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Bad boy's love for learning

Benjamin Zephaniah (credit Adrian Pope)

He’s ‘very’ dyslexic. Left school at 13 unable to read or write and drifted into petty crime and gangs. Ended up doing time. Now one of the biggest names in poetry, with 16 honorary doctorates, a hit TV role and a new autobiography out this week, Brunel Poetry Professor Benjamin Zephaniah talks education…

Learning is clearly something he’s passionate about. Born and raised in Birmingham, the 60-year-old dubbed Britain’s ‘people’s laureate’ is fiercely anti-establishment – he rejected an OBE because the word ‘empire’ reminded him of slavery. He’d considered himself semi-retired when Brunel’s Creative Writing team first approached him. “The idea of joining the establishment, an institution… I had just never done that.”

Curiosity got the better of him and he came to have a look. “I spent a lot of time just coming and meeting various members of staff because I wanted to know what was involved. Then I started hanging out in the bar with students and really enjoyed it. That was when I saw it from both sides and could see how I could contribute. I thought I can add something to the creative journey of the students and the life of the university.”

Inspired by the charismatic preachers at church, Benjamin first started performing poetry aged 10. While a lot of black singers say they learned to sing in church, he wasn’t into that. “But preaching. I loved it. I’d look at the preacher and think ‘what you’re saying is obviously not true, but the way you’re saying it, I almost want to believe it’.”

In parallel, his part in the hit BBC drama Peaky Blinders is based on a Jamaican preacher called Jimmy Jesus. Jimmy, a real character, fought with a battalion from Birmingham in the First World War. He later landed back in Brum ‘slightly off his head’ and started roaming the streets preaching hellfire and damnation. The similarity ends there. Benjamin Zephaniah doesn’t do God. “I’m into spirituality. But I’m not religious. I believe in God without the religion. I think religion stops us getting close to God. A poet is a spiritual teacher.”

At Brunel University London, he teaches a module called writing poetry for performance. “A lot of people write poetry just for the page and end up reading it. This is about bringing it to life and really lighting up the stage.”  Students are assessed by how their poetry sounds and how they perform it. Only one of Benjamin’s books is on their reading list. “I don’t really teach me. The thing I am sharing is my experience and the knowledge. I’ll say this is how I did it a long time ago. But you don’t have to listen to me.”

He starts his module by telling the students that “on paper, you are all more educated than me. I left school at 13 unable to read and write. But how did I get here?”

Some take his module to build confidence speaking in public. Others want to teach poetry. Some find it a challenge, he says – particularly guys. “That’s because it is about bearing your soul in public, talking about your feelings.” For some it is stage fright, or a lack of confidence. “I had one student who said ‘I’m white, I’m middle class, I have not suffered any pain, so I have not got anything to say.’ Then a friend of hers was injured in Afghanistan. After that, boy did she have something to say about a lot of things.”

“I believe that everyone has something that they can write. It could be personal, it could be political, but everybody has something to say.”

“Students open up in front of me. Some burst into tears.” He launches into the story of a massive guy whose nickname was Damage. “He’d come in here and take off his coat and take out these poems about his relationship with his mother and it was so touching. And it’s stuff that he can’t tell his mother, but when he says it, there’s tears in his eyes. Then he finishes, puts on his coat swaggers out the door and he’s Damage again. To a certain extent we all put on a mask.”

Benjamin’s own work, which has a political edge, spans dub poetry plus novels and plays. Dub is a performance poetry using Jamaican rhythms – an art form born in the clubs of the 70s and 80s – something he and a handful of others in Britain created. He’s made it his mission to fight the dead image of poetry in academia and brings it crashing into life with his performances.

“The thing I am most proud of is I was out somewhere doing a gig for TV and two of my ex-students’ names were on the line-up. That’s what’s important, when I see my students who have left and they’re out there working, making a name for themselves.”

Before he came to Brunel, he’d visit other universities to do gigs. “They’d say we really need to get more black and ethnic minority people in.” These are universities that have given him honorary doctorates. “I say, we don’t have that issue at Brunel. It is very multicultural. There’s a thing about people from backgrounds who can’t afford university, but that means white people as well.”

“I think that learning, at any level, school-level, higher education-level, is a great thing. And I think that the government, when they monetise education, they are missing the point.” A lot of Caribbean families here, he notes, are sending their children to the Caribbean to get educated. “The schools are poorer, the facilities are less, but it’s the dedication of the teachers, the discipline, the way they learn. They have fewer dropout rates, fewer expulsions. People in other countries treasure education. We have a lot to learn here in the West.”

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‘The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah’ is published by Simon and Schuster, priced £20 and is BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week.  Benjamin’s autobiographical live tour starts at The Theatre Royal, Bath on 6 May. Find out more about creative writing at Brunel

 Image: Adrian Pope

Reported by:

Hayley Jarvis, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268176
Hayley.jarvis@brunel.ac.uk