‘Every poem is a different species’: Raymond Antrobus talks to Wasafiri
Raymond Antrobus is a poet, educator, editor, curator, and ‘investigator of missing sounds’. He was born in Hackney, London to an English mother and a Jamaican father and is the author of two chapbooks, Shapes and Disfigurements (Burning Eye Books, 2012) and To Sweeten Bitter (Outspoken Press, 2017). Earlier this year, his first full-length collection, The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins), won the 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize—making him the first-ever poet to be awarded this cross-genre literature prize.
Raymond has also won the Ted Hughes Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize, among other prizes. He is the recipient of numerous fellowships, and is one of the world’s first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word Education from Goldsmiths University. His poems have been published in various magazines and anthologies, including Wasafiri, and have been performed at festivals worldwide.
In a phone interview, Raymond spoke to Wasafiri about literary prize cultures, stage vs page poetry, and his vision for the ‘hearing world’. Edited excerpts:
Sana Goyal for Wasafiri: How would you describe The Perseverance to someone who doesn’t know the work?
Raymond Antrobus: It’s a poetry collection that combines elegies for my father with meditations on deafness, family, education, diaspora and language (signed and spoken). Also, I grew up in Hackney, which is coincidently where the UK’s first Deaf school was built in 1760, so a lot of personal and wider history gets examined.
How does it feel to have won the 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize and to be nominated for the forthcoming Forward Prizes?
On the eve of the Forward Prize shortlist announcement, judge Andrew McMillan tweeted that an argument often made about prize lists is that they elevate book sales, but the prizes which ‘truly elevate the sales of a poetry book are the multi-genre ones’. Sales aside, what are your thoughts on literary prize in the UK, especially where poetry is concerned?
I think this is a question I need to be careful with – with how I answer it – considering I have benefited from winning prizes. We need them, they’re necessary in order to spotlight poets’ collections, particularly contemporary poetry. I’ve been writing and performing and had a presence as a poet for over a decade. And I still – still – hear people saying, ‘I didn’t know contemporary poetry is a thing’. People are still saying ‘I haven’t read a poem since I left school’.
I do think that, going forward, we’re going to see more prizes, and we need more prizes – particularly prizes which uphold and champion British poets. I think for a while now a lot of British poets have felt overshadowed by Americans. And I see that. It’s interesting because I have quite a few friends who are American poets, and when they come over, and they speak to me about poets in Britain – in the UK – they’re like, ‘Either British poets aren’t reading other British poets or they don’t actually rate each other. They don’t talk about each other’s work’.
I think prizes and shortlists can be conversation-starters for people who are looking for ways into poetry. But it’s tricky; it can be political – looking at who gets on those lists. I obviously hope that on any prestigious, serious list, that each of those books is on that list for the merit of the writing and that these books are filling in some story, revising and re-energising some part of history or language that hasn’t yet been filled or spotlighted.
Something that’s really good about the UK’s landscape at the moment in poetry is the Ledbury Critics (led by Sarah Howe, Sandeep Parmar and Mary Jean Chan) – and the poets that are coming out of that, I think, are doing truly groundbreaking work. It’s really difficult to get reviews in journals and boardsheets if your book isn’t academic or if it’s published on a small indiepress. The critic, Dave Coates has done a lot of work on reviews and poetry criticism on his blog. He’s got the numbers and can talk more objectively about it than I can.
I’ve also wondered where the critical response to The Perseverance is. Nothing about your work changes overnight, but the moment a prize gets attached to it, the visibility and celebrity that comes with that is interesting. And I worry about that … Do you think that’s specific to poetry?
I’m not sure, because my head is in poetry. But in terms of where I get my own criticism from, it’s just my peers; I genuinely feel like I got a well-rounded response from my peers for The Perseverance. I know what the flaws in the book are and what it is I want to take forward into the next book. But that’s all kind of happened off-scene as it were. It’s a thing as well when we don’t have a range of critics who… even in the interviews I’ve done, I’ve rarely been interviewed by people who are passionate about poetry or who are critical about poetry. And then I have to explain why I write poetry – or certain elements of my identity – rather than the actual techniques of my work. And I know I’m not the only one. I know we’re all feeling this – particularly British poets, British poets of colour – why we’re not naturally read critically. But the discourse has to happen – we’ve just got to find it elsewhere.
