Hi everyone, I’m here today for a
discussion on writing and confidence, why we write, the importance of books and
reading. This is an episode of my podcast BOOKS WITH JEN. As well as uploading
these to YouTube, I also upload them as a podcast which you can download to listen
to you when you’re out and about, so if you’d prefer to do that I’ll leave links
in the description box. You can also find captions if you need them by clicking
the CC at the bottom of this video. Today I am joined by Raymond Antrobus who is
a poet who I think is absolutely extraordinary.
I adore his collection The Perseverance which I’ve spoken about on this channel
many times before and today we’re going to talk about poetry, identity, teaching,
writing, deafness, what he’s been reading recently. He’s also going to read you
some of his work, too, so stick around listen to what he has to say, then go buy
his collection which I’ll also link down below because it’s a bit bloody great. At
the beginning of this interview we’re talking about writing poetry and what
that’s like. Ray: I mean there’s also a lot of freedom with poetry because I was
told for years by almost every non-poet I met that no one cares about poetry,
no one reads poetry, no one buys poetry… so just do what you want; this doesn’t
really matter, it’s not going to make you money, no one makes a career out
Jen: That’s really liberating and depressing at the same time.
Ray: Exactly! I think it’s because I’ve had so many years of going into
schools and engaging with young people with poetry and seeing how much it works,
what an incredible impact it has and not just in schools in my own country or my
own city but around the world — I’ve seen it constantly. When I was doing my MA at
Goldsmith the whole thing was focused on emotional literacy; the
whole point of it was almost a social case study to look at how poetry
was geared towards emotional literacy, so
getting young people to write about their lives, about their feelings and
about… you know …that kind of self-expression and seeing how much that can relate to their curriculum and their predicted grades. It’s not ideological; after the two year
case study 98% of all the students that had engaged with poetry — came to
after school Poetry Club etc — went up a level in their English. So
there’s real power there. It has value; it is useful, and I think knowing that
is something that’s helped me and inspired me and given me confidence to
keep writing poetry. It’s unfortunate that outside the poetry world the only reference point for a lot of
people is being forced to study Shakespeare at school.
Jen: Studying dead white dudes.
Ray: Essentially. I am not speaking against Shakespeare — I love Shakespeare but…
Jen: There are more things going on. Ray: Right! [laughter] and there’s such a
disconnect. Even within the black British genre I
really feel it’s still so marginal so even people out there who
are poetry journalists who pride themselves on how serious they are etc they’ve gone so far without ever having to read any black
British poets because they, in some cases they’ve said it to my face, they don’t feel that they’re good enough; they don’t seem to
think there’s a quality there which is Jen: Which is outrageous.
Ray: Yeah. And it’s knocked my
confidence in the poetry world; it’s like these people are my lineage; these poets do matter to me and I think we should be taking them seriously.
Jen: Would you mind reading us a poem from the collection?
Ray: Sure. What I’ll do is read the poem The Perseverance.
It’s a sestina and the six words that repeat are perseverance, minute, before,
father, disappeared, laughter and the perseverance is a pub just
at the end of Broadway Market, just over the Cat & Mutton bridge. It’s a pub that my dad used
to drink in and the only thing I have to say about this poem probably is just that it
begins with an epigraph from a Jamaican singer called Peter Tosh and he says
“love is the man over standing.” I’ll wait outside The Perseverance. Just popping in
here a minute, I’d heard him say it many times
before. Like all kids with a drinking father, I watch him disappear into smoke
and laughter — there is no such thing as too much laughter, my father says,
drinking in the Perseverance until everything disappears. I’m outside
counting minutes, waiting for the man, my father, to finish his shot and take me
home before it gets dark. We’ve been here before — no such thing as
too much laughter, unless you’re my mother without my father, working
weekends while the Perseverance spits him out for a minute.
He gives me 50p to make me disappear. 50p in my hand, I disappear like a coin
in a parking meter before the time runs out. How many minutes will I lose
listening to the laughter spilling from the Perseverance? While strangers ask
“where is your father?” I stare at the doors and say my father is working.
