Benjamin Zephaniah: not prone to advocating silence

When my phone rings at half-past eleven at night, I am rather surprised to hear the deep, lilting voice of Benjamin Zephaniah at the other end. This late-night interview with the poet is the result of an intense schedule on his tour around Britain’s most disadvantaged schools. Understandably, his interview time is limited in between acting as a guest poet in prisons, an honorary patron for charities from Amnesty International to The Vegan Society and a bestselling poet. How did a boy who left school unable to read or write end up receiving (and rejecting) an OBE for his services to literature? “I was an angry young man” he says: “but you know what? I found other ways of getting my anger out.”

The son of a Barbadian postman and Jamaican nurse, Benjamin was raised in Birmingham and left school when he was thirteen, before receiving a prison sentence for burglary. His personal experiences with racism, violence and prison have given him a genuine connection with the prisoners that he meets on his workshops. “It’s not like an academic lecture with me talking down to them and saying: ‘you must be good’, because I’ve been there.” On these visits, he performs his poetry and encourages prisoners to share their own writing. “It’s all about my experiences; you know, ‘a racist said this to me one day and then I wrote this,’ and they really respond to that because they were in the same situation once, but they just did something else.”

Aside from his work in prisons, Benjamin’s poetry has been a huge influence on the education of children from underprivileged backgrounds. He talks emphatically about the pressure on British youth nowadays, from gun culture to rampant consumerism, to simply fitting in with peers.

“I think poetry is a good way of getting kids to express themselves and their frustrations - and it’s just so easy. When you work with young people, it’s not the greatest poetry in the world - they’re not going to be writing like Shakespeare or Shelley or Keats, but they’re expressing themselves and talking about things they’d never talk about with their parents or their social workers. Because it’s a poem, they’re being given this licence to use their imagination and go to their inner feelings.”

When he encourages children to write poetry at these events, their parents come up to him and express amazement that they are capable of expressing themselves so fully. “Most parents when they have an argument with their daughter don’t tell them to go to their room and write a poem,” he says, with a majestic laugh. “We were all once young kids and it amazes me how people can forget that.”

The poet has also tried to break down these barriers between children and adults in his four novels for teenagers, following the success of Face in 1999. “In a very roundabout way, I’m writing for adults because I want adults to look at a teenager’s world and try to understand it. You should never let people forget what it was like to be a teenager.” Benjamin’s approach to his own writing is beautifully simple. “I hated reading. I hated the idea of reading a novel. I start from the point of view that I’m a reluctant reader and ask: would I like to have read this?”

His novels explore joy-riding accidents, rap music, violence in school playgrounds, refugees: “I like to make them earthy and very much about the things that kids are really going through today. It’s not a fantasy world in my novels: it’s the real world.”

The poet is also involved with the Benjamin Zephaniah Poetry Competition at Cambridge University. “We try and get people not to be afraid of writing overtly political poetry or holding back by thinking: can I really say how I feel about the world?” His own work is constantly battling with ideas about race, culture, identity and politics, to the extent that the poet refused an OBE in 2003 by declaring that he is “profoundly anti-empire. The big things that people are discriminated against are race, sexuality and gender, and they’re all here, they just change their faces.” Now, Benjamin believes: “racists wear suits - it’s all still there, you just have to look at the news to see the surface of these things that happen, so I’m still fighting. I’m not keen on poets who sing about these things but will not get involved with an organisation: I also have to be an activist.”

In forging his career as a poet, the Jamaican rhymes and songs that pervaded his childhood have been a formative influence on his own work. “When I first thought of poetry, I didn’t think of it as something on a page, I thought of it as something that should be spoken aloud. And that came from Jamaica, from my mother – if she had a message, she’d make a rhyme that she’d know would stick in our head. That’s something they did a lot in rural Jamaica because people were semi-literate: the oral tradition was very strong.” 

From his first collection of poetry, Pen Rhythm (1980), Benjamin’s muscular, rhythmic poetry has been brought to life by his energetic performances. “I can appreciate poetry that works well on the page but my ambition has always been to take poetry off the bookshelf and bring it to life. The thing I like doing the most, and there’s no doubt about it, is standing in front of a live audience: just me, no music, nothing else, just me.”

Even his way of speaking is charged with a kind of pulsating poetic strength, with fast-paced sentences full of repetitions and emphases. “This is the first art form, this is what we were doing at the dawn of creation, telling stories and using words in a way that they had an effect upon others; and now, in this computer age, with all this technology, people still want to listen to a mad guy ranting on stage!”

“I have the pleasure of connecting with people and seeing the humanity in people all over the world. There’s nothing like it: it’s really special.” As he describes his work abroad in a warm Jamaican accent, I realise that this man is more than just another page in my GCSE anthology: Benjamin Zephaniah is changing the image of the passive, observational poet forever.