Lemn Sissay arrives at the Shoreditch club, where we have arranged to meet, late, apologetic and exuberantly present, with a warmth that makes me feel, straight away – although I have not met him before – as if he were a friend. And, as we go up in the lift, I reflect that he has every reason to feel on a high. Gold from the Stone, a tremendous selection of his poetry “from age 16 to now” (he is 49) is about to be published. The night before our meeting, he was presenting a prom at the Albert Hall, in front of 6,000 people. Last year, he beat Peter Mandelson to be elected Chancellor of Manchester University. And this is a man who spent his teens in care – and left school at 15 with one GCSE and two CSEs. He has performed to FA Cup fans. He was poet of the 2012 Olympics. He has had his poems sculpted in granite and built on concrete. He has an MBE for services to literature. He has launched poetry projects for care-leavers. His gift as a writer – of plays, poetry, documentaries – is for turning life’s base metal into gold. The list goes on… but the lift’s doors are opening.
He chooses a quiet, empty corner that resembles a summer veranda. He has the most expressive face: animated eyes, a sunburst of a smile but it is his voice that stops me in my tracks. Its no-nonsense Lancastrian lilt has an emphasis that comes close to beseeching. And when he performs his poetry, it is this appeal that appeals. There is a sense of his needing to put a record straight through poetry, to make others see – or hear – as he does. As we sit and sip lemonade, I ask him about the poem with which his new book begins, Epigraph:
“How do you do it?” said night.
“How do you wake and shine?”
“I keep it simple,” said light.
“One day at a time.”
I love the way form and content are the same, I say, the simple lines rising above life. But why does he think living in the present necessary?
“I would die if I didn’t. I’ve spent my life searching for my family. Finding family was like finding a Tardis – I realised I could fall into it for ever, tumble into everyone else’s stories, fight their fires, justify their memories. For this is what family is: a group of disputed memories between a group of people over a lifetime.”
In 1966, 50 years ago, a young Ethiopian woman named Yemarshet (the name means Virgin Honey), came to England and discovered she was pregnant. She wanted to finish her studies before returning to Ethiopia and gave her baby up to be fostered, an arrangement she intended to be temporary. Norman Goldthorpe, a social worker with Wigan social services, nevertheless encouraged the Greenwoods, a childless, white Christian couple living in Lancashire, to treat the fostering as an adoption. The social worker also wished his own name on the baby: Lemn grew up as Norman Mark Greenwood. By the time he was 12, the couple had three children of their own and, one day, Mrs Greenwood sat him down to ask whether he loved his family. He said he did. She told him to pray and think again. Hoping to please, he then told them he didn’t love them. And that was their excuse: they sent him away to a children’s home, told him he would never see them again.
When Sissay talks about this decision, he explains his adolescent crimes in terms of biscuit theft. But surely there must have been more to it? “I smoked, stayed out late, probably lied – but most teenagers do that?” It is upsetting to witness the residue of self-doubt, as if he still fears censure. I keep seeing his vulnerability – unsurprisingly – over questions little and large. The new collection contains a poem, Suitcases and Muddy Parks, that dramatises a fault-finding mother (“There you go again” its refrain). Lemn was the black cuckoo in the family nest and puts the rejection in a racial context. “I was fostered in 1967, a few months before Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.” Taking on a black baby was, he believes, for his foster parents, an act of advanced Christian charity – he was their “cross to bear”. There was also a less personal explanation, his foster mother’s post-natal depression after her third child.
Sissay went to four children’s homes where, as the only black boy around, he acquired the nickname Chalky White. The last institution was Wood End Assessment Centre (currently being investigated for more than 40 complaints of physical and sexual abuse). “I was locked away with no hint of a charge,” he says. It was there he made his first black friend: Roukiya Osoye, part of a group who visited black people in care. “If you had a visitor, it could only be in the sports hall. Roukiya would bring me grapes. As soon as she’d gone, I’d be strip-searched.” Six months ago, Lemn got his files from Wigan social services. “I can barely look at them,” he says.
At 17, Lemn saw his birth certificate, discovered his real name and became a poet. And, in that same year, he read the letter his mother had written in 1968 to the social services, pleading for his return. “People thought I’d gone crazy. This was a working-class northern town and here was “Norman” [putting on extra-strength Lancastrian accent] becoming Lemn Sissay – a bloody African name. I went barefoot for a year to rebel. I walked round the housing estate – even in the snow.” “Lemn” means “why”? It is, he believes, his mother’s question to his father. He was 21 when he met her. His poem, Mother, expresses his uncertainty:
Mother, what will you say to me?
