Benjamin Zephaniah needs no introduction. He is a writer and performer across a variety of mediums and continues to give life to the written word through spoken word. He has inspired me since school and is not only a great artist, but an amazing person too.
On Thursday 1st March 2012 at 10:26am I gave Benjamin Zephaniah a phone call where I asked him a set of questions for approximately half an hour. I noted down his responses as I spoke to him, and have compiled these answers below.
1. Firstly, did you get a ‘big break’ or was it a more gradual process to success? What were the key steps?
Benjamin stated that the most important step was to leave Birmingham. Although he loves Birmingham, he was with the ‘wrong crowd’ and needed to break away. His ambition to become a writer was in the back of his mind and coming to London allowed him to find artistic groups of people. There was no ‘big break’ as such, but just to do with the times. Margret Thatcher was elected and there was a fear amongst women’s groups, black groups and so on. There was the feeling of ‘I will crush you all’ and a strong feeling of ‘us and them’. He mentioned that due to this, there was media interest, and he remembered John Peel playing his music, and the importance of people like him and Roland and Claire Muldoon, who hosted cabaret nights at the Hackney Empire that were headlined by alternative comedy acts such as Dawn French
2. I am often vocal about issues I am passionate about, incorporating them into my work, but I am wary this may alienate me from some of the general public, perhaps by being misunderstood or being pigeon-holed negatively. You express your personal beliefs, and often have a political edge to your work. Have you faced any opposition in your career?
Benjamin asserted that if you’ve got strong opinions on one side or another, even if that’s falling in and out of love, you’re going to face some people that don’t like it. One woman said she ‘detested’ him. But he thinks ‘people can live together in unity’ if we stop telling myths about each other. If you believe in ‘peace and love’ and the abolition of arms, there’s going to be people that sell and make money from guns who will complain. He said he has a very strong vision and you need to keep your conviction. Artistically, there are poets with ‘angry, punk, ranting’ poetry and most are gone because they are ‘banging on your head with politics’. This is why Benjamin’s work is complemented by his involvement with children’s books. He went on to say that this is why he often uses ‘humour’ and that you ‘can’t always be serious,’ because everyone likes to laugh, as well as the fact that sometimes humour can ‘show the absurdity’ of some things. He commented that if you’re a black woman in wheelchair, who’s a lesbian, there’s only so much you can say about that before you need to ‘broaden your approach to writing.
3. You have many strands to your work, how do you remain successful in such a variety of areas? (Poetry, fiction, performance, music)
‘It’s an interesting question, and it’s one I get asked a lot,’ Benjamin noted. He went on to say that it ‘naturally causes problems,’ in terms of marketing. One time he had a music record and a children’s book out at the same time, but most of the time he manages to combine them. Most people who like him accept that he does a variety of work and when there’s someone who can connect them, and can see the connections from one piece to another, it makes him feel really good. You need to express yourself, there’s no ‘formula’ – you just have to be ‘good at it all.’ He elaborates that, as a writer, ‘you care about literature, but your publisher wants to make money,’ and these days we ‘buy and sell art as a commodity.’
4. What’s the best advice you’ve had? Did you ever have a mentor?
Benjamin said that he didn’t really have a mentor, but the nearest person to a mentor, in terms of someone he would ask for advice about his work, is the politician Tony Benn. He once wrote a letter to Bob Marley, and he received a handwritten response. Although it wasn’t very long, it meant a lot to him and was a big push and made him think he must be okay. In some ways, Benjamin believes, it’s good to go against the grain. He didn’t really listen to others because he believed he was right. For instance, when a fellow poet told him not to write a novel, and that he was ‘selling out to poetry,’ he ignored them and did it anyway. When he booked a hall in Brixton in 1990, the people at the venue told him he’d lose money, and thought he was crazy; there were riots going on, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, the Cold War… who would care about poetry? It ended up being a ‘packed out gig.’
5. Did you ever feel like you weren’t going to “make it” as a writer?
Benjamin stated the answer to this question was a very firm ‘no,’ he had ‘no doubt.’ He would chat up girls and tell them he was a writer, when at that time he was out stealing. That’s why he went to London; to achieve the dream he had when he was eight years old. He felt he had a strong message for the world, and he told me to ‘remember, there was no performance poetry scene then,’ and that it was something he felt ‘deep in my bones.’
6. Did you have part-time employment alongside your career before becoming a full-time artist?
When he moved to London, Benjamin slept in a car for the first few days. Then he got in contact with friends of friend’s and stayed there; he would often live in ‘licensed squats.’ He was lucky because these friends happened to know different people – musicians and artists. He remembered he would make things out of coat-hangers; he made a table, and picture frames etc. He couldn’t sign on for some reason, so he did odd jobs. It was ‘easier to survive’ then because people would help you out. He had no money but he would always be able to eat.
So, he tried to get published and nobody seemed interested. Then he put into contact with this place in East London and they said that interesting, they had just got a grant to publish about the community. However, it was a co-operative and he would have to join it if he wanted to be published. So, his first book, Pen Rhythm, was published by ‘Page One Books’. He worked in their book shop, and even though he was only paid a few pounds at the end of the week, he had housing and they covered his rent. So, he had little money but always ate, because, although he realised people of his generation always say it, but ‘people pulled together a lot more then.’ So, he was never really ever homeless or starving.
7. So, would you say there is some truth in the expression that it is ‘who you know’?
Benjamin agreed that there is an element of truth to the expression, because he ‘loves to know and connect to people.’ He grew up with no artistic influence; his family home didn’t really have any books except the Bible. They were ‘postal workers, nurses, and bus drivers,’ he said, laughing. When he said he wanted to be a writer, they would laugh at him. So, he asserted, you’ve got to be connected with artistic people. But in his private life, he tends to keep away from artistic people. He supposed that’s why he now lives in Lincolnshire, rather than somewhere like London. It’s the ‘normal people’, that’s where he gets his inspiration from.