Image (c) Lemn Sissay
We caught up with Lemn Sissay, recipient of this year’s Ness Award, to discuss the importance of poetry and language, how his work speaks to geographical themes and his career as a writer, public speaker and poet.
My career and my personal life are intertwined. It was 22 May 2013, the day after my birthday. I stood on stage at the National Theatre in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, thousands of miles from the villages where I was born. Applause filled the air and washed over me until there was silence. A female voice shouted out, "Welcome home Lemn". This moment echoes in my heart. Home is not one place. Home is inside each of us. If you are lucky then you find it. And when you do, other people will recognise it and welcome you.
I started searching for my family at 18. I was 29 the first time I stepped foot in Ethiopia which is where my parents were from. It was 1995. By 2013, Ethiopians around the world knew my name. "Welcome home Lemn". Lemn means the question Why in Amharic. It is an unusual name in Ethiopia as it is in England. As a poet I could not have a more perfect name than why. What am I most proud of in my career? I am most proud of finding my way home. Everyone deserves to live in an environment which allows them to find their way home. This is the value of geography.
Image (c) Ethiopian Airlines
Poetry is an x-ray of the human condition, held up against the light of the sun. An alien would learn more about human beings through poetry than through any other form. I hope I am not misquoting the poet John Burnside. I believe he said that, "Metaphor is as close a human being can be to their environment". Poetry is the language of the heart. There is a reason why great religions use poetry to communicate. There is a reason why poems are read at non-religious weddings and funerals. There is a reason why we turn to poetry when all else fails. Poetry communicates what the spirit feels.
Image (c) Craig Sugden
I write poems because I can't find another way to articulate something I feel. Poems have an urgency and a fluency. Making a Difference is about the work we are all doing to make a difference and was originally written for the University of Manchester 'Making A Difference Awards' which are concerned with sustainability and social responsibility. Poems like What If were written because of a prompt. My journey to the Arctic with Society Director, Professor Joe Smith, prompted me. We have been using the environment to tell our story. Now, if we listen, the environment is speaking back.
I should repeat John Burnside, "Metaphor is as close a human being can be to the environment". By example, think of a book you've loved. Then think of where it is set and how it is set. The environment often directly reflects the complexity of a character's condition. Metaphor. Symbols. Simile. The wilderness, the forest, the clearing, the path, the road... sunset, sunrise, darkness, storms, summer, winter, autumn, mountains, valleys, deserts, jungles; geography will always tell us about ourselves. Climate change reflects our own condition. Language and geography are inextricably linked. Language explains geography. Geography is a language in itself. So, if we 'read the landscape', what is it telling us? Authors are ahead of us: Read Jay Griffiths Wild or read Diane Cooke’s The New Wilderness - understanding geography helps us understand ourselves. I think.
Although I am excited and proud to receive the Ness Award, I must say that the next generation to come is very exciting, regarding geography.
By placing a booking, you are permitting us to store and use your (and any other attendees) details in order to fulfil the booking.
We will not use your details for marketing purposes without your explicit consent.
You must be a member holding a valid Society membership to view the content you are trying to access. Please login to continue.
Join us today, Society membership is open to anyone with a passion for geography
Cookies on the RGS website