In Conversation with Raymond Antrobus

“This book is me trying to find a use for all the things in my life that felt like a disadvantage, a nuisance, the things I once tried to hide.”

Raymond Antrobus is often referred to as a book encyclopedia, his knowledge and love for poetry is undeniable.  Over Skype we talked about his stunning debut poetry collection ‘The Perserverance, (Penned In The Margins, October 2018) where he details his experiences working in a Deaf school and examining his experience and the historical deaf experience. This collection has an aching vulnerability that drives its brilliance.

Born in London, Hackney to an English mother and Jamaican father, Raymond Antrobus has received fellowships from Cave Canem, Complete Works 3 and Jerwood Compton. His poetry has appeared on BBC 2, BBC Radio 4, The Big Issue, The Jamaica Gleaner, The Guardian and at TedxEastEnd. . In 2018 he was awarded 'The Geoffrey Dearmer Prize', (Judged by Ocean Vuong), for his poem 'Sound Machine'.

Raymond - Today is pretty relaxed, I am in a coffee shop, it’s really quiet because there is no one here. I’ve been reading these series of short stories as well.

Theresa – I find it interesting that anytime I ask how you are doing your first response is to tell me what book you are reading! I guess the books are usually a reflection of how you are doing.

Raymond – You know what, you are right, that’s true, maybe it’s a deflection.

Theresa – I think it’s really cool actually, you are a book encyclopaedia anyway, I guess they become you.

Raymond – True, true.

Theresa - So, let’s talk about your collection, such a brilliant book, important in its exploration of deafness, first thing I noted is that your collection ‘The Perseverance’ is heavily sound orientated, especially in the inclusion of dialogue in many poems, either in the pronunciation or the dialect of the speaker, I was interested in why you decided to do this instead of paraphrasing?

Raymond – I realised that one of my strengths is to write in voice. When I hear someone speak I get an idea of the rhythm, of the feeling, of how a voice will move on the tongue, through the world, and into a poem, it gives me energy, it happens really organically. It leads in to what I learned as a spoken word poet on the stage and bringing voice to life. Knowing writing in other people voice was my strength I wanted to play to that, especially as most of my life as a deaf person, voices have always been an obstacle, I became quite lost in how to connect with people. The poems about my dad are one of the few that are narrative. The book ends with my dad reading me a children’s story, and I have memories of how he was always the one reading to me and speaking to me. The first drafts of the poems about my dad I tried to write it in his voice, but it’s funny that those poems never worked for me, his voice is so powerful. Regardless, the idea of conversation is essential to my practice.

Theresa – I can see that, there is a poem solely about a conversation you have with an art teacher. A lot of your work is about what is lost and learned in the translation of voices, like in the poem ‘Echo’ where you hear ‘Antro’ instead of ‘Antrobus’, in the poem ‘Conversation with An Art Teacher’ where you refer to it as an attempt at translation. What parts of these voices you hear are lost when further putting it into a poem, and what do you learn in that process?

Raymond – That’s interesting, I think every poem is different, they are all individuals, so for example the translation poem with the art teacher Naimo came from working in a deaf school, she was the art teacher and she only uses Sign language, so I signed with my broken and improvised sign, but I love how our conversations didn’t feel like she was filtering herself and it was a comfortable dynamic. The first poem I initially wrote was about the students and how disappointed they were that I wasn’t fluent in sign language, but I find it interesting that none of that made it to book, it was just the conversations I had with Naimo. Writing poems and not having everything make it into the poem, I learned that conversations are the first attempt to connecting. What I really hope with the Perseverance is that people know how important the stories of deaf people are, not just mine but people I am engaging with.

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Theresa – One of the poems that is personally love is the series of poems about Samantha. The poems were based on an interview you conducted with a deaf Jamaican woman about her arrival in England. I was interested in the fact that there are about seven poems written and each of them are in a different person’s voice. One is what the devil said, the other is what Samantha said, and so on, and I want to know why you decided to split one story into different voices and why you felt each one needed its own poem and space.

Raymond – The first draft of this piece was all in one voice, but I felt that it didn’t work, there wasn’t enough tension. It felt too flat and literal. I needed to find different dynamics, and the thing that kept coming to me was the devil’s perspective. I hope the poem challenges some of the ideas religion has about disabilities. It surprised me how many religious people I spoke to believe that people with disabilities are cursed (by the devil and/or by society). In Jamaica and Trinidad I would hear the same kind of story, that kind of shame. That being said I didn’t have a political agenda writing those poems, I just wanted to show the different voices in her story. Samantha is not her name, but I changed it because she wanted to be anonymous she was scared to share her story. I used Samantha because it literally means ‘the one who hears.’ 

