An Interview with Raymond Antrobus
In this interview, Raymond Antrobus speaks about the relationship between literature and education, as well as the impact of family, mental health, immigration, and spirituality on his verse. He is in conversation with Daniele Nunziata, a lecturer in literature in English at the University of Oxford. The British poet explores his stance on literary awards and criticism following the release of his first book, The Perseverance. He also discusses the impact of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic on his writing process and the increasing accessibility of poetry spaces (and online resources) for both deaf poets and audience members. The interview was held online on 20 August 2020. The recording below gives a few audio samples from the interview which appears in full in the transcription.
A very warm welcome to Writers Make Worlds, Raymond. Following the acclaim you’ve received for The Perseverance (including the many prizes it has won, such as the Ted Hughes Award and the Rathbones Folio Prize), how does it feel achieving that kind of reception and has it altered the way you understand your relationship with readers and audiences?
First of all, awards are incredibly validating. They give you a new kind of visibility that does feel powerful in a way that not only validates the work that you’ve done but encourages you to carry on and create more. So much has happened since the awards in terms of going back to the blank page. It can be daunting if I let too much of that noise in. I’m writing the next book and I just know it’s a different kind of book with a different kind of perspective and I have to not expect everything I do [in the future] to get that kind of attention. In a way, I was really lucky that this success didn’t happen to me over night. I had been trying to write this book [The Perseverance] for about ten years; I’ve been writing other things and performing; I was doing Slam and was involved in competitive poetry, internationally as well as nationally. I had a lot of experience already with success and failure outside of the literary world, so I am grateful for the perspective I gained elsewhere before achieving the awards for The Perseverance.
I really think that, for us writers, it can’t be about the awards. It really can’t; we can’t be thinking about that while we’re writing. This [advice] is for myself, and I try to say this to others who ask me about it. We need to write what we need to write. I honestly, hand on my heart, had absolutely no idea, and no expectation, for this book to win anything or get picked up by anyone. I was genuinely just writing the book I felt I needed to write. That was such a grounding and healthy thing for me. So, it’s interesting seeing how, with the visibility you get, a kind of critique emerges. I welcome critique, I think critique is really important – but there’s a layer of critique that’s not about the work, it’s about this kind of assumed idea that is projected, not through the writing or the writer or the poet, but through the headlines or the media. So, when I read something like ‘the new voice of a generation’ or ‘one of the most important voices right now’, I think: I’ve never said that about myself or my own work! I think what that can do is create a toxic dynamic with peers and other poets and other writers, and that might make them feel envious and sometimes even discouraged, rather than inspired.
I want to inspire people with my work. I am having to accept that there’s only so much control I have. All I can do really is just write the next poem; I’m just trying to write the next poem. I’m trying to make the poem as good as it can be to me, and I’m trying to make sure my work keeps its integrity. Integrity is really important.
Would it be fair to say that pursuing awards can be a distraction from writing in an authentic way?
Oh, completely! Unfortunately, there does seem to be a formula for an award-winning book and once you have a formula for something like that, it’s tough escaping from it. For myself, I wasn’t thinking of that when writing The Perseverance. It’s only now, and speaking with peers, and they say, ‘you know, here is what an award-winning book is’ and I hear that and think: right, but is there any truth to it?
In terms of poetry, it’s just about having an idea and trying to examine and pursue that idea through a poem. For me, that’s where it has to start and end. Because writing poetry in my experience began as a very private thing. Then, it became a very public thing, and I managed for quite a long time to feel like I had a space for me. I felt encouraged by the public – doing readings and having people that were coming to readings and listening and resonating, or going into classrooms and universities. That was helpful and inspiring. I just want to keep being able to do that.
I think awards can bring about a whole new expectation. For years, when I would go into a classroom or an event at a literature festival, the majority of people hadn’t heard my work. They may have read it, but they hadn’t seen me read. Now, there’s a different kind of expectation. Getting myself back into that space where I’m trying to honour who I am and where I am at a moment – and accepting that it’s ok if things change, if my style changes, if my voice changes, if the way I read or listen changes. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.
It’s interesting hearing about how you connect with other people, as a poet. How important is collaboration in creating a body of work, even though a book like The Perseverance is ultimately your words alone on the page?
