Interview #4 Roger Robinson
Roger Robinson, interviewed by Gboyega Odubanjo
Roger Robinson: What’s going on?
Gboyega Odubanjo: Yeah, I’m decent. Just living, surviving, etc. Yourself?
RR: Yeah. I’m alright, man. Lots of changes in the world. A lot of assessing: what is my continuing role as an artist, as a creative citizen?
GO: Is there a reason you never went down the route of academia?
RO: I’m too busy writing—also I’m ridiculously anti-authoritarian, and vain, and I think I’m smarter than everyone. And through coming to do work at universities I talk to heads of departments and I’m like: ‘You are a complete blagger. You don’t know anything about poetry.’ Do you know what I mean? ‘You may know what you know, but you don’t know anything about poetry in the world. And you definitely don’t know anything about diverse poetry. You don’t even know who Amiri Baraka is, you don’t know who Linton Kwesi-Johnson is. You can’t teach me anything. You have no idea of hip-hop—you don’t know who De La Soul is.’ Nobody can teach me if they don’t understand that hip-hop is a part of a literary tradition. And that grime is a part of another literary tradition in this country. That’s just my thing, I just like rebel shit. Even though I love teaching, the whole idea of just going to be a teacher in a university never really appealed to me.
GO: I hear that. Reading interviews that you’ve done previously I’ve read that you were born in Hackney, left this country at a young age, and came back when you were 19 to live in Ilford. And then, reading the book, it seems that you then found a home in Brixton.
RR: Yeah. Well, I kinda lived in Brixton on and off. But never as long as people assumed that I lived there. What happened is that I always used to just meet in Brixton all the time. So if I was in Lewisham, as soon as I leave my house I’m going Brixton. Brixton is endlessly fascinating to me because I think it’s a super spiritual place. No matter what happens to Brixton, there’s always a lot of Black tradition that goes on in Brixton that people don’t see. In the hairdressers, in the clubs. Where African and Caribbean retentions, for want of a better word, from their own countries happens on a daily basis. Even as Brixton evolves, that doesn’t change for a lot of the Black people who are there. Some of them are leaving now, and you have the whole gentrification and stuff like that, but there have been many attempts to gentrify Brixton, and they have failed many times.
GO: And so if you could take something from all of those places (Hackney, Ilford, Brixton) and place them in your paradise, what would those things be?
RR: Well, Brixton would be the sort of collision of cultures, and what gets thrown up with the collision. I went the other day and I cut my hair at a Somali barbers, because I like Black experiences. Completely different experience from West-Indian barbers’. Nearly silent. These brothers don’t really talk that much. No extra noise, very professional. And—I had to ask them because they had it on the radio—the only sound you hear in a full barbers’ is a Somali political broadcast on the radio. In a full barbers’. It wasn’t ragga, it wasn’t Somali music, it was just speaking. And everybody was listening to it. Some people were, at the very least, saying ‘Mmm, mm’. And I was like, ‘Wow.’ Being able to experience that, for a minute I wasn’t in England. And I like being able to experience that.
What I like about Hackney is that at one point it was the epicentre for Trinidadian parties. What’s that club they had? Is it Hackney 291, or 291? Every Soca party in the world was there. So my thing in Hackney is going to Soca parties and, eventually, there was a guy who would sell roti out of a van at Trinidadian parties. I used to talk to that guy so much he asked me to sell roti with him.
Ilford was different. It was just a very white town. My Ilford memories are just the immigrant experience of coming and trying to find his way. I mean Ilford kind of led me quickly to Brixton. I was just like, ‘This ain’t it.’ I had alright memories in Ilford, I just thought people had no idea of what a Black person was. People didn’t have white and Black friends when I was there. And a few Black people who I did meet were just kind of bemused by me because they had to be so white-identified to get by. Because I was always full-on Trini in everything I’m doing, and they were just like, ‘Holy shit. This dude’s free.’ And I would talk about white people on the train without lowering my voice. And they were like, ‘Shhh, what are you doing?’ But I wasn’t actually talking about white people, I was talking about the politics of white people, about the politics of racism. And I didn’t see any problem with talking about it because I come from a liberated, independent, cultural country of Trinidad. I had no fear of white people, my parents were resolutely middle-class in Trinidad. I had already travelled most of the world with my parents. I would go into restaurants where we were the only Black people there in a different country. My parents taught me that this world is mine; I’m a global citizen.
GO: I think one of my favourite things in your book is that the paradise you speak of is not perfection.
RR: Not at all.
GO: The poem ‘Paradise’ starts: “Is Paradise an island of perfection?” And you speak about how “after years in this perfect land will we not secretly long for a night when we wake to skies of bruised clouds?”
There’s so many complications of your paradise. It reminds me of an article Tobi Kyeremateng wrote for gal-dem about Black people in the UK, soon after the elections. She says that “home is a shapeshifter with many faces,” at one point “intimate and close” and at others violent and dystopic. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the complications of paradise.
