Deaf poetics: Conversation with Raymond Antrobus

Editor’s Note: After we have published our first Roundtable Discussion on Poetics And Disability earlier this year (which was followed up by our Roundtable Discussion on Deaf Poetics) we have received many e-mails, indicating much interest. There were also numerous requests to continue this series, and to go in more depth on individual poets’ paths and trajectories. In response, we are expanding our conversation to include a series of interviews/profiles of individual poets whose work touches upon disability.

I am especially pleased to begin this series of individual interviews with a very talented and dynamic young poet, Raymond Antrobus.  Raymond’s interests and background span vast geographical territories. He speaks for many people who might not be able to speak for themselves. I have seen him perform in UK; it was spell-binding.

Raymond Antrobus was born in London to an English mother and Jamaican father. He is the author of ‘Shapes & Disfigurements’, ‘To Sweeten Bitter’ and ‘The Perseverance’ (PBS Winter Choice 2018). Also in 2018 he was awarded ‘The Geoffrey Dearmer Prize’, (Judged by Ocean Vuong), for his poem ‘Sound Machine’.  He is the recipient of Cave Canem fellowship, and is also one of the world’s first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word education from Goldsmiths University. His poems have been published in POETRY, Poetry Review, News Statesman, The Deaf Poets Society.

If you missed our earlier discussion on Deaf Poetics, you may find it at this link. Thank you for reading.

— Ilya Kaminsky

You write so beautifully about sound/lack of sound. “I belong to a universe under water” one of your poems states. What is sound for a deaf or near deaf poet; can there be such a thing as a holy sound? And, how your answer, whatever it might be, impacts your view of poetry, of what it can and/or should do?

The idea of “holy sound” came from Gaudi, a hearing person and I suppose as a deaf person I was wondering if we as deaf people could be included in his definition of “holy sound”. Sound for myself as a deaf poet has changed throughout my life and much of this is to do with the technology of my hearing aids, my own maturity and learning to manage sound and understand something about the physics of acoustics and how they affect my specific deafness. I don’t hear any high pitch sounds without hearing aids, as the sounds that are sung in the poem “Echo” are sounds that literally don’t exist to my unaided ears. When I was young I used to be a semi-athletic swimmer and I often couldn’t hear my swimming instructor so I had to look to some of the stronger or older swimmers, observe them, copy their techniques, learn through my eyes and I prospered, representing Hackney, I swam in national competitions but gave up because of things that were happening in my life outside the pool, so I guess the belonging to the universe underwater also had that connotation. I’ve been accused by some readers of “over-explaining” my poems in interviews so maybe I’m saying too much, but the idea of answering in regards to poetry is interesting. Was it Mark Strand who said he never puts a question in a poem that he can answer? Was it Neruda who managed to write a whole poetry book of just questions? Going back to my personal life, I noticed how low a lot of people’s expectations of me were growing up and I think my deafness and race played into that. There are reports on my school report that say “Raymond is falling asleep in class, his father is Jamaican so we wonder if he is smoking weed”, when the reality was my brain was struggling to adjust to hearing aids. They can put a lot of strain on you, the fact I was trying so hard to hear everything was exhausting. I was always writing and I came to realise if I wrote something that moved or spoke to others it changed the way I was perceived. I was once accused of plagiarism by an English teacher who couldn’t understand how I could write a good poem but never complete my Shakespeare homework. I went through a lot of humiliation as a young deaf person (in the hearing and deaf world) but somehow poetry kept me sane and was one thing that asserted my being.

Your work also gives an interesting, insightful perspective on noise. What is a noise for you? Or, rather, how do you navigate the world of noise and its absence, and what kinds of poetics arise for you from that experience?

I’ve heard poets give the advice to readers beginning to read poetry, that they shouldn’t worry too much about understanding “everything” in poetry, “let it wash over you”, they’d say. I have many days when is my mode. I turn off my hearing aids while walking through cities and sometimes people send me messages like “I saw you and shouted and you ignored me! Are we still cool!?”, I’m less anxious as an adult about having to understand everything. That has helped navigating sound in the hearing world bearable. When I started BSL lessons as an adult  started speaking to deaf friends I’d gone to school with. It was a realisation of how hard I’ve worked in the hearing world, how I’ve always had to be the one working around other people, when actually if other people in my life did some work, like learn BSL or ensure they only spoke when facing me, or set up meetings in quiet spaces or took me to films/plays with captions then I could relax a bit. Having said that I have deaf friends who are really confident and inspire me with how assertive they are. I still apologise for not hearing and then kick myself for it later. As a student at University the poets I studied closest were O’Hara and Lorca. O’Hara for his city-dwelling liveliness and Lorca for his majestic surrealist intensity. I then wrote about fifteen poems inspired by each of these poets. My professor (who had read my previous work) had called these my weakest poems and said that these aren’t the poets I need to emulate. After that I read and listened to a lot of Caribbean poets, Walcott and Braithwaite yes, but also Andrew Salkey, Jean Binta Breeze, Grace Nichols, Kei Miller, Martin Espada, James Berry, John Agard, Hannah Lowe, Shara McCallum, all poets that lean into musical narratives attached to their history and islands, carrying it with them as they travel. These are the poets and poetics I began to root myself in. Poets who weren’t afraid to make sounds.  At BOCAS literary festival a friend, Trini poet Arielle John made a comment that “my work is unquestionably Caribbean and unquestionably British” and I hugged her when she said that, this is one thing poetry has done for me, it’s helped me to feel, in spite of all adversity, that it is possible to express every part of myself and be received, understood without having to play up one part of my identity over another.

