For the first ten minutes of Lemn Sissay’s appearance at the Jersey Festival of Words, the Festival’s committee may have panicked that they’d booked a stand-up comedian by mistake. Sissay’s exuberant stream-of-consciousness was very funny – particularly an extended riff on the voices in his head forming a choir, until further voices start arguing about the funding – but he seemed to be the one person in the Opera House who didn’t want him to read any of his poetry.
Finally, he told himself to shut up and launched into his widescreen poem Mourning Breaks. This is vibrant, gutsy stuff, boisterously performed. It’s accessible and thrilling, though Sissay has precisely crafted every word, such as his description of a storm: “Thickening ink spills and swills on a bleating paper sky.” That Sissay is simply in love with the idea of poetry was clear from the enthusiasm with which he presented the prizes to the winners of the Festival’s inaugural poetry competition.
Lemn Sissay is a poet who wants to be a playwright who wants to be a filmmaker who wants to be a comedian who wants to be a campaigner who wants to be a poet. First and last a poet, but he admitted that wearing all of those other hats had perhaps led him away from his true calling. Nevertheless, the central act of the night was all about the poems, and his reading of them. No, not reading – performance. He took six or seven goes to kickstart Fallen, until he was satisfied that the way he read “The bridge between girl and woman, / Between found and lost” had hooked us.
The last third of the night was dedicated to the story of his difficult childhood; if you are one of the four people who haven’t listened to his Desert Island Discs, do it now. He talked openly and movingly about his adolescence in children’s homes, and the fires lit decades ago fuel him still – only he now channels that energy into doing good for the young in today’s care system.
But even at his fiercest, the man maintains his wicked sense of humour. The glint in his eye could be seen from the back of the stalls. Whilst rejoicing that poetry has never been more popular, he wants to do all he can to promote good poetry – such as frequenting graveyards with a chisel to improve the sentimental doggerel on too many headstones.
Words: Andrew Davey
Pictures: Peter Mourant