Fire in my Head: A Q&A with Ben Okri

  • Date

    Wed 16 Jun 21

Ben Okri, wearing a black jacket, white shirt and black beret.

Fire in My Head by Nigerian poet Ben Okri is a powerful testament to today; a collection of poems about the people and the tragedies of our times.

Next month, the Essex Honorary Graduate will discuss his latest poetry collection with Dr Jak Peake at an Essex Book Festival Event.

In this interview, with Ros Green, Managing Director of Essex Book Festival, Ben explains why he loves poetry, what inspires him and what he remembers of his own student days at Essex.

When did you first realise the transformative power of words?

“When I was about three years old. I made a comment that had everyone around in stitches. It was quite funny. I’m not telling you what I said. But I felt then that words can move the power in the room and can shift the vectors of living bodies in a space. Greater revelations had to wait till later.”

What does a poem do that a novel can't?

“It can shake your soul with few words. Can change your life with a cadence. Enlarge your consciousness with a syllable.”

Your poem Grenfell Tower, June 2017 has been played more than 6 million times on Channel 4's Facebook page. Did you expect it to have such an impact and have you considered writing a follow up holding the Government to account?

“One never expects a poem or novel to have a great impact. One writes from a spirit of truth and a profound sense of responsibility. I think the poem spoke for a moment, and into that moment were fed many of the representative concerns of our time, inequality, poverty, injustice, class, race, powerlessness, activism, corruption, cover ups, political cladding. I will not be writing a follow up poem. Governments rarely let world-changing deeds flower. That is up to us, the people, not them. I think the Grenfell poem was long enough and it is still doing its mysterious work.”

Spoken word events have become increasingly popular over the last ten years, especially with younger people. Why now?

“This is a time about which there is much to protest - the environment, race, gender issues, injustice. Spoken word events respond to that. The power of speaking truth has seized the spirit of the young. Spoken poetry taps into currents in the culture, taps into music, and into the physicality of the word. Many people who would be intimidated by poetry on the page can relate to its spoken incarnation. A generation wants to hear its messages and read them.”

What was it like to study at Essex, and how did it feel to return as an Honorary Graduate in 2002?

“I had a wonderful time at Essex university. I ran for office, I wrote and directed two plays, wrote two novels, had a beautiful girlfriend and great mates. I read, wrote, met people from all over the world, and was initiated into the world of politics, theatre and activism. In short, it enlarged my life. I read books I would never have read on my own. Had superb lecturers and explored the spirit of rebellion and playfulness. Politics, literature, theatre, fun, cinema, education, drinking, ideas, love - can one ask for a richer introduction to the complex business of living?

“It was very moving to return as an Honorary Graduate. I found, behind a doorknob, a sticker from my election campaign from over 20 years before. ‘Use your pen, vote Ben.’ The place had changed, but lovely traces of the past lingered.”

If you could choose one poem for all 14 year olds to read, what would it be?

“The English language is blessed with some of the most beautiful poems in the world. Here are a few poems that every child could learn by heart. When you learn a poem by heart it’s as if you have a kind of inner resource, it’s like having a treasure in your spirit forever.

“They could learn Ozymandias by Shelley, Emily Dickinson’s If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking, Yeats’ The Song of Wandering Aengus, Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, my own I sing a new Freedom, Derek Walcott’s Love After Love, Shakespeare’s Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?, or Speech to the Young by Gwendolyn Brooks, and many many more. These are all short. On a different day I would have made a completely different selection. Poetry is endless in its gifts.”

Join Ben at 7:30pm on 2 July for his discussion with Dr Peake.