Benjamin Zephaniah is known as a performance poet, but that’s only one of his talents – he’s also a reggae artist, children’s writer, novelist and playwright. His journey from an approved school and a prison sentence for burglary to international recognition and a nomination for the Oxford professorship of poetry is an inspiring tale in itself.
Why are you a poet?
I have always loved playing around with words. I didn’t know it was called poetry. I was just an innocent kid messing around with words when an adult said ‘You’re a poet, be published or be damned’.
What poets do you admire?
Poets I like are Shelley, KRS-One, Carol Ann Duffy, Jean Breeze, Spike Milligan and the greatest living poet in the world, Tony Harrison.
What inspires you?
Freedom fighters like Marcus Garvey, Tony Benn, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Shami Chakrabarti – people who know there is another way. I am also inspired to write by the hungry people I see when I travel around the world. Sometimes I feel like I just want to do whatever I can to help them but I can’t do anything else, I have no other skills. I’m not rich, so I try to help them with my words, and sometimes by doing charity work.
Tell us about a normal working day…
If I’m in England and on Greenwich Mean Time, I get up about 7am. I always start my day with a run or a cycle ride, then I come home to my gym and do a boxing and Kung Fu work out. When I have pushed myself to the limit I slow down with some Yoga and Tai Chi. I then have breakfast. I check my emails, post, and reply to those that need attention. Then I start working.
Work can be sitting in my study and writing, going to my recording studio and making music, or going out to film or record a radio programme. Well that’s how it should happen; but sometimes I just hang around talking to cats and birds all day, or playing football or Kung Fu with my neighbours. I sometimes work late into the night. I sometimes play late into the night. Fortunately I only need a few hours sleep.
How do you write?
I work in a study at the back of my house that has a great view. If I’m writing a novel, play or film I’ll work on a computer, it I writing poetry I tend to write it by hand.
What’s your thought process behind a poem?
It all depends on what kind of poem it is. If it’s a performance poem I sometimes start with a theme or even a chorus. I will also find a rhythm to work with, a beat in my head. If it’s a poem for a music CD album then I may listen to lots of music to get me in the mood. If it’s a commission I’ll read books on the subject.
Sometimes I’ll do these things for a couple of days then suddenly one day the poem comes out, just like that, in a couple of minutes. I might rewrite it later, a kind of fine tuning, or sometimes I’ll tell the audience it’s a new poem and just perform it to see if it works.
Describe your route to being published…
I spent a lot of time sending my work to publishers, but then I realised that – at that time – publishers in Britain didn’t understand black performance poetry. So I went to a small cooperative publisher and published my first book. It was only a small book (and not very good), but it got me noticed. More importantly, I went out and performed my work and created a buzz with the public. When people started talking about me and I was appearing on television many of the publishers who turned me down came running back.
What’s your advice to an aspiring poet?
When you start you should try to write about things close to you. If you can perform your poems go out and perform, take it direct to the people and let the publishers catch up with you later. Read or listen to as much poetry as you can. If you are young and good-looking have fun – it doesn’t last forever. Don’t write just for money, don’t think you’re good because you’ve won an award, don’t go to 10 Downing Street or Buckingham Palace if you are invited, and just stay true to you.
Benjamin Zephaniah is a high-profile international author, with an enormous breadth of appeal, equally popular with both adults and children. He is most well known for his performance poetry with a political edge for adults and ground-breaking performance poetry for children, and his novels for young people include Face, Refugee Boy, Gangsta Rap and Teacher's Dead. As well as poetry and novels, he writes plays and music.