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Benjamin Zephaniah "We wanted to create a scene where it's just normal for people to go out and listen to poetry"

The performance poet and guest curator for this year's Off The Shelf Festival tells us more about his craft.

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Benjamin Zephaniah & The Revolutionary Minds

Benjamin Zephaniah is an internationally renowned poet, novelist, playwright, musician, actor and public speaker. Born in Handsworth, Birmingham, the young Zephaniah fell in with the wrong crowd and was in trouble with the law on a number of occasions, before leaving his life behind and moving to London in the early 80s in pursuit of his dream of becoming a professional poet.

He was to become instrumental in the popularisation of performance poetry in the UK, eventually being categorised as a "dub poet" due to the strong links between his writing and the rhythms of reggae music. Since then he has written five albums, various plays and youth novels, made film appearances and presented radio shows, all the while remaining an outspoken yet humble supporter of many good causes, both at home and abroad.

We caught up with Benjamin ahead of his appearance at Off The Shelf 2012 to talk about curating youth events, breaking down the barriers between audience and performer, and Jamaican independence.

You're curating three youth events as part of Off The Shelf this year. How did you find the poets and what are you hoping to achieve with the events?

First of all, I have to say that asking me to curate was a good plan, because if they'd said, "Just come along, do something and then go home," I probably wouldn't have done it.

What I've always wanted to do is give people a voice. I've always tried to give people a voice that don't normally have a voice; get people on stage who don't normally get on stage; get people to listen to other people who they wouldn't normally listen to. So I'm working with young people; probably poetry is not their first priority in life, probably they've had a bit of a rough deal in life. They certainly would never be listened to by adults. To source those people, we talked to social workers, probation officers, people who work with young people, and asked who they thought would be up for it.

With the Poetry Party [for 7-11 year olds], we sent out a message to some schools and I think that was very quickly oversubscribed, so no problem there.

I'm a professor of poetry and creative writing at Brunel University, so for the Benjamin Zephaniah and Friends up-and-coming poets event, I thought right, I've got a poet that's graduated from there that's trying to make his way on the spoken word scene, and another woman who's a student, who's done a little bit of performing but mainly on protest marches and things like that. She's a strong Muslim woman, so I thought if we could let her have a voice, with an audience like this, it would be good.

With the Poetry Party in particular, it's about giving kids a positive first experience of poetry, isn't it?

The reason why I call it a Poetry Party is that, as much as possible, although we're in a theatre for this one, we try and get a party atmosphere. So it's like going to a party for the kids, but instead of having music, we have poetry. We make our own music with our own words. It's a very simple concept but kids love it. They don't have to get up and perform - some just sit back and enjoy it. You know, not everybody goes to a party and dances - some hang out in the kitchen.

Do you think performance poetry is more inclusive than the more traditional poetry establishment?

If I thought so, I'd say yes, but actually I know so - absolutely know so.

A man said to me the other day - I was in Hull - he said, "I don't understand it. I'm a white, heterosexual, middle aged male, born in this country and living here all my life. I can't seem to get any gigs - any poetry readings." I told him, "With all due respect, we've been listening to you for years." Now is the time for all the marginalised groups to come up - immigrants, lesbians, gays, people who have been outsiders - for them to have a say. Of course there are straight white men in there, but you've got to come with something new to say to the world.

You've spoken in the past of your dream of establishing a healthy performance poetry scene in the UK. How far do you think this has been achieved?

I'm going to start sounding like I'm blowing my own trumpet here, but I think we have done really well. I can remember when there was no performance poetry scene here. People like me and Linton Kwesi Johnson encouraged people to hold nights. I can remember hiring halls, and people saying, "A poetry reading? This is the middle of Brixton. It's 1984, there are riots all over the place and you want to hold a poetry reading?" And we packed it out, and proved that we could do it.

We wanted to create a scene where it's just normal for people to go out and listen to poetry, and nowadays a boy and a girl can go out on a date and listen to poetry. That would've been crazy back then.

