Monday, April 22

Lemn Sissay – Poetry Club at the Coronet Theatre

In 2016, I shared a green room with Lemn Sissay. We were both guests on BBC 2’s Newsnight. I’d been roped in at the last minute to discuss ‘bisexual erasure’. Sissay was on the show to highlight National Poetry Day and to mark the occasion, he delivered a blistering and hypnotic performance of ‘Architecture’.

It’s a poem about awesome potential, chaos and evolution. Look it up YouTube. One minute and nineteen seconds that will leave you breathless. To be honest, I was more excited about being in a room with this exceptional poet, than being on live television or getting grilled by Evan Davis.

Lemn Sissay is a BAFTA-nominated, award-winning one-man dynamo. He’s written collections of poetry and plays, while his memoir My Name Is Why was a number one Sunday Times bestseller. His work is recited at weddings, adorns building the world over and is tattooed on the skin of bricklayers and housewives. As poets go, he enjoys an affection in the public’s heart that many a pop star would wish for.   

His latest collection, Let the Light Pour In is the distillation of a practice, where he’s written a short poem, every morning for the past ten years. These tight, pop-up elegies were then shared daily by Sissay on social media with an almost cavalier spirit. The ritual was an exercise in meditative discipline rather than perfection, though it’s fair to say that what Sissay might throw away would blow the minds of most of us.

Photo: X

When Sissay took to the stage with joyful brio, the lectern had other ideas. It slowly collapsed, repeatedly tipping his book, notes and mobile phone to the floor with clattering anarchy. He didn’t miss a beat, even miming an impression of the wayward stand and its apparent ambition to disrupt his show. Then his phone rang.

‘I’m currently on stage,’ he told the caller, before informing us that it was Benjamin Zephaniah’s wife. The audience gave the recently widowed caller a round of applause and Sissay held the phone out so she could hear the reception. It was a moment of random improvisation that was beautiful, poignant and funny. It was also a fitting, fleeting tribute to the ‘James Brown of dub poetry’.  

The poems in Let the Light Pour In are known as quatrains, a stanza of four lines with varying rhymes and rhythm. They can be found in writings from Ancient Greece to Persia and were favoured by Nostradamus as the medium to serve his ‘prophesies’ in the 16th century. In between reading these bursts of simple beauty, Sissay let his mind wander into topics such as fame, heartbreak, diversity quotas, growing up in care, literary gatekeeping and his work with Irish mother and baby homes. For those bereft and cruelly maligned women he shared this poem, addressed to the newborns who were taken from them- ‘Remember you were loved/I felt your spirit grow/I held on for the love of you/And then for love let go’.  

It’s a testament to Sissay’s command of the stage, performance chops and spontaneous humour that this show defied expectations of what a poetry reading might be. It was rock and roll, stand-up comedy, a cultural symposium and a spiritual balm for the soul. In the Q&A following the show, he was asked for the secret to his engaging confidence. Sissay deconstructed the art of presentation, admitting that the stage persona was one of many acts and discussed his need for love, a yearning that was honed and heightened while in foster care. Asked what’s next for Lemm Sissay, he replied with a cheeky grin, ‘The Elizabeth Line’.

Lemn Sissay gave a master class in entertainment and an eloquent passion for one’s craft. It was a much-needed tonic and a cheering buzz to behold.
Listings live appearances — Lemn Sissay

Reviewer: Stewart Who?

Reviewed: 23rd February 2024
North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.