Review of Lemn Sissay.
Marlborough Lit Fest 22.09.11
Lemn Sissay MBE, the first poet commissioned to write for the Olympics, launched his performance like the candidate at an American presidential primary: running at the mainly Marlborough College student audience, clasping hands and laughing when a girl went in for a kiss.
Lots of chat followed, before his first recitation: a play excerpt from Something Dark based on his own complex childhood.
Lots of false starts peppered the poems: rants and musings breaking into recitations, sometimes illuminating the rhyme, sometimes a distraction. Life and art should not be separate, he said, ‘you can be a lawyer and a poet.’
Like the play, his first few poems were autobiographical – the unfairness of childhood in Suitcases and Muddy Parks to the ‘subtlety’ of I Hate You, an ode to his bullying social worker: “I’ve been reading it for twenty years and will carry on ’til the day I die,” he said.
He was fostered when young, long-term separated from his mother by state subterfuge. He recently found the rest of his family: “While I was glue sniffing in a children’s home, my brothers and sisters went to schools like this [Marlborough College] and learned to ride horses and fly planes. I am the weird brother.”
In contrast, he read an exquisite love poem, and another: a rapid fire poetic list about stuff he liked, ripped jeans, cold tea, people who don’t say what they mean.
Apparently (it was joyfully hard to distinguish between fact and augmented memory) he had recited it on a restaurant table when a date asked him about himself. There was no second date.
At the start, I may have wondered what the privately educated audience made of Lemn, but by the end they were cheering, whooping and clapping – as was I.
Lemn’s style was not to everyone’s taste. Not everybody liked his rambling, his mime of zipping his mouth to stop the chat and carry on with the poetry, his slapstick approach. “I could have done with more standing at the front and reading a poem,” said my friend.
Non-converts not withstanding, Lemn gave us an excellent start to the Marlborough Lit Fest.