As a fan primarily of mainstream, “page” poetry I don’t necessarily seek out spoken-word poetry, but I am enlivened and inspired by poets like Benjamin Zephaniah — not that there are too many other poets like him. Just as certain avant-garde poets challenge us to take language more seriously and to invent a new universe for every poem, brilliant performance poets like Zephaniah remind us that poetry is first and foremost an oral, embodied medium. Zephaniah’s example challenges us to take living more seriously, and to question whether our words and actions and politics are truly aligned as they should be. And needless to say, for a type of poetry that so emphasizes the physicality of language, film/video is the ideal medium.
Bloodaxe Books were kind enough to send me a review copy of the DVD-book for which this is the trailer, and I loved it. I’d already known from watching her films on Vimeo that Pamela Robertson-Pearce is a good director who knows how to get out of the way and let the poems and the poet speak for themselves, and this talent is very much on display here. I watched the DVD in two long sittings and was entranced. The readings and interviews are artfully blended, with earlier sequences anticipating later explanations by the poet. For example, a series of delightful readings for, and exchanges with, schoolchildren were filmed in what turns out to be the Keats House next to Hampstead Heath, which prepares the viewer not only to hear about the poet’s own childhood and difficult time at school, but also eventually to hear how and why he came to love Keats, Shelley and Byron despite his original aversion to dead white male poets. And footage of Zephaniah in a track suit practicing taiqi in his yard is first used as a backdrop for several segments, arousing one’s curiosity — eventually satisfied — about his exercise and martial arts regime and its influence on him as a performance poet and musician.
The footage of various readings before live audiences varies in quality (the sound is slightly muffled in a couple of them), but one thing I really appreciated was that the director did not attempt to jazz things up by jumping frenetically between two or more different perspectives, as so many slick poetry filmmakers like to do. I generally find that distracting, and with a performer as expressive as Zephaniah, there’s no need to add any more kinesis!
The film is playful and serious by turns, just as Zephaniah’s poems are, and gave me a lot to think about, especially on the role of performance in poetry, the social responsibility of artists, and the various ways in which oral and literary traditions intersect. My favorite interview sections were actually those with the poet’s mother, Valerie Wright, clearly the single biggest influence on his life, who sat beside him on a couch and helped answer questions about his upbringing and the family traits and customs that helped to produce a poet. I should add that all the poems are presented in full, and the film also incorporates a highly entertaining music video by his rap-reggae group, The Beta Brothers (with four more videos included as bonus tracks). Neil Astley’s Foreword in the book offers a more comprehensive biography than any I’ve seen online, and people who already own some or all of Zephaniah’s earlier books with Bloodaxe and Penguin will want this one, too, since it includes different versions of many poems, updated to reflect how they have evolved as he continues to perform them on stage.
The DVD is in PAL format, which means it won’t play on most North American DVD players, but should play just fine on most computers (as it did on my laptop). As the note about this on the last page of the book says, “In an ideal world we’d produce our DVD-book with DVDs in either format and give overseas readers the choice, but unfortunately that would be much too costly.” Check out the publisher’s detailed description at Vimeo or on the Bloodaxe website. Let me close with Zephaniah’s own description at his blog:
Yes, that’s right, I’ve got a new DVD and book out. It’s a kind of Zephaniah on the road jam, and it features my mum and my nephew, Zayn. He’s a good boy, but he can’t play football as good as me. The DVD has live performances of some previously published and unpublished poems, with interviews and lots of messing around by me. What I really love about it is the mix of my children’s poetry, my work for adults, and my music, which most publishers usually like to keep separate. Publisher, writer, and all round good guy Neil Astley has written an introduction for it, and Pamela Robertson-Pearce did the filming. We’ve tried to do something which stands up as both entertaining and educational, so it could be used in schools and other funky places. I’m pleased with it.