Interview | Raymond Antrobus

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Raymond Antrobus is a poet, educator, curator, editor and investigator of missing sounds, who is a founding member of Chill Pill as well as the Keats House Poets Forum, and whose work has appeared in publications such as Poetry Review, The New Statesman and The Deaf Poets Society, among many others. In 2017 he was awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize  for the poem ‘Sound Machine’, which was published in The Poetry Review, Volume 107, No 1, Spring 2017. In October of 2018, Raymond published his first full collection The Perseverance through the publisher Penned in the Margins.

Like a lot of people, I first encountered your work through workshops that you have been doing with others at venues like the Keats House Museum for many years now. Since then, it’s been great to follow your work as a writer, and to see you become more successful. I feel like you have been part of a generation of poets in this decade in London who have done a lot to engage young people in poetry, and I wanted to ask you what your inspiration was, and whether you were inspired by a previous generation in return?

Absolutely! When I realised that I wanted to pursue poetry as a career I started looking for a community. At first I came across the London Slam and Open Mic scene, which to me is more of a community than it is a genre. It comes with a community and a grassroots network, and in going to these events you start to notice that there are people who are hungry to develop their craft and to develop their writing, and once I found that community I felt very nurtured by it. So for me, certainly there were people like Karen McCarthy Woofle, Jacob Sam-La Rose, and Roger Robinson who were doing a lot of mentoring at the time, but really my first poetry mentor was Malika Booker, which must have been when I was about 21. She sat me down and helped me get my mind right, helped me to think beyond myself, beyond the poetry “world”, to realise how small the world is, and how to keep hold of the good things. She was a big part of giving me the will to endure, and to navigate the London poetry scene. Having your people and having your long term vision helps to you to keep developing. It’s like that quote “if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together”.

That feels like a theme that comes up in your work quite a lot — both the idea of people coming together, but also overcoming differences.

Yeah, completely.

A few months ago we interviewed Momtaza Mehri, who had at the time just been nominated as Young People’s Laureate for London, and she was about to start a tour called “Be My Next Inspiration”, doing events in the more peripheral areas of London with poets such as yourself, Anthony Anaxagorou, Bellatrix and others. How did that go? It sounded really interesting.

I wasn’t actually able to do that much of the tour in the end, I was meant to do some more workshops but I was only able to do one, which was in a library in Beckton. It was really good though! We had about 20 young people show up. Some people turned up with their parents. It was a joint workshop, so there was a rapper and spoken word artist called Shay D who led part of the session, and I had a couple of student’s parents come up to me afterwards to find out more about poetry, to find out in what ways it can be useful for students that were struggling with English, which was my field for a while — poetry and education.

As a freelance poet I do a lot of this sort of thing, and the thing is with having opportunities like that, is that I see almost on a daily basis how much of a role poetry can have in people’s lives, their education, and in the process of developing communities. When you put on youth events a lot of people show up for them. In my early days I was co-curating shows like Chill Pill featuring people like Kate Tempest and Sabrina Mahfouz, Inua Ellams and then also, Keats House Poets Forum, we had Kayo Chingyoni, Warsan Shire, Anthony Anaxagorou and loads of these people who are big names now, who were around the scene at that point, but who were still at the point where they were just reading their poems to 15, 20 people. I’ve seen that system grow over the last 12 years, so now, every time someone asks me (be they journalists or whoever) — “How come poetry is only relevant now?” — then I find it to be almost an insult to be honest.

I saw the poet Salena Godden tweeting about this the other day in response to a lot of articles about the rise of poetry, which usually attribute its current popularity to social media, Instagram and things like that. What she was saying was that while as a new form of communication social media has undeniably been a factor, there had been poets like her and many others relentlessly touring and creating this community since the 90s and beyond, and that the focus on say, Instagram, paints over this history.

Yeah, a whole lineage is completely erased from the narrative of “The Rise Of Poetry”, and that is a disservice to everyone. I’ve seen on an industry level how badly poetry is treated, how little it is understood / respected. But it’s got a strong presence now in spite of the publishing industry, rather than because of it. I think the thing that irks me is that nowadays the publishing industry is trying to take a bit of credit for it, and it’s like — no. You didn’t invest in any of this talent, and you didn’t believe in us. Poetry has always been at the margins, and I think that because of its sidelining, this has been a part of its appeal. I don’t know, I’m not trying to put any weight on the media narrative of what poetry is or isn’t, as it feels disingenuous and opportunistic. It’s just a shame that there isn’t more serious, meaningful, and patient journalism being done around it, but for myself and my work I can’t let that deter from my own focus. I’m just looking for less distractions really.

I think you’re definitely right in what you say about the importance of not being drawn in by media narratives, as the form of media narrative itself requires it to be reductive. What is also interesting however, is that more people are buying poetry books and going to poetry events, and it is interesting to consider why that is, beyond reductive narratives. I personally think that it has something to do with the way in which poetry as an art form can be used to communicate complex ideas in a way that other art forms can’t do as succinctly.

Yeah, completely.

Coming up next month you are Poet of the Fair at The London Book Fair, where you will be giving a series of talks and workshops — I was wondering if you could tell me more about that, and what you will be doing there?

I’ve actually never gone to The London Book Fair, so I’m not quite sure what to expect! It was something on my radar and something that I was approached to do, and I was honoured to be asked. I hope that my presence there will give some insight into poetry as a living thing. I also hope that I can learn from people that attend, and from their insights, interests and speculations — it’s almost like I’ve been given a thermometer, and I can go in and take the temperature of the London book industry. At the moment I feel like I’m outside the industry with this thermometer and I haven’t got a reading yet, so I’m looking forward to it.

The reaction to your book The Perseverance has been really positive. What do you have planned next for publication?

Yeah, I’ve actually got, not a “collection” per se, but a loose collection of poems that I’ve started to realise have quite a strong connection with each other. A lot of the poems are about family connections, and focus a bit more on love, as I’m getting married soon! But the book that I was writing at the same time as The Perseverance is actually a children’s picture book, which picks up loosely where The Perseverance left off. It’s called Can Bears Ski?, which is based loosely on the last poem from The Perseverance, where my Dad is reading a story about this bear to me. It’s inspired partly by the book, but also at the kind of relationship that I wanted to have with my Dad, being deaf, and having two hearing parents who didn’t know how to navigate it. I want this children’s picture book to be something useful both to the parents of deaf young people, but also deaf young people themselves. That’s coming out next year with Walker Books, and I’m really proud of it. It’s a collaboration that’s been illustrated by Polly Dunbar, who is a deaf children’s illustrator, so it feels like a great justice for us to have been given the opportunity to work together on something that is, I think, both useful and beautiful.

Interview by Robert Greer. 

For more on Raymond Antrobus visit http://www.raymondantrobus.com/
For more on The Perseverance, visit Penned in the Margins
Raymond has been announced as Poet of the Fair for the 48th London Book Fair, as part of a very exciting poetry line-up. For more information on that, visit The London Book Fair


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