I’ve seen Lemn Sissay perform in the past, and not felt as touched by it as I’d wanted to be. But last night in the Blue Room, I was convinced: by his passion, his words, his voice.
I am fascinated by the idea of residencies. Having just done a very short residency myself on the Greenwich Peninsula (www.almostanisland.blogspot.com), I have experienced the strong relationship you can very quickly develop with the place that hosts you. Lemn described his brief as ‘to inspire and to be inspired’, all that within the context (and what a rich context) of the Southbank Centre. The strength of his relationship with the place and the people within it really came across. ‘The place has to give as much to me as I give to it,’ he said, and described some of the experiences and opportunities the residency has given him.
I have just finished working with the artist Neville Gabie and arts commissioners InSite Arts on a project in central Bristol, where Neville and 6 other artists were given very open briefs to respond to the creation of a new shopping centre. If you’re interested you can find out more at www.bs1.org.uk. Neville and I commissioned the novelist Donna Daley-Clarke to respond to the site. The experience taught me the importance and the joy of giving artists open briefs: of creating a space for them to explore and take risks, of believing that something will happen, and resisting the tendency in this project-funded world of defining all the outcomes from the outset – which I believe shuts down rather than opens up the potential of a project. Lemn echoed this when he spoke about the freedom built into his residency at the Southbank.
I’ve not got the time to write as much as I’d like to about this, but one other thing that struck me last night was Lemn’s genuine and passionate relationship to his own work. ‘Your poems can spook you,’ he said. Starting off reading one poem, he stopped, ‘If you’re not feeling it, don’t read it,’ he said. I enjoyed his honesty about this relationship, how he talked about poems being your friends, having their own personalities and power but still strongly connected with the writer who made them.