Poet Laureate Shaniqua Benjamin on writing poetry inspired by oral histories

Shaniqua Benjamin shares more about her contribution to the exhibition Croydon's Caribbean Influencers, now showing at the National Portrait Gallery

Poet Laureate Shaniqua Benjamin on writing poetry inspired by oral histories

Can you please introduce yourself to readers?

Hi, I’m Shaniqua, a poet, writer, creative workshop facilitator and also Croydon’s first Poet Laureate. I’m part of the team who brought Croydon’s Caribbean Influencers to life, first exhibited in the Museum of Croydon and now displayed at the National Portrait Gallery.

What can visitors expect from the Croydon's Caribbean Influence display?

Visitors can expect to see a vibrant display of local stories in imagery and words, while being immersed in sounds that further convey stories of the Caribbean-Croydon experience. You’ll find portraits, history and a soundscape of music, poetry and oral histories that fills the atmosphere of our “record store”.


What was your artistic process like when writing the poetry for the exhibition?

Writing the poetry for this exhibition required me to really tap into the stories from the archive material and shared by our participants. I had to read and/or listen carefully to capture the essence of a person and pull out the key words, phrases and parts of their stories to focus on, as I would be telling audiences who these people were through poetry. Once I’d extracted the relevant material, I got to writing poems for all of the participants involved. I also wrote some more general poems about the Caribbean community and experience here in the UK, inspired by shared thoughts, experiences and words or phrases I was drawn to.

How do you think your poetry complements and enhances visual artwork, such as the illustrations by Kyam in the exhibition?

My poetry continues the stories started by Kyam in her illustrations and gives a deeper idea of why some of the colours may have been used, or why Kyam chose a particular aesthetic for each portrait. The poetry also contributes to the interpretive text that can sometimes be quite static in exhibitions, but adds to the movement and rhythm that is integral to Kyam’s record shop concept. 


How is your work inspired and influenced by oral histories?

My work is hugely influenced by the oral histories, as nearly all my words were inspired by them and the rich stories they told. However, it was not only the oral histories who influenced my work, but also those from the archives and participants who contributed by answering a series of questions. All of their responses, words and experiences became poems that were displayed in some way.

Voice first interviewed you in 2020, earlier in your career and during your time at Young People Insight CIC. How do you think you have grown creatively since then?

2020 feels like a lifetime away and so much has changed. I’ve seen myself grow as a poet, which has been helped by periods of mentoring, participating in workshops and also having the opportunity to explore my poetic voice more. I’ve been able to look back on past work and see where it could improve, and I can look at my present work and see how much richer my writing is. The development in my writing has also led to me being published in poetry magazines, which I have wanted for a long time. I’ve also had the chance to develop my skills as a workshop facilitator, especially during my time running regular poetry workshops over a number of years for Crisis Skylight Croydon, which meant I had to really push myself. My curation skills have further developed too, as I was involved in a lot of curation for Croydon’s Caribbean Influencers and I also curated the soundscape. I curated a podcast episode for The Human Hive’s podcast as well, which was a lot of fun and generated brilliant, thought-provoking content we can all learn from.

Image credit to David Parry 

Header Image Credit: David Parry


Sienna James

Sienna James Voice Team

Sienna is the Assistant Editor at Voice. She spent three years studying History of Art at Cambridge University and loves to explore the intersection between politics, history and visual culture. She also loves to hear how young people and artists are engaging in various innovative forms of socio-political resistance whether that's activism or art-making.

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