In an interview you’ve said: ‘None of these things that are explored [in The Perseverance] are resolved … I feel like they’re just explored’. On another occasion, you’ve said that redacting and rewriting the Ted Hughes poem in your collection was ‘cathartic’ for you. The book is autobiographical; it’s been described as ‘courageous’ and ‘exceptionally brave’. Can you talk about writing as working-through – or not working-through – grief, personal identity, and inherited history?
Every poem is a different species – it comes from a different place, a different energy. Michael Longley once said, ‘If I knew where poems came from, I would keep going there’. In writing The Perseverance, in the early stages, I didn’t know that I was writing something thematically until I started sharing my work with Tom Chivers and he started saying, you know, these are the things that keep appearing in your work. It had to be told to me – what was happening.
Speaking to catharsis, and the exploration and the non-resolving, I’ve been a teacher for a long time, and my teaching practice is in art therapy. So my MA, all of my qualifications, are in teaching rather than in poetry. I’ve read years of case studies and done research on what the value of creativity, humour, and what we call ‘emotional literacy’, is in classrooms. And I’ve seen the value of it everywhere—over and over and over again. So I know that my practise isn’t… it’s not mythology… it’s not a naïve idealogy. It’s grounded, it’s rooted in case studies that have been done for over fifty years around what it means to be heard in a classroom, what it means to have your own voice, what it means to experience a democratic classroom. And what it means when stress goes against learning.
I’m talking about this to say that that’s not how I approach my own work. I don’t write poetry – at this point in my life – to resolve my own traumas. I go to therapy for that. I did find that if I was putting that amount of pressure on my poetry to kind of resolve my own trauma, then it made the writing of it too stressful. It made me afraid of it. It made it extra difficult. But when I was able to come to the page when I already had other practices, other things I was doing to take care of myself, I felt freer. And also it was very important to me that I didn’t want to put out a book that was just autobiographical because it was important for me to root myself in the history of my country, in the history of the languages that I speak, so I could bring that past – different pasts – with me to the present. I’ve realised that all of my favourite poetry books have vision, they’re written with a vision.
Can you give an example?
A lot of the books I was reading… Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, Grace Nichols’ The Fat Black Woman’s Poems, Hannah Lowe’s Chan and Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coaste Lewis Books are all books that carry some kind of sustained vision that flows throughout. That’s what I’ve done with The Perseverance. Ultimately, the book has really reached the people I wanted it to reach. It’s reached classrooms, it’s reached other deaf people, it’s reached teachers, it’s reached people who aren’t regular readers of poetry and people who are. Talking about vision, that was also part of my vision – and I suppose the kind of contribution I wanted to make to the landscape of poetry.
You’ve been a performance poet for almost a decade. The Perseverance is your first full-length collection. Can you talk about what you call ‘the body of poetry on the page’ and that on the stage – how the former doesn’t always have to ‘imitate’ the latter. There are the obvious differences – on the page, in the book, you redact, strike through sentences; on the stage, you play with pronunciation, accents, and tempo, for example. But there are also some convergences. How do you carry language from one form of expression to another? Do your concerns, preoccupations and processes differ for each?
I’m from a Jamaican and British household – two parents who loved poetry. All of my early experiences of poetry were the recordings that my dad made of Linton Kwesi Johnson speaking poetry, and so I’d hear that as a performance. At the same time, my mum and I were reading William Blake’s poems. And the thing is, in my mind, I never separated the two. I was like, this is just poetry. So the kind of binaries that exist within that are limiting and that’s a shame. Having said that, I do agree that obviously the page has its own body – so on the page I have to find ways to capture the sound of aggression or the gentleness, the lyric – and convey that in a way that excites me. I’ve learned a lot from reading poetry in front of people – because again it’s kind of given me the vision that I never write in complete isolation; I write imagining that I’m speaking to someone – and I think that’s part of my grounding. And even though sometimes the person I’m speaking to is different, it still affects the voice.
