This is the most extraorinary interview on the subject of love I have ever been a part of. It’s from a winning project called Conversations On Love spearheaded by the beautiful mind of Natasha Lunn. Natasha has given me permission to share an excerpt of our interview. I urge yo to subscribe to her extraordinary newsletter to read the full piece..
“When Lemn Sissay wrote the poem Invisible Kisses, it was originally about a broken heart (his) and a betrayal (of his then-girlfriend who broke off their engagement in his early twenties). Only years later did he realise that the words he’d written had come to mean something different to him – it became a love poem, not about romantic love, but about familial love.
In so many of Lemn’s poems the greatest stories of love and heartbreak are rooted in family and how that primary love – or a lack of it – can break or shape us. Family is also something he had to grow up without; Lemn spent his teen years in care homes, after his foster parents cast him out without explanation and returned him to social services when he was 12 years old. After winning redress from Wigan council for his mistreatment as a child, more recently he has been reading his social services files in order to piece together his life story for a memoir, My Name is Why, out later this year. (I would recommend reading more about his story here.)
We use so many words and so much headspace obsessing over romantic love, so this week I wanted to ask Lemn how the absence of familial love has changed his understanding of love in general. Our conversation reminded me of something upcoming COL guest Sharon Salzberg once wrote: ‘To say I am grateful for the things I went through in childhood is a bridge too far for me. But I know those experiences are what allow me to connect to people, heart to heart.’ I hope you enjoy it.
Photo credit: Hamish Brown
NL: A lot of writers I’ve interviewed have talked about writing as an act of love – a way of being seen and of forming connection. In that way, do you see writing poetry as an act of love?
LS: Poetry is an act of love, but I wouldn’t depend on it to love me back and therefore it has a limit. For me, the ultimate act of love…it’s that Nat King Cole line: ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn / Is just to love and be loved in return.’ I think that’s some of the artist’s predicament actually; you can engage so much with the emotional landscape, but it can’t give love back to you.
NL: But you have said that at one point poetry was your closest friend?
LS: Poetry has been my closest friend and my family. It holds me in mind, it is a flag in mountainside of my journey and it’s something that I’m relative to. I can look back at poems I wrote when I was 18 and they will tell me where I was, what I was feeling, what I was going through and who I was. In lieu of family that’s as close to a loving gesture as I can get, because I think being held in mind is a strong part of what love is.
NL: I’ve been thinking about when you said ‘anger was an expression in the search of love.’ What did you mean by that?
LS: I was talking about when I was in care. For me the act of anger is – and was – an expression in the desperate search for love. I think I was trying to have compassion for my own anger. I’m not excusing some of the behaviours that happen because of anger, in fact I’m not excusing anger at all, but I was always told that it was wrong to be angry, when actually that’s not true. Anger is an expression in the search for love and I think most people who are angry can’t grasp an idea of love for themselves, never mind for the person they’re angry with. Or perhaps the person they’re angry with is stopping them from being able to love themselves and the world around them……..