Sunita and I had the privilege of attending a poetry breakfast during the Durham Book Festival back in October in which we got to interview none other than the festival poet laureate Raymond Antrobus. An incredibly approachable and down to earth person, he made the event personal, getting everyone engaged in a conversation about poetry and the different paths in life that may lead you to explore a life in writing (the delicious pastries and muffins for breakfast definitely contributed to the overall feel).
Born in London to an English mother and a Jamaican father, Raymond explores his Jamaican heritage and experience with deafness through his powerful spoken word poetry. During the talk, he mentioned having been exposed to the art from a young age, winning several poetry slams and consequently getting scouted to pursue an MA in Goldsmiths University. He values the role education plays in the art of writing, being an avid teacher himself. In 2019, after winning the Ted Hughes award, he became the first ever poet to be awarded the Rathbone Folio Prize for best work of literature in any genre.
Poetry was read, the current literature arena was discussed, tea was spilt and plenty of laughs were shared. Following the event, Raymond was keen to answer our questions and get involved with the student side of Durham. Needless to say, it was a pleasure to talk to him and engage with someone so acclaimed in his field, and rightfully so…
Sunita: How would you describe yourself?
Raymond: A poet, a teacher, a conversationalist and an investigator of missing sounds.
S: I really like that phrase. Is that something you always use?
R: Yeah, it’s a line from a poem I wrote a long time ago. And some people that heard the poem kind of gave it back to me, I guess?
S: So, you didn’t go to university yourself, is that right? What was your path?
R: Well, I left school at 16, didn’t have any GCSEs, I went straight into work. But when I won the UK slam championship in 2010, and I was in Chicago, I did this reading, and I met this poet called Dan Sully and he said ‘You’ve got to come into my old school and meet my English teacher’, so I was invited in the next day, into this classroom, where there were about 80 students, 14-15 years old and they had all been writing poetry, and I had never seen anything like it before.
And so this man Peter Kahn walks over to me and says, ‘Hey you’re the poet from London! Alright everybody listen up, we’ve got a visitor, a poet from London here, he’s gonna give us a poem’ – and he put me on the spot just like that. I did the poem spontaneously, luckily it went down well, I didn’t even have the opportunity to not do it! But what he did, was he just pushed me right into the deep end, and immediately, I’d done something which I didn’t think I could do. So that was my first time in the classroom as a poet, engaging with poetry. Three years later and he comes out of nowhere, I met him, and he said, ‘Look, I’m at Goldsmiths University, I’m running an MA – and I want you on it.’
M: What advice would you give about criticism to people who are starting to write? It can be very discouraging. So what do you think is key to keep your motivation going?
R: It is not a constant feeling, I am not constantly confident. We all have those doubts and go through that thought of ‘well, what’s the point? [laughs]. As I said earlier, you do need an innate belief, that’s important, but I do also think you need a champion, I needed an ambassador, just one person to read my work and say: ‘look, this is good’. So just find that, find one person who’s willing to read your work and whose opinion you trust and respect. You just need one reader, and that will lead you somewhere. And it is even possible that you will outgrow that one reader. The thing is, in the time we live now, make the most of the community readily available to you: if you attend workshops, submit to competitions, become commended and spend time with all these other writers. Find a community.
M: Ok, so writer’s block is obviously something that many people experience, how do you deal with it? Do you have any coping mechanisms and advice for people?
R: [sighs] I don’t believe in it. It’s not about not being able to write, it’s about having this idea in your head that what you are writing is not worth reading; so you’re still writing. Or a block in your head telling you not to write. And the thing is this is part of our process. What I’ve come to realise is how indoctrinated we are into this one-dimensioned idea of productivity and what it is. So if I’m sat here with a pen and paper staring out of the window, something is happening, something that is not physical. Yet, someone else will come in and think that I’m doing nothing, that I’m lazy. And we need that sitting as part of our process. A block for me is part of a pause, and we shouldn’t make it into something negative.
S: I really like that, especially seeing it from the perspective of university students.
M: The constant pressure of having to work 24 hours a day to keep up with everyone else. It’s nice to hear this from someone.
M: Do you have any particular advice for aspiring writers?
R: I think…have a personalised canon. The stuff that they give you in universities and institutions is not a canon, it’s a pre-established idea. And if you are leaning on these pre-established ideas, then how are you going to create something new? And how are you going to be really aligned with who you are, if it’s just an idea that you’re regurgitating? It takes real bravery, patience, research, to not be afraid to establish your own conversation, your own lineage, and even if there are writers who are difficult or people might say ‘They’re too easy’, or ‘They’re too sentimental’, if they are speaking to something which is innate about you, they are important. Honour them.
S: So what’s next? What’s your future ambition, or your next goal?
R: So I’ve written a children’s book, which is coming out next year – it’s called ‘Bears Can Ski’, it’s illustrated. I love it, I’m very proud of it. So I wrote this story about a deaf bear who doesn’t know – no-one knows – he’s deaf. And he keeps mishearing people, so he thinks people are asking him if bears can ski, when actually people are saying ‘Can you hear me?’ So the bear goes on this journey to learn to ski, and it’s this whole analogy.
Despite never having come across Raymond’s work myself before this event, both my research to prepare for the interview, and meeting Raymond himself, has revealed the depth which can be found in his poetry, and the unashamed truthfulness with which he speaks and writes. I think Marina would agree when I say that we probably kept him for far too long, but it felt more like speaking with a friend than with a highly regarded literary figure, and Raymond is so down to earth that the conversation flowed easily between the three of us – as you can probably tell!
All in all, we both felt extremely lucky to have the privilege to meet such a lovely, talented writer, and wish him all the best in what is sure to be a continuingly successful career.
Since we met Raymond Antrobus he has been named the winner of the 2019 Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award for his debut, The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins). You can read more about Raymond in the Sunday Times article here and on his website www.raymondantrobus.com