I find that because of those binaries that are racial, and class-driven… it’s interesting to me that people see it as a hinderance, and I’ve just kind of used it as all these different tools. And, really, more than anything, The Perseverance is about communication, it’s about conversation and how we convey ourselves in language. Before deafness, before education, before ‘Mixed-race boy grows up in Hackney’—you know what I mean? Before all of that — it’s speaking.
You often make allusions to living and dead poets – in your acknowledgements, your epigraph, by way of quotation or redaction. Your conversation with Ilya Kaminsky on ‘Deaf Poetics’; parts of the opening poem, ‘Dear Hearing World’, are ‘riffs and remixes of lines’ from Danez Smith’s Dear White America. Which poets do you find yourself in conversation with?
I think one of the great privileges I have is an international community of Caribbean poets that I feel embraced by. So when I was at the Calabash Festival in Jamaica, and when I was at the Bocas Festival in Trinidad last year, in both of those places, I was meeting other Caribbean poets, who’d say things to me like, ‘Yeah, I see the Caribbean in you, I see the Britishness of you’. You know what I mean? I really felt seen in those spaces. Which I think really helped me not get too stressed about poetry in one space – like when we see a Guardian article or something talk about ‘the poetry world’, when actually they’re really thinking about one poetry in one place. I always find that interesting.
But in terms of poets that are around, it’s not this idea of poetry that is this lonely thing. Actually it’s not; we have a lot of company. So thinking about the poets that are writing now—talking about people I’m specifically in conversation with—influence is different to just enjoying someone’s work. People who actually do influence me, I’d say are James Berry, Hannah Lowe, Adrienne Rich, Kei Miller, Grace Nichols, Kwame Dawes, Martin Espada. I’ve read Jay Barnard’s Surge twice now. Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death – the book that won the 2019 Griffin Prize – it’s a book in translation from Korean into English by Don Mee Choi, which is brilliant because I think it’s also a book that has vision.
You write: ‘We are centuries away from people / believing our stories without / perversion, without pity’. Without being siphoned into a spokesperson, or the definitive voice, for British-Jamaican (male) identity and/or for the d/Deaf experience, what do you wish for your storytelling to do, to be in the ‘hearing world’ you’ve written about. What is that vision you talked about?
One of my life-long visions in terms of my body of work is that it makes its way into rooms where it wasn’t before in – or it didn’t before have a presence in. So if I’m going to think about, say, the metaphor of society as one huge building, or a set, then I imagine that we need – that we have people in the rooms planning how we’re going to build our society, how we’re going to build our schools and our hospitals and our prisons, all this kind of stuff. And what it looks like, what I find is at the moment is there’s only one kind of person in those rooms. So if not my physical form, but if my body of work can reach the people who are going into those rooms – thinking about how they’re going to design our society, how they’re going to use the power that they have to imagine a society – then I hope that my body of work speaks to them, and influences some new designs.
Speaking specifically about deafness, and the ‘hearing world’, for years, whenever I walked into a space, I had to stand in different parts of the room to be vigilant about how the sound was moving, whether or not I could stay in that space if the acoustics, the sound, hadn’t been prioritised, the sound of the space hadn’t been considered. That’s a frustration for myself and many deaf people. But it’s changing. Right now, I have very powerful headphones, I have both my hearing-aids onto my Bluetooth so I’m able to have this conversation with you now. But when I was a kid I couldn’t speak on the phone.
So there are certain things that are changing because in part maybe there’s a bit more awareness – just a bit more awareness is happening of each other – but still nowhere near enough.
The Perseverance, Raymond Antrobus’s 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize-winning collection, is published by Penned in the Margins.