Call it a privilege, or a challenge, or an hour in the magnetic presence of a poetic force. Lemn Sissay’s capacity crowd at the Edinburgh International Book Festival saw an hour of captivating warmth, where the cost of a ticket was all it took to get an insight into a whole world view. Those familiar with Sissay’s work and his life – listeners to Desert Island Discs, et al – will know of the stories he told on Sunday night. What can never be predicted is the context in which they will be examined, on stage. Where elements of Sissay’s past evoke reactions from his audience, he seeks to confront them: why do we anticipate that residents of children’s care homes will behave and act in a particular way, when their actions are so rarely responsible for them being there in the first place?
To the poetry, where it became apparent that Sissay’s relationships with his poems are such that we are perhaps just lucky to be welcomed in to share the experience. To witness a performance (this was no staid recital) is to get his voice stuck inside your head, such that it can return to haunt you should you see his words on the page. The changes in speed, the rhythm and the conflict between lines, the use of humour to deflect, and the crafted phrase that shapes the poignancy of the message. The pages of Sissay’s book are fizzing with energy, to be handled carefully.
This is what a festival can do. Perhaps this is what it must do. When the poet describes the minutiae of their upbringing, and an audience member knows of the people and the buildings being described, we are all taken there. The poet was never aloof or distant, yet through this connection they are now one of us – or we are one of them.
Lemn Sissay at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was a rare treat. Special thanks to the Scottish Poetry Library, and their Director Asif Kahn who hosted chair the event.