wanted it to be a home for the voices of young people who are or were in care? 

LS: Thanks. It’s interesting that the question includes the word “home” when you asked did I want it to be “a home for the voices of young people in care”.  Because that’s how I see the arts – as home, as a place to track the entire journey of one persons life. 

And I guess yes I wanted to give home to those voices. I wanted to recognise the power of those voices as the home of the person.  We care leavers learn one thing in life and it is this – we are our homes.  

Some say they want to “give young people a voice”. I say young people have a voice. The question is do we listen.  The question is how do we listen. Listen to Salander. Salander is the loudest most tender place. Her tone is powerful and sure and hurt and healing.  Salander is about the performance of reading and the silence of listening. Yes I knew this was the place to hear them. Salander. 

Run-Riot: What has the response to your call out for poems been like and how have you chosen which to include?

LS: My selection criteria was a complex matrix, a web of naughts and crosses, a mathematical conundrum so that nobody could work out the entrance plan. But if I boil it down to a sentence it is this: Everyone that sent me a piece gets a piece into Salander. I also included some incredible work by young people in care from Ealing.

Run-Riot: The piece is named after ‘Lisbeth Salander’ from Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy – You’ve previously identified so many amazing characters from literature and film who were children in care. Is it Salander’s refusal to be victimised by the State’s failure towards her as a child needing protection that drove you to chose her name for this piece, or how did you decide on the title?

LS: Lisbeth Salander was a victim. Her aim was to identify the crime committed against her and the criminal and to use the skills she had to live. She did both. When she came to the State for care she wasn’t a child in need of protection she was a child in need of care like most children who enter the care system. That she was abused when in such need is a very sick situation that happens to many of us. Our need of care is the invitation for abuse. I am saying she was abused because she needed care – her abuser saw this “need” as an invite – happens all the time.

Run-Riot: As a care leaver yourself, you’ve spoken in the past about the powerful role poetry has played in enabling you to overcome the challenges you’ve faced. As writers,  poets, artists, we make sense of the world through the language of our craft, but what first enabled, encouraged or compelled you to release your words into the public arena?

LS: I knew I was a poet at a very young age. If poets read poems in public and publish books then that’s what I did because that’s what poets do and that’s what I am. I knew this at 12.  I was compelled to become what I always knew I was.

When you say “public arena” it assumes that I wasn’t always part of the public arena. My entire childhood is public record or public a arena if you like. They had a thing called a case conference on me every few months where notes were taken and fled away like Salander.  The institution was my parent for eighteen years.  I say this to let you know I was always in the public arena.

Run-Riot: Which poets have most influenced you and if you could collaborate with any artist, past or present, who would it be? 

LS: Collaborate with any artist?  Who knows. I’d like to get together with a pianist like Gil Scott Heron did with Brian Jackson.  I guess that would be cool. Yeah.  Actually I’d love to play with Brian Jackson. Now that would be a dream! Actually that maybe could even happen.  I know Brian, ish.  I could ask him. He’d say no. I guess he gets asked all the time. Poets who’ve influenced me? Ugh. None. I don’t even read poets. The living ones bore me and the dead ones… who wants to read a dead man… that’s just spooky.

Run-Riot: When did you start working as a poet with other care leavers and young people in care and was it something you wanted to do from a very young age or did that come later once you’d found your feet, voice, mother? 

LS: That’s a couple of questions so I’ll try to get through the . I work with care leavers because I can make a difference. I believe care leavers to be in a similar vein to super heroes: Superman was a foster child, Batman was orphaned Harry Potter was a foster child, James Bond was orphaned, Luke Skywalker was searching for his family, Lisbeth Salander was fostered adopted and institutionalised, Moses was adopted, Oliver twist…. Oh there’s millions… did I say Cinderella…. fostered.   See the point is that I am bored of the assumption that young people in care should be “given a voice” when in fact this undermines that they have the most beautiful voices. We are incredible people dealing with incredibly difficult situations on a daily basis for which we remain unrecognised until we do something wrong. It is the most singular reason to break the law and do something wrong – to be recognised. I am saying we are special and I am saying we have skills untapped and unseen that far surpass those others of a similar age. All I am doing is recognising that fact.

