FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
RAYMOND ANTROBUS: My parents lived separately but poetry had a presence in both of their households. My mum had a poster of William Blake’s poem, ‘London’ on her wall and my Dad had ‘The Song Of The Banana Man’ by Evan Jones on his. My Dad also had tapes of poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson and Miss Lou, which he’d play me in his flat while my mum would read me Adrian Mitchell poems at her home. This meant poetry was never a mysterious thing to me. I had permission to engage with it without the baggage that many people in the UK have, where poetry is solely associated with some negative experiences in English lessons at school. I associate it with family and songs and solitude.
FAF: 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.
RA: Well, I had only written poetry privately from as far back as I remember. When I was 18 years old I started reading poems at open mic nights around London. I called myself a poet the moment I heard someone else look at what I’d written and without prompt, say ‘oh, you write poetry!’ Once I’d heard someone else affirm that it stuck, but I’m a teacher too and the identity of poet and teacher go hand in hand for me. After years of competing in slams and having some poems published on poetry blogs I was lucky to go on to win fellowships that helped me develop further, from Cave Canem, Jerwood Compton and The Complete Works. Each of these programmes took my work into new spaces that were met with new challenges and aided a lot of growth.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
RA: The Forward Prize is one of the most esteemed poetry prizes in the UK and honestly, I’m honoured to have made the shortlist, especially in a year with so many brilliant debut poetry collections out!
FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?
RA: Tom Chivers from Penned In The Margins reached out to me a couple years back and asked me to send him poems. I sent him all the poems I was working on that I felt had some kind of connection. He liked them and gave me a deadline to get a book together. The Perseverance couldn’t have existed any other way. The poems I usually do at readings are ‘Echo’, ‘Two Guns In The Sky For Daniel Harris’, ‘Happy Birthday Moon’, ‘The Perseverance’ and ‘Dear Hearing World’. Those poems, despite their immediacy, have other elements in them that require multiple readings/hearings. I think those poems are particularly important to me because I wrote them considering the dimensions of the air and the page. But I was also thinking about the eyes and the ears I cared most about, from D/deaf readers, teachers to those that grew up in London or in social housing. I feel blessed that The Perseverance, as a book, has managed to connect with such a range of readers and listeners.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value intheir work?
RA: I have many favourite poets! From Hannah Lowe, Adrienne Rich, Naomi Shihab Nye, Malika Booker, Terrance Hayes, Kamau Braithwaite, Derek Walcott, John Donne, Rumi, Chris Abani, Sharon Olds, Nicole Sealy, Essex Hemphill, Jo Shapcott, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rae Armantrout, Kwame Dawes… I could go on all day. I tend to reach for different poets at different times but something that connects all the poets I love is that they all lean into sound and history in ways I find fresh and compelling.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
RA: The audio book version of The Perseverance is out soon. I also have a children’s picture book coming out in April 2020 called Can Bears Ski?. It was initially a poem I’d tried to write but it kept failing. It’s turned out to work really well as a poetic story for young readers. I’m also writing my second full-length collection, which is partly inspired by prisons and schools I’ve been visiting this past year. I’ve weaved in some British history while leaning into new poetry forms, which is exciting me at the moment.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
RA: Don’t be afraid not to like something. There is no holy grail of poetry, no matter what a school curriculum or University reading list tells you. Trust the things you connect with and grow from there. Once you find a poet you love look up all the poets that influenced them and then you have a ready-made reading list. It is fine to write just for yourself and have a private relationship with poetry (I did for the first 18 years of my life) but going public with your work is best supported with a community of writers and readers. Find them at workshops, book clubs, readings, open mic nights, social media, wherever your work takes you. Good luck poets! I salute you!