Interview #7 Raymond Antrobus
Raymond Antrobus, interviewed by Gboyega Odubanjo
Gboyega Odubanjo: I imagined that if this was a hip-hop album the cover of it would be you as a kid staring into the camera; maybe your mum’s holding your hand or something. Because it’s one of those albums about self-mythology and it’s about your name—you’re using real names. And so I was wondering about your relationship to the term ‘confessional’?
Raymond Antrobus: Confessional, in the literary world, is quite a loaded term. Because it is something people have had to defend. Mainly women, of course, especially when you think about people like Sharon Olds and Sylvia Plath. Female poets have been condescended for being ‘confessional’, as if the confessional lyric isn’t craft, and it is. For me, it is not a term that I’ve got a problem with as long as it is understood as not being just confessional. It is still lyric, it is still music. You brought about the idea of mythology and it is an age old question. Shakespeare said, “What’s in a name?” This is a question I align myself with and my hope is that anyone can be invited into that. The assumption with confessional work is that it is this indulgent thing that is just about the poet or individual. It is a mythology that there is a singular ‘I’ and so it’s not my intention to write something about the singular ‘I’. I was trying to figure out how to make this an immersive book; I wanted the reader to be immersed in the world and atmosphere of the book and that includes the internal landscape as well as the external. I hope the material of the world I’m writing into is inviting.
GO: I think it is. Because, whilst so much of the book is based on you or your family members, there is an outward looking nature to it in terms of wider questions of heritage and belonging. But also more personal questions of who we are, who we become, and where we come from. Thinking about the word ‘confession’, it has close links to the words ‘guilt’ or ‘shame’. And there are two quotes in the collection that draw me to these words. In ‘For Tyrone Givens’ you write: “Tyrone, I won writing awards / bought new hearing aids and heard / my name through the walls.” Then in ‘And That’, there’s a part that reads: “You got out ends / got good job / legit / and that?”. Are these the right words to describe the feelings expressed here?
RA: It’s survivor’s guilt, that’s what it is. I’ve spoken to a few poets about coming into this literary space, especially if you’re moving from open-mic or spoken word scenes where, when I was coming up, there was a greater range of backgrounds and understandings of one’s personal history. Especially within spoken word there was this melding of people from theatre backgrounds or stand-up comedy, as well as folk music and hip-hop. The spoken word scene was the place where I felt most welcomed or understood in that sense. Then when you move into the more literary space it becomes a bit more monocultural.
A lot of my work comes out of that consciousness and those tensions. I know that in writing a book the people who will read it might be different to people at open-mics. But at the same time, I’m trying not to be too self-conscious of all of that; I’m trying not to become performative with any of my identities. I am still trying to align myself with what my own questions are and how I reconcile some of the contradictions of myself. Because the more I lean into that the more I realise how absurd it is to have any idea of purity or any idea of being just one thing. In the poem ‘And That’, when my friend is speaking to me, he was making it out as if I had become someone else, but I haven’t. I’ve just grown up and I’ve had opportunities—he didn’t tell me what he’s been going through, he just implied it. That was an important poem for me to write and articulate, almost taking stock of where I’m at now, thinking about who I’ve brought with me.
In ‘For Tyrone Givens’, he was initially my friend from school. I hadn’t seen him since we left school and then I suddenly got a call from a mutual friend of ours and they told me what had happened to him. Tyrone was one of the most popular kids in school; he seemed to transcend any divide between the Deaf world and the hearing world. He could sing, he could dance, he had these bright blue hearing aids, and he was proud. The hearing girls and the Deaf girls fancied him. Thinking about that, and thinking about the last time I spoke to him, it was on that staircase and he gave me the pen. Having that memory feels like a gift, because it would be so easy to lean on the tragedy or difficulty but often there are things we can uplift or complicate.
GO: Throughout the book there is a clear appreciation of the poets that have come before and inspired you. There are quotes from William Blake, John Keats, Czesław Miłosz and others. What was the reasoning behind that?
RA: Growing up in London with my mum, there were certain landmarks and places that I associated with poetry. Like William Blake and the trees in Peckham where he would see angels. And how many poets have written about Westminster Bridge? T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Wordsworth, it just goes back. There is that whole idea of a fabric of a landscape of one’s lived life and literary life, and where they meet. I feel infused by that. I know that with a lot of these poets we are talking about 17th and 18th century; we are talking about England at the peak of the slave trade. Westminster Bridge was built around 1740, when England had never been more rich. So all of the slave money that built this is a current running underneath it. And when I think about my own Britishness or Caribbean-Britishness—which is a box I always have to tick—and leaning into my English heritage I am always trying to find a spot to write in. I try to enter poems in the middle of all of that. Then bringing in my time in education, going through Deaf schools and hearing schools, I really saw up close the hierarchies of language—of the spoken language, the signed language and the assumptions of those two spaces, but also the very real limitations that come with the expectations of others and the expectations of ourselves. All of that was in the language.
GO: Some of the names you mention in the book, both the landmarks and the poets, are very English. I feel like the work you are doing in the book with the name ‘Antrobus’ is so central to showing the complications and contradictions you are talking about. Because Antrobus, as you say, is a symbol of belonging and ownership in that it is directly linked to the land named Antrobus. But there is that contradiction between you and the average Antrobus who may have felt more welcomed in those spaces that you both belong to. In ‘Sutton Road Cemetery’, the speaker is standing by their great-grandmother’s grave and:
it was the one time he’d wanted
someone white to appear and ask
where he was from. It would’ve been no skin off him
to point at her stone and say
GO: What is it like to have that name, but also to have people question whether or not you belong?
