A Conversation With Lemn Sissay

The Portable Best Friend:
A Conversation with Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay OBE is a British poet, memoirist, and dramatist. At 18 he moved to Manchester to begin his career as a poet, eventually becoming one of the best-known voices in British poetry, with his work now on the national curriculum.

We met up with Lemn to talk about blurring the boundaries between artistic disciplines, the portability of poetry, and creating for yourself.

Interview by Nathan Sharp

I was excited to learn about the DIY way that you distributed your earliest poems, producing your own pamphlets, and even printing poems on gutter cleaning leaflets, is that right?

Ultimately, as a writer, yeah it is a case of DIY. Whatever happens with the poem, whether it’s on an album, in a play, or in a book, it’s you that has to create it. You can’t delegate that creative process, so it is, by nature, do-it-yourself. But as the years go on, you become more aware of the process of creation, so it’s less DIY and it’s more an artistic and creative process.

And what does your process look like?

That’s a really good question. Being alert to ideas that feel unique is as creative as actually writing them down. So, for example, my creative process could be being part of this photoshoot, and the relationship between light and the camera, and the subject. My creative process could be about being part of a major project with Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, or being artistic advisor of the Manchester International Festival, or creative director of the Brighton Festival. What I’m trying to say is, my creative process is 360 degrees, and it applies as much to this conversation as it does to writing a poem.

Does the instinct to write poetry come naturally to you, because in your late teens you just became a poet?

Yeah, it was very simple. I couldn’t resist it, because it was there. It wouldn’t allow me to ignore it. I’ve been a poet all my adult life, by profession, and you go through stages. The initial stage of the first 15, maybe even 20 years is just a splurge. But life happens, so unfortunately, I don’t let it dictate me as much I used to, which is okay, I’m okay with that. Poetry is like a best friend, it changes over the years and your relationship changes, but one thing remains the same, which is that you are best friends. So, you may even not talk to each other for a good while. This is all part of your relationship with your best friend, and it’s similar with poetry.

Can you write anywhere?

Oh yeah, yeah. Writing, for me, is the portable best friend. In fact, my life has been quite peripatetic in many ways. I travel a lot to do gigs and what have you, and I’ve lived in different places. Writing has always followed me, so I’ve been lucky in that way. I’ve been lucky to have been able to identify my talent, and to have pursued it, but I do believe that somebody could be talented at something and they don’t have to make a career of it. Live your life, do what you’re talented at in your own time, find a work-life balance with that. People often look at artists and think, ‘oh they’re so free,’ but actually the point is not that the artist is free, it is that art frees. And how you incorporate that in your life is what matters. So, you don’t have to be an artist to enjoy creativity, and creativity is not the monopoly of artists, it’s actually in everybody. I really don’t like the separation of creativity from people, giving it only to artists. It’s in everybody.

So, if you hadn’t found success as a writer, you’d still be writing today?

Yeah, absolutely. It means more to me than any accolade. That’s when you get to the good stuff, that’s where the gold is. Cos if you are purely dependant on market forces, then you may as well do something else, cos the power of what you’re doing is given to other people. Actually, the power of what you’re doing as a creative is in your relationship to it, and its relationship to you.

The beauty of poetry is that it works with music, it works in plays, it works in film, it works in art. Recently I curated an art exhibition with Hans Ulrich Obrist, who runs the Serpentine Gallery. Our exhibition was called Poet Slash Artist, and we looked for artists who were poets, and poets who were artists, all around the world. It went from Lubaina Himid, the Turner Prize-winning artist based in Preston, to Tracey Emin in Margate. Both use words and poetry in their art.

It's interesting that you say that, because a lot of people would see artists as being in a separate category. You obviously take more of a view of blurring the boundaries between painters, writers…

It was always that way, it’s the market which has said we’ll have our poets over here, and our artists over there, and actually what’s happening with the generation of artists now – the generation of people now – is the blurring of lines on all kinds of subjects which were dictated to as different. And this is a really exciting time, [because] if you do blur the lines, you edge more towards a human experience. The timelessness of art is reflected in the blurring of the lines between one genre and another genre of art. Poetry and art. Music and art. It’s all interlinked.

So, you don’t draw distinctions between the different areas you’ve worked in?

For lots of practical reasons, people have to draw distinctions, but actually for me as I grow, and as I’ve been an artist and writer for so many years, it starts to spill over. It’s kind of a beautiful constellation of stars within one great universe, which is of creativity.

Lemn Sissay is the author of several volumes of poetry, including Rebel Without Applause, and Listener, as well as plays, radio pieces, and children’s books. His 2019 memoir, My Name is Why, was a bestseller, and he is currently planning the follow up. He lives and works in north east London.

Lemn wears: Kennedy Jacket, Kennedy Overshirt, Kennedy Trouser and Classic T-Shirt Shop new season arrivals