Paint the town with poetry

Lemn Sissay turns words into monuments, literally. Spending some time in South Africa, the poet gives Nadine Botha a verbal whiplashing.

Lemn Sissay is a seasoned interviewee. At 21-years old, he published his debut collection of poetry to critical acclaim and, in as many years, has since published seven anthologies and four plays. Telly-watchers will recognise him as the youngest Grumpy Old Man on the first four seasons of the hit BBC sitcom, as well as the subject of the documentary Internal Flight. In 2007 he became artist-in-residence at the Southbank Centre. Sissay has been turning poems into landmarks since the late 1990s.

Yes, this is a rare poet who has had enough interlocution with the media to remember his own catchphrases, yawn at the boring questions, predict my oohs and aahs, laugh at his own pull quotes and interject himself with a shake of the head – “I can see the article now”, he mumbles to himself throughout the interview.

But where the reporter always gets hooked, he says, is on the subject of his gruelling childhood. “And who can blame them?” he shrugs off the stark tale of an Ethiopian student who lost her son after placing him in temporary foster care in the UK. What happened was that the care worker renamed the infant Norman, after himself, and allowed a British family to legally adopt him. Religious zealots from Lancashire, the foster parents believed that God had sent “Norman”. When “Norman” was 11, the family came to believe that he was evil and was promptly returned to the foster care system to spend the next seven years of his life in-between children’s homes. The first time he met another black person was when he was 14. He reclaimed his name, Lemn Sissay, at age 18.

“It was an emotionally violent existence and I had to find a way of interpreting the world into a place without violence, so that I could see wonder, because I deserved to see wonder,” Sissay explains his turn to writing.

Since he was 18, however, Sissay knew that he had to find his family. “It’s become the narrative of my adult life,” he smirks at what has become one of his catchphrases. After finding every last one of them – from Ethiopian mother and dead Eritrean father to siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents – by the age of 32, he coined another of his catchphrases: “I now have a dysfunctional family like everyone else!”

Sissay’s humour is so self-aware, so to-the-bone and so subconscious, it is often intestinal. “You know like a child who is laughing and then is kicked. They don’t understand the pain, but they do understand that they were happy. So their relation to laughter is really in contrast to the punch. But we all deserve to laugh. And… I’ve never said this before…” He breathes in: “Laughter is a shortterm hit, not the answer. Only a fool thinks it is!”

He beams, shakes his head at himself and rambles on: “The poems and writing for me are totally beyond my narrative. It just happens that I was lucky enough to find this great ship that can carry pretty much anything. There are small quarters on the ship that is my family story and every time I speak to a journalist, they want to go to that room. That’s okay.”

Turning to gloat, he says: “But actually, I’m rocking out to sea, riding the waves, putting up the sails and fishing.” Gloating because now, in his early forties, Sissay has come to realise: “My poems are my family.”

He lowers his voice: “I found my family all over the world, my actual physical blood relatives. But my poetry has been with me for longer. So when there wasn’t family, there was poetry. And to be honest, there’s more truth in my poems than I will ever be able to extract from my family.”

Imitating Dr Evil, he raises his eyebrows a couple of times. Sissay’s incomparable ability to wear fragility as armour is dumbfounding. We’re sitting in a coffee shop off Long Street in Cape Town, shortly after the Africa Centre’s Badilisha Poetry X-change, and Sissay flags down a passer-by only to find that he’d mistaken them for someone else.

Electrifying audiences with a mind that runs faster than his tongue, a few weeks later, Sissay headlined the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and went on for a run at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. None of these are Sissay’s first visits to South Africa. He has been visiting regularly since 1994 when he participated in a Robben Island project. Of the country, he says: “I always find the greatest communities in the world have a very complex set of arteries surrounding their hearts.”

Similarly for this “first generation Ethiopian Eritrean Brit”, as he calls himself, the question of identity is like the colour of the sky. “It’s like saying the sky is blue, but it’s not actually, it’s a reflection of the sea. So you could say the sky is blue, the sky is invisible, the sky is grey… it’s all of those things. Stories aren’t simple, which is why we have creatives. And we’re all creatives,” he reasons.