Collaboration is essential. There are so many things I have learned from other poets. I am a Fellow of Complete Works III and a Fellow of the Cave Canem Foundation in the US. I have come out of the Spoken Word scenes and community. I am part of the Spoken Word education programme at Goldsmiths, University of London. So many communities, writers, audiences, teachers, thinkers that I’ve learnt from. All of them have given me something. Language itself is an accumulation of different histories and different sounds. And I feel that’s what the [poetic] work is: a collective response to something which is then written. As well as those communities and experiences, there’s also internal [factors]: I’m the grandson of preachers, the son of two parents who loved poetry and who spoke about that and made that a part of my education. Becoming a poet was a catalyst of all of these things.
I feel like the old model of ‘a poet’ is dying. For example, someone like [Rainer Maria] Rilke who locked himself in a tower for nine years so he could write his Duino Elegies and this need for intense solitude, [as though] that’s the one and only way – the highest way – to create. I am a fan of Rilke, but there are other ways to be a poet, there are other ways to achieve that crystal clarity that Rilke was seeking. Rilke did the opposite of what someone like me did; I went into a community and he took himself out of it.
So many communities, writers, audiences, teachers, thinkers that I’ve learnt from. All of them have given me something. Language itself is an accumulation of different histories and different sounds. And I feel that’s what the [poetic] work is: a collective response to something which is then written.
That pursuit for isolation is particularly interesting in times of lockdown. Nonetheless, while you and Rilke have had contrasting ways of becoming poets, you both come back to verse. Why? Why have you chosen to continue composing poetry, rather than any other form of literature or mode of expression? You’ve spoken on the influence of your family – preaching has a poetic quality to it – and poetry has a focus on the voice and on sound which is greater than in other literary modes, like the novel. What specifically is it about poetry that attracts you?
So many things. Like a lot of young people, I would journal and write a diary from as far back as I can remember. I always wrote stuff down, like stories or journal entries, in the same book. It was someone else finding and reading my work one day, after I left it around, and them saying ‘Oh, you write poetry’ and me asking, ‘Oh, really?’, and them telling me ‘This is poetry’. I thought, wow! It took someone else to tell me I was writing poetry, whereas I thought I was just writing. It was just a kind of expression, something I did in private. The fact that that was one of the purest memories I have of self-expression encouraged me to pursue it. The person who told me ‘oh, this is poetry’ was surprised. That always got me: how I was able to surprise people with poetry.
Even in school, I would write poems in the back of my English book. My predicted grade for the GCSEs wasn’t very high, but when we had a poetry assignment, the teacher was often positively surprised by what I was writing. One teacher accused me of plagiarism for it and asked, ‘Are you sure this is you?’ I think writing poetry was a natural thing for me.
Poetry was a source of joy, a source of family, a source of connection. In that way, all these things were accidentally nurturing it in me. No-one said, ‘You should become a poet’, it was just a practice, something that helped me live and understand and want to carry on.
Also, one of the privileges I had around poetry was that I was never afraid of poetry. I never had any issue with owning being poet. This was because of the relationship that my parents have had with poetry which is a very joyful one, one that is very open and shared. There were never any expectations of: ‘This is how you have to write poetry, you have to do these iambic pentameters, you have to know these forms and these ideas’. They said, ‘You can rant!’ My mum loved Adrian Mitchell, and she would recite ‘Tell Me Lies About Vietnam’, and she would talk about how relevant that poem still is. She would talk about William Blake and his outcast perspective, his anti-empire perspective, his decolonial perspective. Meanwhile, my dad would be talking about Bob Marley and say that he’s a poet and a prophet. He would talk about Miss Lou [Louise Bennett-Coverley] and Linton Kwesi Johnson. If he’d see Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze or Grace Nichols on the radio, he would record them, play them to me, and talk about them. Poetry was a source of joy, a source of family, a source of connection. In that way, all these things were accidentally nurturing it in me. No-one said, ‘You should become a poet’, it was just a practice, something that helped me live and understand and want to carry on.
Earlier on, you were discussing the different ways to become a poet, and you moved onto talk about your experiences as a GCSE student, and the offensive accusation of plagiarism levied against you.
Right now, in summer 2020, the government has announced that schools are to be given the option to drop poetry from GCSE English exams next year. What is your response to this decision and its implications for how poetry is integrated into curriculums? You became a poet by balancing the tensions between what your teachers suggested poetry ought to be with how you, and your family, understood poetry. As an educator now, do you have advice on how poetry should be taught in schools?
The decision to drop poetry in 2021 is a complicated one. I’ve heard both sides of the argument. I have listened to a teacher talk about why it’s a good thing, and why [teaching poetry for exams] is putting so much pressure on him and his students. I’ve heard people say it’s still possible to advocate the importance of poetry without forcing students to take a test in it, and how it’s the tests themselves that are doing harm to the reputation of poetry.
