The Perseverance of Raymond Antrobus

Before he heads to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, we speak to Raymond Antrobus about his debut poetry collection

Feature by Beth Cochrane | 08 Aug 2019
  • Raymond Antrobus

Since launching his first collection, The Perseverance, Raymond Antrobus has taken the UK by storm. Already a skilled poet, Antrobus has been writing poetry for near enough as long as he can remember and performing for much of that time too. In 2019, he won the Ted Hughes Prize and the Rathbones Folio Prize, solidifying his position as one the nation’s favourite  breakthrough poets. Raymond will be appearing at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival alongside Joe Dunthorne, discussing The Perseverance; between his hectic schedule of teaching and performances, he managed to squeeze in a chat with The Skinny.

When talking about the collection and the process of writing it, he notes, "It was a loose process. I was just writing poems, not thinking too much about a project… When Tom Chivers at Penned In The Margins reached out and asked if I had a book I’d like to write, I sent him about twenty of what I thought were my strongest poems. He liked them enough to ask me to write a book. I knew I wasn’t interested in writing a 'collection' of poems, but more a book that explores the themes I most care about. I spend most of my time teaching, so education, history, language and family are consistent themes in my poems but how to put them in a book with a cohesive journey was the challenge, and I got there in the end."

A humble answer from the poet behind such a well-received first collection; does the reception, and success in the 2019 awards round, change how he felt about it? "I was very concrete with how I hoped the book would move in the world. I wanted it to reach deaf classrooms as well as hearing ones, I wanted to speak with and from the deaf and hearing world, as well as to past and present Britain. With one of the poems (Jamaican British) now on the GCSE syllabus, I think I’ve achieved that and more."

The collection effectively explores communication in many forms, including written language, a Spotify playlist, BSL and ASL illustrations, and subversions of familiar poetic work, to name but a few. As a d/Deaf poet, communication through multiple languages, spoken and signed, has shaped and heightened the craft behind the collection. The Perseverance is a thing of beauty almost because of its multiplicity of languages. However, we wonder about the other side of writing as a d/Deaf poet: what were the obstacles Raymond navigated in order to get to where he is now?

"I haven’t overcome them," he replies. "I have learned how to manage and navigate the hearing world. I do wish there was more deaf awareness. I do not separate the issue of disability from human rights and I’m dedicating my life to trying to get more deaf and other non-able bodies into rooms where they’re heard and understood so we can re-think the society and the spaces we’re living in."

This dedication finds itself not only in Raymond’s poetry, but in his teaching too – rather than viewing education and poetry as separate entities, he perceives the two to be interconnected. When speaking of his relationship with poetry and teaching, and his Master of Arts from Goldsmiths, he says, "My MA isn’t really in ‘spoken word’, it’s in education and emotional literacy. My time at Goldsmith’s was all about how to apply everything I learned as a poet and performer in a learning environment. It helped me cement a philosophy and pedagogy that fuses the identity of teacher and poet so they’re inseparable."

Before we wrap up, with The Perseverance having made its mark, the question many writers dread: what are you working on next? "I wrote a children’s book called Bears Can Ski," he explains, "which I initially wrote as a poem for The Perseverance but I couldn’t get it to sing. I rewrote it as a poetic children’s story and it really worked! It’s about a small bear and his father coming to terms with deafness and it is beautifully illustrated by Polly Dunbar, who is deaf too. It’s being published in 2021 by Walker Books. I can’t wait to see it in the world!" And perhaps it’s clichéd to say, but I can’t wait to see it out there, too.

Raymond Antrobus will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss The Perseverance, 18 Aug, 8.30pm