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Sep 11, 2019

Benjamin learned the power of poetry

Benjamin Zephaniah will be in Guernsey at St James on 1 November, where he will talk about his life and poetry and his autobiography The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah. The evening is being organised by the Guernsey Literary Festival as a special event and will form part of the poet’s national tour, which begins this month. (Sept)

Poet Benjamin Zephaniah’s life did not have an auspicious start. Beaten regularly by a violent father, he left school at 13, became involved in gangs, committed crime and was sent to borstal, where sexual abuse was prevalent.

But the Birmingham boy who, partly through his dyslexia, left school with no qualifications, has become one of Britain’s best known and loved poets. Zephaniah was to become professor of poetry at Brunel University in London, has 16 honorary degrees and was a candidate for the post of professor of poetry at Oxford. His poems are taught in schools and can be found are on the UK GCSE syllabus.

In an interview, Benjamin Zephaniah said that his early life ‘went off the rails, but I turned it round. I learned to be trustworthy. I learned to help other people.’

And he learned a love of poetry. He was taken to church by his mother and was inspired by the charismatic preachers whose delivery was like performance poetry. He learned to rhyme and he taught himself to read.

He  turned to performance poetry and moved to London where he was involved with a workers’ co-operative, leading to the publication of his first collection of poetry, Pen Rhythm, in 1980. Standing on a stage, turning a spotlight on the injustices he’d faced, made perfect sense. It helped him to connect with others and gave him the opportunity to articulate his frustrations.

That might come as a surprise to many who will have heard funny and affectionate children’s poems like I Luv me Mudder and Talking Turkeys, but Zephaniah has long raged against injustice whenever he has found it.

He has been at the forefront of campaigns to expose corruption and wrong doing by those in power. He worked with the family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence during an episode that had profound consequences for race relations and policing.

Even after so many years of writing and performing, he could never be described as a poet of the establishment. He turned down an OBE because he felt it had links with colonialism and slavery. 

And so perhaps it should come as no surprise that Zephaniah’s best-selling autobiography is more of political history than it is a gentle stroll down Memory Lane. 

It highlights his friendship with the great South African leader Nelson Mandela, his personal struggles against racism in the UK and his support for the unemployed, the poorly-educated, those who are denied opportunity and people on the breadline.

‘There is so much injustice in the world and there are so many things wrong in society that there would be something wrong with me if I was willing to just sit back.’

Zephaniah’s career has taken him down some unusual roads; he once won the BBC Young Playwright’s Award and he has released several albums of music. He has performed and recorded with Bob Marley’s band The Wailers. He also appears in the hit TV series Peaky Blinders. He is a keen Tai Chi practitioner.

The Life And Rhymes Of Benjamin Zephaniah will be at St James on Friday 1 November at 7.30 pm. Tickets priced £10 are available at https://guernseyliteraryfestival.com/book-events/event/the-life-and-rhymes-of-benjamin-zephaniah.

Signed copies of The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah will be available after the show. 

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