How I Got Here: Lemn Sissay

Ahead of the release of his memoir, the poet discusses growing up in care, documenting his existence through poems when no one else listened, and poetry’s remarkable pop culture resurgence

It’s hard to ignore the significance of a writer being born with the name ‘Why’. Lemn Sissay wouldn’t find out his real first name – which means why in Ethiopia’s official language, Amharic – until the age of 18, when he was reunited with his birth mother after growing up in care. “At the age of 18 I was already a poet, already performing and ­already publishing, so it seems to be that what I do is written into my name,” he says.

Sissay’s search for his real family and justice for the failings of the British care system, which allowed him to be imprisoned, bullied and physically abused, are well documented by now. Inevitably, his life story has also become intertwined with his work as a playwright, musician, producer and stand-up comedian, and in 2017, he turned the psychologist’s report into the effects of the abuse he suffered into a one-off play, performed at the Royal Court in London.

Despite now wearing many hats, it is poetry which remains Sissay’s first love and sits at the heart of his working practice, whether adorning landmarks across the country or simply describing the dawn in his daily Morning Tweet. Here, he tells CR about being destined to work with words, how writing gave him permission to speak when nobody else would, and why – contrary to popular belief – poetry is for everyone.