Thursday, February 08, 2007

An evening with Lemn Sissay

Midway through his reading, Lemn Sissay stops for a sip of water. “I’m all to pieces today” he says. If he is, it doesn’t affect his performance one whit.
It is dusk. We’re in the open air amphitheatre at Saptaparni, and the lights have just been turned on. The six steps in a half-circle are all full. I’m amazed at this turn out for a poetry session. In Hyderabad, it needs a celebrity, or the sop of some other event (like the opening of an art exhibition) to induce people to come and listen to poetry.
Maybe Lemn’s reputation precedes him, but it is unclear how. Yes, his poetry adorns the buildings of Manchester and the subways in London and people read out 'Invisible Kisses' to each other as a marriage vow; but how would Hyderabad know?

Whatever the reason, the amphitheatre is full and people are waiting. Lemn bounds in, stands on stage for a minute while he is being introduced, but quickly walks off and sits among the audience.
“Can I go out and come back on as if I’ve just arrived?” he asks the audience. The audience, willing to be entertained, as they’re sure they’re going to be, say yes.

Lemn starts and in less than a minute I can see the audience is rapt. Sometimes he reads his poems, but most often, he speaks them. Actually, that’s a pale word; when Lemn recites his poetry, the words leap out with energy and grace as Lemn’s voice moves along an astonishing vocal scale. I can see some people in the audience tapping their feet. Zadie Smith said of Eminem once, that he ‘can rhyme 14 syllables a line’; Lemn can go for pages with a clear, strong beat sounding through the sense of the words, making your heart beat ever so slightly faster.

When he reads ‘Invisible Kisses’, he says, “When I go to conferences where I am to represent the ethnic minority, I always read a love poem. I want the right to read love poetry.” A little later, he says, “I am a black man. But when I say this, people either say they’re colour blind, or they say, ‘no, no, no! You’re a human being.” One lady in the audience suggests that he is being over-sensitive. Lemn says in reply that people should be able to define themselves in any way they like; that to say one is a woman or black does not make them less of a human being.

Lemn goes on with the reading, but perhaps he is right and he is a little to pieces. All his books have sold out in Bangalore. There were no books on sale in Delhi, and there are none here. All he has is a sheaf of printouts of his poems, and one set of books borrowed from the local British Library. Ten minutes into the reading, the sheaf of papers are scattered over the floor. Some poems lie precariously on the edge of the table that’s been provided to house a bottle of water and his bouquet of flowers. When Lemn wants to read another poem, he bends and rummages amongst the poems at his feet. A breeze blows and I’m more concerned that the poems might take flight and we’d all have to give chase.

He demands our participation, but we’re not required to pick up pieces of paper after all. ‘Black is’ is a list poem. Lemn asks us to shout ‘Black is’ while he completes the sentence. A little shy at first, but more vocal as the poem begins, we yell with enthusiasm: ‘Black is…’

How can I explain in what way this makes a difference? It does. When we start his sentences for him, the words send a frisson down our spines as if we had written those words for him. So this is performance poetry.

But Lemn claims that what he does is not performance poetry. There’s no such thing as performance poetry, he says. “When you read, you are what you were when you wrote it.” In India, perhaps those writing poetry in other languages than English know this. But I’d only ever been to readings where poets (writing in English, I hasten to add) either read out their poems from the page in a flat, uninflected voice, or let each word drop deliberately into the silence with the clarity of a stone falling into a pond.

Almost and hour and a quarter later, we come to the end of the reading. Lemn gives away the poems he’s been reading from the printouts and signs them for us. Lakshmi from Akshara says she’s ordered Lemn Sissay’s books. But that’s a wait of at least a few months. It appears that someone cannot wait; when there are five people left around him, Lemn discovers that some lady has walked off with his book, Rebel Without Applause.

Lemn reads for school children on the 8th at 10am at the Grand Kakatiya Sheraton in Begumpet.

And here is a poem he did not read but which he gave to me – ‘Colour Blind’:

If you can see the sepia in the sun
Shades of grey in fading streets
The radiating bloodshot in a child’s eye
The dark stains in her sheets
If you can see oil separate on water
The turquoise of leaves on trees
The reddened flush of your lover’s cheeks
The violet peace of calmed seas

If you can see the bluest eye
The purple in the petals of the rose
The blue anger, the venom, of the volcano
The creeping orange of the lava flows
If you can see the red dust of the famished road
The white air tight strike of Nike’s sign
If you can see the skin tone of a Lucien Freud
The colours of his frozen subject in mime

If you can see the white mist of the oasis
The red, white and blue that you defended
If you can see it all through the blackest pupil
The colours stretching, the rainbow suspended
If you can see the breached blue of the evening
And the caramel curls in the swirls of your tea
Why is it you say you are colour blind
When you see me?

Here is Len Sissay’s website (his blog’s on my blogroll) and here is an interview with the BBC where he talks about his childhood.


swar said...

when in bangalore, he read out 'the queen's speech'. did he do that there? it was...indescribable. yes, we bangalore people snapped up every single book he had that janaka of BC had to rummage through his bag to see if there was anything hiding between his sheaves of papers...i bought all the three books he brought with him. is benjamin zephaniah also coming to hyderabad? DO NOT MISS HIM. i watched (heard, listened, cried) his performance long time ago...i think '99 when i was in my 2nd year of college in dilli.

Space Bar said...

Swar: Culprit!!! :D

No, he didn't read out all of Queen's Speech; he read out the beginning and the Rabbi's speech towards the end. He was awesome. I'd have to do a post twice the length of this one to do justice to the whole evning.

Will not miss Zephaniah, but doubt he will come to Hyd. We're usually not on the map for these events. Got lucky with Lemn.

the still dancer said...

Ah, swar has beaten me to it, I see. And I think you will get aoife and ben - they're touring around the country. He read 'colour blind' here.
and you know, this might sound like ranting, but while I loved his performance, and aoife's after it, it felt so frustrating that no one, absolutely no one here (at least in this city) is ready to give you a platform for spoken word. heck, no one even knows what the term means. the BC is only interested in importing, and the ranga shankaras of the world are only too ready to lay out the red carpet - as long as it's a firang name. ah well...
oh, and my blog no longer exists, so please delete the link from your blogroll.

Space Bar said...

TSD: what happened? why'd you delete your blog?!

and no idea if these guys will come. we lucked out with lemn because a poet here knew him personally so she moved several heavens to bring hyd on his tour.

Mamta said...

Hey frenz! I feel so nice to read these comments about Lemn's performance in Hyderabad and Bangalore!! I am Lemn's friend who brought him to Hy'bad and also the one he was refering to as Mamta during his Rangashankara performance. well, I have a few pics while he was here in Hy'bad and B'lore.If any one wants to have a look, please mail me and I can send the link. You can reach me on