This month Joseph Coelho shares Lemn Sissay's poetry collection Rebel Without Applause

'Inspire and be Inspired' – Lemn Sissay is a writer who inspired and continues to inspire me.

My journey to children’s author has been a circuitous one via theatre (as general dogsbody), poetry (as London circuit performer), playwright (via stints on Soho and Royal Court writing groups), education (as creative practitioner) and theatre again (this time as performer/writer/producer). After finishing a degree in archaeology, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, to be honest I was far too concerned with finding somewhere to live and making enough money to pay off the mountains of university debt (I wasn’t even counting the student loan) to have space to think about long-term career goals. But I knew I enjoyed theatre and writing poetry, so when I came across the Battersea Arts Centre Youth Theatre, it felt like a hobby I could easily slip into.

I was a regular attendee at BAC during an exciting time, and got to work with some great theatre companies including Gecko, Frantic Assembly and Blind Summit, and it was here that I found a poetry community.

Apples and Snakes is a brilliant performance poetry organisation that runs events and puts poets into schools and is a hub for a creative community of poets. Through courses with Apples and Snakes, I got to work with incredible poets, like Francesca Beard, Jacob Sam-La Rose and Aoife Mannix, and was forever impressed and awed by the shows that these poets would create and tour. It was at BAC that I first came across the work of Lemn Sissay. He was performing his one man show ‘Something Dark’ – I saw it and it hit me like a tonne of bricks. It was raw, emotive, lyrical story-telling at its best. It was about this time that I was going from one theatre contract to the next following my joy. I ended up being the lead in a performance of 6 degrees of Separation with SEDOS (The Stock Exchange Dramatic and Operatic Society… Honestly!) that was touring to the Edinburgh Fringe. Whilst there, I saw that Lemn’s show was on tour again so I convinced the cast and crew to come see it with me and they, like me, were blown away too. And a seed was sown in me to create my own work, to write the roles I wanted to perform, to create the stories I wanted to see and more than that, in seeing what this incredible black male poet was doing, a space for what was possible was opened up in me.

Over the years I would see Lemn’s work pop up with increasing frequency – his poetry collection Rebel Without Applause became a firm favourite of mine, with his poem 'Boiling Up' being particularly resonant with me…


Can you grate me into this city?

I would like to blend in.

If cheese and tomatoes can do it, so can I.


Whilst his writing and style of performance has always stayed with me, what has also impacted me greatly is his work ethic, through Lemn’s morning poems on social media and commissions of work for The Olympic Park and the interior of Storyhouse in Chester, I got a glimpse of the heights that poetry can reach, how poetry can literally paper a city and leave an impression in stone.


After seven years of trying to break into the London adult playwriting scene with little success (though to be fair I did get on to a few award longlists/commendations #HUMBLEBRAG), I found myself getting increasingly frustrated with the industry. It’s a small pond in Theatreland, with few opportunities that go beyond 'development'. I wanted my words on stage and whilst I was performing my poems in fifteen-minute slots in cafes and pubs and theatres, I wanted more. At the back of my mind, I kept coming back to the touring one-person shows of Francesca Beard and Lemn Sissay and Aoife Mannix. It very much felt like I was done with waiting for someone else – a theatre director/a literary manager/an arts organisation to give me the time, space and money to write, I was going to give myself those things.


I decided to write and produce my own show for kids. I had, after all, been working a great deal in schools and had built up a body of children’s poems, and so my first show was born. I applied for a grant from the Arts Council and through my connections with Apples and Snakes made contact with The Half Moon Theatre who were looking for new shows to include in their touring programme. It felt like the sign I had been given years ago, to create the work myself, had finally sunk in. Following my show, several others followed and, simultaneously, I found myself having success in the publishing world. Having decided to no longer wait for a publishing deal to magically fall into my lap, I made it my mission to meet as many editors and publishing houses as I could. I took on that spirit I had seen in the poets at BAC and rolled into every aspect of my work, to follow your joy and to write and create no matter what. To be honest I was also a bit terrified of having another seven-year stint of waiting for permission that I now knew would never be given – you must always give permission to yourself first.


It must be at least seventeen years now since I first saw the work of Lemn Sissay and all the other wonderful performance poets at BAC but it feels like my circuitous journey of writing has come full circle. I am very fortunate to have two books coming out this year that are poetry focused: Zombierella – Fairy Tales Gone Bad is my debut middle-grade, the first of a series written in verse. The first book tells the tale of Cinderella but not as you know it, in this version she slips on the stairs, dies and is turned into a zombie by the fairy of DEATH! And then there’s my first young-teen verse novel/poetry collection/a story told in poems. A book that, for me, inhabits a space that I couldn’t quite find – it’s not a verse novel and it’s not a poetry collection but something in between. A narrative built up of poems of different forms about a young girl dealing with the death of her father and the journey that awaits her in a dark forest hidden in her local library.


It seems fitting that on Lemn Sissay’s website a viewer is met with a video of him performing in that unforgettable way that lures you in and hooks your heart. The video ends with the invitation to… 'Inspire and be Inspired'. Lemn Sissay – you have inspired me.


Checkout Lemn Sissay’s work here…

Joseph Coelho is a multi-award winning children’s author and poet. His debut children's collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award. His collection for older readers, Overheard In A Tower Block, appeared on numerous long and short-listings for various awards including the Carnegie Medal. His picture book If All The World Were… illustrated by Allison Colpoys won the Independent Bookshop Week, Book Award. He wrote and presented Teach Poetry – a 10-part BBC online series that aims to make the writing of poetry fun and accessible to all.

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.