FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
ANTHONY JOSEPH: I started writing poetry when I was 11. I was inspired by music, and started trying to write my own lyrics to current pop songs. This became a hobby, and then it became a practice. I was drawn to the music of poetry.
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
AJ: I wrote all the way through my childhood and young adulthood in Trinidad, but had no conception of what a poet was or how the title could apply to me. Being a poet felt unattainable and alien. When I came to London I began to understand what being a poet could mean. I realised I was a poet in about 1993, when I started typing out reams of poems I’d brought with me in a cardboard box from Trinidad, things I’d written through my childhood. I had an epiphany and knew then that I was a poet. I joined a local poetry workshop – The Islington poetry workshop, and immersed myself in the craft and heritage of the poetic. I started working at the book store, Waterstones soon after and everything changed after that.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
AJ: When I first started performing and sharing poetry in London in the early 90s, there were very few Black or Caribbean writers who were visibly on the scene, much less published by mainstream publishers. I was writing experimental work, and felt like I was writing in a vacuum. So much has changed since then. Being shortlisted gives me a real sense of validation. It’s a real honour to be part of such an important and respected prize.
FP: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
AJ: I have written about my father for many years. He was always a muse, probably because he was not a constant presence in my childhood. After his death in 2018, I started writing a series of poems in which I tried to unravel his mystery, to map his charisma, but mainly to collect the finite memories I had of him, to hold him in a place where I could begin to understand who he was, and who I am because of him and his absence. The poem ‘Jogie Road’ captures one of my earliest memories of my father. It is also the only memory I have of my father and mother together. It’s a difficult image, but a very real one. ‘Light’ is also an important poem – another memory, of a more soulful time, a living time. This is possibly my most personal, and consequently, my most universal work.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
AJ: I’ve learned a lot from both Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson about taking risks and listening to the voice and its slippages, also lots about the breath and how it applies to the line. Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite have both taught me about the Caribbean as a space of poetic imagination
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
AJ: More poems. A new collection and a selected works.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
AJ: Establish a daily writing practice. Read as much as you can. Read and follow references, from one poet to the next. Read some more. Read ‘contagious’ poets like Kamau Brathwaite, Anne Sexton and Nick Makoha, learn by emulating them, fall in love with the melody of their word music. Immerse yourself in the community of poets, go to events, join groups, go to readings, support other poets.