I love this article about Benjamin Zephaniah. I especially love that bit I’ve bolded below, about how proud he is to have the title of most stolen books from British libraries.
Tuesday April 3, 2007
By MICHAEL CHEANG
Wherever he goes, British poet Benjamin Zephaniah riles his audience with his reality-based rhyme.
I used to think nurses
I used to think police
I used to think poets
Until I became one of them.
– Who’s Who by Benjamin Zephaniah
TAKE a pinch of reggae, add a dose of rap and sprinkle on a little bit of chanting along with some rants. Next, add some dancing, some acting, and some stand-up comedy. Mix it all up and you will get Benjamin Zephaniah’s poetry.
Anyone who thinks poetry readings are boring events where poets sit on stage reading from a book, have definitely not been to Zephaniah’s performance poetry readings. Judging from his session at the Kuala Lumpur International Literary Festival 2007 last week, the man is a true oratory force.
His poetry readings are hardly ‘readings’ at all – the man recites his poems flawlessly from memory, pandering to the crowd like a rock star and coaxing peals of laughter like a professional stand-up comedian, while regaling them with the rhythmic delivery of his eloquent, yet hard-hitting and sober poetry.
It is hard to believe that this a man who did not learn to read and write until he was 21 years old. Zephaniah is unsure when he started writing poetry, but says he has been using words in a poetic way ever since he was a child.
“My mother said I was doing poetry as soon as I started to speak. I used to call it playing with words, taking words and playing with them, rhyming them, using them for different effects. When I create a poem, I always have an audience in mind. I think of the sound of the poem, the body language when I’m doing it, what I’m going to do with my eyes, and so on. It’s not just an exercise on the page,” he adds.
Benjamin Zephaniah aims to provoke social change through his poetry.
“People usually get very fired-up when they listen to my poetry. In fact, if you go to my readings in London or Jamaica, they seem more like rock concerts than poetry readings – the audience is very loud, they tend to join in and shout along.”
Born in 1958 in Birmingham, Zephaniah is arguably the most recognisable poet in Britain currently, thanks to his trademark waist-length dreadlocks, his charismatic performance poetry, his championing of various campaigns (including anti-racism and women’s rights), as well as his reputation for courting controversy and media attention (he reportedly turned down an Officer of the Order of British Empire award from the Queen).
Poetry as a weapon
A self-confessed kung-fu lover, he once owned a martial arts dojo and is currently studying tai chi and Wing Chun martial arts. But Zephaniah’s weapon of choice has always been his dark and sometimes hard-hitting poetry.
Zephaniah once appeared on TV during the early 80s and performed the highly-controversial Dis Policeman Keeps on Kicking Me to Death – a poem written at a time when racism was rife in Britain.
“They (the producers) had no idea I was going to do that poem. They thought I was going to do another poem about my mother. So when I got up and did the other one instead, they couldn’t do anything about it, because it was a live show,” he recalls.
“The next morning I tried to go shopping but had to abandon the idea because I was getting mobbed by people who had heard me on TV and wanted to thank me for the poem. To this day, someone in India would just come up to me and say they remember that night. The night when I went on TV and told the true story of the minority.”
Zephaniah is also known as Britain’s most filmed and photographed poet – a ‘title’ that he is not proud of because it came about not through his poetry, but the political work and campaigns which he is involved in.
With growing popularity comes offers to perform and publish. “I can’t even remember the last time I walked through a park and just got inspired to write a poem. I write mainly because I have a deadline and contract now, and I find that really depressing. That’s why when people come to me and say they want to write poetry and get published, I would tell them to enjoy their poetry first because once you get professional, it’s not the same anymore. Right now, I run two offices, and that makes me feel like a company. I’m just a poet, man!”
Lately, he has been spending lot more time on his novels because novel-writing tends to “take over” his mind.
“When I write a poem, it just takes a day or two or half an hour, and it usually only has one character – me – and one or two ideas,” he explains.
“But while writing a novel, I’m constantly thinking about different characters and all of them have different ideas, interacting with each other, and I have to move them around through time and so on ? you have to be really organised when writing a novel.”
Zephaniah has three novels under his belt – Face, Refugee Boy, and Gangsta Rap, and all are about and written for teenagers. He is currently working on Teacher’s Day, about a boy who kills his teacher.
Now, isn’t that a rather dark subject for a teenage novel? Well, most of his books are set in real life and Teacher’s Day is loosely based on a real case in Britain. Face is about a boy who had his face burnt off but after it was rebuilt, he was alienated. Refugee Boy is about a child refugee in Britain.
Interestingly enough, Zephaniah shares the same publisher and editor as J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter fantasy books are on the opposite end of the setting spectrum. Also, while Rowling’s books frequently top the bestsellers lists, Zephaniah’s tend to top a different sort of list – they are reportedly among the most-stolen books from Britain’s libraries, a statistic that he seems especially proud of.
“This means that the poorer kids who can’t afford the books are getting them, and that they like the books because it’s about them and their lives”.
He reckons it is hard to define what poetry really is. “To me, poetry is just some words, put in some particular order, which have some effect on some people. It can have different effects on people. Some might feel it from the bottom of their heart, but then others might say that’s rubbish! Some people have told me that my poetry can’t be real poetry because it gets people too excited!”
Nevertheless, the main aim of his poetry has always been to inspire people to speak for themselves. “People may not agree with me all the time but at least they can say ‘Hey, at least he spoke his mind’” he says.