Alice reviews life and works of Benjamin Zephaniah at Ledbury Poetry Festival 2024

Celebration of the Life and Works of Benjamin Zephaniah, Hosted by Neil Astley 

With its beautiful lofty ceiling and beaming windows, the Burgage Hall welcomed a crowd united in their appreciation of poet Benjamin Zephaniah. Despite the large turnout following Zephaniah’s death, the event retained a sense of intimacy as we shared our collective grief. Voices intertwined with laughter and sighs throughout, fostering a community in the face of this difficult situation.

Neil Astley, Zephaniah’s publisher at Bloodaxe Books, gave an emotive introduction, sharing how he met the poet and showing clips of Zephaniah’s performances. These clips brought Zephaniah’s presence into the Burgage Hall, evoking feelings of tranquillity as we watched videos of him with his mother and witnessed his raw and real side when addressing his experiences with bullying and racism. His recitation of “Be Nice to Your Turkeys at Christmas” blended serious themes with lighter moments that elicited some laughter.

Astley revealed that Zephaniah was initially hesitant to be published, preferring performance poetry to reach those unable to access books. Astley aimed to bridge that gap by preserving the spoken idiom of Zephaniah’s work. As Roy McFarlane explained, this approach made Zephaniah’s poetry “simple and accessible and loved and fun.”

I first encountered Benjamin Zephaniah’s poetry when I was very young, finding it far more appealing and understandable than traditional poets whose language I struggled with. McFarlane, during his reading, noted that Zephaniah understood the “British canon of poetry” dominated by traditional, white, male poets, and adapted these intellectual roots to make poetry enjoyable for a broader audience. McFarlane’s contribution to the event was interactive and satisfying. His smooth voice delivered the poems clearly, and his movement with the meter was transfixing. Upon greeting the audience, he encouraged a loud response, asserting that “Benny wouldn’t have it” if they remained quiet! I eagerly anticipate Roy McFarlane’s upcoming event, “Take Flight: Poetry and Music,” on Friday, July 5th, as I found him to be an entertaining and soothing performer who engaged deeply with the audience.

Astley’s reading of Zephaniah’s experiences in Gaza and his reflections on the devastating death of Stephen Lawrence were extremely thought-provoking. Lines such as “black people are so often killed without killers” lingered with the audience, especially poignant considering the ongoing issues of war and racism.

In addition to themes of injustice, Jackie Kay’s reading highlighted Zephaniah’s feminism and his aversion to misogynists, as he believed “these devils are not God’s men.” Kay was witty on stage, lightening the mood by imitating her mother’s attempt at a Zephaniah accent. She also allowed moments of reflection, reminiscing about Zephaniah walking the cobbled streets of Ledbury and sharing a personal perspective on him as a friend.

This event was both healing and humorous; despite the melancholy over the death of Benjamin Zephaniah, the speakers on stage transformed some of this sadness into joy, leaving the audience with cherished memories and smiles.


Alice Drury

Alice Drury is a recent ex-student of English Literature, Medieval History, and Classical Civilisations at Hereford Sixth Form College. Based in Ledbury, Alice has volunteered in the Poetry House and currently takes part in writing for her college newspaper. In her free time, she enjoys reading and comparing Ancient Greek theatre to modern plays, inspiring her to write her own performances.

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