Going on, he insists that “creativity is an integral part of society, it’s not on the periphery but at the centre”. This is the power of the arts for Sissay, beyond the needs for context, narrative or legacy, he vehemently continues: “We have never lived without art, yet society perceives art to be an addition to life and the fact is, if you look at our religions, they’re all told through great stories, literature and art – physical art. The artist is often employed to carry the message, but sometimes I wonder, isn’t the artist itself the message?”

Taken from a man who has transformed poems into physical landmarks throughout the city of Manchester, now infiltrating London, such talk is only mildly alchemical. What is gratifying about his poetic interventions is that, as Sissay says, “The beauty of a landmark, is it’s not a landmark by you, it’s by other people. You can’t build a landmark, people have to choose it.”

The first landmark was the result of a taunt from some mates in a local pub and Sissay decided to “show them”, resulting in Hardy’s Well being branded on the eponymous pub. Since then he has inscribed Rain above the Gemini Take Away, Flags on the cobblestones along Tib Street and Catching Numbers in the Shude Hill Bus Station, all in Manchester. Last year, he unveiled The Gilt of Cain in London. This collaboration with sculptor Michael Visocchi commemorates the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

“The beauty of a poem in the landscape is that you suddenly start to notice a building that you always pass without noticing. It’s not about finding the biggest spire, but about discovering your neighbourhood and bringing people to an environment that they might not have discovered by their own eyes and ears,” says Sissay. He shrugs: “The poems are architecture.”

Visible creativity is an urgent message for Sissay, as he reemphasises: “There is a structure and anarchy that an artist acknowledges and we need that, even if a lot of the time we are afraid of seeing it.”

“Why are we scared?” I ask rhetorically.

But this man of woven words has an answer: “Because art has always gotten to the truth of the matter and we have been taught to be frightened of the truth of the matter.”


Each cloud wants to be a storm
My tap water wants to be a river
Each match wants to be an explosive
Each reflection wants to be real
Each joker wants to be a comedian
Each breeze wants to be a hurricane
Each drizzled rain wants to be torrential
Each laugh from the throat  wants to burst from the belly
Each yawn wants to hug the sky
Each kiss wants to penetrate
Each handshake wants to be a warm embrace
Don’t you see how close we are to crashes and confusion,
Tempests and terror,  Mayhem and madness,
and All things out of control

Each melting Icecube wants to be a glazier
Each wave wants to be the smooth stroke of a forehead
Each cry wants to be a scream
Each carefully pressed suit wants to be creased
Each midnight frost  wants to be a snow drift
Each mother wants to be a friend
Each night time wants to strangle the day
Each wave wants to be tidal
Each subtext wants to be a title
Each winter wants to be the big freeze
Each summer wants to be a drought
Each polite disagreement wants to be a vicious denial
Each diplomatic smile wants to be a one fingered tribute to tact
Don’t you see how close we are to crashes and confusion,
Tempests and terror,  Mayhem and madness,
and All things out of control
Keep telling yourself.
You’ve got it covered.


We don’t cram around the radio anymore
We have arrived at the multidimensional war
Where diplomats chew it up  spew it up
And we stand like orphans with empty cups
‘There will be no peace’ the press release
Said  that  war is on the increase
We  are being soaked with a potion
Massaged with  lotion to calm the commotion
That hides in  the embers of the fire
There’s nothing as quick as a liar
Don’t you learn your lesson
Are you so effervescent that
When they say day is day and its dark in your window
You say ‘ok’ and listen more tomorrow?

Seems you heard the trigger word
Are you space to be replaced – dreams defaced
Heavy questions  quickly sink
Leaving no trace – a spiked drink
What kind of trip are you on
Don’t you remember the last one?
Remember how we forgot about Vietnam,
Afghanistan, will you fall or stand
For a dream you haven’t seen?
I’m afraid you will, you have taken the pill
And you are totally stoned on war.

