Dynamic British poet and playwright Lemn Sissay has many feathers in his cap; an author of five books of poetry spanning 25 years, Sissay recites on stages throughout the world. He is currently city-hopping in Pakistan, conducting workshops with university students and inspiring them with his wit and moving words.
Before leaving for Karachi, Sissay wrote in his blog “That I am invited is all the inspiration I need. It’s with great pleasure that I board the plane in a short while to travel to Karachi to create poems with students at Karachi University [KU] and in Islamabad via The British Council.”
“They always said I am over the edge; now I believe them!” said Sissay, as he introduced himself to the crowd that had gathered for an evening of performance poetry and conversation held at The Second Floor (T2F) on Saturday evening. Spontaneous, energetic and downright hilarious, Sissay held the crowd spellbound and captivated with his humourous remarks. “I’m not on drugs,” he exclaimed. “I can see you thinking ‘drugs or medicine’.” With gesticulations and tone variation, his poetry recital was enthralling and it seemed that he enjoyed frustrating his audience with continuous interruptions. Sissay admitted that he is quite aware of his habit and said if people were to watch his performance as a YouTube video, they would think he is a “mad man”. He added that he is not apologetic for his interruptions. “I like to get in the way of perceived opinion of what I am or should be doing,” he explained.
Hardly taking a moment to breathe, Sissay earned more than a few laughs when he mimicked the ‘voices in his head’. “I have a voice in my head saying ‘get off stage now!’; and another one saying to keep going on.” At one point, it was hard to tell if he was in conversation with himself or the audience, but it was evident that they loved every word.
Touching upon themes of racism and multi-culturalism, he related, “Someone once asked me ‘what does racism feel like’? So I slapped them to give an authentic experience,” said Sissay, as the crowd burst into laughter. “It probably was a bit extreme — I stood over them when they fell and asked ‘what is racism like?’ so they could articulate it for me and I could provide.”
Sissay was born in 1967 in England, which he described as “a small country with a big head.” He spoke about his experiences as a foster child. As a baby, he was adopted by an abusive white family, and was told that he was ‘evil’ because of the colour of his skin. Sissay lived with them till the age of 11 and then was moved to various children’s homes until he became an adult.
“Without a family, you have disputed memories and there is no point of reference,” shared Sissay. “It is that life-long yearning to have a family that you are fighting for and longing for.” He explained that people who have families will never realise how important those relations are, moving the audience when he said, “I was like that tree that fell in the forest, and nobody heard the sound of it.”
Sissay described how, in a troubled foster care, he felt alone and had nothing to do. That’s when the creative genius within him burned. “When you have nothing, you are left with creativity. Mind, brain and imagination are then fully available for everybody.” The poet said he writes based on his experiences, which is “where the element of success comes in.”
The poet continued to delight the audience as he explained how closely poetry is linked to our daily lives. “Poetry is central; not on the periphery,” Sissay said, further explaining that from the Holy Quran to condolence messages at funerals or even birthday greetings, we are all connected to poetic verses.
“One must feel what one reads and makes the other believe,” he said, as he explained his dramatic readings. “If there was ever one thing that stayed with me throughout — it has been my poems.” In a beautiful metaphor, Sissay described that a pen fertilises barren paper with its ink. “If you have problems and you are nervous to speak about them; let it flow as a poem,” said Sissay.
His first time in Pakistan
Although he travels the world, Sissay had never before visited Pakistan. “I met Ameena Saiyid of the Oxford University Press [OUP] at the Gaulle Literature Festival in Sri Lanka. She asked me if I would like to visit Pakistan and I was so eager to come, but sometimes things just don’t happen,” said Sissay. “That was my first direct contact with a Pakistani and I had hoped to visit.”
The British Council’s new Director of Sindh and Balochistan Barbara Wickman met him earlier this year in Ethiopia and asked him to fly down to conduct a workshop for KU students.
On Monday, Sissay flew to Islamabad for a workshop that was for the students at Fatima Jinnah University.
At his session at T2F in Karachi, he performed his poem Immigration RSVP, which mentioned Pakistan, so he exclaimed, “You’re in my poem! You’re in my poem!” He also recited a touching love poem, Invisible Kisses and another titled Black Is.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 11th, 2012.