Lemn Sissay: Calm Before the Storm

Tasked with writing a poem to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech, Lemn Sissay reflects on his own relationship to home, history and the power of delivery

Feature by Kristian Doyle | 04 Oct 2013

Imagine being commissioned to write and perform a poem to commemorate Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech – surely one of the most poetic utterances in human history. "It's like being asked to do a painting of the Mona Lisa," laughs Lemn Sissay. "Well, we've got the Mona Lisa!"

This year marks the 50th anniversary of King's momentous speech, which was delivered from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to a crowd of over 250,000 people (and to many thousands more around the world). It came to be seen as the tipping point of the African-American civil rights movement, and therefore nothing less than a pivotal moment in the development of Western civilisation.

With his upcoming performance at Manchester Literature Festival, Sissay aims to pay homage to this world-shaking event by creating what he calls an "equivalent I Have a Dream speech for the Northwest" – though he quickly adds, "That's a very dangerous thing to say, because really I don't think you can."

It makes sense, though, for Sissay to attempt such a bold feat. For one thing, he is, at a time when much poetry is knotty and self-referential and academic (poetry by poets for poets), a firm believer in poetry as an art form for the masses – he wasn't made official poet of the 2012 London Olympics for nothing. And, like King, he knows that the delivery of his words can sometimes be just as important as the words themselves. He therefore takes pains to ensure that his poetry lives a life beyond the page: whether it's spoken aloud in his frequent live readings around the world, or written on the streets and walls of Manchester in what he proudly refers to as "my tattoos on the city." (They're all over the place: Tib Street, Hardy's Well pub, Shudehill Station and Piccadilly Station, to name just a few.)

With his forthcoming work, Sissay hopes to create "a piece of writing which will be around for some time... An utterly universal poem" that echoes King's grand, humanistic themes but in a contemporary context. At the same time, the city that Sissay considers his spiritual home will have a part to play: "Manchester was, and is, everything to me," he says passionately. "It's done so much for me, and I feel so much a part of it. With this poem I want to give back to Manchester my best, my absolute best."

Although Sissay was raised in Lancashire, he decided, around age 15, to run away and forge a new beginning after a life spent in care homes and foster care. "I actually walked up the A580 into Manchester," he says. "I ended up sleeping in Moss Side for a night, near a club called The Reno. And then I don't know what I did. I think I just came back again the next day." He would remain in the city for the next 20 years. "Isn't it beautiful?" he says, reflecting on this. "I ran away to Manchester. I had a dream as well. Manchester was my dream."

"You have to dream the impossible to make the impossible happen" – Lemn Sissay

When it comes to King's speech, it's precisely this notion of 'the dream' that matters most for Sissay. "For me, the idea of the dream is incredibly important," he says. "Great things are not built without the dream first – you have to dream the impossible to make the impossible happen. That's on a personal level and a political level. And I'm not saying that we live in our dreams, because the two things are important: the dream, and the action. And that's precisely what is exemplified in this speech."

And why now? What makes the 50th anniversary so special? "There is something about this 50th anniversary," he says, "which has raised Martin Luther King, which has raised the speech, and which has resonated with this time that we're in at the moment. King was against the Vietnam War – we're right at the edge of war with Syria." He adds, parenthetically: "Immediate contradiction as to Cameron and everybody celebrating the speech, while at the same time they want to go to war, you know?"

There's also the issue of the ailing economy. A large part of the March on Washington "was for the workers," Sissay points out. "And we are right now at a time when, because of industry change, much of our workforce is under a lot of pressure. Really," he says, "I think there couldn't be a better time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the most momentous speech of the 1960s, and even of the 20th century."

It's only after being prompted that Sissay talks about race – for him, the speech encompasses far more than this issue alone. "King's speech brings back to me the real fact that the subject of race is a great metaphor, or a great conduit, for an understanding of humanity," he says, after a moment of deliberation. "In other words, how somebody sees the subject of race will tell you how they see humanity.

"If you understand the subject of race as a humanitarian subject," he continues, "then you get to be able to empathise with and work with the racists – to get them through it." To them, you have to say: "'We've got to work on this, because if you want to have a better life, you're going to have to come down this road eventually.'

"People say, 'Oh I wouldn't let my daughter marry, or go out with, or blah blah.' God that's such a big deal, because what you're saying to your daughter is, 'The world is your oyster,' and then you're saying, 'No it's not... You cannot engage. You cannot enter any part of the world where you cannot predict the outcome.' And therefore she can't leave the front door. Ultimately the racist is locked into themselves, you know?

"Racism is one of the most universal learned behaviours," he surmises. "I don't think we're born with a racist gene. Across the world, wars happen, genocides happen, all because of racism, ignorance and fear... If we're driven by fear, we don't grow as a society. This is why artists are really important, this is why Banksy is really important, this is why Linton Kwesi Johnson is important, this is why Martin Luther King is important... We need the fearless."

In King's speech, the crowd is moved by his fearlessness, Sissay says – and they are fully aware of "the passion of the speaker and the fact that the speaker is personally involved in what it is that he's speaking about." King goes "beyond being angry, into this incredible calm in the middle of the storm. And if a storm rages around you, you cling to truth, and slowly the calm happens – and you can see the houses being whipped up by racism and spun around, you can see the burning crosses and the children and the deaths and the murders and the hangings spinning around you, but in that truth, in that speech, on that podium, with those thousands and thousands of people, he was in the calm, in the eye of the storm...

"It makes you think," he pauses. "How many times in history do we get to see a person truly in the eye of the storm?" 

I Have a Dream: Lemn Sissay & Manchester Camerata, Manchester Town Hall, 19 Oct, 7.30pm, £10 (£6)

Following Lemn's reading, Manchester Camerata's principal players will perform Beethoven’s String Quartet Op 130