What if we scrapped testing students on poetry altogether and, instead, understood that poetry isn’t just a singular thing? There’s a reason why so many great activists, scientists, philosophers, and doctors are also poets; it’s not just one singular thing that exists on its own. One of the ancient Iranian poets, Avicenna, was one of the founders of medicine as we know it. As well as how much we’ve learned from him about medicine, astrology, and travel, he was poet. It was through poetry that he shared his knowledge. He would write his poems incorporating his scientific knowledge. Lots of poets do this; lots of ancient poets did this.
The ancient Iranian poets, Hafez and Rumi, weren’t just poets. This kind of understanding of poetry isn’t taught in schools. I came to that understanding much later on, and no-one ever gave me a test on it!
There’s a reason why so many great activists, scientists, philosophers, and doctors are also poets; it’s not just one singular thing that exists on its own.
Even though I studied it for GCSE, and it was one of the few things I did well in, I had an advantage because I had people around me who were passionate about poetry and it can be difficult to teach something you’re not passionate about or that you are intimidated by. I was also lucky that when I was teaching in a few schools in Hackney and Walthamstow, the English departments that I came across were very passionate about teaching poetry. They would also have space for poets to come into classrooms, and not just into English lessons – poets would go into Science, and Maths, and History, and they would create a poem that incorporated the subject and then it would instigate a discussion. They would bring poets into debate club and would say that they were going to make a poetic argument. Poetry is a tool; it’s not just a single thing.
Going back to the response to poetry being taken off the curriculum, I didn’t want to have a knee-jerk reaction to it, I wanted to listen first. My first reaction was actually panic. It seemed like it was done because poetry is so undervalued and misunderstood; it seemed like a really easy thing for the government to do. Those are my feelings about poetry.
Looking at what’s on the curriculum now, they’ve only just started to broaden the voices that are on the GCSE syllabus, in terms of history, in terms of race and class background, and politics. There’s a lot more range now than there was before. I do think it’s a missed opportunity for those students who won’t be studying poetry.
I do wonder what those students are going to miss, particularly if there are students who would benefit from learning poetry. Looking at what’s on the curriculum now, they’ve only just started to broaden the voices that are on the GCSE syllabus, in terms of history, in terms of race and class background, and politics. There’s a lot more range now than there was before. I do think it’s a missed opportunity for those students who won’t be studying poetry. But I do hope that, going forward, a broader understanding of poetry will be understood and embraced, and that you can come across poets in your History lesson, in your Science lesson, in your Maths lesson, in your PSHE [Person, Social, Health and Economic] lesson, and debate club. More needs to be done to nurture creative thinking and creative communities in schools.
I have finished three years of research for Goldsmiths University on emotional literacy, looking at students with low-predicted GCSE grades. When they started coming to after-school poetry and Spoken Word clubs, within a term, every single one of those GCSE predicated grades went up. All of them! We did this over three years and we kept finding this was the case. I’ve seen it with my own eyes; this isn’t naive ideology. Put in practice, schools which nurture creativity and creative communities benefit so much – academically, socially, and in terms of student self-esteem. It is about understanding that there are other ways outside of the current and very fixed idea of education.
This interdisciplinary approach sounds like vital work. Of these multiple ways of understanding the world, then, it’s interesting to learn that you’re the grandson of preachers, that your father considered Bob Marley a ‘prophet’, and to think about the influence of poets like Rumi and Hafez for whom representations of God were central to their works. Do you think that there is a spiritual quality (however defined) to the writing of poetry?
I’m open to it; it’s there; but I don’t know… I’m interested. I’m someone who understands the importance of curiosity when it comes to intellect and our emotional lives. Learning and understanding more about things like emotional literacy and emotional learning gave me a different angle to think about our lives and our lived experiences – how we understand them and, then, how to manage them. As writers and creative thinkers, we should look at our emotional lives with some distance as well. The entity of ‘God’ or of ‘science’ – some entity that is outside of us, slightly removed from us – offers a different perspective. That’s what it is. I am not in allegiance with a single church or ideology or idea, but I am curious about them. I will give them my time.
