For the second interview in our #PandemicTales campaign, Daastan had the pleasure of speaking with poet Benjamin Zephaniah. We discussed his new book, activism and his lockdown experience.
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The Impact of Lockdown on Benjamin Zephaniah
Benjamin Zephaniah discussed the impact that lockdown had on his mental health and his work. He candidly explained that it was a tale of two halves. He said that lockdown and the pandemic didn’t really affect his work. Luckily he had just finished two tours (promoting his autobiography “Life and Rhymes”) before the first lockdown began. So in a way he had a “good lockdown” and managed to rest somewhat. On the other hand, he found that he became busy following the murder of George Floyd. Appearing on social media and other platforms, talking about the death of black people in custody. Benjamin opened up about his cousin’s death at the hands of the British police, in much the same way as Floyd. He said that after raising awareness for such an intense period of time, he found he needed a break.
“It’s a bit like having a trauma and having to relive it every day and tell it in court” Benjamin recalls.
Connecting With Nature
Benjamin was asked if he found any sort of renewed connection with nature during this time. To which he responded that “nature had connected with him” in the form of a family of deer moving in to his back garden. Benjamin then went on to say that he makes a point of being in touch with nature everyday. He said that he runs, cycles, meditates and does Tai Chi. He doesn’t celebrate his birthday, but instead makes a point to be grateful each day.
“I wake up every day and I say I am glad to be alive and I appreciate nature around me”
Benjamin Zephaniah’s “Windrush Child”
Benjamin discussed his new book “Windrush Child”, which he wrote during the pandemic. When asked if the murder of George Floyd and the BLM movement gave him a renewed need to write the book, he said no. He said that the need to write the book was a historical one, and a part of history we are still living through. “People are still being deported…people are losing jobs and losing their benefits, losing their citizenship”. He said that he wanted to tell the story of Joy Gardner who was killed in 1993, as she was being deported, and to bring awareness to the Windrush Scandal which is still very much ongoing.
Life and Rhymes
Benjamin was also asked to speak on his BAFTA award winning television program Life and Rhymes and if he felt that the nationwide isolation we were facing at the time, made the poetry and experience more poignant. He assumed the project would get postponed, but the production company wanted to do it in a socially distanced manner. Which was a far cry from the audience driven experience he had anticipated. But he decided to go ahead with the idea because poets were struggling for money and traction during the pandemic. He thought no one watched it, and then got nominated for and eventually won a BAFTA. He said of his win, that in the year of lockdown people wanted something deeper.
“The program had gravitas you know, the program had meaning, the program gave voice to both young and old people.”
Impact on the Industry
Benjamin commented on the impact of the pandemic on the literary industry, he suggested that the industry was traumatised by the lockdown to a certain extent. To demonstrate the biggest affect of all, isolation, he quoted his poem “People Need People” which goes:
“To walk to / To talk to / To cry and rely on, / People will always need people.”
But he also went on to talk about the resilience of humans and our incredible ability to bounce back from trauma. He suggested that the industry would recover, but not because of the buildings and the publishers, but because people will always write and have something to say. “You can never stop ideas” Benjamin says, people will never stop dreaming or falling in love, and so writing will go on.
We at Daastan want to thank Benjamin for taking part in this campaign, his insight was invaluable on this topic. If you haven’t entered our short form poetry competition yet, please do so here. You can also watch this interview in its entirety on our instagram @mydaastan.