Strangers who don’t disappear but hug me for my perseverance. Dad said this would
be the last time before a TV spilled canned laughter us on the sofa in this
council flat, knowing any minute the yams will boil, any minute I will eat again with my
father who cooks and serves laughter, good as any Jamaican who disappeared
from the island I tasted before over standing
heat and perseverance. I still hear “popping in for a minute”, see him
disappear. We lose our fathers before we know it and I’m still outside the Perseverance listening for the laughter.
[end of poem] Ray: I think while growing up, my dad
really struggled with… well, he was an alcoholic, and I’ve
been reading this poem around and it’s interesting how people have come up to
me who also had alcoholic parents and also relate to that kind of feeling of
just being left places as a kid — just waiting around, not really knowing
what’s going on and you’re picked up by one version of your parent
and then he disappears and another one comes back. That isn’t
something I was thinking too deeply about as I was writing it but you know
you create something, you put it out into the world and people respond.
Jen: Yeah, it’s also I suppose a bit like a role reversal, as well. If you think of
after-school clubs or whatever that parents might take their children to and
then they wait outside in the car for them to come back. You’re doing
that exactly that. Also, as you said, once you release something — and that’s something that you
mentioned before — a poet said you rush because once something is
out there you can’t change it but that’s the beauty of it, too — that actually
other people can change it and it becomes something else entirely.
Am I right in thinking that your dad used to riff on instrumental
Jamaican music? Was that an inspiration for writing poetry?
Ray: Completely. This is another thing, talking about confidence.
Ultimately poetry is part of my family lineage; both my parents were
into poetry, they lived separately and both had poetry on their bookshelves. My dad’s favourite poet was
Miss Lou, a Jamaican poet. My mum’s favourite poet is William Blake, so I had the
of presence of it. My grandparents on both sides were preachers;
they were also writers who were sort of poets but they never published anything,
so all of those things tied into giving me
permission I suppose. But my dad, in his own way, wouldn’t really approve
of me saying I want to be a poet. It didn’t make sense to him, I think he would just be a
bit like yeah, well, where’s the money, you know? Jen: It’s a fair question. [laughter] Ray: Yeah. It’s only just now I’m
realising that, thinking I’m never going to be able to afford a house, ha.
Jen: But there are good ways and bad ways of saying that. Ray: Exactly.
Jen: You could say “that’s really good, what are you going to do to help support yourself?” Instead of “Never do it at all.” Ray: Right! And I think the language I used around it with my dad
was “I’m a teacher; I’m teaching” you know? And he understood that. So with the kind of
sound system stuff that my dad used to riff on; he would make these tapes and
they’d be dub, so just instrumental reggae, basically, and
you’ve got people like Lee Scratch Perry who would release whole dub plates
and dad would buy them, listen to them and then he’d have this strange wiry
complicated system with a vinyl player and two tape deck players…
and he’d find all of this stuff on the street. I suppose what he did
though was a kind of poetry in that he played the dub
beat and then he’d just speak over it: “Calm down! Here come the rhythm… Yeah, all right!”
and then he would put in bible quotes “Man was born to multiply! Yeah man!” and then just riff it. I mean, that’s a spoken word album right there.
