Last August I wrote a blog entitled 'Poetry in Peril?' in which I bemoaned the fact that children no longer learn the best of our past poetry by heart. None of my doing, but this has, of course, now been remedied by the BBC's current excellent poetry season, most notably by their 'Off By Heart' competition, the final of which was screened last Friday. One of the judges of that competition was Benjamin (Obadiah Iqbal) Zephaniah, and I was lucky enough to see him 'in audience' at the The Little Theatre in Leicester last week.
I don't know about the rest of the country, but I am pleased to report that, in Leicester at least, poetry is alive, and not only alive, but kicking and buzzing. The theatre was packed--standing room only--with a rich mixture of all ages, and Benjamin entertained us, held us entranced, made us laugh, informed us. In fact he overran his one and a half allotted hours by 45 minutes, and no one minded a bit, not even when the signing queue took a further hour and a bit to get through.
I knew Benjamin's children's poetry well (most obviously his 'Talking Turkeys') but I had never heard him perform his poetry for adults. It was a revelation. Benjamin is unashamedly political--but it is a focussed and personal politicalness without dogma or blinkered narrow-mindedness. It is also laced with dark and unexpected humour. I particularly liked his poem 'The Men from Jamaica are Settling Down' about the first wave of Caribbean immigrants who arrived on the Windrush, and also 'What Stephen Lawrence has Taught Us'. 'Sadhu', his poem about the holy man he met in India with dreadlocks longer than his own, has a particularly magnificent line 'Sadhu sits on India like a lotus flower'....which, uttered in Benjamin's hypnotic tones, immediately conjures up the magic of that great continent.
The Q and A session was wide ranging--and Benjamin's answers were thoughtful, intelligent and funny. To one questioner who wanted to know what poet he would recommend to our beleagured, trough-swilling politicians, he thought for a minute and then came up with Pam Ayres. His reasoning was that she wrote about domestic things, and that the lot of them could learn much from her about the art of good housekeeping. To another, a boy from an approved school, who wanted to know how to survive, he gave measured and helpful advice from his own experience. I am certain that it will have been taken to heart and acted on.
That Monday night, Benjamin taught me a great deal about performance, about how to connect with an audience as a writer. He is brutally honest about his past, about his time in prison, about the abuse his mother suffered, about his days as a gangster in Birmingham. But what I found most impressive was his assertion that he had known he wanted to be a poet from the age of eight. Last August I was feeling very negative about what I felt was the somewhat parlous position of poetry in our society. Having met and listened to Benjamin, I am hopeful again.