Raymond Antrobus was born in Hackney, London, England to an English mother and a Jamaican father. He is the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, Complete Works III, and Jerwood Compton Poetry. He is one of the world’s first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word Education from Goldsmiths, University of London. Antrobus is a founding member of Chill Pill and the Keats House Poets Forum. He has had multiple residencies in deaf and hearing schools around London, as well as Pupil Referral Units. In 2018 he was awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Award by the Poetry Society. He lives in London, England.
His debut collection, The Perseverance, is on the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize International shortlist.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I never started writing poetry with the intention of writing books until publishers approached me. I was happy to write poems and travel and read the poems for audiences. I live poem by poem. The idea of a book of poems doesn’t really enter my consciousness until I have a chunk of poems written, then I can look at the relationship between them and how they speak to each other.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Both my parents were poetry lovers so it wasn’t unusual that I’d fall into writing and speaking it. I mean, my poems aren’t one thing and they have elements of fiction and non-fiction in them
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Every poem is its own energy and I have no one-way of working. Who said “if I knew where poems came from I would keep going there?”
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings are absolutely crucial to my art. I want to reach and speak with people in and out of the poetry world. I don’t trust most of my poems unless I have spoken them aloud to a room of strangers.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Some questions that push more questions in my work are –
How do we reach for gentleness, beauty and patience in a world that demands us to be tough, fast and persistent to survive and/or achieve?
Who is really included when I use “I” “you” and/or “we”?
How am I serving the energy that has brought me to the page?
How am I serving the energy that has brought me to the classroom?
Also, one from Albert Camus – “How does the country I was born in and the language I speak make me who I am as a writer?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I can’t prescribe any ideas of what an individual writer can/should be but I do find the ones that make the biggest impact are the ones who understand their worth and are grounded in deep visions beyond themselves. They know where they sit in the landscape of contemporary writing and are questioning / revising / pushing the ideas we’ve inherited from our traditions and canons.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It depends. Tom Chivers at Penned In The Margins was great for me because I trust him as a reader, therefore I can trust him as an editor. Even when I don’t see eye-to-eye with his suggestions he always gives me space to justify a word choice, a line break or a past / present tense.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Authenticity looks the same on everyone. Lean on the things that make you who you are and you’ll never have to feel like you’re competing with someone else ever again.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Sometimes the best thing you can do is stop writing and do something else. Walk. Sing. Go see your mates. My best ideas come from living rather than sitting around waiting for ideas. I can’t hold my writing energy too hard, if it’s held lightly, like a tuning fork, it will sing.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I have many different homes, but there’s the smell of roll up tobacco cigarettes combined with steam from boiling potatoes or yam or the frying plantain that’ll also remind me of my Dad.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Lots of visual arts, I used to be a photographer (I wanted to be a photojournalist) so I often go to photography exhibitions or watch films that lean on some kind of interesting visual aesthetic. My sister is a film journalist so I’m often her plus one at film screenings / premiers which also feeds me, even if it’s to stop me obsessing over my own world of ideas for a couple hours.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I read autobiographies, mainly of poets and musicians. I read Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Harry Belafonte’s auto-bio’s in the past month. I also love essays and recently read Zadie Smith’s collection [of] essays alongside Ross Gay’s Book Of Delights.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Oh my goodness. So much. Off the top of my head. Write a play. Ghostwrite for a rapper. Write a novella. Collaborate with more musicians and visual artists.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Teacher (which I do anyway, but would’ve been more embedded in an institution) social worker, Special Educational Needs specialist, photojournalist.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Last great book I read – Kindred by Octavia Butler
Last great film – Get Out by Jordan Peele
19 - What are you currently working on?
I have a children’s picture book coming out in April 2020, which I’m very proud of, called ‘Can Bears Ski’? and it is illustrated by deaf artist and children’s book maker, Polly Dunbar. I’m also writing poems and some autobiographical prose. No idea what will happen with it but my agent is trying to push me to write a prose project but we’ll see.