Ray: And at the same time he would record poets on the radio or TV or whatever, and so he
had this whole tape of Miss Lou’s poems, some people know as Louise
Bennett, and he would play me the performances of these poems and I’m like,
you know, five years old four years old and Miss Lou, one of her
famous poems is colonisation in reverse so you know he was singing along “Wat a devilment a Englan! / Dem face war an brave de worse, /
But me wondering how dem gwine stan /
Colonizin in reverse.” You know, so it was
part of my atmosphere as a kid. Jen: And how did deafness interact with poetry with
you when you were younger? Ray: It wasn’t discovered
until later, so I went through my first six years of life with my
parents and my teachers just thinking I was aloof. It wasn’t until my mum got
this telephone… it was just a big white telephone that apparently was
really loud and it would ring and everyone would react to this ringing
except me [laughter]. If l wasn’t in the room I wouldn’t react
and my mum said she looked at me, she looked at the
telephone ringing, and was like “oh, he’s deaf! Of course!” And then immediately
almost fast-tracked me to get hearing tests and I was diagnosed. Within that year I’m doing speech therapy and doing hearing therapy,
I’ve got hearing aids, I’m given radio aides to wear in classrooms. By the
time I’m 11 years old I’m learning sign language, so I’ve
had a whole heap of support which in a lot of ways made me…
well, at least made a part of me. And it’s tough because now I go
into deaf schools and I see some of those avenues aren’t there for young
deaf people because of the funding cuts. Jen: What specific avenues are cut off? Speech therapy? Ray: Speech therapy has huge waiting lists. Hearing aids you now need to pay for if you lose them, and that they can
cost you around six hundred pounds. The closure of deaf schools, too. I went to a
deaf school which was also part of a hearing school and that’s where I
learned sign language, and all these different things.
Jen: A secondary school?
Ray: Yea, a secondary school. So now though the population of deaf
people being born in this country has gone up, there are fewer deaf
schools and the ones that remain open have shrunk, so there were 150 students in my deaf school and now I recently did a residency at Blanche Nevile
in Highgate, and now there are 75 students in that school. Deaf students are now just
mainstreamed and I still go into schools, primary, secondary schools and see one
or two deaf students among 30+ hearing students and I remember
how difficult that could be. In some ways writing The Perseverance
was the kid I used to be writing it, still being inside me and needing to
write this book for himself, and I think that was also something that gave me a
focus… that kind of, I suppose, passionate objective where I could think
“I’ll bring this book out and if no one likes it fine; it has to be okay. But
I’m lucky people do like it. Jen: People like it a lot! [laughter] I want to ask you about that idea
of society… so if there are more deaf people in mainstream schools and society
sees it as the “ideal” for deaf people to conform to hearing people — that that is
the state that they “should” be in… I have a condition called EEC syndrome which
means I was born with missing fingers and spent a lot of time in hospital when
I was little. I write about disfigurement and what I find interesting is
that sometimes, depending on the person and the publisher, they
think that’s exotic and “interesting” yes but they don’t too much of it because you “have to appeal to everybody” and I remember having publishing meetings and
when I was asked “what are the themes of this collection?” and I’d say “queerness, disfigurement” etc I could see them groaning, leaning back in
their seat thinking “oh, shit.” Not in a horrible way… at least they didn’t mean it in a horrible way, but just in a “how do we market
this” way? They were waiting for me to say something that they think
is completely universal, you know, like “love” and then they’d say “Yes! We know what to do with that.” And I wondered what kind of experience you had writing about
deafness and sending that out to publishers, and at gigs etc? What kind
of reaction do you get to that, what do you think people expect
Ray: I loved your tweet about that. About characters, villains especially, and how they are
defined by their disfigurement. How that’s just seen as a quirk. I’m with Penned in the Margins, though, so
I’m not with some major press and Tom Chivers [my editor] has never asked me any of that and has never made
me feel any of that, so that’s cool. [laughter] But also he trusted me to handle that because ultimately the book… I wouldn’t say that
The Perseverance is primarily about deafness.
Jen: It’s hard, right? Because you’re
like “it’s about this but it’s also not about this”
Jen: Which is how you feel
about yourself. “I am this and also lots of other things.” Catch me
on any day of the week and I’ll be like “this is really important and I need to
talk about it, or that’s not important and I don’t need to speak about it right now.”
Ray: Yeah, that’s it. I think it’s offensive to people to say “hey you can only
understand this one thing.” It’s like, wow, people really deserve a bit more credit,
you know what I mean? For their understanding of human beings and their
multitudes and complexities and all that kind of thing because ultimately I think
that The Perseverance is actually about communication, family,
education and language, and I think that that plays in to it — if not
more than — just as much as deafness. I mean I do sometimes go
through days where I say to myself I’m going to make sure that no hearing aids
appear in this poem. [laughter] But again if it does appear it’s never
in a poem about hearing aids. It’s just I kind of…
Jen: It’s your normal. Ray: Yes, exactly, it’s just normal for me to think about hearing aids… hearing aid batteries, every day — that’s
generally my life.