Media Hype and the slogans they write
Is that all it takes to set you alight
There’s nothing better than a doped up mind
For a young unemployed man to sign up
Figures go down young men sign up
What better when losing votes than to erupt
Into the uniting sound of war fever
“We need unity now – more than ever…
We shall only attack to defend…”
Paranoia infiltrates…
“Are you one of us or one of them!”
Slogans fall like hard rain as government calls
For someone somewhere in some country
That is suddenly so vital to our history
More than ever we should pull together
These are the days of stormy weather
Patriots show  faces, nationalists recruit places
As the fear of the foreigner rises
The race attack count arises
Victims of the small island mentality
England is no mother country
He holds the fear of the Awakening
Of his shivering shores breaking
Like the those in the Middle East did
When he raped it –
will you take it – take this, without question
Fall in line with the press poet or politician
Remember how we forgot about Vietnam,
Afghanistan. Will you fall or stand
For a dream you haven’t seen.
I’m afraid you will, you’ve taken the pill
You are totally stoned on war.

Design Indaba magazine, 1 August 2009

Fabulous fantasia

Marcel Wanders has designed more than a lifetime’s worth of knotted chairs – he’s designed himself.

Once upon a time there was a young man who went to Eindhoven Design Academy. It was written in the stars: He would be a designer. But disaster struck when an evil professor flunked him out of the school and the young man was banished to labour in the provinces among the jewellers and craftspeople of Maastricht.

The young man was very determined to succeed however and worked doubly hard at not only impressing his teachers but also doing his own interpretations for his personal advancement. By the time the young man had finished his studies, he was spoken of across the land in competitions, exhibitions and magazines.

Now, some 20 years on, the man has come to be known as one of the world’s hottest designers – not only for his humorous, fantastical theatricalities but, well, for himself. Infamously his girlfriend has poured champagne for guests at an opening while swinging from a chandelier, he has amassed over 40 speeding tickets in Amsterdam, stripped down to his birthday suit in presentations such as the Naked Designer and named his daughter Joy Faith Love Wanders.

In the vein of modern artists such as Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp, Marcel Wanders himself is a work of design. “Fabulous!” he says.

Nadine Botha: You say you design from mentality. What does that mean?

Marcel Wanders: A lot of designers work from a strictly stylistic point of view or they have some fundamental idea about how they want their shapes to be. I work from a mentality in that there is an endless vocabulary of form, but still my work is recognisable because it has a mentality – it is something that you can feel. There is a mood and personality behind the work. Perhaps personality is a better word than mentality: it’s a personal logic.

Is it your personality?

Yes, yes I have to move the ship, so it’s driven by me. But there’s a logic behind it: We [the Marcel Wanders Studio] do things in a certain way, putting more import into strategy and communication than maybe other designers. It’s not strictly stylistic, which a lot of designers are. I don’t think we have that much of a style.

Is this a constructed public personality?

Yes, I think so, but it’s unavoidable. If you put your name on an object, you communicate who you are and that there is a person behind the object. Then you need not only to create a personality, but it should be a fabulous personality as well – this makes the product or family of products even more interesting. If you forget this, I don’t know why you would put your name on something. People who put their name on something and then think that they should be quiet, do wrong.

You in particular seem to embrace a “rock star” lifestyle, while many other designers seem rather staid and even preppy. Is it expected that designers be conservative – maybe to match their minimalist work – and are you consciously challenging that?

If you put your name on an object, you are responsible for the content of the person behind the object. And that has to be fabulous – you design the object, the design and the person behind it all. If your products are boring and you are a boring designer, that’s fine, I understand, but then there’s no reason to put your name on the product because it just won’t get any better. To make exciting products, you have to be an exciting person – there should be a consistency with who you are and what you deliver. For me, I am just me – it is theatrical because I like to live my life in an exciting way. I dunno, it’s who I am. What can I do?

Even more than your name, your Airborne Snotty Vases must be your most notorious work. How and why did you come across running airborne boogers through a 3D scanner?

The Airborne Snotty Vases was a project that started from a theoretical basis in that I really wanted to study digital scanning technology because it promised to make things possible that were otherwise completely impossible. I am sure that this technology will win a space in the future because it is so unique – you can do things that are completely free in form. So I wanted to study what it would be used for in the future.

