INTERVIEW: Benjamin Zephaniah | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Reggae poet, and more recently university lecturer, Benjamin Zephaniah is due to arrive in Middlesbrough this Saturday 24th October as part of a month-long celebration of black history at Teesside University. As something of a newcomer to the field of academia, Benjamin explained how he was approaching his new role as a professor whilst teaching people about the often neglected history of poetry.

“I’m enjoying it on a couple of different levels. Firstly, educating itself is a great thing but it’s not great if you just sit and copy off the teacher. What I’m doing is trying to open peoples’ minds and open their creativity to get them to criticise society and express themselves politically, which I think is important, to just open your mind. I think poetry that’s been taught in schools has been all about the written tradition, but I’m promoting the oral tradition. This is a tradition that goes back thousands of years, yet some people still think it’s modern. It’s not. Before we started writing things down, we started speaking to one another, so I’m all about getting people to open up creatively whilst bringing the oral tradition back to life.”

The oral tradition is something of which Zephaniah is a great admirer and he told of how the immediacy of oral poetry makes it a more available art form than written poetry. “If you’re waiting for a written tradition for you to be a part of literature as a poet, you’ve got to wait for publishers, you’ve got to move in the right circles, you’ve got to do this, that and the other; whereas with the oral tradition, you can just get out there and do it. You can be fully paid, earning a living off poetry and never ever be published. These big publishers are waiting up in their tower blocks in London for the next big thing and they only want what fits their idea of a poet, but there are people out there making their names and being heard without ever being published. People say that the poetry publishing industry has gone down in Britain, but performance poetry is booming. There’s a very democratic side to it as well. The audience will tell you if you’re bad or good. There’s not some middle-class publisher saying, ‘I don’t really know what you’re saying’ or ‘I don’t understand the syntax here’, if you are bad, you’re gone!”

Benjamin has always been a poetic person and attributes his creativity to his roots and his family and he admits that “playing with words” was always a big part of life for him, even as a child.

“My main inspiration was the poetry of Jamaica and I had that in my head via my mum and my family members. They wouldn’t call themselves poets, but they were full of poems and full of rhymes and they used rhyme in a very practical way to try and remember things and lots of history was passed down through poetry. When I started doing it, around the age of six apparently, we just called it ‘playing with words’. I just used to love to make things rhyme, or changing the way I said something to give it different emphasis or different feeling. As soon as I started using language, my mum said I started using poetry.”

When he’s not performing poetry or teaching at university, Zephaniah likes to experience world cultures, especially those much different to his own. He told me about his recent trip to North Korea, why he went and what he learnt from this journey.

I’m all about getting people to open up creatively whilst bringing the oral tradition back to life

“I’ve always had this thing, since I was really young, where I would go to countries that were said to be ‘difficult’. I remember during the Cold War everyone told me ‘You’ve got to be careful of the Russians’ or ‘The Communists are coming’, and I thought, ‘Y’know what, I’m just gonna go’ and since then, every time I hear propaganda about a country, I always want to go there. North Korea was just a place on my list and I was lucky in that I knew people who organise visits there, so I just went. It’s weird being there – it’s very controlled, but I managed to break that control and see a bit of normal life there. You can’t see much of it because Pyongyang is basically a model city, like a dressed up North Korea. It is a very difficult country, but it made me see things from their point of view in a very strange way. I got to understand them and why they are like they are. It’s kind of like an aggressive, angry child. If you talk to that child and find out that it was abused, then you understand it and you can understand its anger. It’s the same thing with North Korea.”

The nature of understanding other people is something that Zephaniah extends to other species as well, and he discussed how as an eleven year old child he stopped eating meat before finding his feet in a world of fellow herbivores and how he’d rather people were inspired by their own feelings, rather than simply copying his example.

“I went vegetarian at 11 and I didn’t understand nutrition or anything like that. I just felt an affinity with animals. I always ate meat reluctantly. I didn’t like the texture or the feel of it in my mouth and then one day I had a conversation with my mum and she explained to me that meat is actually an animal, which I didn’t realise until that point. Then, when I was 13, I learnt so much about the dairy industry and about farming that I stopped doing that as well. Then when I was older I realised that we human beings can live better as a society if we live alongside animals rather than consuming them. I remember the first time someone said the word ‘vegan’ to me, I didn’t know what the word meant. I thought he was being offensive and I actually ended up getting in a fight ‘cause I thought he was calling me a bad word. People were saying, ‘no, vegans are alright!’ It was just really instinctive for me, rather than being influenced by someone else. I get loads of letters from people saying they’ve turned vegan and they were really inspired by me, but I tell them not to be a vegan because of me. They should do it for themselves. Do it because you want to, because that’s what feels right for you, not because someone else said you should do it.”

Benjamin Zephaniah is at Teesside University on Saturday 24th October.

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