It's to do with breaking down the barriers between performer and audience, isn't it? Making it like a conversation between friends.

That really is it. I know that when I'm on stage, there are people in the audience that are more educated and well read than me. What have I done to deserve to be up there? I just happen to be able to tell my story in a particular way, but I don't want a barrier of "me and them".

In Pakistan and in other parts of Asia they have a thing called mushaira. It's a poetry performance, but as you're performing they ask you to do that line again, do that verse again, or somebody in the audience will say, "I've got a poem like that, do you want to hear it?" and they stand up and do it. I've done that in England. When you've got no fancy stuff - no guitars, no computers, nothing - the only thing that makes you different is that the lights are turned on you, and you can just as easily turn the lights on them too.

What would you say was the turning point in your career?

I'd like to go back a bit and talk about a turning point in my life. I was living in Birmingham. I remember the night exactly. I went to bed, and there was a guy at my door with a gun protecting me. I was sleeping with a gun underneath my pillow. There was some gang that wanted us and we were after them. I'd not long had a friend that was shot and another that was doing a life sentence. I woke the next morning and said, "I'm not doing this anymore." When I think about it, where was I actually going? I just drove to London. I didn't have anybody, but I just knew I had to get out of that scene. So that was the real turning point in my life.

I suppose in terms of poetry, I remember when I started, I'd get £5 a gig, sometimes £10. And I remember NME released a cassette called the NME Racket Packet, and it was new and up-and-coming artists. They did a gig that went with it, and they offered me a fee of £70. I thought, "£70! I've arrived!"

Do you think the humour in your poetry makes it more memorable?

I think the mixture of rhyme and humour, if you're putting a serious political message over... at a grassroots level it's a way people remember things, it's a way people think about things.

My poem 'Macho Man' has people laughing their heads off, but at the same time it's showing up the macho men. Sometimes I can see girlfriends looking at their boyfriends and saying, "That's you, that is!" The amount of people who've told me that they remember that poem - they can't remember the exact words but they remember the gist - it just sparks conversations and debates, and I love that. It's what I want to do.

Do you have any advice for poets who want to perform and get published?

First of all, in terms of your writing, be honest. Don't go with fads and fashions because they fade, and if you're known for being attached to one trend, when that trend's gone you can't complain. The world doesn't owe you a living.

In terms of getting published, I would say start with performing if you can. Just go to an open mic night and do a poem. If it doesn't go down well, you will know why, because you can see and feel why. Maybe it needs tweaking or you need to do something else, but the audience's response is immediate. It's not like giving a poem to a publisher and waiting for weeks for them to reply and say, "It didn't quite work for me." Once you've got a bit of clout on stage, as long as you can think about writing for the page in a different way, you can do it.

You were recently featured on a few radio shows talking about the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence. What did this mean to you as a milestone?

I've been asked a load of things about Jamaican independence and I keep saying the same thing - Jamaica has never been truly independent in my view. The highest court in Jamaica is actually the Privy Council, which is in London, and the head of state is the Queen.

It is a milestone in the sense that the weight of the colonial masters is taken off Jamaica, in a very real and physical sense, but one of the major problems is with corruption that starts at the top. I remember being in a Jamaican school, and saying to the kids, "Don't forget education is really important". And this little kid got up and said, "Sir, I don't want to disrespect you, but you must understand that in our country, the most educated people are the most corrupt." I had to look him in the eye and say, "I completely agree with you, but the reason why you've got to get an education is that you've got to show us a different way."

Learn more

Benjamin Zephaniah will host the following youth events as part of Off The Shelf 2012:

  • The Youth Word Up - 13-19 years - 8th October at The Hubs
  • Poetry Party - 7-11 years - 9th October at The Lyceum
  • Benjamin Zephaniah and Friends - young up-and-coming poets - 3rd November at The Lyceum
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