Jen: What books have you been reading recently and loving?
Ray: So this
just came out, this is called The Neighbourhood by Hannah Lowe.
I’m a big fan of Hannah Lowe’s poetry. I
consider Hannah Lowe a poetry ancestor of mine partly because she writes about
London and working-class life and having a Jamaican Chinese father and she’s
also a mother, as well; I really like the way that her identity as a
mother always shows up in her work. In this book I feel
that she takes some risks with some new forms that
I’ve never seen her do. I’ve been really enjoying that, so that’s Neighbourhood by Hannah Lowe. I’ve been returning to an epic poem
exploring the historical foundations of Jamaican society by Andrew Salkey. This
was released in the 70s, it took him seven years to write but interestingly
enough he wrote it while he was living in London. So Andrew Salkey who also
taught in the States lived in the UK for a while, he also wrote Anancy stories and stuff like that but I love this epic poem
because of all of the voices — he gives a voice to the
rocks of the Caribbean islands, and the sea, the Caribbean islands but then he
will also talk in the voice of Island people or the colonized and colonizers, so
there’s a whole range of tones and languages weaved in throughout and
it’s a huge influence on me. Then of course my
favourite poetry journal is just called Poetry Magazine.
I subscribe to it, it comes every month, it’s pretty cheap to subscribe to and
the poets that they publish are often brilliant. It’s primarily an
American magazine but they publish a lot of British poets now.
Jen: How are you
feeling about poetry in general right now? What is currently on
your mind, what’s your objective?
Ray: I want to be in a place where the only thing
that really matters is being able to have this idea, have this feeling,
have this experience, write about it, try and make a shape for it to go out into
the world and hope that something, someone, somewhere responds. If
that is my objective, my main objective with poetry, I’m happier.
And that’s what I’m trying to focus on, you know, being happy, being
grateful, being present and just…. not trying not to take it all too seriously.
Jen: Would you mind reading us a final poem? Ray: I’m going to read this one… I’ve never read it before but here goes. It’s called I move through London like a Hotep. What you need will come to you at the right time says the tarot card I overturned at my friend Nathalie’s house one evening. I was wondering if she said something worth hearing, What? I’m looking at her face, trying to read it, not a clue what she said but I’ll just say yeah and hope. Me, Tabitha, and her aunt are waffling in Waffle House by the Mississippi River. Tabitha’s aunt is all mumble. She either said Do you want a pancake? or You look melancholic. The less I hear the bigger the swamp, so I smile and nod while my head becomes a faint foghorn, a lost river. Why wasn’t I asking her to microphone? When you tell someone you read lips you become a mysterious captain. You watch their brains navigate channels with BSL interpreters in the corner of night TV. Sometimes it’s hard to get back the smooth sailing and you go down with the whole conversation. I’m a haze of broken jars, a purple bucket and only I know there’s a hole in it. On Twitter @justnoxy tweets I can’t watch TV / movies / without subtitles. It’s just too hard to follow. I’m just sitting there pretending and it’s just not worth it. I tweet back you not being able to follow is not your failure. It’s weird, giving the advice you need to someone else, weird as thinking my American friend said I move through London like a Hotep when she actually said I’m used to London life with no sales tax. Deanna (my friend who owns crystals and mentions the existence of multiple moons) says I should write about my mishearings, she thinks it’ll make a good book for her bathroom. I am still afraid I have grown up missing too much information. I think about that episode of The Twilight Zone where an old man walks around the city bar selling bric-a-brac from his suitcase, knowing what people need — scissors, a leaky pen, a bus ticket, combs. In the scene, music is playing loud, meaning if I were in that bar I would miss the mysticism while the old man’s miracles make the barman say WOAH, this guy is from another planet!