Poetry in motion

Benjamin Zephaniah is fed up with people labelling him. That's understandable, since he's a 40-year-old Jamaican-Brummie-London dyslexic rasta burglar jailbird turned dub-reggae poet activist. But what if the label was Poet Laureate?
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Barking Road in east London stretches through three postal districts. It goes on for miles. It seems longer than Sunset Strip, though rather less glamorous. Mile after mile, there unrolls a landscape of urban grot, thrift shops and miserable eating-houses until, somewhere in the 700s, you find yourself in Newham. Newham is known for two things: being the home of West Ham football club and being a dangerous place for racial attacks a few years ago, especially by the Combat 18 boot-boys.

In the Newham Parents' Centre Bookshop - perhaps the most unlikely shop to find in these tough surroundings - Benjamin Zephaniah is waiting. A tall and striking fellow with an unreconstructed Bear-mingham accent, he is sprouting hair like an old leather sofa. Curly sideburns wave around his cheeks. A black tangle sits on his chin like volcanic lichen. His matted dreadlocks dangle below his waist. "As a matter of fact, I'm not very hairy at all," he says. "I've never grown a beard. Never had a shave in me life. My hair's never been cut since I was 12. You'd have to make love with me to find out, but I have got the most silky smooth skin."

I'll take your word for it. He lives across the road from the bookshop and likes the cultural mix of the area. "There's a new East End around here," he says, "a lot of Caribbean and African and Asian people, but also a lot of the old white community who have extended families the same way that we always had when I was growing up. You can see them in the afternoons, exchanging babies and looking after each other's children..." He always brings journalists here. He likes getting them out of central London and showing them his backyard - how much better it is than the centre, more racially integrated, with better schools and a real community spirit.

"When I did my first British tour in four years last autumn, we finished in London and I hired Stratford town hall, because I wanted to draw people here and say, `It can be done'. We had four or five hundred people at the town hall, a lot of local talent. Doreen Lawrence was on stage, just before the Stephen Lawrence enquiry. We invited refugees along and made it a political event." And when Radio 4's Down Your Way team asked him to nominate a favourite place: "Usually they want to go to the Lake District or somewhere, but I said, `This is a place I love; why don't you come and do a programme about Newham and the people that make it tick?'"

Zephaniah is big on community. While the word has temporarily fallen into disrepute (because of its invariable companion words "care in the"), he's keen to give to communal experience a voice it won't otherwise have. He is a poet of the backyard. He... but here I must be cautious, because he is fed up with people calling him names. He is tired of taxonomies. He is exhausted with definitions. But I suppose when you're a 40-year- old Jamaican-Brummie-London dyslexic Rasta burglar jailbird turned dub- reggae poet activist and Laureate nominee, you can see how people might wish to label you.

"It's so frustratin'," he says. "I get called a dub poet, and the image is of an angry young guy who performs with a certain rhythm. Well yeah, that's the tradition I came out of, but now I write love poems. My anthology, the Bloomsbury Book of Love Poetry, is out in September. And people are saying, `What you writing love poetry for?'"

Typecasting is a bitch, we agree. So is the way fashions overtake you. "We used to call ourselves rap poets before the whole rap music thing took off. People expect me to come on talking in an American accent about homies, and saying `Get down' and grabbing at my crotch. And I don't do that." Indeed no. Zephaniah is serious about his work and about his public role. But his standing among British literary celebrities is a little hard to fathom.

He left school at 13, expelled for being a rebel and "a born failure". A bad-boy teenager, he was sent to an approved school in Shropshire ("which wasn't a school at all. More a dating agency. No, I'm joking") and did a car-mechanics course. But he was angry, the National Front were active in Birmingham, and he turned to crime. "I used to think that anybody who had a car was the enemy. Rich people were the enemy of poor people. It took a while to realise it's not as simple as that." A spell of burglaries landed him in Winson Green nick. After prison he became a disc-jockey in Handsworth, salting his patter with comic stories of British life.

In the late Seventies he was one of the "ranter poets" who accompanied the punk explosion, people such as John Cooper Clarke, Jools, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Attila the Stockbroker, who would come on in the middle of a Clash concert and declaim simple, snarly bursts of agitprop and emotional disarray. "We all felt the same," he says, "working-class British kids who felt that nobody was speaking for us. There were writers doing all this highbrow stuff, but no one represented how we thought. I remember, if anything happened where I grew up in Birmingham, they'd go and get the local vicar at the black church and say, `Community leader the Reverend So-and-so says', and we'd say, `Who?'"

