Acclaimed UK poet to deliver Wendy Michener Memorial Lecture

Award-winning British performance poet and playwright Lemn Sissay, the first commissioned poet for the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games, is the featured presenter for the Wendy Michener Memorial Lecture.

The lecture will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 19 at 7pm in the Tribute Communities Recital Hall, Accolade East Building on York’s Keele campus. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Sissay will share stories of his remarkable life and career path, and perform selections from his internationally acclaimed works.

Acclaimed UK poet and playwright Lemn Sissay
Above: Acclaimed UK poet and playwright Lemn Sissay will deliver this year’s Wendy Michener Memorial Lecture on Oct. 19. Photo: James Ross, 2007

Sissay’s compelling poems and plays are anchored in his experiences growing up as a child in the care of the state and the only black person in his community in suburban Lancashire, England. At once deeply personal and profoundly universal, his works address social, cultural and political issues through both the heart and head, striking to the core of our common humanity. “His name is magic, his poems are songs of the street,” said The Independent.

Listener Book CoverSissay will perform extracts from his one-man play Something Dark, about his search for his Ethiopian birth family, and several of his landmark poems, including “Invisible Kisses”, “Gold from the Stone”, “Suitcases in Muddy Fields” and “The Queen’s Speech”. He will also present his powerful film What If?, a searing exploration of where evolution has taken the human race, commissioned by the BBC for its “Darwin Originals” series marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

“When we try to understand and express the big questions in life – birth and death, love and loss, happiness and heartache, isolation and belonging –.we turn to art,” Sissay said. “It’s the link between the physical and the spiritual. Art and creativity are the life force of a community. Poetry is at the heart of who we are.”

Sissay is the author of five poetry collections and editor of The Fire People: A Collection of Contemporary Black British Poets. His work has been recorded, broadcast and anthologized widely. His credits include more than two dozen radio documentaries, including Pieces of a Man, a feature on the late American soul and jazz musician, poet and activist Gil Scott-Heron; The Man in the Hospital, commissioned by the BBC for World AIDS Day and performed by Sissay at London’s Mermaid Theatre with an introduction by Sir Ian McKellen; and One Love – The Legacy of Bob Marley, which aired on the BBC World Service earlier this year. As associate artist at the Southbank Centre in London, Europe’s largest combined arts complex, Sissay was a driving force behind the creation of Global Poetry System (GPS), an online resource of poetry in the public realm around the world.

In recognition of his artistic and civic contributions, Sissay was appointed a member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 2010. He holds an honorary PhD from the University of Huddersfield, (presented by University Chancellor and British actor Patrick Stewart), which also established the Sissay Scholarship in his name, for children who have grown up in care and want to continue their education at the doctoral level.

Other accolades and achievements include Sissay’s roles as curator of Britain’s Shorelines, the world’s first literature festival of the sea; patron of the Letterbox Club, an immensely successful book-gifting program for children in care of social services; and trustee of World Book Night, which gave a million books away in Britain last year.

The Michener Lecture marks Sissay’s first visit to Toronto. He has presented his work throughout Europe and around the world, from Bangalore, India, to St Petersburg, Russia, Singapore to Johannesburg, South Africa, Melbourne, Australia to Los Angeles, USA.

Lemn Sissay’s Wendy Michener Lecture, “Life’s Not Worth Living if There’s No One You Would Die For,” is co-sponsored by York’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

The Wendy Michener Lecture, commemorating the Canadian arts critic and journalist, was established in the Faculty of Fine Arts at York University in 1986 to provide a forum for discussion of crucial issues and developments in culture and the arts.