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Friday, December 08, 2023

Benjamin Zephaniah and the Poets on the Hill

The premature death of Benjamin Zephaniah has reminded me of the fantastic Poets on the Hill initiative he was involved in back in 2014 which led to the publication of the fabulous 'No Apologie Anfologie *Contains working class intellect*'. I think it is worth reminding people of that endeavour.

My only involvement with this project was to turn up to the packed book launch, which was facilitated by University of Wales Trinity Saint David, who provided support and advice to the poets, all of whom lived in Townhill and Mayhill.

The book contains such diverse offerings as 'Peeing on a Stick', 'Champagne Charline', 'Ode To A Townhill Lamp-post', 'Crimson Tights', 'Headlock', 'Speeding on the M4' and 'iPhone Dame'.

Benjamin Zephaniah's introduction to the anthology takes up the story:

'In 2014 I was asked to work on a television programme for the BBC called 'A Poet On The Estate'. The idea was to rework the play 'Under Milkwood' by the great Dylan Thomas, with a group of people from the Townhill estate in Swansea. I was nervous. I had been to Townhill before, I knew it had a troubled history, and my worry was that the BBC crew would come in and make their programme without really considering the needs and sensitivities of the people of the area. In the past I had seen other broadcasters go into an area and leave, having set neighbour against neighbour. So, I talked with the producers of the programme and they assured me that they were not out to simply exploit the people of the estate; they wanted to create a piece of work that really came from the people, and they would listen to any concerns of mine or the locals. I said I would do the programme, but what really convinced me that it was the right decision was the welcome I received on the first night of filming.'

He goes on to say that Swansea has always been one of his favourite places on the planet and that any time he performed there he was really well received, but this time it was special as the people were expressing excitement and pleasure at the idea of working with him.

Once the programme was completed the group that was formed to make Poets on the Hill decided to carry on. They started to meet and share each other's work, and they started to perform as a group. And then they published their anthology. Benjamin Zephaniah concludes:

'The great thing about these poets is that they are everyday people, with everyday concerns, and everyday struggles. They love poetry, they love the arts, but they are not the cultural elite. When we were working on the TV programme they were struggling with child care, work, unemployment, water leaks, family arguments, and even sleep apnoea. This really is the poetry of the people, It comes from the heart, it is direct, it is honest. These poets are not trying to impress the establishment in London, they are not trying to win votes, they are just expressing their hopes, fears, loves, and they are being creative at the same time. This is where real poetry comes from; this is really where it's at.'

Benjamin Zephaniah was a true people's poet who, as I was reminded last night, refused all honours as he wasn't going to accept anything that had 'Empire' in the title. He left his mark on Townhill and Mayhill and on everybody who met him or saw him perform.

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