Through his poems, Tommy Sissons (London, United Kingdom) reflects on 21st century England.
I’ve been writing poems since before I can remember, starting from when I was about five or six years old and the only reason I had to write at the time was simply for the enjoyment of it and to explore my own imagination. As I’ve grown older and come to live in the ‘real world’, a world which is constantly posing limits to young creatives, I now write poetry for a variety of more serious reasons and I suppose most poets do too.
The two main reasons I write are for my community and for myself. I’m a strong believer in the importance of art being used as a reflection of reality and I try to interpret the world as accurately as I see it, however my work will always come, predominantly, from my eyes and my personal experience, making it somewhat subjective but, hopefully, relatable too. That’s the rough and even paradoxical balance of trying to bridge the gap between the self and the environment that I find in my work.
I write to talk on behalf of those who are underrepresented in the professional arts world, namely, working class young people; people who do not fit into the style and beauty standards which some can profit from and, overall, people who feel left behind in a country that looks after the richest and regards those from deprived communities as ‘CHAVs’ and ‘scroungers’. It is important to find beauty in the areas which are routinely demonised and degraded but even more important to offer power to those who live and come from those areas. That’s what I try to do with my work, hence why I do a lot of teaching and mentoring work in schools and youth centres suffering from funding cuts. My personal experience and knowledge of these communities continue to inspire me with a passion that drives a lot of my work; for instance, ‘Men Run Nations’.
I also write for myself. Sometimes, as it can for everyone, life can prove challenging. I am someone who feels emotions very strongly. I do not glide along in a straight line; I have risen and fallen multiple times from the highest to the lowest points and both extremes of emotion have fuelled my writing. When I started performing professionally, I was using poetry as a stress ball and I still do on bad days. It’s something which can take me out of myself for a while and give me a breather from whatever is going on in my personal life. ‘London Ain’t Easy to Crack’ and ‘Thirty Days Until Summer’ were written during some of the tougher periods of my life but I always give such pieces a beacon of hope. This is because, to put it simply, I refuse to give up and I hope to inspire others who have been through rough patches to continue striving for the happiness they deserve. The test of having to continually throw yourself into the world and push to get to where you want to be gives you a great deal more appreciation of any form of success than if you had never had to work for it at all. I live and write by that.
LONDON AIN’T EASY TO CRACK
London ain’t easy to crack,
It is like the boss level on that videogame
You’ve been trying to complete since you were young,
The one that kept malfunctioning when you had almost won
And forgetting to save your progress.
You cannot hold a buttercup under London’s chin
To find out if it likes Lurpak or not,
You cannot make London eat its vegetables,
When London stands over your mattress
And huffs its morning breath in your face,
Telling you to wake up,
You cannot make it brush its teeth.
In London, plants are watered with cognac,
Rise up my Courvoisier flowers,
You are cacti in the winter,
Bastard butterflies in summer,
Trying to convince me you were never a caterpillar
As your children cry in their prams
And your wife burns the burgers on the supermarket grill,
I can see your eyebrows twitching,
What are you making up for with all that colour?
Speak in broken English always,
You are almost iconoclastic.
London is the absent father who comes back after years
And says you haven’t changed a bit since you were a boy
before you open your mouth to tell him to
London, you remind me of the first time
my cat came home with a dead mouse in his jaws,
And I was appalled at how something I loved could kill,
London, 56 murders this year and we’re only in April,
Stop and search us,
Pulling the lint and flowers out of our pockets,
Telling us pollen is a weapon to those with hayfever,
I keep my arms up like an arch angel at the side of your cruiser
As you take the poems from the pockets of my community.
Five years on and Poseidon has returned to the Thames,
Sitting comfortably at the bottom
Like a giant under an inch of water,
Putting a Trident to the streets,
Where I take night buses home
Like prison vans on a half-moon’s tusk,
Watching parents gather under orange street lamps
To give flowers to the ghosts of their children
Who were called devils whilst alive but saints in death.
God, there’s the ghosts of Tulse Hill and Ilford,
The phantoms of Stoke Newington and Shepherd’s Bush,
Thamesmead and Peckham,
There’s the lost boys of Haringay, Barking, Steatham and Camden,
The spectres of Clapton, Hither Green, Tottenham, Walthamstow,
Spirits of Wandsworth, Tooting, Stratford, Hounslow,
Canning Town, Chingford and Wood Green,
Dead good men in Hackney and Wormwood Scrubs,
And in New Cross where I go to buy milk,
If I were to drop the carton it would look like a body
Outlined in liquid chalk on the supermarket tiles.