Theresa – Goodness! Even the name had meaning! Can you talk a little bit more about what you learned working in a deaf school?

Raymond - When I was working in a deaf school, everyone I spoke to had a different relationship to their deafness because they had it at different levels. My deafness is mild to severe, severe because I can’t hear high pitched sounds, so there is a whole register of sounds unknown to me. People tone down my deafness because I can talk, but I have had speech therapy and support from my family and friends. There is this fear from the government that if they fund more deaf schools it would mean more sign language speakers and more alienation. Even my hearing aids has taken years of trying and testing and adjusting. This book is me trying to find a use for all the things in my life that felt like a disadvantage, as a nuisance, the things I once tried to hide.

Theresa – Thank you Raymond, thank you. The poem ‘The Ghost of Laura Bridgeman Warns Hellen Keller About Fame’, both women were famous for being deaf people, Keller being the author of the two. The line stood out to me We are centuries away from people believing our stories without perversion, without pity. I can’t help but ask how much of the voice was speaking to you and addressing possibly your insecurities as a deaf person?

Raymond – I think all of the voices in the book are in many ways addressing me, but that one was strange because that poem was a hard one to write. I read the diaries, interviews and medical notes of Laura Bridgeman, and books of Helen Keller. It’s complicated, not many people know that Helen Keller’s interpreter was writing for her, for two centuries she was used as the example of like ‘look even deaf people can do it’, it was an odd capitalistic idea of if your deaf child isn’t doing this they are possibly a failure. All of that spoke to me. When writing this poem, I was aware of the female voices I was taking on, but majority of the deaf schools I went in it was predominantly female teachers. Even when I travelled the world and interacting with deaf people, more women were willing to talk to me. I think its because as a woman the culture is so against you that you need more language you need to speak against, especially as a woman of colour.

Theresa – I noted it, and I think you did it elegantly without overpowering the voices of the women.

Raymond – Thank you, I did my best to not appropriate those voices.

Theresa – In regards to the subject matter of the book, you also examine some of your other identities, such as your heritage as a Jamaican British man and the poem about a boy being stabbed in Hackney, by the way was that about you?

Raymond – Yes it was

Theresa – Wow. I was interested in how your other identities, you as a Jamaican British Black man, how does it inform the way you write about your deafness.

Raymond – Thank you for bringing that up. I wanted to bring my personal history and the history of each of those identities together into the book. There are poems in the book about the construction of my identity, which I don’t think reach any conclusions, other than knowing its complicated.

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Theresa – Definitely, another poem that was interesting was the poem ‘Deaf School’ by Ted Hughes, and next to it was a poem titled ‘After Reading Deaf School by The Mississippi River’. You redacted every text in the Ted Hughes poem which was visually stunning. Ted Hughes choice of language in the poem was awful, but I am curious as to the importance for you in choosing to include the poem and redacting it instead of just putting your response?

Raymond – Redacting the text in the Ted Hughes ‘Deaf school’ poem was a cathartic choice, because when I read that poem my response was intense anger. I realise that to be able to find a way into my poem it had to begin with crossing out the old one. It’s significant that he is renowned as one of England’s greatest poets, and he went into a space, had an interaction with people he did not understand and felt the need to write this. My poem is not a character assassination of Ted Hughes, I love his poems, often he leans into extended metaphor, and I knew if I wanted to respond to Ted Hughes I had to meet him on his level poetically, so personified the Mississippi river.

Theresa – One thing I noted was how the collection revisited history records of deafness. The line that stood out was Before, all official language were oral, The Deaf were a colony the hearing world ignore from the poem ‘For Jesula Gelin, Vanessa Previl and Monique Vincent’ I wanted to know why it was so important for you to revisit history and place it in the midst of what deaf people experience now?

Raymond – I guess that links to what we were saying about how identity is more than more thing. This book is a continuation of over 200 years of deaf education, of people like Charles Dickens writing about and interviewing deaf people, of journalists writing about deaf and disabled people, or now revisiting my own failure and the need for validation of this language I own. Bringing in the history emphasises what I am speaking with and from and to.

Theresa – It’s been brilliant speaking with you, lastly what do you hope this book will do for you?

Raymond - I hope people will always be able to recognise the poet that wrote the perseverance.

Theresa – Indeed they will

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