From baby poet to Croydon Poet Laureate

By: Shaniqua Benjamin

Although I’ve always loved writing, I stayed away from poetry until my early 20s. Fashion design had been my focus, so when I dropped out of university to pursue a career in writing and eventually discovered that poetry was the avenue for me, it was clear that I would need serious learning and development. Apples and Snakes were a major part of that, helping me grow from baby poet to Croydon Poet Laureate.

At the beginnings of my journey in 2017, I participated in a Croydon edition of The Writing Room, led by the amazing Zena Edwards. Zena would mentor me a year later as an emerging poet for Rallying Cry, an immersive spoken word show celebrating Apples and Snakes 35th birthday, which is an experience that has stayed with me.

In fact, my 10-minute piece evolved into a 45-minute one-woman show I debuted last year – Love Warrior. Zena mentored me through that process too, having remained a major presence in my poetry career – even in moments when she hasn’t been physically present, her words of wisdom have remained in my mind. I will always be grateful to Apples and Snake for introducing me to her.

The development opportunities available to me through Apples and Snakes helped me grow into a more confident and stronger poet. Participating in the Red Sky Sessions, as a poet over 25 in the middle stages of my career, has allowed me to further explore my poetic voice and overcome my fear of form. 

The confidence and growth played a major part in me becoming the poet I am today, who can say that she is Croydon’s first Poet Laureate. I laid the groundwork through my community presence and running a poetry night for young people, but the poetic skills needed were elevated through mentoring, critique and learning from my peers, which I experienced as part of The Writing Room and Rallying Cry.

I officially became Croydon Poet Laureate in October 2020 and I’m now coming to the end of my tenure, four and a half years later. It has been a full-on rollercoaster of a journey that has encompassed some great projects, giving me the chance to engage with my borough on a deeper level. I’ve worked with schools and community groups, collaborated with musicians and dancers.

I worked with the National Portrait Gallery and Museum of Croydon on Citizen UK: Croydon’s Caribbean Influencers, which has been the main highlight. This project brought together my Caribbean heritage and Croydon home, telling powerful stories that often go unheard. I had the gift of responding to interviews and oral histories in poetic form, alongside the artist Kyam who created portraits and the designer Abi Wright who brought the exhibition together. To see it displayed at the National Portrait Gallery after being exhibited at the Museum of Croydon, with my poetry both seen and heard, was a very special moment. It was beautiful to see Croydon celebrated in a positive light.

I’m now in the midst of my final project, which is bringing together all I’m passionate about with all I’ve wanted to achieve as Poet Laureate, and then some. Out of Silence is an intergenerational project, amplifying and empowering local voices, especially those marginalised. It is also showcasing poetry as more than boring words on a page for an elitest few (which is how many still view poetry), but a versatile and vibrant art form for everyone.

Workshops led by Croydon based poets Beverly Bossanga, Daisy Nash, Zhanai Wallace, Jamal Hassan, Jemilea Wisdom-Baako, and myself have been – and are still – taking place with teens, young adults and elders. Across the eight schools and community groups participating, some are refugees speaking English as a second or third language, some are disabled, some have never written poetry before. And the poems have all been beautiful, powerful, real, raw and heartbreaking. I’m so proud I have the chance to share the words of these gifted individuals, who I hope realise how brilliant they are and that their words have meaning. More than anything, I hope they feel heard and feel seen.

The poems will be shared at a live event, which will be private I’m afraid, but more excitingly, they are being made public through the poetry posters you’ve seen throughout, showcasing extracts from every single poem written. The QR code has a link to an online anthology with more information about the project and the poems in full too, so you can savour all their words, but if you want a shortcut, just click here.

These are the first round of the posters, showcasing most extracts from the schools and a few from a youth group I will continue working with this month. The rest of their poems, along with the poetic extracts by young adults and elders, will be displayed from June. The posters were designed by Croydon young people too, in collaboration with a local graphic designer, so it really is a project rooted in Croydon as I say goodbye to my role.

To cement my legacy, I’ll be writing a poem bringing together words from each of the eight groups, which will be made into a short film. Just as finding poetry, and organisations like Apples and Snakes, helped me find my voice and grow in confidence, I hope that Out of Silence will have encouraged and inspired the participants (and beyond) to do the same.

If you’re in the Croydon area, keep an eye out for the posters, and if you choose to take any photos, please do use the #OutofSilence.

Shaniqua Benjamin

Shaniqua is a poet, writer, creative workshop facilitator, and Croydon’s first Poet Laureate. Between 2016-2021, she ran Young People Insight CIC, a platform that empowered young people through creativity, conversation and writing.

Shaniqua wrote the lyrics for the London Mozart Players’ Anthem for Peace, and a specially commissioned poem for their Oratorio of Hope, which opened Croydon’s year as London Borough of Culture in 2023. She also wrote a poem for the 2022 One Young World Summit, read by Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Ebinehita Iyere and herself. She has been published by Ink, Sweat & Tears,Magma, and RRB Photobooks with her poetry featured in Ameena Rojee’s photography book Crocus Valley.

She has performed at Field Day Festival and the Trinity College Cambridge Black History Month Formal Dinner. Shaniqua has facilitated workshops for organisations, including Spread The Word, Central St Martins, and Crisis. Her work has been displayed at the National Portrait Gallery and Museum of Croydon.

Twitter: @ShanqMarie
Instagram: @shaniquabenjamin_
LinkedIn: Shaniqua Benjamin

(Photo credit: Chetna Kapacee)