Zephaniah didn't learn to read and write until he was 20, and is still severely dyslexic - when he performed at a children's gig in Battersea this weekend, as part of The Word festival, rather than read from his work he got some of the audience to act out the poems for him. He affects puzzlement as to what things mean ("It's a mnemonic - is that the right word?" "My oeuvre? What's an oeuvre?"). He's been called "a walking rhyming dictionary", but didn't realise such things existed until the other day. He is not disposed to hobnob with his peers. "One reason I live round here is that it's away from other poets," he says. "I don't like hanging out with other poets." His verse is simple, immediately understandable bar-room stuff, often funny and astute about white attitudes to black culture, but politically naive in that ghastly right-on Seventies manner, full of "government spies", arms dealers and iniquitous "politician men". Zephaniah should, by rights, have retired from the game years ago, like Attila and Cooper Clarke; instead his name keeps coming up. The elections for a new Oxford Professor of Poetry? Vote for Zephaniah. Nominations for Ted Hughes's replacement as Poet Laureate? How about Zephaniah? A South Bank programme on performance poetry? Step right up, Benjamin.

Why does it happen? Is it a middle-class giggle, to get a semi-literate black ex-convict with dreadlocks to storm the ivory towers on Parnassus? Or is it genuine respect?

It's quite possibly the latter. Zephaniah has been an ambassador of world poetry from South Africa to Palestine, from Argentina to Scandinavia. He is an inveterate traveller and visitor of schools and prisons and youth clubs. He is Mr Global Cool Guy, insisting on the primacy of the oral tradition in poetry, and the fundamental rhythms that are common to everyone.

"I remember being at a conference in South Africa, when this woman got up and started to perform a poem, not in Zulu or any dialect I recognised. It was an old patois thing. She said: `What you do, we've been doing in South Africa for years, but we've lost touch with it, because of the big struggle with apartheid. This is what it used to be like.' What was amazing was that the rhythm was the same as a classic dub poem, though it was thousands of years old."

Zephaniah's conversation is full of such meetings, such impromptu exchanges. People are always coming up to him. They treat him as their personal poet. They harangue him for being insufficiently radical. "I get old black women in

wheelchairs saying: `Why don't you write more about black women in wheelchairs?'" Gradually you understand that he's something of a community hero. Posters of him (looking like Lenny Kravitz) appear in shop windows. The British Dyslexia Association put his picture on postcards ("He finds it difficult to cope with the word/ But it's never stopped his voice being heard"). There's even a brief, respectful hagiography about him, written for children and illustrated in pastels, like the life of Christ or Nelson Mandela. His role as black spokesman and political poet was recently crystallised by a single work: a poem called "What Stephen Lawrence has Taught Us", commissioned by Channel 4, a chilly indictment of things even government enquiries can't ameliorate. It starts and ends with the line "We know who the killers are".

"The poem," said Zephaniah, "is about how we sit and watch the academics and super-cops trying to define institutionalised racism, while black people continue to die in police custody, or emptying out their pockets in the street, or are killed without there being any killers. It's like, we're trying to define racism, but there they are, we know who they are. I think you can genuinely tap into what people feel and what they think is not being expressed."

It sealed his reputation. "The day after it came out, a busload of kids went past me and they shouted out, `We know who the killers are!'. People were walking around in the street saying, `We know who the killers are'."

In other words, Benjamin, you've become the People's Poet. How about the Laureateship? "I don't want to talk about it. I've always refused to talk to the press about it. But there's a banner down the road saying `Benjamin Zephaniah for Poet Laureate'. Little old ladies come up and say, `You are the people's laureate, you don't need that job. You wrote that poem about Stephen Lawrence and it moved me'."

Mr Zephaniah is, he says, a "griot", a Jamaican word that means several things: a poet who is also an actor; a musician; an alternative newscaster; a political commentator. There's no English equivalent, though a troubadour with a satiric bent might come close. It's a frustration for Zephaniah, who left Britain three years ago to recite his verse in places where they'd understand such things. "I had this yearning to perform where this tradition was very much alive, and where I wasn't always being asked `What is the poet's role in society?' and `Why are you so political?' and `Are you a failed actor?' When I perform in the townships of South Africa, and in India and Pakistan, they think of poetry first and foremost as being oral. In fact, they ask me: `Why do you have to put it into books at all?'"

Zephaniah has a novel for children, entitled Face, out in August, his love poetry anthology out in September and a new volume of angry political verse, Too Black, Too Strong, out next year. He's developing a children's television series for Granada and planning to go on tour with a band. He is amazingly busy, energetic and passionate. If he is not an especially accomplished poet qua poetry, he's a dozen other things at once - a voice of the community; a hero to disadvantaged young blacks; an asker of awkward questions; a happy rapper.

"I'm at home in any city," he says, in his cool, travellin'-man way. How fortunate for east Londoners to have such a "griot" in their midst.