This became a challenge to not only design something with my mind, but to find something that was really spectacular and had never been seen before. So instead of making a shape, we tried finding a shape that was already there but had never been seen. At some point while we were thinking, someone sneezed and I thought to myself that it was a very interesting action – we do it all the time and we don’t know what we create. So we decided to find out by looking through a 3D scanner, where we were able to capture a fantastic form and then replicate the form to produce an object.

I think this is nice – by using this incredibly new and advanced technique, we were able to find and create very advanced shapes. But also, I think it’s nice when things are beautiful as well as ugly. It’s interesting to me that people sometimes like the vases until I tell them it’s a virtual airborne snotty. It’s important that the things we do touch people – whether they hate it or they love it.

Is that what you mean when you talk about how the industrial age has seen designers “celebrate the poor possibilities of the available machinery”? (In the introduction to 21st Century Design by Marcus Fairs.)

For 100 years, designers have been listening to machines when making something for people, whereas I think that they should listen to people and then use machines to make something. We should be humanist instead of technocrats. If I use a machine technique to make something that is unimportant to people, that’s terrible.

I think that we are born to live our lives as princes and princesses, and I feel that we can rise to this position if we use technology in the right way. But we have to start with thinking that we deserve to live a fabulous life and that it is not impossible to do, but entirely technically feasible. I mean, technology like 3D photography can make crazy, beautiful dreams come completely true. And that’s not thanks to technology, but because humans love to create dreams and poetry.

Is realising these crazy, beautiful ideas what informs your rejection of environmental design in preference for durability?

There’s a lot to be said about environmental concerns and, of course, we all think about it in different ways. One of the ways that we concern ourselves with is through durability, which is a way to create objects that people will never throw away because they are so important to them. This is good for the environment and humanity. In creating durability, I started thinking differently to the rest of the design world a long time ago.

Let me tell you a story. A long time ago, about 15 years ago, there was a group of people called Eternally Yours that I was involved in. The focus was on new ways to create more durability. At one point there was a girl who created a velour fabric – the type where the hair stands right up. In the velour that she developed, a floral pattern would appear when the hair wore off. Everyone was excited. But I was not so excited because I thought that what she was saying to the audience is that the normal wearing of velvet is not right, beautiful or a good thing. This made me realise that instead of durability being a material problem, it was a psychological problem.

In our culture, the words “old” and “new” have completely different importance. We really love the new and are afraid of the old. The strange coincidence is that it is designers who create the new world and who are, even more than the average people in the street, excited about the new. These people create objects with metaphors of the new, forgetting the metaphors of the old. The first scratch on this object would be seen as its first sign of deterioration, which is a negative thing.  I call this the “baby face fixation” – wanting everything to be clean, beautiful and new.

Instead, I decided from that moment that every project I do, every object I make, will always have the metaphor of the old and the metaphor of the new. So it will always be in between my father and my daughter – and that’s my face. I want to be in this position to make sure that the objects I make will not be thrown out fast, instead living a long, durable life. For me it’s an important way to address environmental concerns, as well as create objects that are more meaningful to people.

Durability in terms of material is quite defined, but what about in terms of style, where people’s aesthetic tastes change much faster?

I think it’s important to change, but everything moves in waves and the wavelength is very different for certain objects. This is fine; we have the need for change and the need for durability. So perhaps if you buy a postcard, it feels very new and it will be new every time you buy it. But if you buy a wedding ring, it feels very durable. See, they have different wavelengths in terms of being new or exciting. So every object has its own logic. I like to make the type of object that is a durable object. For instance, we’ve made a few items of clothing now, but I would never call it fashion because I’m sure it will still be fantastic for the next 10 years, no problem.

With works like the Knotted Chair, the Fishnet Chair and the Crochet Series, you’ve taken traditional craft techniques and used technology to make them more durable. What do you think of the so-called craft debate?

