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Raymond Antrobus
(United Kingdom, 1989)   
 
 
 
Raymond Antrobus

Raymond Antrobus’s poetry has charmed and chimed with readers and audiences around the world. His poems articulate and explore questions of existence and identity, often around his Jamaican-British heritage, masculinity and d/Deafness. He styles himself as an “investigator of missing sounds”, which aligns with his careful construction of poems as sound-objects as well as his interest in stories and voices often unheard. 

The poet is an award-winning performer, a curator of live events and an educator. He was a fellow of the Complete Works III and received a Jerwood Compton Fellowship. Antrobus has been named one of the top 20 promising young artists in the UK by Sky Arts and Ideas Tap, and in 2017 was listed as a Writer Of Colour to watch in by The Fadar. Ocean Vuong selected Antrobus’s poem ‘Sound Machine’ for the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize in 2017. The Perseverance, his first full length collection, was named the Poetry Book Society Choice for Winter 2018 and listed as a poetry book of the year in the Guardian and The Sunday Times

Antrobus was born in Hackney, London, to a British mother and Jamaican father. He was deaf at birth but remained undiagnosed until the age of seven, a fact that profoundly shaped his relationship with language. Although he received speech and hearing therapy from the NHS he experienced teasing and shame:

I think growing up I felt hugely misunderstood, I felt like everyone thought I was stupid because I couldn’t hear; I felt like it was really important for me to develop my own language to explain myself. And that’s also to do with being mixed race, as it is to do with my d/Deafness, as much as it is going to a d/Deaf school, which is also part of a hearing school, as much as that is to do with my relationship with sign language and spoken language because there is there is shame under all of that. Podcast interview

However, both Antrobus’s parents appreciated poetry; his father played him poetry recorded on cassettes and he always read and wrote despite the issues he experienced in education. At the age of 18, Antrobus attended a literary event in Ohio and realised he was already writing poems: “I remember looking...and listening and thinking “Oh! This is what I do”” (Poetry Review podcast). On returning to London, he began performing at poetry nights and engaging with the poetry community. Winning slams offered him the opportunity to perform around the world. He undertook an MA in Creative Writing and Education at Goldsmiths University. Antrobus’s work as an educator – at both hearing and d/Deaf schools –  has also shaped his poetry, informing his understanding of the role and power of poetry, providing inspiration for work, and leading him back to his own youth as subject matter:

It’s not easy being a teenager, working in schools helped me re-assess my own childhood and schooldays. I go into some classes already recognising the kind of student I was and the kind of person I wanted to be […] Working in schools has helped me make peace with a lot of things in my childhood because I now feel my experience has a use. Conversation with R.A. Villaneuva
 
In 2016 To Sweeten Bitter was published by Out-Spoken Press. The chapbook navigates a father’s death, life and relationship with his son:
 
My father had four children
and three sugars in his coffee
and every birthday he bought me
a dictionary which got thicker
and thicker and because his word
is not dead, I carry it like sugar

on a silver spoon
up the Mobay hills in Jamaica


‘To Sweeten Bitter’
 
The collection explores a complicated and uneasy relationship with a father, for instance in ‘My Dad Drunk (from Bottomless)’:

Said he was ashamed
to have white children.
Which was confusing
because when sober
he called me black.

Maybe I became
an uptown shade –
ghosts
he saw
in the white foam
of his drained pint glass.

 
These tensions are mirrored in wider questions of identity, race, masculinity and belonging. ‘Jamaican British’ is a broken ghazal, the form mimicking the collisions and confusions of mixed heritage:

Some people would deny that I’m Jamaican British.
Angelo nose. Hair straight. No way I can be Jamaican British.

They think I say I’m black when I say Jamaican British
but the English boys at school made me choose Jamaican, British?

Half-caste, half mule, house slave - Jamaican British.
Light skin, straight male, privileged - Jamaican British.


Antrobus speaks and writes of the poems as biographical and while the pamphlet takes some detours it keeps returning to the personal grief and grappling at its core, offering us an intimate perspective, as in ‘Dementia’:
 
you simplified a complicated man,
swallowed his past
until his breath was
warm as Caribbean
concrete
 
Antrobus’s first full length collection followed in 2018. The Perseverance includes some of the poems in To Sweeten Bitter and continues to develop its themes including his own father’s life and their relationship – ‘The Perseverance’ is the pub at which the child waits for his father the drinker – but the scope of the collection is broader. It continues to explore and give voice(s) to d/Deaf stories and includes pictorial representations of sign language. In the second section of ‘Echo’, the opening sequence, five triplets are preceded by ‘What?”:
 
A word that keeps looking 
in mirrors, in love 
with its own volume.

 
‘What’ acts as question, command, demand and reprimand. It also perhaps recalls the old English opening of Beowulf and other poems “Listen”, the same word which starts the second poem, ‘Aunt Beryl Meets Castro’, setting up the complex ideas of exchange, communication, power and information – and how these interact with d/Deafness, race and gender – that run through the book:

Most dem on the Island
hear life in some Queen’s 
English voice but I was
tuned to dem real power
lines, I was picking up all
the signals.

 
Beryl is one of many women who has a story and/or voice in this book; as well as relatives there are figures from history, for instance in ‘The Ghost of Laura Bridgeman Warns Helen Keller About Fame’:
 
Beware of Alexander Graham Bell.
     Decibel is his word.
He never receives you. O Helen,
     don't trust what you cannot say yourself.
 
There are also poems which are based on actual conversations.
 
Wait, you write down what I say, how? You know BSL has no grammar structure? How you write me down when I am visual? Me, into fashion, expression in colour. How will someone reading this see my feeling?
 
‘Conversation with the Art Teacher (a Translation Attempt)’
 
The sequence ‘Samantha’ is based on interviews with a d/Deaf Jamaican woman about her arrival in England. These female figures and voices contrast with ideas of masculinity, which is often connected with violence and remoteness: “Look what toughness does / to the men we love” (‘Maybe I Could Love a Man’).
 
Antrobus has said his motivation for The Perseverance was to create “A book that fused my different identities and experiences without reducing one part of myself over the other” ( Conversation with Bex Shorunke for Penned in the Margins). These are poems that seek out what has gone unheard:
 
Deaf voices go missing like sound in space
and I have left earth to find them.
 
‘Dear Hearing World’
 
Antrobus is claiming and crafting a space where we can all discover what would otherwise be missed.
 

© Emily Hasler

BOOKS
Shapes and Disfigurements of Raymond Antrobus, Burning Eye Books, London, 2012
To Sweeten Bitter, Out-Spoken Press, London, 2017
The Perseverance, Penned in the Margins, London, 2018
 

LINKS
Poet’s web site
Performance videos
Interview with Emily Berry/The Poetry Society

 



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