Thanks for the words: A tribute to Benjamin Zephaniah.
I wasn’t lucky enough to meet Benjamin Zephaniah. I wish I had. I’ve worked in the children’s book world for nearly 30 years, both as an editor/publisher and as a poetry anthologist, yet somehow our paths never crossed. Zephaniah’s work has featured in ALL our poetry collections at Nosy Crow – they wouldn’t be complete without him – and, like all great writers and poets, I felt I knew him. I wanted to write today and say thank you for, well, everything. His brilliant poem, For Word, talks about gratitude and these are my favourite lines:
Thanks for words that do inspire
And those words that burn like fire
It’s these words and the way he put words together to make the world listen that deserves all our thanks.
Born and raised in Handsworth in Birmingham, England, Dr Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah was heavily inspired by Jamaican music and street politics, and performed for the first time when he was just 10. He left school at 13 and began to develop a strong following as a young poet who was able to speak about the issues his community, and the world, were facing. Zephaniah moved to London aged 22, where he published his first poetry collection, Pen Rhythm and increasingly became known as not only a poet, but as a political and animal rights activist.
Zephaniah’s poetry gave people a new voice. His words whistled through you with the force of a hurricane, and he used form and content to thump a beat that was deliberately intended to unsettle and disturb. He was anti-establishment, and almost anti-poem, shaking it up brilliantly and persuasively, and we all loved him for that. His writing, whether novels, plays or poetry, doesn’t pull punches and is often hard-hitting and blackly funny.
Most of all, I loved the way Zephaniah wrote for children. He made it fun and accessible, often a bit silly and always full of multi-layered meaning. He wrote the sort of poems that showed children how powerful words can be, how bite-size words can make a reader feel something and, more than anything, make them feel BIG.
My absolute favourite is the Zephaniah classic which many children (and adults) love. Talking Turkey is the headline of his collection published in 1994, his first children’s book which was reprinted after only 6 weeks. Zephaniah was a committed vegan, and the poem is a brilliantly playful protest on the behalf of turkeys at Christmas. The holiday season is now upon us, and I like to think of those turkeys out with their placards, making a stand – defiant to the end, poking fun at tradition and demonstrating that things can be done a different way. In fact, just like Zephaniah himself.
Thanks for words that reach and touch
Thank you very, very much.
For Word © Benjamin Zephaniah, Funky Chickens, 1996
Image Credit: Adrian Pope