RR: To some extent in the book paradise is an idea to reach for. Especially because Black people don’t often get to reach it. It’s been sold to us, from our grandparents or great-grandparents, the whole idea that England is the place to be. Sometimes when I go back to Trinidad people there still say, ‘How is it out there for you? I’m thinking about going out there, or going to the States.’ I’m like, ‘Look man, I’ll give you a piece of advice. I’ve been there for 25 years; I wouldn’t go. It’s not what you think it is. What it has been sold as is not what it is.’ And so I wanted to get that in, and also I wanted to get the idea that perhaps paradise is what you make it within yourself and your people. Perhaps you can’t look for it in other countries.
Right now I have a six and a half year-old son, and I live in Northampton. He is in a good school but he is isolated culturally and racially. There are not many Black boys and so I’m thinking what am I looking for for his cultural, racial, and educational experience now? What will I be looking for when he is nine? I have to prepare for it. So I’ve been going to different countries and asking, what can be paradise for my son? What is the best fit in terms of a cultural offer? What is the best fit in terms of an educational, or racial offer? I wrote A Portable Paradise, and some of my friends told me, ‘It’s Black, but it’s nearly too Black.’ I was just like, ‘Homie, I do not care anymore.’ I don’t care if I get any props from literature and everything like that. I’m going to live, I have skills. I’m not asking anybody for anything. And, believe it or not, this is the book they gave me all the awards for. The book where I say some wild things. The white, literary tradition gave me the T.S. Eliot [Prize] for this book? That talks about a white woman trying to sexualise me? This book, this one? If I had only known, I would’ve been wilder.
GO: What you’re saying, I feel like you reference that in the poem, ‘Bob Marley in Brixton’. You say the next album will be “bullets and brimstone and fire.” Was there a conscious effort for it to be different, or less safe than previous books?
RR: I wrote the book because I needed to have it. Toni Morrison is a big influence; if there is a book that you don’t see on the shelves you have to write it. And I wanted a book that was literary, that was for Black people. You see the boys I put on the cover? I wanted a book that my son, when he is a teenager and says my dad is a writer, can walk through these stores and he and his friends can look at that book and say, ‘Wow, that’s us.’ That wasn’t there. What I was trying to do was fill the space that I wanted that wasn’t there. That was liberating in itself. This is the book that I want to read, and it is continually the book that I want to read. And I am very lucky that it was prescient, that a lot of things were happening. I didn’t get in front of it but because I reflected on it quickly, and I was at a small press, all of a sudden as things evolved I seemed to be right on point with it. Even a year later. And that prescience is a thing that we have to be aware of, not just as Black writers, but as writers. How is this projecting into the future? Because we, as writers, have that ability to look at things and have an awareness that our books are going into the future. Into several futures. And I was very aware of that with this book. So to some extent a lot of my past books have been about the Caribbean and memory or immigration. But this book has been firmly, like, I’m Black-British, and these are things that have to be dealt with now.
GO: There are moments in this book which are heart-breakingly prescient. There’s the poem ‘Woke’, which speaks of the different stages of oppression that Black people have gone through, and continue to go through. The poem ends: “I woke up on the 16th floor of a tower block, looking out the window with a clear view of the land that does not belong to me.” Reading that I thought that there are so many tragic ways for this poem to continue. With relation to police brutality, with relation to loads of other things.
RR: With ‘Woke’ there were two things I was dealing with. We’ve got so much fricking pain in us that’s passed down from our families, our grandmas, that we don’t really know. A genetic memory of pain. And the thing about George Floyd is that it woke all that pain up. So when I say ‘woke’, I’m not just talking about being woke, but being awoke to the amount of pain we carry that we don’t even realise. And how we hold these traumas, and how George Floyd brought it all up. I know a lot of people struggling with the internal traumas of race and stuff like that, and some of them in the Caribbean. Because you have this same colonial racism in the Caribbean.
‘Woke’ is an interesting poem, not many people mention it. But it’s started to get mentioned a bit now. Piece by piece certain poems evolve in themselves in a certain way.
GO: You say about this book that it is not political, but is politicised. What do you mean by that?
RR: I say that about myself. What I say is that I am not a politician, but I am politicised. Even within what is happening with George Floyd, Newsnight wanted me to be on television. I’m like, ‘Am I going to read my poetry or not?’ They said, ‘No, it’s just a conversation about empathy and all that’ I’m like, ‘Hmm.’ Because I know my lane: I’m a poet, I’m not an activist. I believe in creative citizenship. What I do is about being a creative citizen and creative citizenship for others. So that’s politicised, but I’m not an activist. I’m not out on road with banners. I’m not UK Black Lives Matter, it’s not me. I know what I am, and I know what I intend to do. Anybody trying to put me in a position of a politician, I’m going to go back to poetry. You want to know my response to this? Listen to this poem.
GO: There is a specificity of lineage and heritage that you’re aware of and that you’re adding to in a lot of these poems—particularly when you’re talking about Brixton—where it seems you are talking specifically to Black people of a younger generation. Those who might be on road, or doing whatever. How do you balance the truths that you are trying to express in them and the craft of your poetry?