RA: So there was a whole other section that didn’t make it into the book. During lockdown, because I knew everyone would be at home, I went on Facebook and wrote to as many people with the surname ‘Antrobus’. Most of the people with the surname that I spoke to were in Canada, around Europe, or the Caribbean. I transcribed these interviews and I was trying to write these persona poems where I speak about their relationship with the name, but it didn’t work. It was too much, but the thing that it shone a light on was just how complicated naming is. There was all of this weird stuff to get through when I spoke to some of the English people named Antrobus and I asked what they knew about Edmund Antrobus and the fact he owned enslaved people. There was a lot of defensiveness and then they weren’t comfortable talking to me. And it wasn’t like I was trying to attack them personally; I was genuinely just curious and trying to open up that conversation. So the two poems, ‘Antrobus or Land of Angels’ and ‘Sutton Road Cemetery’, were supposed to be the beginning and end of that sequence but I took the rest of the poems out and just left those two.
It’s weird, everyone has a relationship to their name but, when it came to the baggage of the name ‘Antrobus’, no-one wanted to talk about it. No-one wanted to talk about this ancestor of theirs that was a slave owner. Because what is unique to the Antrobus name is that it is a locational name; anyone with the name can be linked to the place and not necessarily by blood. One of the main things my grandmother told me about the name was that the mother of the English poet, Thomas Gray, was called Dorothy Antrobus. My grandmother was sure that she was a descendant of her. Thomas Gray’s most famous poem was about a cemetery (‘Elergy Written in A Country Churchyard’) and so there is a thing in the book about going to the cemetery in Antrobus village and Sutton Road Cemetery, where my great-grandparents are buried. These are things that start up as ideas and then when you try to flesh them out they don’t really come together. That is what I think is so different about poetry compared to any other form. For me, I can’t know too much about something before I write about it or else it ends up not working.
GO: There needs to be a gap that the imagination fills in.
RA: Or else it becomes didactic. And people see through that so I was hoping with All The Names Given that it is a book that asks questions and explores. So with ‘The Royal Opera House (with Stage Captions)’ and some of the other caption poems I gave myself space to be more visual. Because the questions that those caption poems ask are different; it is about our relationship with information and how we receive that information. Hence, I have captions from a news report or closed captions that come up in a theatre show. This is creative captioning, where the questions are within the form.
GO: I’ve spoken to you about poets that you read and I know that, because of familial bonds, you’ve spent a lot of time in the US recently. Do you think that spending so much time there or reading so many poets from the US has changed your writing?
RA: Definitely. I wrote most of this book while I was living in the US; most of it when I was living in New Orleans, some of it when I was in Oklahoma City, and some of it in New York. I do think my engagement with American poetics has benefited or changed my poetics. I feel in the American literary landscape, because I’m not trying to belong to it, I have a freedom there. Maybe I have a few assumptions about British poetics and what you can get away with in Britain, but I feel less concerned with that when I’m writing in the States.
GO: The last thing I want to talk about is sound. Early on in the book, I got the impression that sound was decentralised because of some poems—‘On Touch’, ‘Language Signs’, the caption poems, and ‘Her Taste’—where even in metaphor it seems that sound isn’t important. But as I was reading it more and more, and as I got introduced to the work of Christine Sun Kim it became clearer that, as opposed to it being decentralised, it is just being thought of differently or presented differently. Sound is presented in a less audio-centric form but instead one more accessible and abstract.
RA: That was the intention. First off, we know as writers that it is a mythology that we have five senses. You’re right, there was a grounding in other senses and I never wanted to speak about sound, in any poem, that took hearing for granted. I didn’t want to suggest that sound or hearing only happens through the ears, because it doesn’t. Sound is about the whole body. The whole thing was finding ways into poems using the senses. A grounding for that, especially being in conversation with Christine Sun Kim, was figuring out what the poetics of sound are and what the poetics of deafness are. That’s always the thing that kept coming back; I wanted to complicate what sound is. Because in mainstream culture, or the mainstream understanding of sound, hearing is taken for granted. Deaf and hard of hearing people are seen as lesser than or missing out on, instead of just having a different relationship to sound. One of the major themes or vibrations of the book is that I want you to read this book with your ear, and with your eye, and with your body. There are three versions of this book: the written version on page, an audio version I am working on that will be out soon, and I’m working with a BSL performer who knows all of my poems so well and she is working on how to do a BSL-embodied version of the book. The BBC 4 Radio documentary I created and presented, Inventions In Sound, investigates this element of the book further. All of this is part of my practice as a poet. But I didn’t want the book version of the collection to miss out on that.
GO: Some of the captions: “[sound of someone wanting my skin]”, “[sound of speechless poverty]”. Reading it initially, it felt unfamiliar. But you show sound to be something that can be heard with our bodies.
RA: I recently saw a film, The Reason I Jump; it’s a great film and I recommend it. It’s about five young people with autism and I watched the hard of hearing screen, so it had loads of captions in it. There were loads of sounds that I didn’t hear so I just saw the captions of those sounds. And it’s so interesting, reading the captions of sounds like: “[bell rings]”, or “[plane hovers]”. I can’t hear that so it is conceptual for me. It’s the same thing when people read the captions in this book; they can’t hear the sound so they have to imagine it and that embodies the sound—internally, conceptually, and physically.