What is the craft debate? I don’t know. Let’s say 20 years ago, design was industrial design. We started to make chairs and stuff that was difficult to make. For 100 years, designers have made things that are easy to make and that’s all we’ve given the world. To make something that is difficult to make is not worse or better, it’s just another way to make things and at least the end product takes effort from the maker. That’s why I’ve been working on a lot of things that involve craft.

The strange thing is that even the industrially produced furniture has tons of hand labour involved in it – it just tries to look like it’s machine made, but it’s not. In fact, if we’re talking about craft I think we have to talk about why China is the country that all the products in the world come from. It’s not because they have better machines there, it’s because they have more hands. The fact that China is the biggest producer of products proves that industrial design has completely failed. Why else is it that the country where people work with their hands all the time is the biggest producer in the world?

And I think it is a pity that we don’t show the hand labour of these people, because then we would actually feel that the products are more valuable. So I don’t think that it should be the one or the other, but that both hand and industrial production can be very interesting.

You design, promote, run a number of businesses, collaborate across the creative smorgasbord, invest in property, experiment and have a good time to boot. How do you manage to be good at everything?

I think that as a creative person you are best at what you don’t know how to do. If you have to do something new and you don’t know how to get it done, what comes out is your creativity and you find a way to do what you can’t. So I’m always going into areas that I’m completely uninvolved in and have no idea how to get it done – I will always go to this fearful place because that’s the place where I am best.

Do some roles come more naturally than others? I heard that you had to really work hard to get your degree in design after flunking out of Eindhoven.

I think that if you don’t have to work hard to get it done, you didn’t do it well. You just didn’t give enough energy for it to become fabulous. Everything you do in which you want to be fabulous, you have to give everything and more. So nothing comes easily, because it should not come easily. If it comes easily it’s not worth it.

You’ve called Philippe Starck the greatest living designer. Why don’t you consider yourself the greatest living designer?

I would love to one day live in Philippe Starck’s shadow. I think he is far beyond me and instead of me getting closer to him, I feel he is running away very fast. The man is a genius – more than anyone else in design, he is able to look at himself and what he is doing in a very open-minded way and then change it. The man has reinvented design three times in different ways and right now he is doing the same – tomorrow we will find out how far ahead he is.

You’ve been working with him and John Hitchcox from Yoo on the Mondrian in South Beach. How has that been?

No, we don’t do projects together, but work in the same field. Starck is a part-owner of the company and I work with the company. I would never work together with Philippe again – it’s terrible to work with him. He’s just as terrible as I am. And selfish – just like me. I want to do everything myself and know everything better, of course. The thing is, though, if you can do something on your own, why do it with someone else? If you can’t do it on your own, of course you do it with someone else. But I think Philippe is very capable of designing whatever he wants and, to be honest, I feel the same. So, there’s no reason to work with him – I’d rather have a drink or a great time with him.

What was the brief for the Mondrian and how did you interpret it?

The brief was to do a fabulous hotel, which would establish the Mondrian brand and be a fabulous place for Miami and the people who visit it. Of course the Morgans Group developers have their own type of client but they gave me carte blanche to do a Marcel Wanders hotel.

You know the story of Sleeping Beauty? At the moment that it ends, that’s the moment you arrive at the hotel. I wanted to create a space where people see themselves and others with new eyes; as though they’ve been sleeping for a 100 years and now wake up. It’s very a romantic place, very royal, very theatrical. We’ve played with all kinds of things to make this happen – whether it is bells in the lobby area or superhero women inviting you in. But you have to see it…

Why don’t you like being called a Dutch designer?

I design for the world. But, to be fair, I was much more sensitive about that in the past. I understand now that it’s like making a unique gift. One of the reasons I like design so much is that I liked making gifts when I was a kid. A good gift will say something about the person who gets the gift – you don’t give something that doesn’t resonate with this person, it makes no sense. Also, you hope that the gift says something about who you are, how you see this person and what you think is important in life. That is how I like to see my design – I like to make things that are both for the whole world as well as speaking about who I am. And yes, I’m Dutch. Yes, I’m born here in this country. So, if you can recognise that I’m Dutch from my work, then that’s fantastic – I hope to give something beautiful from my surroundings.

Design Indaba magazine, 2 February 2009