RR: There’s a certain point in this book where a lot of it is about the value of the Black body. Some of the experiences I had were going to come through. So I did actually walk with someone in ‘Walk With Me’. It became an opportunity to put in the book a significant mythological or spiritual component. And so if there was something that was real or autobiographical, the mythological had to come into it as a craft decision. That started to make an interesting balance. I’m writing a new book where I have a similar thing, where it starts taking off from history and then goes into mythology. That juxtaposition between art, imagination, and life is a heady cocktail for me right now. And so, even realistic things had to be subject to something imaginative and craft-based. I was trying to avoid the anecdotal. As you keep writing you realise some anecdotals have enough strength, craft-wise, to last but—I’ll say one thing about some of my earlier books—some anecdotal things didn’t last. And that’s the problem with the anecdotal, sometimes they don’t have enough craft to last not just a lifetime, but into future generations also. Not to give yourself pressure, but you have to think about the importance of writing; sometimes you may not even be writing for this generation.
GO: And so what role does prose, and the prose poem, play in that?
RR: Prose poems come from a revolutionary tradition of French poets from the late 19th century. Writers like Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and the whole idea that they were trying to rebel. So it is a form based in rebellion. But also it is a form based in ironic humour and surrealism and lots of different things. But the irony of it is when you start to read the prose poem you realise it is how Black people think. And then it takes you more towards magical realism, and then you really realise it is how Black people think. There is a paraphrasis, talking around something without telling you exactly what it is. And that comes from African and Carribean traditions. What I was trying to do was use a form to try to get to what Black people’s thoughts are like. And so, through and through, I am trying to reference Black things. Even though I may talk about prose poetry, and prose poetry is perceived as being of the European tradition, in my mind this is all Black people things. That’s how it works in the new book, jumping off from elements of historical moments, historical trauma, historical actions and seeing what I can derive from it that goes into magical realism.
GO: Community is strong in this book. There are people like Grace, the nurse. There are the two men in the barbershop in ‘Liver’. What do you see as being the role of the community in this world we live in, in a possible paradise etc?
RR: The interesting thing with those two poems is they happened pretty much as is. With a little adjustment from me to prevent it being too anecdotal. To me it just seemed like this was love in action. I wanted to get different examples of love in action. And also the valuing of Black bodies, which is a thin line throughout the book. Also, how these private stories can have public resonance. Those two nearly didn’t make it—the one in the barbershop was the last one to actually go in, and it was last minute. And everytime I read ‘Grace’ or ‘Liver’, Black people completely understand it. Other people are just like, ‘Man, what a kind person.’ No, it is not kindness, it is about a way of being. It is cultural. Nobody had to explain to anyone in the barbershop what was about to happen. This is the natural occurrence of things. And so to Black readers I wanted to reiterate: this is how we are.
GO: In ‘Citizen I’ you say “Every second street name is a shout-out to my captors.” Who would you name the streets in paradise after?
RR: My grandmother, Florence Scarborough. My aunty, Monica Lewis. My mother, Phyllis Robinson. My sister, Isele Robinson. Every single West-Indian nurse who helped people of all cultures to live, they would be my street names. I really think that Black women have been absent from the naming of things. Of culture and art. I have a poem where I call out my entire genealogy of women, because I was asked to write a poem for the V&A. It was about a painting of a Trinidadian woman. This white, English woman painted a Black, Trinidadian woman and [titling the painting] they put the artist’s name and then in brackets: her servant. No name of the woman. I took complete umbrage to that, the colonial imperative of it. And not only did they just not put her name, they put her status compared to the painter. And so, I reimagined a whole world for her. And in the poem, because Black women are never named in art, I just put a list of the names of the Black women in my family.
GO: And finally, there are direct references to musicians in the book—Sade, John Coltrane, Bob Marley. Apart from them, what would be the soundtrack to paradise?
RR: I quite like how through slavery African music has evolved into different things. African music, in Brazil, has evolved into samba. Through Trinidad, it’s the same music, just evolution—it’s evolved into calypso. Through Jamaica: ska, metal ska, reggae. This is all African music. In America, blues. There’s a really good book by LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka called Blues People that explains it. When I read that I was like, ‘What?’ That blew my mind, I’d never thought of that before. This is all one vibration. So the soundtrack would be that vibration, from the very early African music to all its evolutions. Reggae, calypso—all the musics of Black culture. I quite like that you could be in a party and those, of a certain age, would erupt. So lots of people know Soul II Soul in terms of their big hits, like ‘Keep On Movin’’. But if you have people over, say, 45 in a party and you play a Soul II Soul song like ‘Fairplay’, people would be like, ‘Woah’. But white people wouldn’t know, looking around like, ‘What song is this?’ I like musical in-secrets between Black people. Which is very different now because the internet has un-loosed a lot of information. But there’s a difference between a cultural knowledge of a song, because of a shared culture, and just a knowledge of a song.