I think, in so many ways, curiosity can be a saving grace. There are so many statistics right now, particularly under lockdown, that talk about how mental health issues are on the rise. Before lockdown, there was a statistic that said that one in three deaf people suffer from severe depression and isolation. I remember that and, when I think about times when I go through depression and negative thinking, I feel that it’s because of perspective – it’s a very circular thing. If we have a vessel, a way into these other entities which provide other perspectives, that’s not a small thing. That can save lives. I lean on that. I lean on curiosity. I lean on openness. I try to practise compassion. So many of the things that I bring to my poetry are the things I try to bring to my lived life.
Your ideas about perspective, and the need to balance being inside your head with a sense of distance, is fascinating, especially in terms of the writing process and taking something internal outwards. Speaking about this relationship between proximity and distance – and given that you mention the complications caused by the pandemic – have these past months of lockdown transformed your relationship with poetry? Are these new demands changing the way you think or write?
Recently, I have not been writing. For the first couple months, I was trying to write every day. But my situation is that my wife is in the US. We’ve been separated and I haven’t seen her since February because she’s not allowed to leave. I’m not allowed to go there. We were half-way through an immigration process; all immigration offices stopped and everything has been on pause. This has been the most stressful and difficult year of my life. And I think that’s true of many, many people.
What I would say (in terms of offering different perspectives), is that doing public things with poetry has had the most impact. For a time, I was doing this thing with another poet, Anthony Anaxagorou, called ‘Poems for a Lockdown’. Once a week, we would just talk about three poems we found really inspiring and that, again, offered us some perspective to get us through the day or the week. We did that every week for about three months, and every week we got a bigger and bigger following. And then we got picked up by the Tate Lates Night In and did one with them, and that was getting a few hundred viewers. Then, after some time, I started suffering from some pretty intense depression and it made me stop everything and I couldn’t be looked at. In that time that we stopped, every week I was getting emails from people saying, ‘Please bring that back. “Poems for a Lockdown” was something I looked forward to every week. I loved hearing about those poems, I loved discovering new poets, I loved having new books to buy. This has really helped me, please bring it back’. I was getting these emails from a range of people. People from the deaf community, from the poetry community, teachers. A range of ages, sexes, everything. It’s really stayed with me, how much it uplifted me to know I was useful again, and how much a part of my identity that has become. I think lockdown has given me a perspective on that: how important my identity is as someone who can be useful, someone who is creative, someone who is curious. I don’t just mean as a poet – as a person. But I do think my long-term engagement with poetry has facilitated some of that thinking and kept it going.
I think lockdown has given me a perspective on that: how important my identity is as someone who can be useful, someone who is creative, someone who is curious. I don’t just mean as a poet – as a person. But I do think my long-term engagement with poetry has facilitated some of that thinking and kept it going.
Of the communities with whom you are involved, one that you’ve just mentioned is the deaf community. How accessible have you found poetic spaces (in public and online) to be for deaf poets and deaf audience members? How should poetry spaces increase their accessibility in the future?
It’s only been with the success of The Perseverance that I started getting regular BSL interpreters at my readings. I did a couple readings at the Southbank Centre which were all captioned. I have done residencies at deaf schools, and I have been invited into deaf schools. I had one deaf school in Hertfordshire rename its building after me. It used to be called Beethoven House and now it’s called Antrob House. ‘Antrob’ being because, when I was younger, I thought that was my name, because I couldn’t hear the –bus, so I would say that. I thought, if it’s going to be a deaf school, I want that to stand up there: my deaf understanding of myself.
I do think there are some real positive things happening now. Even online, I’ve noticed on Google Hangouts, there’s automated closed captioning, which I’ve been using sometimes. I do think Instagram Live can do more in terms of captioning, because it’s quite a lot of work to have to caption your own videos. I have been trying to outsource that. That was one of the things for ‘Poems for a Lockdown’; I couldn’t find someone who could do that every week, it’s quite a big job. Each episode was about 45 minutes long, so it was 45 minutes of just captioning. There are some Zoom and Facebook Live events that I’ve seen, run by deaf people for deaf people, and they’re welcoming other people as well. Since being in lockdown, my sign language has become very rusty, I haven’t really been using it. That’s worried me. I feel like I need to brush-up on that. There are opportunities too, but I’m so exhausted. It takes a lot of energy to maintain health: mental health, physical health, everything. Even though you’re not going anywhere, it still feels hard. I think it’s a different time. We’re all learning as we go. I hope we can all keep being gentle with ourselves as we transition into a new time.
Cite this: Nunziata, Daniele. “Reflections on Richard Antrobus’s ‘I Want the Confidence of.’” Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds, 2020, https://writersmakeworlds.com/interview-raymond-antrobus/. Accessed 4 November 2020.