Mother, will you read my poetry?
Am I just what you want me to be?
Mother, will you see it through my eyes?
Yemarshet had fled Ethiopia in 1974 and was in the Gambia, working for the United Nations. There was little chance of her seeing anything through her son’s eyes. She had married a minister under the emperor Haile Selassie who was subsequently thrown into jail (he is free now). “She has had a lot of trauma in her life,” Sissay says. And he believes his father was part of that trauma. He cannot elaborate but is certain his resemblance to his father would have come as an unwelcome shock: “When she saw me, it was like the last time she saw him. He would have been 26 or 27.” Did she say you looked like your father? “God no, she never said any of this.”
For eight years, she would not reveal his father’s name. And what does his mother think of his career now? “I don’t know,” he says and his eyes shine with unshed tears. “In a few weeks, I’ll be performing in New York, at the Red Rooster restaurant, a few hundred yards from where my mum lives in Manhattan. I’d love her to come. She’s never seen me on stage. But it must be hard for her.”
He explains she would not, for years, admit the existence of her daughters, his sisters, educated at France’s answer to Eton, the Ecole des Roches, which offered “extra-curricular flying lessons”. It was Lemn who should have been flying, if only to better understand his father, who, he would eventually discover, had been a pilot for Ethiopian airlines and a social high-flier too. “He died in 1973. A lightning storm hit the wing of his plane in the Simien mountains as he was flying from Ethiopia to Eritrea.” Lemn never met him but has been to those mountains. He has seen the trees pushing up still visible fuselage and has written a poem, My Dad Is a Pilot, with a deceptive jauntiness:
He flew past the Simien mountains, past even the stars
He flew far my dad did. He flew far.
He flew past Ethiopia of night and of day.
He passed my past. He flew right past
And then he passed away.
It was, Lemn reflects, a rural end for an urban man: “My father wore Rolex watches and the best Italian suits. My grandfather was close to the emperor Haile Selassie. My aunties and uncles went to Berkeley and Harvard.”
While his relatives were fine-tuning their education, Lemn, who had already left school, was, at 17, launching his own business: “AZWAD GUTTER CLEANING SERVICE.” He handed out leaflets with red ink drawings of a roof gutter, a blackbird, a drain (left hand side) and a poem (in the middle). If you have one of these, it is a collector’s item. The poem ended: “I’ll soon be at your door.” When he showed up, people did not always require his services but loved the poem. Lancashire people have supported his poetry every inch of the way. He sold his first self-published book at 18 (he spent dole money on it) to miners, mill-workers, people on his housing estate. It was not until after his ladders had been stolen and he had moved to Manchester that, aged 20, he found a publisher.
Today, he lives in Dalston, east London. “I moved for love, not money,” he laughs and you can tell it is a line he has used before as he adds, subdued, that he is now separated. Once, he likened poetry to family – his way to make himself heard. He has no children – is that a regret?
“No – I mean… inshallah. I always said I wouldn’t have children unless I’d found my family. I was trying to protect a future child from my not having resolved my story.”
And is his story resolved?
He is not about to swank. Healing is slow. Therapy has been crucial. “There are people who have left me, who have told me: ‘Your story will kill you unless you find a greater story.’
“I’d go into meltdown in relationships,” he explains. “I couldn’t allow myself to be close to people or to my work. I’d be apologising or looking for rejection.” He has suffered self-pity and anger (“Some poems are like lions that roar out of you”). He hangs on to the belief that “creativity is the heart of what it is to be human”.
I’ve kept looking at the eye-catching cross that dangles round his neck and ask him about it. “I wear this all the time. I broke one but order them through a friend in Addis – they’re mass-produced. I wear this because I proudly know who I am.” Although not religious, he has, for the past five years, greeted every morning with a tweet, often rhyming on the second and fourth lines – not unlike a prayer. Meeting him today – this one-man dawn chorus – I feel protective, almost wish he would give less of himself away. He is one of the most unguarded people I have ever met – part of his charm. But then I read one of his recent tweets and it sees off misgivings: “The sun sweeps the path of night to keep it in the day ‘To keep what I have’ said light, ‘I have to give it away.’”
He tells me how, six years ago, his foster father died. His foster mother, he says, is still alive. “She comes to London because my uncle has a church near Buckingham Palace – bizarrely. I went and sat down with her in Westminster and told her I forgave her. And she said: ‘I can breathe again.’”
And for a moment, we are silent, just considering her words.