“I used to think poets
Until I became one of them.” – Extract from the poem:’Who’s Who’, Benjamin Zephaniah.
Nationally famous Rastafarian poet and author Dr. Benjamin Zephaniah has written hundreds of poems exploring his Caribbean heritage (as the child of a Jamaican and a Barbadian) his Rastafarian beliefs and themes of anti-racism, human rights, animal rights, and refugees. He says he ‘can’t remember a time when he wasn’t creating poetry’. However, at school, reading made little sense to him, due to his dyslexia.
In a video by Dyslexia International, Benjamin talks more about his experiences with dyslexia; Click here to watch the video, or view it below.
During his childhood, Benjamin Zephaniah faced discrimination – the teachers would assume that, as a black person, he would never be academic and would be good at sport instead.
In an interview with newspaper The Guardian about his dyslexia, Zephaniah remembers; “Once, when I was finding it difficult to engage with writing and had asked for some help, a teacher said, “It’s all right. We can’t all be intelligent, but you’ll end up being a good sportsperson, so why don’t you go outside and play some football?” I thought, “Oh great”, but now I realise he was stereotyping me.”
Stereotyping and racial discrimination in the 1960s had always been something that Benjamin Zephaniah strongly stood against. “I remember a teacher talking about Africa and the “local savages” and I would say, “Who are you to talk about savages?” She would say, “How dare you challenge me?” – and that would get me into trouble.”
Despite the fact he could engage on an intellectual level, reading and writing was hard for him, and he dropped out of school at 13 with no qualifications.
Yet the age of just 15 he had developed a following based in his local community of Hansworth. He was a poet capable of speaking about local and international issues in a way that engaged with the Afro-Caribbean and Asian community. When he was 22 years old his first book of poems, ‘Pen Rhythm’, was published by Pen One Books, a small, East London publisher. He created the poems, and narrated them to his sister, who wrote them for him.
Eventually he grew more and more successful, yet staying true to his writing style and topics he believes in. He aims to bring poetry to those who wouldn’t normally read it, to people who thought poetry was ‘a white-man’s thing.’ “I started writing poetry because I don’t like poetry. Of course I liked using words, but I wanted to change the image of poetry. I wanted to bring it to life and talk about now and what was happening to us.”
As a celebrated children’s poet, he involves fun lyrical rhymes but doesn’t shy away from hard-hitting topics. For example in his poems ‘Who’s Who’, ‘Carnival Days’ and ‘Talking Turkeys‘.
Meanwhile his more adult and teenage poetry and books include the book ‘Refugee Boy’, and poems ‘The Race Industry’, ‘What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us’ and ‘Bought and Sold’. Find them on the ‘Ryhmin‘ section on his website, benjaminzephaniah.com