My Cultural Life: Lemn Sissay

The poet, author and playwright shares the books, movies and cultural institutions that have shaped his life

lemn sissay
Hamish Brown

British-Ethiopian poet, author and playwright Lemn Sissay shone a spotlight on the experiences of children in care with his startling memoir My Name is Why. He was the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics, a judge for the 2020 Booker Prize, and is the current chancellor of the University of Manchester. The author of the new children’s book Don’t Ask the Dragon and editor of freshly updated Black-British poetry collection The Fire People (both Canongate), he was awarded an OBE for services to literature and charity last year.

For me, the epitome of music is The Island by Paul Brady. I came across it some years ago on a trip to Northern Ireland. I love the music of Ireland – I recently saw Imelda May, who blew me into a thousand shards of glass and put me back together again.

My all-time favourite film is La Cité des Enfants Perdus or The City of Lost Children. It’s a French film about childhood uncoupled from family, shot with beauty and imagination. It also addresses how institutions lose their understanding of children under a desperate need to control and harness them.

the artists way julia cameron
Profile Books

The book that made a real impact on me is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. My friend [actress and comedian] Sophie Willan recommended it to me years ago, and I still have it on my desk. It enables anyone to tap into their creative self regardless of themselves – we often get in our own way when trying to achieve. Want to write that novel? That play? This is the book.

My must-catch show is Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical. It’s in the West End, but I hope it tours. I didn’t get a chance to see Bob Marley live, so this was like going to one of his concerts. I loved every single minute of it.

get up stand up musical
REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

The museum that inspires me the most is The Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury. It’s a gem. It was essentially the first children’s home in Britain, and was supported by artists like William Hogarth, who donated paintings. It works with artists to help children in care and care leavers. One of my poems from 2014, Superman was a Foundling, is still on the walls.

the foundling museum london
GG Archard

My favourite gallery is Addis Fine Art. It’s new in London but has been in Addis Ababa and Dubai for a while. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing it grow into an international gallery of standing.

addis fine art gallery
Addis Fine Art and Lucy Emms

I have a collection of Christian Orthodox Meskel crosses from Ethiopia. I’ve always got one on me, and any Ethiopian will spot it a mile away. It reminds me that there’s a higher power, and that I’m not the centre of the world!

My latest discovery is the artist Anna Chojnicka, who creates art on a banana every day and posts it online. She intricately bruises the fruit to evoke shades of light, making astonishing images. My favourite designer is Morag Myerscough. She gets to the heart of things.

morag myerscough
SOPA Images

The cultural arrival I’m most looking forward to? Factory in Manchester – an arts centre and performance space that will be as large as London’s Southbank Centre when it opens next spring.

I’ve stayed in some of the most beautiful places in the world, but what I’d really like would be a week in a cottage in the Scottish Highlands. By the coast, with some heather, hills, wild horses... I’m going to make it happen.

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