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Benjamin Zephaniah on poetry


Poetry: Notes from a passionate poet Benjamin Zephaniah describes his route to being published.

from the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook 2009

These articles are taken from the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2009, published by A&C Black (£14.99):

‘How did you first get published?’ and ‘can you give me any advice on getting published?’ must be the two questions I am most regularly asked as I go poeting around this planet. And what really gets me is that for most of my poetic life I have found them so hard to answer without doing a long talk on race and culture, and giving a lesson on the oral traditions of the Caribbean and Africa. I’m trying hard not to do that now but I have to acknowledge that I do come out of the oral tradition and to some extent I am still very much part of the Jamaican branch of that tradition, which has now established itself in Britain. In reality, getting published wasn’t that hard for me: I came to the page from the stage. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to join the oral tradition, I simply started performing in churches and community centres, on street corners and on political rallies, and I really didn’t care about being published in books – I used to say I just want to be published in people’s hearts. Now I don’t want to sound like a royal seeking sympathy or a surgeon evaluating her or his work, I just feel there’s something very special about hearing people recite a poem of yours back to you when you know that it has never been written down: it means that they must have heard me recite the poem and it had such an impact on them that it left an impression on their minds – but I say hearts because it sounds more sensitive.

Someone with a PhD once told me that the most important thing I could do was to get published, so for what seemed like an eternity (in fact it was just a couple of months) I became the most depressed kid on the block as the rejections flooded in, and I took each rejection very personally. I soon stopped punishing myself and went back to performing. Within the black and Asian communities there was a large network of venues to perform in and I was happy there, performing for ‘my people’. But it wasn’t long before I started to make a bit of a name for myself in what we now call the mainstream, and then the publishers came running back to me, many of them apologising and saying that the person who sent the rejection letter to me had now moved on and they weren’t very good anyway.

I didn’t blame the publishers; I wasn’t angry with them. It was a time when the British publishing industry simply didn’t understand Reggae and Dub poetry, and the performance scene as we know it today had hardly taken root. It’s not practical to advise all budding poets to go down the route that I chose. Some poets simply don’t want to perform whilst others want something published before they take to the stage – they literally want something to cling to as they recite – but I have to say there is nothing like looking your audience in the face and delivering your work to them in person.

I used to be able to give a run down of the poetry publishing and performance scene in Britain in about 30 minutes, but not any longer, with the internet and all that, the universe has changed. Not only are there hundreds of ways to get your poetry published, you can now publish your performance and have a worldwide hit without ever actually having a book or leaving your bedroom. You don’t even have to tread the boards to become a performance poet. The choice is now yours: you can be a Dub poet, a pub poet, a cyber poet, a graffiti poet, a Rap poet, a naked poet, a space poet, a MySpace poet, a street poet, a geek poet, an underground poet, or a sound poet. You can go any way you want, but you must never forget to be a poet. You must never forget why you started writing (or performing) and you must love your art. The love I had for words as a baby has never left me, and when I was getting all those rejection letters and feeling so unwanted, my love for poetry never waned.

And another thing: read poetry. Many people tell me that they love poetry but after a minute or so of investigation I find that they only love their own poetry, and in many cases they only understand their own poetry. You can get a lot of help from teachers or in workshops, but reading other peoples’ poetry is the best way of understanding poetry, it is the best way of getting into the minds of other poets. This great book that you now have in your hands (the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook) and learned people who understand the industry are able to give you much better advice on getting published than I can, and if you do get published your publisher or agent should be offering you all the practical help you need. But you have to have the passion, you have to have the inspiration, you have to be a poet. Stay true.

Benjamin Zephaniah has been performing poetry since he was 11 years old. He has also written 11 books of poetry, four novels, and recorded five music CD albums. He spends much of his time encouraging young people to write poetry and has received 14 honorary doctorates in recognition of his work. His latest novel is Teacher’s Dead (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007) and his most recent music CD is called Naked. His website is

This article is taken from the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2009, published by A & C BlackClick for A & C Black Publishers Publishers References listing (£14.99) and is reprinted by kind permission of the publisher.

Our review of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2009 edition.

Also from the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 2009, Kate Mosse's supportive advice to writers from the Foreword to the book.