Brunel's academic griot will 'fight dead image of poetry'

Benjamin Zephaniah hopes to get poets performing in his first-ever university role. Jack Grove reports

September 15, 2011

"It's kinda my first job," says Benjamin Zephaniah about his new post as chair of creative writing at Brunel University. "There is a lot of paperwork - it's something I've never really dealt with."

Best known as one of Britain's most popular poets, the 53-year-old Rastafarian has held many roles since leaving school at the age of 13: novelist, playwright, anti-apartheid activist, reggae chart-topper and a young offender who served time for burglary.

So his move into the academic establishment - his first job on any official payroll - is perhaps the most surprising twist in his extraordinary career.

But Zephaniah, who broke into the literary world while performing dub poetry alongside stand-up comedians and punk bands in 1980s London, will not be teaching from traditional textbooks or poetry anthologies.

Later this month, he will continue his "fight against the dead image of poetry in academia" at Brunel's west London campus with a course based on performance poetry.

"People used to chant lines from Shelley and Keats at demos in their time," he says. "They used to write and perform to each other. I want to teach poetry as a living, breathing thing."

Literature is too often considered solely in the context of the written word, Zephaniah argues. "If you say you are a writer in Britain, people ask you what you've published: 'Can I buy some of your work?'

"If you are in Africa, Asia or the Caribbean and you tell someone you're a writer, they will say 'let's hear something'.

"I like to think of myself as a griot. It's a West African word for someone similar to a troubadour - a bard or poet who goes from village to village, and a political agitator.

"People have said the oral tradition is dead in Britain, but it's not - it's thriving. There are many people who have never been published going round doing performances as a full-time job."

Blending a poem's text with the dramatic aspects of performance is something Zephaniah is keen to explore with students.

"I won't be editing their poems - I'll be explaining how to make it work as a performance piece.

"Poetry read quietly on the page is very different to something that is meant to be read aloud. Details can often be lost as they go by very quickly when read out.

"There is a physical element too. Some performances will require movement to draw in the audience, others need stillness."

Hanging out on campus

He is also embracing university life, and notes that he is looking forward to having an office for the first time. He has made several unannounced visits to Brunel to "hang out on campus", to get a feel for the place.

Zephaniah, who was named the nation's third-favourite poet in a BBC poll in 2009, behind T.S. Eliot and John Donne, will attend the university's established open-mic poetry evenings to encourage his students.

With tuition fees at Brunel rising to the £9,000 maximum in 2012, he is acutely aware of his responsibilities to his students.

"I feel sorry for students," he says. "But I think, 'Shit, they are paying a lot of money for their course and I have to give it my all.' I cannot just be a famous name who turns up occasionally.

"I want my students to say 'Benjamin Zephaniah was my tutor and he was an inspiration'."

He also argues that taking a permanent academic post is an important part of his lifelong fight to promote literature and learning among black people in the UK.

"I am nervous about the idea of role models. But there is a crisis in the black community, where being educated is not cool. That is dangerous.

"Clever kids are hiding their intelligence - they fear it might be used against them.

"I have 16 honorary doctorates and I know black kids find that quite inspiring.

"At one time there was a young black boy who used to play truant and follow me round to libraries when I did my readings and carry my books.

"I knew he'd play truant anyway, so I thought he was better off with me. I was considering calling my latest book Not to be Taught in Schools, but he said if my books were in schools, he would go.

"Sometimes you have to take risks to contribute to the betterment of your community. I want more black children to go to university and don't just want to stand on the sidelines."

Zephaniah's progress: from church to university via jail

A Rastafarian, vegan and martial arts expert, Benjamin Zephaniah grew up in the working-class district of Handsworth, Birmingham.

Coming from a "church-singing family", he performed his first poetry at 10 and was an established "street poet" by the age of 15.

He was convicted of burglary aged 14, serving a short custodial sentence, but moved to London at the age of 22, resolving to become a poet who could reach white as well as black audiences.

He has become one of the UK's best-selling poets and his work is taught in schools and universities.

He has also been a high-profile campaigner against police brutality, spurred into action by the death of his cousin Michael Powell in police custody in 2003.

Opposed to the idea of Empire and an outspoken anti-monarchist, Zephaniah turned down an OBE in 2003.

Each summer he travels to China to spend time in Beijing and to train in martial arts. He lives in a village in Lincolnshire.

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