25 November 2011
Edited by Colin Hambrook
Benjamin Zephaniah, best known as a leading British performance poet, is preparing to enact a radical career progression by taking up his first ever academic position, as a chair of Creative Writing, at Brunel University in West London.
A Rastafarian, vegan and martial arts expert, Zephaniah, 53, grew up in the working class district of Handsworth, Birmingham. He published his first book of poetry at the age of 22, was voted the nation’s third favourite poet of all time (after T S Eliot and John Donne) in a BBC poll in 2009, and is now about to develop a new method of teaching creative writing to students—with an emphasis on the sound of the spoken word.
His life has a literary rags-to-riches trajectory. What he calls his “formal education” ended at the age of 13 when he left his approved school unable to read. But he had been encouraged to memorise and recite passages from the Bible in his Afro-Caribbean church community from the age of six. He was performing in his church when he 10 years old and he was a known, established poet within his local area by the time he was 15.
Benjamin resolved to become a poet who could reach white as well as black audiences, and to fight the dead image of poetry in academia. “I grew up thinking there was an ‘us’ and ‘them’ in poetry and literature, generally, but my interest was poetry and my background was the oral tradition because it was what kept them alive,” he says.
“At various periods in my family history we weren’t allowed to read so we had a strong tradition of spoken poetry and story telling. So that kind of thing was passed onto me. And then I thought that there was this ‘other’ poetry that white people did and it was poetry that excluded people. It’s poetry that they wrote to show off their education. It was poetry they wrote to kind of show they are part of a club that understands things in a different way than other people do.”
Taking up a permanent position as a professor of Creative Writing will be an important move. He comments that he feels “very nervous about the word ‘teach.’ It’s about sharing my knowledge and inspiring people.” Zephaniah insists that he does not want to “duplicate other people. I want to do something original. The area in which I am most well known is performance poetry. I’d like to make this place known for Performance Poetry.”
He explains that he is “very dyslexic,” and he argues that this need not be a barrier to him as a teacher, or to students who may have the condition. “I’m not ashamed of that because I think I always tell people that dyslexia is not a measure of your intelligence and that there are ways to work round it.” He will probably, he says, ask his students to read their work for him, using inflections and performance techniques, “and ask them how they think it should sound.”
It was the close Afro-Caribbean and Asian community in Handsworth which nurtured his talent for the spoken word. Zephaniah comes from a “church singing family.” His father was a “Martin Luther King character. He would use repetition. I would think, ‘this is very very powerful.’”
Benjamin visits China in the summer to spend time in Beijing and train in martial arts in a remote village, Chenjiagou, home of Chen Tai Chi. He is currently learning Chinese and has studied Urdu. He adds that he doesn’t like life to be too easy. This brings us back to looking ahead to his new post at Brunel which he takes up this month. “It’s all new territory,” he says. “It’s going to be interesting. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Head of the School of Arts, Dr William Leahy said, “Benjamin Zephaniah is an inspirational poet, and person. He is sure to enthuse, energise and educate our Creative Writing students.”