Lemn Sissay interviewed by Jessica Weisser

There is only one Lemn Sissay in the world. This one Lemn Sissay happens to be a remarkably talented writer who has been in the business for over 25 years; he’s an Olympic poet, and a playwright. He’s well renowned for his bold spoken-word performances and a wonderful personality – and the latter definitely showed when a few members of the Cuckoo team asked for a quick interview after his performance at Northern Stage on 7 June…

When did you start writing?
I’ve always known I was a writer. I started when I was in my mother’s womb, but I didn’t have a pen, so I had to ask for a pen… so I was basically in the back of the placenta, and then they projected the writing out of the womb through the stomach lining and then onto the wall. It was a really good art piece.

I mean, I was always a writer. I can’t remember when I started. I think all of the stars were aligned in a particular place. I mean, when do you start writing? Is it when you have your first ideas or when you start to express yourself in conversation? When do all of those things come together? If you were to ask me when I did my first poem I could say at school, when I was nine or eight, but if you ask me when I started writing, it’s much more complex. So I’m not sure exactly.

When did you incorporate performance into your poems?
I did my first performance on my last year at school when I was 14 or 15. I wrote a poem about our year… and it got edited by my head of year, who felt like I was saying things that I shouldn’t be saying, so that was the first [taste of] censorship. I was dissing a teacher – he was a bad teacher.

Where do you get the confidence to perform?
The confidence is in the poem. I don’t think I’m a confident performer. If I did not write poetry that I felt was something that I could stand by, then I could not read onstage. You should do a series of things that you’re going to perform. You should do breathing exercises before you come on stage. You should study your work and how you say it out loud, not in your head, out loud. Those things allow me confidence. And you go through stages of confidence. So after you’ve been doing it for years, you become at ease with yourself onstage. And so I think time and practice and preparation are everything the stage is about.

Is there anything you’ve experienced that has discouraged you from writing?
Yes. Other writers. Because the writing world is so up its own backside… it’s so boring. The journey of a writer is a very singular one. So you can be in groups but the journey is always your journey. People can criticise your poem but it’s your choice as to what you do with it. So I could have stopped writing because of the scene. But I believe that reflects on me. Because if I’m looking for affirmation from everybody else, then I’m losing who I am in my own writing. So it’s important to look for criticism, but ultimately you choose what criticism you will take. If you give all of the power of the poem away to everybody else, then you’ve lost what your responsibility is to the poem. So to cut a long story short: if ever I’ve wanted to leave writing, it’s been about my responsibility: regaining who I am as a writer.

What are your writing inspirations?
They could be anything… today I was doing an interview with the BBC and the weatherman said ‘bright spells’, ‘through the rain’, and ‘heavy rain’. And I thought, ‘when was there ever heavy rain?’ Unless it’s really depressed rain, or something. There’s something in that! And there’s also the idea of a ‘bright spell’. It’s beautiful when you take it out of the context of the weather. It made me rethink about the words I hear every day. And the reason I say this is because inspiration is around us all the time. You say, ‘what inspires me?’ I say ‘the weatherman’. Keeping [ourselves] alive with inspiration is our responsibility as human beings, never mind as writers. And you can see people who don’t. So I try to be inspired by all things.

Are you working on anything at the moment?
Yeah, I’ve just finished adapting Benjamin Zepheniah’s book, Refugee Boy, for stage, so I’m working on that. I’m about to do a television programme on Channel 4, which is very exciting. It’ll start filming in July.

What is your advice for young writers?
My advice for young writers is: read. Read other poets, classics as well as contemporary, write every day if you can. Inspiration is around you all the time. You don’t have to wait for it. You can write at any point. You can call inspiration. So write regularly, have your notepad, read classic and contemporary, go to workshops… and live! You can be a doctor and a writer or a lawyer and a writer. I mean, nobody says you couldn’t be those things! No one says you have to choose one or the other. Unless you have a real drive, like: ‘No, I want to be a writer and that’s it.’ That’s me; that’s fine. There are great writers who are doctors, great writers who are lawyers, teachers, et cetera, et cetera. You don’t have to choose between one or the other. So when you go on to be whatever you want to be, you can be a writer as well.