Poetry Unbound

Lemn Sissay

A Poem to See What’s Overlooked

Last Updated

March 2, 2020


Lemn Sissay’s poem “Some Things I Like” celebrates what we might consider discardable — like cold tea, ash trays, and even people. Raising a joyous toast to the forgotten and the forgettable, Sissay recognizes the power we give to what we pay attention to and invites us to look anew at all that has been undervalued.

A question to reflect on after you listen: What is something you like that others may not value in the same way?

Guest

Image of Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay is a poet, playwright, and broadcaster. He contributes regularly to BBC radio and is a BAFTA-nominated, international prize-winning writer. His awards include a Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for services to literature by the Queen of England, the PEN Pinter Prize, and a Points of Light Award from the prime minister of England. His books of poetry include Listener, Tender Fingers in a Clenched Fist, and Rebel without Applause. His memoir is My Name is Why.

Transcript

Pádraig Ó Tuama, host: My name is Pádraig Ó Tuama, and I’m a poet from Ireland. Poetry has taught me that it can choose the most unexpected places to pause. So, sometimes, rather than going for the high moment of drama, the high moment of the erotic, the high moment of the extraordinary, poetry will choose the small moment of pause, just to look at what’s really happening, to look at a few layers deep, and to let that small pause, that ordinary moment, open up with all the fullness of its being, to us.

[music: “Outstretched Hand” by Gautam Srikishan]

This poem by Lemn Sissay is called “Some Things I Like,” and it has a subtitle, “A poem to shout.”

“I like wrecks, I like ex-junkies,
I like flunks and ex-flunkies,
I like the way the career-less career,
I like flat beer,
I like people who tell half stories and forget the rest,
I like people who make doodles in important written tests, I like being late. I like fate. I like the way teeth grate,
I like laceless shoes cordless blues,
I like the one-bar blues,
I like buttonless coats and leaky boats,
I like rubbish tips and bitten lips,
I like yesterday’s toast,
I like cold tea, I like reality,
I like ashtrays, I write and like crap plays.

I like curtains that don’t quite shut,
I like bread knives that don’t quite cut,
I like rips in blue jeans,
I like people who can’t say what they mean,
I like spiders with no legs, pencils with no lead,
Ants with no heads, worms that are half dead.
I like holes, I like coffee cold. I like creases in neat folds. I like signs that just don’t know where they’re going,
I like angry poems,
I like the way you can’t pin down the sea.
See.”

Lemn Sissay is known, as a poet in Britain, as somebody who has survived the care system. He has experienced the ways within which people who were tasked to be carers failed in their duty and has been very open and public about those experiences, both in terms of narrative, as well as using that to inform his art. And I feel like this poem is a culminatory poem for looking at the experiences of people who have been failed by a system that should be caring for them And by gathering in all the kinds of things that are said to be without value, he is asserting that there is value in the kinds of things that other people feel are discardable.

I think this poem builds and builds and builds. And what’s extraordinary is the very last line. It is a single word for a line, and it just says, “See.” It’s an order. It’s an imperative. And I feel like this poem isn’t asking permission, it’s demanding permission from the readership and from a world, I think, that might have treated individuals as discardable. And this poem is saying, Look at this. Look at what I’ve made.

And I think that final, defiant, demanding “See” is really important. It would be so easy to read that last sentence, that last line, with a question mark in your heart: “See?” But no, there’s simply a period, simply a full stop at the end of it: “See.”

So one of the beautiful things about this poem is that this poem is populated by two things. It’s almost on a hinge. Flat beer, wrecks, buttonless coats, yesterday’s toast, spiders with no legs — and all of that furniture of the poem is held together by the 29 repeated times that he says, “I like. I like. I like.” And that brings great creativity.

And as I was reading it and reflecting on it, I found myself catapulted back into an experience when I was 15 and I was at a youth festival. I got talking, late one evening, to one of the camp counselors, I suppose it was, at a youth festival; it wasn’t that formal, but you know, an adult who was there to be responsible. We got chatting. And I was trying to hold all kinds of things together. I knew I was gay, and I knew I couldn’t tell anybody. And this was a religious youth festival, so I didn’t quite trust the guy who I was talking to, but I really needed to talk. And I was filled with some of the melodrama of teenage life, but filled, also, with some of the serious violence that I knew, and was trying to find coded ways to talk about these things; desperate to talk, but also, desperate to conceal. And in the midst of me being caught between the dilemma of how to speak while not speaking, this guy looked at me with a kind of half-smile and said, “I like you.” And I was shocked. Nothing could’ve prepared me, at all, for the possibility of anybody saying something like that to me, something so spontaneous, because I found myself thinking, Look at the wreck of my life — I’m a failure. How on earth am I supposed to hold it all together? What am I supposed to do with myself? And here he was, pronouncing some kind of kindness to me — “I like you.”

And I am so grateful for the kindness of that. And Lemn Sissay’s poem brings me back into that, where somebody said to me, “I like you.” And that made all the difference.

I think this poem presents us with the possibility of looking at our own lives, and looking at the things that we might have considered discardable in our lives, or looking at the ways within which we’ve been told that we’re discardable, and finding a way to enter into that with a defiant “I like.” What are the things we were told you can’t like, you shouldn’t like, you shouldn’t be like that? All those imperatives. And Lemn Sissay invites us to look at those with a joyous, but also, clear: “I like.”

This is a poem by Lemn Sissay called “Some Things I Like,” and the poem also has a subtitle, “A poem to shout.”

“I like wrecks, I like ex-junkies,
I like flunks and ex-flunkies,
I like the way the career-less career,
I like flat beer,
I like people who tell half stories and forget the rest,
I like people who make doodles in important written tests, I like being late. I like fate. I like the way teeth grate,
I like laceless shoes cordless blues,
I like the one-bar blues,
I like buttonless coats and leaky boats,
I like rubbish tips and bitten lips,
I like yesterday’s toast,
I like cold tea, I like reality,
I like ashtrays, I write and like crap plays.

I like curtains that don’t quite shut,
I like bread knives that don’t quite cut,
I like rips in blue jeans,
I like people who can’t say what they mean,
I like spiders with no legs, pencils with no lead,
Ants with no heads, worms that are half dead.
I like holes, I like coffee cold. I like creases in neat folds. I like signs that just don’t know where they’re going,
I like angry poems,
I like the way you can’t pin down the sea.
See.”

Lily Percy: “Some Things I Like” comes from Lemn Sissay’s book Listener. Thank you to Canongate, who published the book, and gave us permission to use Lemn’s poem. Read it on our website at onbeing.org.

Poetry Unbound is Tony Liu, Chris Heagle, Kristin Lin, Erin Colasacco, Serri Graslie, Eddie Gonzalez, and me, Lily Percy. Our music is composed and provided by Gautam Srikishan. And this podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota land. We also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise, and This Movie Changed Me. Find those wherever you like to listen, or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.

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