London ain’t easy to crack,
Once a month, I take a few days recluse in the midlands,
Leave the capital to be a tobacco spillage on fresh, clean bedsheets,
Catch buses through country fields where cows and pylons live,
Ride my bike around the rugby fields and the university campus, pumping life back into my smoked legs,
Spend time not paying for dinner with my blood,
Eat better, sleep longer and fear less the sunrise,
Then back on the steel caterpillar,
Hurtling through Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Bedfordshire to the city,
Into the parched tunnels to another two caterpillars,
Stand compact in their stomachs
with thousands more just eaten,
Smelling the breath of London on my neck and face.
One time, I caught a big family from Yorkshire,
Jostling in the dead silence of the tube
The men stood playing with the commuters, trying to make them smile, the women sat laughing loudly,
I was wearing my red Marlboro rain coat,
They referred to me as Marlboro Man
Asked me the best way to get to London Bridge, luvvy,
Offered me the warmth of my grandparents,
Served in heavy portions like dripping on old bread,
Simple brews and whiskers like a terrier’s fur,
I carried their words back to my bedroom and sat looking at my white rose flag for a while.
London ain’t easy to crack,
I won’t do it today
But that’s alright
And aye, that’s ok.
THIRTY DAYS UNTIL SUMMER
There’s thirty days until summer
And I sleep with each of them,
hoping not to catch a cold,
Knowing that one day I will be too old
to only be young once.
And I cannot waste it on empty phone calls,
Holding a bone to my ear, listening to my coffin
As it tells me there is gold under the ground we can find
And it will be waiting for me at the graveyard at midnight.
Your spirit was blinding,
Half crabs in a bucket, half willing protector
And I was your banana republic
And you could export each limb from me,
I’d still find a way to skirmish up to the threshold before sundown,
You could export my eyes
and I would be grateful for my voice,
You could export my voice
and I would be grateful for my touch
and they asked me at school “what do you want to be
when you give up?”
But there’s thirty days until summer
And that’s only one rent away
And that’s only four broken jaws away,
Composed of seven bones each
And it’s only four repents away
And four times I’ll have to stand in the church
Amongst cowering old dears, chatting to some bloke
From two-thousand years back and say
“Safe, Jesus mate, I’ll see you next Sunday”,
And it’s only four weekend benders away,
Only four trips to A&E away,
If there’s about three-billion spent on the pissed each year,
That’s only 250-million for the NHS away.
And I cannot waste it being meek,
Because all I have left of you now
Is a name on my phone screen,
And that’s four letters, eleven digits, however many miles
But only one movement of a thumb away
If my thumbs had not been exported already.
And summer’s only thirty dead stares from lads
Perched on the wall in football tops, with trackies tucked into their socks away,
Only ninety Pot Noodles and stale toasts away,
Only thirty northern lullabies away,
Only thirty times falling asleep on the job away.
And I cannot waste it crying over dropped chicken and chips
Because there’s still thirty sunrises ahead
Which lead some men to the Thames with rocks in their shoes
And the lead rest there with their homemade rafts,
Fastened with ropes of ability, thirty lengths of prayer like bamboo canes,
Strong enough to hold an elephant of aspiration,
And I, who have fancied both, have stood on the edge of the bank all night
Timing the rise of that daily promise of colossal life,
When it’s due, when I can see it poking its head over the bridges and abbeys,
I will fill my boat up with what I want for the summer
Kissing each hope on the head as they rest,
Then gently push it down into the water
And let it slip away on the winding passage,
Bobbing around like a young child learning to walk
And I will find it when I am safe from the wolves
And there’s only thirty days until summer,
I will see you when the work is done.
MEN RUN NATIONS
I write poetry in ways that men run nations,
leaving permanent imprints,
the mistakes of which cannot be erased
and only become more messy
when furiously scribbled over in an attempt to cover them up.
I activate the articles of my brain
For better or worse
And carpet bomb the page
Which is too unfamiliar for me to understand.
More often than not, the ink and paper live together in harmony,
Sometimes the ink projects a word that is not English
And a number of pages try to underline the union in red,
But the word stands bold and unmoved.
I fight battles on sandpaper
Because I don’t like the fact it is hard to write my name on,
I think extremists could capture it any day now,
I will use pens shaped like Kurds and Arabs.
Sometimes I make promises to write poems I do not complete,
Occasionally I take my papers out in the rain
And I do not protect them well
And they get wet and start to tear,
I leave them on the radiator and hope for the best
But they become curled at the edges and violent,
So I tell myself they were like that
Before I started writing on them.
Tommy Sissons (Brighton)
Goodnight Son, his debut poetry collection, is available for purchase here.