In “Bought and Sold,” Benjamin Zephaniah asks, “What happened to the verse of fire”? “Smart big awards and prize money,” he warns, are “killing off black poetry.” Poets who seek commercial approval risk losing their ability to find what Zephaniah terms “de magic poem,” a poem that “can ease our sorrows” and celebrate “our tomorrows.” A poet of the heart and of the head, Benjamin Zephaniah writes and performs socially engaged poetry, a poetry that makes audiences laugh and cry, feel and care, think and plan, engage the world in its possibilities and its obstacles.
Deeply committed to an ethical vision of the world, an expansive ethics that ranges from veganism to anti-racist activism, Zephaniah works on and off the page. He has championed a poetry that speaks to publics, eschewing the model of the isolated genius artist intent on writing in cryptic codes. His commitment to a democratic poetics is perhaps most evident in his writing for children in the volumes Funky Chickens, Wicked World, and School’s Out: Poems Not for School. Zephaniah is deeply committed to the future of a risk-taking poetry that pursues social and political utopias. In “Protest Poets,” he urges “human poets” to “unite,” “Lest we pass on to future poets / a world in which, poets do not fall in love / or mek mistakes.”
On this “Verse of Fire” panel, Benjamin Zephaniah is joined by Kenyan poets Tony “Smitta” Mochama and Njeri Wangari, in a wide-ranging discussion about the present and future of poetry, the relationship between art and activism, and how to engage multiple audiences through innovative performances. The panel will be moderated by poet and literary critic Keguro Macharia.
Keguro is an Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Maryland, College Park. he belongs to the Koroga Collaborative and to the Concerned Kenyan Writers Collective. His writing can be found at gukira.wordpress.com
Tony ‘Smitta’ Mochama is a successful journalist, and popular performance poet in Nairobi, with two published works of poetry to his name – ‘What if I Am a Literary Gangster‘, and its sequel, ‘The Literary Gangsta – II.’ A third work of poetry ‘Evanescence‘ is on the way … Mochama has also lectured on creative writing and poetry, most recently as a guest speaker in June at Concordia University, in Montreal. A self-confessed vodka aficionado (no lemons, no avocado), the dread-locked poet also did Law at UoN, but sez: “Don’t practice. Just preach!”
Njeri Wangari is well known local poet/ spoken word performer, blogger and literary activist. Her first book of poetry was launched last month, Mind and Mind Fields: My Spoken Words. Check out her blog http://kenyanpoet.blogspot.com/
Bought and Sold from “Too Black, Too Strong”
Smart big awards and prize money
Is killing off black poetry
It’s not censors or dictators that are cutting up our art.
The lure of meeting royalty
And touching high society
Is damping creativity and eating at our heart.
The ancestors would turn in graves
Those poor black folk that once were slaves would wonder
How our souls were sold
And check our strategies,
The empire strikes back and waves
Tamed warriors bow on parades
When they have done what they’ve been told
They get their OBE’s.
Don’t take my word, go check the verse
Cause every laureate gets worse
A family that you cannot fault as muse will mess your mind,
And yeah, you may fatten your purse
And surely they will check you first when subjects need to be amused
With paid for prose and rhymes.
Take your prize, now write more,
Fuck the truth
Now you’re an actor do not fault your benefactor
Write, publish and review,
You look like a dreadlocks Rasta,
You look like a ghetto blaster,
But you can’t diss your paymaster
And bite the hand that feeds you.
What happened to the verse of fire
Cursing cool the empire
What happened to the soul rebel that Marley had in mind,
This bloodstained, stolen empire rewards you and you conspire,
(Yes Marley said that time will tell)
Now look they’ve gone and joined.
We keep getting this beating
It’s bad history repeating
It reminds me of those capitalists that say
‘Look you have a choice,’
It’s sick and self-defeating if our dispossessed keep weeping
And we give these awards meaning
But we end up with no voice.
Copyrights to Benjamin Zephaniah