Oration for Lemn Sissay on the occasion of the award of Honorary Doctor of Letters

Oration for Lemn Sissay on the occasion of the award of Honorary Doctorof Letters

17 November 2009:   Written and read by Professor Adele Jones

"Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, students, distinguished  guests,

Poet, playwright, author, T.V and radio presenter and, children’s rights activist, Lemn Sissay, spent his early childhood in a foster family believing he was Norman Mark Greenwood – named after the social worker who placed him there. Stripped of cultural and racial heritage, Lemn grew up in an alien environment and says his life often felt like an experiment. At the age of eleven Lemn was unexpectedly moved into a children’s home and lost the only family he had known. So began a journey - discovering his real name, searching for his parents and uncovering family truths. The truth is that Lemn Sissay is the son of Ethiopian parentage. Having placed him in care because she was having difficulties, Lemn’s mother spent years trying to get him back and writing letters that he only found out about much later. After searching allover the world and finding them, Lemn has said that he is now happy in theknowledge that he has a fully dysfunctional family, just like everyone else.

With an innate and bursting talent, Lemn Sissay has been writing poetry since the age of 12 – indeed, it has been said that he uses rhyme to find reason in the world.

Lemn Sissay is artist in residence at The South Bank Centre, in London. He has beenwriter in residence at The Cambridge Literature festival, The Belfast Literature Festival, University of Arizona, California State University and Contact Theatre, Manchester. He is also Patron of The Letterbox Club – an initiative to get books to children in the care of the social services. 

Lemn is the author of five poetry collections and his work has appeared in manyanthologies. He has also written four plays; the most recent of which, is set for an international tour in 2010 after its 2009 sell-out debut. In 2008, Lemn was commissioned by The City of London to create a work in commemoration of The Abolition of Slave Trade Act. The Gilt of Cain was inlaid into sculpture near Fenchurch Street Station and unveiled by Bishop Desmond Tutu.

The last few years have seen Lemn reading on stages in many countries and across continents:  He has performed poetry everywhere - from Ronnie Scots in London to The Gammage Theatre in Arizona; From Hamburg University in Germany to St Petersburg in Russia; from Wigan Town Hall to Yaunda, Cameroon; From Ruskin College to Kings Cambridge, from the University of Huddersfield to the University of Kwazulu Natal, in South Africa.

Lemn’s work has received numerous awards and applauds. The Independent on Sunday said of his work: 'His poems are the songs of the street, declamatory,imaginative, hard-hitting ...' which explains why his work has become public art, particularly in Manchester, the City that claims him as theirs, where his poems appear on the sides of buildings. His poetry fusions with jazz have earned him particular acclaim; notable among these was his performance with Jazz artists at the prison on Robben Island that held Nelson Mandela.

I first met Lemn when he was 17 years old – a young care leaver, living in a tinyflat in Wigan, so bereft of any sense of home, the emptiness was palpable. ThatLemn should become a poet would be unsurprising in Ethiopia – a country inwhich poetry is in everything. That he should become one of the most successfulcontemporary poets in the UK is remarkable however – the odds of a black boy in care achieving this are rather stacked against it. Despite his success and in fact, often because of it, Lemn has used poetry and drama to promote the fundamental rights of children in care; he has challenged racism and injustice and has highlighted the importance of family ties. Through workshops, conference performances and conversations, he has shown young people that he understands their need for belonging and most of all by helping them to express themselves, he has inspired self-belief. As one young woman of 16 said – “he has made poets of us all”. The most recent book in which Lemn appears is produced by the University of Huddersfield –containing some stunning poetry written by looked after young people from WestYorkshire, with whom Lemn worked, the book is launched today.

Lemn has been quoted as saying that if he has one wish it is that every child shouldbe cared for – perhaps even, to experience the kind of nurturing expressed inthese verses from one of his most famous poems:


If there was ever oneWhom when you were sleepingWould wipe your tearsWhen in dreams you were weeping;Who would offer you timeWhen others demand;Whose love lay more infiniteThan grains of sand.If there was ever oneWho when you achieveWas there before the dreamAnd even then believed;Who would clear the airWhen it's full of loss;Who would count loveBefore the cost.If there was ever oneWho can offer you this and more;Who in keyless roomsCan open doors;Who in open doorsCan see open fieldsAnd in open fieldsSee harvests yield.Then see only my faceIn the reflection of these tidesThrough the clear waterBeyond the river side.All I can send is loveIn all that this isA poem and a necklaceOf invisible kisses.


Chancellor, I am delighted to present to you Lemn Sissay, for the award of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa."