Saturday, January 30, 2010

Dr Benjamin Zephaniah

I tracked Benjamin Zephaniah down to the robing room. We were all getting dolled out in our full academic regalia of gowns and caps. Finer still was Benjamin's brown full-length coat, trim-fitting falling to a few inches above his ankles. One clear way of keeping yourself a poetry superstar is maintaining the look. The coat was made toward his own description by LUKE, a designer friend in London who also kits our Frank Bruno.
Benjamin was with us at Hull Unversity to receive an honorary doctorate - I was the presenting officer, writing and delivering the citation. Benjamin develops a natural warmth with an audience. His closing speech was perfectly pitched, and apparently impromptu.
He doesn't like working from text, but feels no nerves at all on standing in front of an audience. The 'impromptu' speech fits in with a steady year-long, global flow of such events. This honorary degree was his fifteenth. I'm interested to know what the world record is, whether he's pushing it at all. He's not really chasing the title, since he's turned down four offers - those he felt were simply 'hey it's cool to give it to a black man' promptings. As a kid, dyslexic, leavng school at 13 unable to read and write, he had ganged up with others to attack Grammar School kids offended by their level of education. Now his firm mission is to promote education, especially among the poor and black. Going to university can appear to be selling out. By accepting degrees, he's setting the other model.
Stacking up the honorary titles is surely fun too. He told me he was speaking to Nelson Mandela by phone the other day, Mandela's voice now slowing and more crackly with age. 'I've received eight honorary docotrates around the world, you know,' Mandela told him. Benjamin was able to laugh. 'Me, I'm about to get my fifteenth,' he answered.
Progress across the campus was slow, halting for photos (I'm picking up tricks: 'it's a day in the life of a supermodel' is one mode of his quips) and signing autographs ('Benjamin loves Pat' - 'Stay True!' the type of added comment, words instead of smiley faces).
He found time for a session with our MA Creative Writing students, as perhaps one of the easiest men in the world to interview. Answers flow. A remarkable aspect of his poetic voice is the way he can naturally shift a conversation into performance of a remembered poem. Performance is his natural mode, whether in a hall filled with thousands, a small group like our own, or even his smallest ever audience, a bus driver from Luton in full uniform who paid a five pence admission and sat, an audience of one, for the full Zephaniah experience at the top of a tower in Canary Wharf. (It was a newspaper's 'the person I'd most like to meet' competition; the ticket price was Benjamin's choice, making it the world's smallest audience in the world's highest place - so he does chase records, but they need to be quality ones.) My favourite anecdote regarding audiences was his tale of being left on a dusty street in the middle of a village in Zimbabwe. With no heralding, no-one set to expect him, he was left to start his performance, as lonesome as a busker. Within two lines of poetry an audience had started to gather, and soon a crowd. At the end of the first poem folk said, 'that's great. Here's one of my own.' The performance became interactive, a sharing.
Benjamin has homes in village Lincolnshire and in Beijing, but gets little time in either. He was driving off after lunch for Heathrow, not to fly anywhere but to have meetings in a hotel with people who were flying in to see him. His regret is that the celebrity roadstyle leaves him little time to write. His novels he can write in snatches, given a few hours, but poetry he finds needs more space, more surrounding vacancy. He's collapsed a couple of times on stage - in the 46 performances in 40 days type of schedule - exhaustion not something he recognized till it hit him. But then he has poems that don't work on the page. He writes for his voice but for his body and face too - poems that don't work without that physical backup. Performance gives its own creative buzz.