Olympics poet honoured with award from the University of Leicester

The official poet for the London 2012 Olympic Games has been recognised with an honorary degree from the University of Leicester.

Lemn Sissay OBE was conferred his Doctor of Letters award at a graduation ceremony, held at De Montfort Hall, in the city on Thursday 19 January. 

A poet, playwright, memoirist, performer and broadcaster, Lemn received an MBE for Services to Literature by The Queen in 2014, and an OBE for Services to Literature and Charity in 2021.  

Accepting his award, Lemn praised the graduates present for their resilience during the pandemic. He said: “You have put in so much work to get to this singular point. Some of you will have called home and said you are alright, when you weren’t alright. You studied through the pandemic, one of the hardest times in living history, and you did it. 

“How good are you? All I had to do [to get this award] was nothing. You are all incredible and it’s an honour to be here with you, and thank you to the University – it’s an honour to be part of Team Leicester.”

Lemn was born in Lancashire in the late 1960s. His mother was pregnant when she arrived in the UK from Ethiopia, and Lemn began his journey through care from birth, staying with a foster family until the age of 12, before spending the next five years in four different children’s homes. This difficult start to life would become the inspiration for many of Lemn’s future works and see him harness the power of words to shed light on the failings of the UK care system, including bringing and winning a legal case against the government in 2018 for treatment he suffered while in care. 

In 1988, Lemn released his first book of poetry, Tender Fingers in a Clenched Fist, as a 21-year-old and has been a full-time writer since the age of 24, with works including Rebel Without Applause (1992) and Listener (2008). 

Lemn’s career in poetry has seen him bring important messages to stages around the world, from reading at The Library of Congress in the United States of America and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, to the Opera House of Dubai and the London Palladium. He even read at musician Sir Paul McCartney’s book launch at Queen’s Theatre in London.  

In 1994, Lemn began transforming his words into pieces of public art. His Landmark Poems in public spaces can be seen on painted murals and digital screens on buildings across the UK and beyond, where his words spark intrigue and consideration for prominent societal issues.  

But Lemn hasn’t stopped at poetry: he has also written and performed in stage productions; had poems performed as part of musical concertos, and his television and radio documentaries have been nominated for multiple awards. Something Dark (2006) tells the story of his upbringing in children’s homes and foster care, as well as the search for his family and identity, with the production winning him a Race in the Media Award. His 2013 stage adaptation of British writer and poet Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy is read in classrooms around the UK as a choice text on the national curriculum.