In another wonderful poem, you ask: “what language / would we speak / without ears?” This begs a question: how does your knowledge of Sign Language impacts your view of what written poetry in English can do. How does it broaden/extend your view of poetry in English, of its possibilities when seen from these lens?

Learning BSL and working with BSL/VV interpreters on my poems confirmed the suspicion I had that the body of poetry on the page didn’t always have to imitate the body on the stage. They can be different rules for each setting. I learned this in Spoken Word and then as a teacher of poetry but I was completely immersed in the hearing world at that point. When I had found out how high the illiteracy rate of people born deaf in the U.K. was it woke me up, I booked a BSL course that week and managed to self-fund a 6 month residency in my former Deaf school (Blanche Nevile in North London) the following year. I was writing a play at that point called ‘A Language We Both Know’ where I worked with deaf directors (Caro Parker and CODA, Charmaine Wombwell) and they changed some versions of my poems, prioritizing the transitioning images / ideas in sign rather than spoken or written and each translation became a different version of the same species. Some poets seem to recommend one mode when performing their poems, which is “breathe on the line break” and this can be terrible advice, because if you are reading to deaf people, breathing every line break can make a jarring performance and interpretation but it depends. I’m just saying there isn’t an absolute way to perform or write or read and different approaches prioritize different aesthetics and audiences. Sometimes poets are deliberately inaccessible, and this, as someone who has struggled to access information often feels offensively indulgent. But can I just say this Ilya, I saw you read at Calabash in Jamaica a few years ago and you had Valzhyna Mort read your incredible poems after you read them yourself because you weren’t sure your voice would travel to us. Then I saw you read in Newcastle this year and you had printed your poems so we could all follow you. You moved me to tears, partly because it reminded me of how we’ve had to put in extra work to develop our deaf poetics, it has to be alive for us in a physical space as well as on the page. You are someone I look to as a great poet and a revisionist of sound. Your presentation of poetry has inspired me. Seeing you on stage both of those times made me feel less alone in doing the work to develop the lens of language you’re asking me about. I hope that makes sense?

Your work is very alive, very much of this world: from the ode to hair to the music of Jamaican British identity to fast walks through London to “thinking of Dad’s dick” to Miami Airport, and so on. Reading, one instantly thinks of Lorka’s statement that poet is the professor of senses. Your response?

I’m instinctively careful about giving poets too much responsibility, I mean, aren’t we already “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”? Different poets from different times and places serve different purposes right? My practise as a poet is rooted in my practise as a teacher, performer and any other genre I write in and I don’t separate them too much. I can say poetry has certainly sharpened my senses and keeps me open to wonder about alternative realities, to be overly curious rather than overly ideological, it can be read as just a reminder that we have more senses than we have the words for, so perhaps we ought to revel in that if we are to truly live our lives in the light?

Your erasure called ‘”Deaf School” by Ted Hughes”‘ is indeed a very bold and powerful statement. Your brilliant poem, Dear Hearing World, is also a kind of a manifesto. How do you see a position of a deaf poet in a hearing world?

Writing this book I knew I’d be opening myself to criticism everywhere, particularly to D/deaf people although so far I’ve received some very kind and thoughtful letters and emails about the book. A Deaf friend I went to school with, (we were both in the same BSL class as kids) had seen The Perseverance in a bookshop and emailed me to say “enjoyed your book but BSL DOES have a grammar structure so I don’t know why it says in your book that it doesn’t!?”, but that poem is a BSL translation “attempt” and in some ways it failed but the failure of language is innate for the poet, right? Having said that I do realise that most of my readers will be hearing people so I don’t want to be a source of misinformation. But if it starts dialogue that’s great too! I don’t think there is an “absolute” position for a deaf poet in a hearing world as there is no single true “deaf experience”. You come into the world having to find your own place in it, so the term “Manifesto” has some negative connotations if it implies I’m appointing myself as the head of some movement or style and that really isn’t my intention.

Your book begins with a beautiful epigraph on language by a hearing poet that describes the language as something interior (“there is no telling what language is / inside the body” – Robin Coste Lewis), and ends with a statement by a deaf character suggesting that, perhaps, the language isn’t just an interior thing (“all good words in sign are said with a thumb.”) What is language? what is the poet’s relationship to one’s language?

Bloody hell! What a question! Robin Coste Lewis was one of my tutors at Cave Canem and she really challenged us to truly investigate our language, to go deep as we can into it. Learn the root words and the other languages they lead you to. She’s a great poet and inspiring thinker. The Samantha sequence you’re referring to near the end of the book was a challenge and took a while to figure out the form. Samantha is the Deaf mother of a friend of mine who told me her story about being born in Jamaica and coming to England and the kinds of stigma she experienced in her church community. Her mother thought she was possessed by the devil. ‘Brutal Imagination’ by Cornelius Eady provided some inspiration to find a way to navigate the language around how to frame these poems. It was tricky. Samantha (not her real name as she wanted to be anonymous) isn’t oral so our interview was in BSL/SSE and then me carrying the weight of her story onto the page took some time but once I realised the poems didn’t have to rely on a single voice or tone I managed to find a way to write the air into the poems that the story needed. I try to root the language of my poetry in kindness, forgiveness, compassion and curiosity, that is the way I want to live, but of course that’s not to say anger and resentment and envy and other difficult emotions don’t make a noise in my work. I think it was New York poet Jon Sands who said to me “authenticity looks the same on everybody”, which tells me in the context of poetry you don’t have to TRY to sound like who you ARE. Our work doesn’t have to come from our best selves all the time. When we tap into a language that is uniquely us people seem to recognize truth… having said that, I can’t be all heart, there is no me without the poets and thinkers I have read or met or heard and I give thanks to them all for giving the world their language.

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