Oration for Lemn Sissay on the occasion of the award of Honorary Doctor
17 November 2009: Written and read by Professor Adele Jones
“Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, students, distinguished guests,
Poet, playwright, author, T.V and radio presenter and, children’s rights activist, Lemn Sissay, spent his early childhood in a foster family believing he was Norman Mark Greenwood – named after the social worker who placed him there. Stripped of cultural and racial heritage, Lemn grew up in an alien environment and says his life often felt like an experiment. At the age of eleven Lemn was unexpectedly moved into a children’s home and lost the only family he had known. So began a journey – discovering his real name, searching for his parents and uncovering family truths. The truth is that Lemn Sissay is the son of Ethiopian parentage. Having placed him in care because she was having difficulties, Lemn’s mother spent years trying to get him back and writing letters that he only found out about much later. After searching all
over the world and finding them, Lemn has said that he is now happy in the
knowledge that he has a fully dysfunctional family, just like everyone else.
With an innate and bursting talent, Lemn Sissay has been writing poetry since the age of 12 – indeed, it has been said that he uses rhyme to find reason in the world.
Lemn Sissay is artist in residence at The South Bank Centre, in London. He has been
writer in residence at The Cambridge Literature festival, The Belfast Literature Festival, University of Arizona, California State University and Contact Theatre, Manchester. He is also Patron of The Letterbox Club – an initiative to get books to children in the care of the social services.
Lemn is the author of five poetry collections and his work has appeared in many
anthologies. He has also written four plays; the most recent of which, is set for an international tour in 2010 after its 2009 sell-out debut. In 2008, Lemn was commissioned by The City of London to create a work in commemoration of The Abolition of Slave Trade Act. The Gilt of Cain was inlaid into sculpture near Fenchurch Street Station and unveiled by Bishop Desmond Tutu.
The last few years have seen Lemn reading on stages in many countries and across continents: He has performed poetry everywhere – from Ronnie Scots in London to The Gammage Theatre in Arizona; From Hamburg University in Germany to St Petersburg in Russia; from Wigan Town Hall to Yaunda, Cameroon; From Ruskin College to Kings Cambridge, from the University of Huddersfield to the University of Kwazulu Natal, in South Africa.
Lemn’s work has received numerous awards and applauds. The Independent on Sunday said of his work: ‘His poems are the songs of the street, declamatory,
imaginative, hard-hitting …’ which explains why his work has become public art, particularly in Manchester, the City that claims him as theirs, where his poems appear on the sides of buildings. His poetry fusions with jazz have earned him particular acclaim; notable among these was his performance with Jazz artists at the prison on Robben Island that held Nelson Mandela.
I first met Lemn when he was 17 years old – a young care leaver, living in a tiny
flat in Wigan, so bereft of any sense of home, the emptiness was palpable. That
Lemn should become a poet would be unsurprising in Ethiopia – a country in
which poetry is in everything. That he should become one of the most successful
contemporary poets in the UK is remarkable however – the odds of a black boy in care achieving this are rather stacked against it. Despite his success and in fact, often because of it, Lemn has used poetry and drama to promote the fundamental rights of children in care; he has challenged racism and injustice and has highlighted the importance of family ties. Through workshops, conference performances and conversations, he has shown young people that he understands their need for belonging and most of all by helping them to express themselves, he has inspired self-belief. As one young woman of 16 said – “he has made poets of us all”. The most recent book in which Lemn appears is produced by the University of Huddersfield –
containing some stunning poetry written by looked after young people from West
Yorkshire, with whom Lemn worked, the book is launched today.
Lemn has been quoted as saying that if he has one wish it is that every child should
be cared for – perhaps even, to experience the kind of nurturing expressed in
these verses from one of his most famous poems:
INVISIBLE KISSES -by Lemn Sissay
If there was ever one
Whom when you were sleeping
Would wipe your tears
When in dreams you were weeping;
Who would offer you time
When others demand;
Whose love lay more infinite
Than grains of sand.
If there was ever one
Who when you achieve
Was there before the dream
And even then believed;
Who would clear the air
When it’s full of loss;
Who would count love
Before the cost.
If there was ever one
Who can offer you this and more;
Who in keyless rooms
Can open doors;
Who in open doors
Can see open fields
And in open fields
See harvests yield.
Then see only my face
In the reflection of these tides
Through the clear water
Beyond the river side.
All I can send is love
In all that this is
A poem and a necklace
Of invisible kisses.
Chancellor, I am delighted to present to you Lemn Sissay, for the award of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.”