The reason I work with them now is because I am in a position to make a difference. I value myself enough to share that value. And I value them enough to share my valuable self with them. It works for me. I get offered a lot of work  with “young people” and like with this project I will say “young people in care” yes. I am teaching in organisations that want to work with young people to work with young people in care. I work with Care leavers. 

Run-Riot: Your play Something Dark, directed by National Theatre of Wales’ John McGrath, toured internationally a few years ago. In 2014, your stage adaptation of Refugee Boy – the novel by wonderful wor(l)d(l)y wizard Benjamin Zephaniah – will be touring Britain after its premier at West Yorkshire Playhouse earlier this year. Have you ever worked with unaccompanied minors who’ve arrived as refugees to this country and if so, have you found a language of humanity has helped cross other barriers – linguistic, legal, cultural?

LS: That’s a very specific question which I am afraid I’ll have to answer in the general.  The most people I don’t understand happen to speak my language. In other words I don’t have to speak your language to understand you. Work that one out. Smiley face. Refugee Boy is coming to Southbank Centre in February and touring the country in March 2014. 

Run-Riot: What would you write on a van to drive through Downing Street in response to the appalling anti-immigration vehicles used a few months ago? 

LS: On the van I’d write. “You are the legal parent of Young People in Care. You shall be judged above all on how you treat her.”

Run-Riot: At the Manchester Literature Festival last month, accompanied by Camerata's Principal Players who gave a beautiful rendition of Beethoven’s String Quartet op.13, you had the honour of responding to Dr Martin Luther King’s historic speech with a contemporary poetic reimagining for the future. How did that feel and in darker moments of the past, would you ever have believed it would be possible? 

LS: I have done bigger things. But I loved doing this. It was such a beautiful event. It was in The Great Hall of The Town Hall. It is somewhere I remember attending and reading at Free Nelson Mandela Benefits.  I love Manchester. I am so proud to hail from Manchester. I knew Tony Wilson. Noel Gallagher used to come to my gigs, Steve Coogan was often on…. Happy Days. Happy Mondays. 

Run-Riot: Your words are also touring the country right now as part of Now Is The Time... Let Freedom Ring! It sounds amazing – a thirteen piece band concert of music and poetry marking the 50th Anniversary of King's speech. Where can we still catch it? 

LS: Not sure. Keep your eye on the sky. Go to my website - all the gig details on there in the right hand column.

Run-Riot: One of the many projects you’re currently collaborating on – The Christmas Dinner – is an incredible venture bringing hundreds of care leavers across the UK together to share a festive feast. Will there be poetry on the menu as well as crackers, sprouts and spuds? And if you were writing a recipe for care leavers, what would you include – nothing’s off limits; a slice of sky, a sprinkle of spice, a dollop of courage, simple straight up words of advice? 

LS: There’ll be no poetry pie thank you very much. We’ve raised about £4,700 in the past ten days via Crowdfunder which is nice. One of the prizes (for donations of £1,000 or more) was that I write a poem for the person. Well someone only went and donated a grand so I’ve got a job to do there.  But no… let’s not do the ingredient poem thing. It’s been done.   The Christams Dinner is a logistical giant. We have to make sure everything is done properly and then its simple…. The care leavers have all the resources within them to have a good time.  On the day if we do our job everything will work out fine… quite emotional really… for me… first Christmas I’ve looked forward to in a long long while. I’m a care leaver too…

Run-Riot: Would you like to see The Christmas Dinner happening every year and how could that be made possible? Or is it more about making sure that no single person is left on their own at Christmas, and the State taking responsibility to ensure that? 

LS: This isn’t about making sure no single person is left alone at Christmas. This is making sure no care leaver is left alone at Christmas. More importantly I’m making  a non institutionalised piece of Christmas magic for someone who deserves it.  This thing is going to be all over the country. 

Run-Riot: Not everyone who wants to support the project has money but there are other ways to help too, right?

LS: Just go to the Crowdfunder website. We are not asking for just money. We want skills and to be honest most of all right now we want a CHEF – we have a catering team we just want a chef!!

Run-Riot: And last of all, if you could choose any poet from history to be granted ‘The Last Word’, who would it be?

LS: Only after one years sobriety I’d say “Gil what do you see?”

The Simple Things in Life: Salander
Created by Lemn Sissay
as part of The Last Word
at The Roundhouse
28 Nov 2013 - 1 Dec 2013
More info roundhouse.org.uk

Lemn Sissay

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