13th January 2002

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New age poet with old world charm

By Nilika de Silva 
"One more, one more," they chanted, only to be told wryly that this was not a reggae concert. But the poet obliged, delighting the packed audience at the British Council in Colombo. 

Benjamin Zephaniah, a new age poet with old world charm, was in Sri Lanka this week, moving audiences, engaging them while gently compelling them to redefine the boundaries of poetry. He was simultaneously poet and talk show artiste rolled into one. 

"You know in Caribbean families it tends to be poetry all the time," says Zephaniah. "My mother would remember recipes in poetry, she would teach me little bits of history in poetry and verse, but she would never call herself a poet," he said in an interview with The Sunday Times. 

Zephaniah recites "One of my favourite poems", 

"I used to think nurses were women,

I used to think police were men 

I used to think poets were boring

Until I became one of them" 

"My mother says that as soon as I started speaking I started doing very strange things to language, speaking in rhyme and rhythm," says Zephaniah who was sent to an approved school for being uncontrollable and rebellious until he made a decision at the age of 19, to turn from crime to music and poetry.

The 44-year-old Caribbean poet who has lived his entire life in England, has turned down many awards for poetry and drama. "I want to write for the people not for the judges," he says. "I don't want to be introduced as the poet who won such and such an award by people who have never even read my books," he explains. 

"I just won an award for a BBC radio play called 'Listen to your Parents', and was awarded the 'Race in Media Award'. But I refused to pick it up. Because violence in the home is not a race issue; this was a message to everybody. And I got many responses, letters from women running refuges for battered women, children, some battered men. To me those are my awards." 

Flown in by the British Council, Benjamin, was performing in Colombo and Kandy this week, his visit coinciding with the British-Sri Lanka Law Week. 

Zephaniah lists the Romantic poets Shelly and Keats among his No. 1 favourites alongside Pakistani poet Iqbal ("when he's not being nationalistic"), Tagore, read in translation (although he stresses he's wary of translations) and then I like "me", he says. 

Zephaniah was actually known in Britain for his "Rants", very serious angry poetry, before he started to inject humour into the poetry. "People said I pioneered that kind of poetry. A lot of the other poets just faded away, because all they could do was anger." 

The poet who says he has no political ambitions at all, "I haven't the hairstyle to be a politician, and I don't look good in a suit," dreams of a world without armies. He has written many poems that talk of racism and the state of justice particularly of black and Asian people. 

"Some people have accused me of not writing love poetry, but I think all my poems to some extent are love poems. Love in the true sense is what I write about which is loving everything. I love the planet, I love people I've never met. They really have to do things to make me unlove them. I just love life. I love animals passionately. I'm a vegan." 

His love poetry incidentally includes

"I love my mother and my mother loves me 

We come so far from over the sea,..." 

"But it's such a macho world where you don't really see a man penning a rock and roll song about loving his mother," he laughs. 

Zephaniah who has created many documentaries including "Dread Poets Society," and "Crossing the Tracks", a documentary showing how Asian and Black people affect British culture, and "Hidden City", homeless people on the streets of London, was pleasantly surprised to turn on the TV in his room at the Galadari only to see one of his documentaries not yet shown in England. 

Zephaniah has been managing an all girl Asian rock band Xterio, led by a Sri Lankan Maithri Mahendran. They are about 15 years-old so I was asked to look after them, by their parents, he explained. 

Who dunnit? a poem on South Africa searching for perpetrators of apartheid in the days before Mandela, leaves one with the impression that no one is taking responsibility for what took place, as everybody had a supposedly waterproof alibi. The punch comes home when one man responding to this embarrassing question simply explains, 'In those days I was black'. 

Watching the poet perform was like being transported back to the calypso evenings while at the same time remaining wide awake to the realities of life in the 21st century. 

Events diary

OBA special events

The D.S. Senanayake College Old Boys Association batch of 1990 has planned two special events for the following weeks. A special general meeting to discuss "Our vision for year 2002 for our alma mater" will be held on Friday Jan. 18, at 6.30 p.m. at the College Hall and the opening of the WSF standard squash court will be held on Saturday, Jan.19, at 6.30 p.m. at the indoor sports complex.

Plant sale

Today is the final day of the plant exhibition and sale organised by the Low Country Plant Growers' Association being held at the Viharamahadevi Park from 9 a.m. to 8.30 p.m.

Over 75 reputed horticulturists are displaying their plants. Garden ornaments, fertilizers, chemicals, ornamental fish and birds, mini waterfalls, furniture and many more items are on sale.

Diploma in Business Management

The Institute of Management of Sri Lanka and the National Institute of Business Management will conduct a 10-module based diploma course in Business Management starting on Saturday, January 19.

For more details on this course which will be in English, the course director could be contacted at NIBM, 120/5 Vidya Mawatha, off Wijerama Mawatha, Colombo 7. Phone / Fax: 669385.

SLANA Annual General Meeting

The 14th Annual General Meeting of the Sri Lanka Anti Narcotics Association (SLANA) will be held on Sunday January 20, commencing at 9.30 a.m. at the Kalutara National Institute Of Health Science (Mathugama Rd., Nagoda, Kalutara)

All SLANA members are cordially invited to be present.

Southern Maroons Night 

The inaugural get-together of the Ananda- Nalanda Southern Province Old Boys Association and dinner dance will be held at the Light House Hotel, Galle on Saturday January 19 from 7.00 pm. Music will be provided by Saman and the clan. All old Anandians and Nalandians are invited. Tickets are available at the gate.

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