Leaves to a tree
Closed has partnered with Port Magazine for a series of stories profiling poets
who are encouraging social change through their work. Get to know the first one:
I meet Raymond Antrobus at Keats House in Hampstead. It’s late August and we sit in the quiet gardens, watching families with small children, old women coming to sit on the grass and read the paper. It’s here that, between 1818 and 1820, the great romantic poet lived and composed some of his most celebrated works – including, under the still-standing plum tree, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ – and the stately whitewashed house is an appropriate place to meet a rising young poet. But Antrobus’s connections with the house run deeper. As a founding member of the Keats House Poetry Forum, he has made it once more a place of living poetry, hosting openmic events every last Sunday of the month, with poems bookended by Keats readings. I ask what significance a poet who died 200 years ago can have to the thriving spoken-word and slam-poetry scene in London, which Antrobus has been an integral part of since 2007. “Poets like Keats give young poets a vision, a conversation to carry on,” he tells me. “I feel a lot of poets, a lot of writers, if they don’t have a dialogue with the people who came before them, as well as the people who are there with them… there’s something missing.” Antrobus was born in Hackney in 1986 to British-Jamaican parents who were passionate about poetry – William Blake and Miss Lou. As a child, he had poems blu-tacked to his bedroom wall and would recite along with his father’s tapes. “It’s only when I came to teach poetry,” he says,smiling, “that I realised how unique that was.” Antrobus is profoundly deaf (the medical term for a total, or near-total absence of hearing); he wasn’t diagnosed until he was six. “More than anything else, it’s isolating,” Antrobus says when I ask about the experience of growing up deaf. “A lot of the deaf experience is being surrounded by people, being surrounded by language, and being completely isolated.” We discuss the struggle of being deaf in a hearing society, the challenges of living with an invisible limitation, and the distinction between deaf and Deaf experiences: those who are born deaf, who identify as culturally deaf (capital D) and those who have become deaf, whose association with deafness is more medical than cultural (lowercase d).
He tells me about friends from deaf school – three, all male – who took their own lives. “Their deafness was a huge factor in that. I used to go to deaf clubs; I was part of a deaf football team at one point. I left that world for some time and when I came back into it, it was the same people. There was a longing for more. They needed more from life.” Antrobus went to several different schools, both deaf and hearing. He is bilingual, fluent in both English and British Sign Language – trilingual, even, as he says to me, in that his father would often speak Patois. But for Antrobus, language was always learned deliberately – constructed with the help of voice coaches and audiologists, dependent on finding hearing aids that worked for him, on learning how to sign. Like his mixed heritage – which in his poetry he suggests as a state of being accepted as neither black nor white – Antrobus’s deafness creates an otherness in perceptions of him, a focus on race and disability that often dominates conversations about him and his work. “I never wanted to be associated with any of those things that made me different, ”he says, looking out across the gardens. “It’s only in coming to think more creatively, in spending more time with poetry, that I have been able to craft these things into an empowering framework. People say to me, ‘Oh, you write about deafness,’ when really it’s much more basic than that. It’s connection. It’s language.” Published in 2018 by Penned in the Margins, Antrobus’s first collection, The Perseverance, elides his own experiences of deafness and of race, of his parents – his father’s descent into alcoholism, his mother’s dementia – with the imagined experiences of deaf figures from the past: Helen Keller, Laura Bridgman, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard. It is personal and frank, and yet The Perseverance speaks, in its rumination on language, to a more universal experience of marginalisation. The collection gives voice to those who – through centuries of oppression, of ill-informed theories and therapies – were unable to speak for themselves; his sensitivity to voice, his careful rendering of tone and timbre – poignant in a poet who had to fight to hear and be heard – reminds us that our ability to communicate, to listen as well as to speak, is a privilege.
"I never wanted to be associated with any of those things that made me different. It’s only in coming to think more creatively, in spending more time with poetry that I have been able to craft these things into an empowering framework."
“Deaf voices go missing like sound in space”, he writes in ‘Dear Hearing World’. “I’ve left Earth to find them.” In one of the most arresting moments of the book, Antrobus includes Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Deaf School’, methodically redacting every line. Now Hughes, as Antrobus writes in the poem that follows ‘Deaf School,’ is “alert and simple”; he who “lacked a subtle wavering aura of sound and responses to Sound.” The inclusion of the poem is particularly significant as, in 2013, Antrobus became one of the first to graduate from Goldsmiths with an MA in spoken word education – “I went in as a poet, but I came out as a poet teacher” – and has gone on to teach in both deaf and hearing schools. “It’s about trying to connect, not just trying to teach, but to learn, to explore with the students,” he explains. It was a formative experience – while writing The Perseverance, Antrobus was poet-in-residence at two deaf schools. “I was constantly asking whether the book, whether my experience, the history I was discovering about the history of the deaf community was relevant to the young deaf people I was meeting. I knew the book was finished once I realised I could hear who and what I was speaking to, and from.” Ironically, in March of this year, The Perseverance won the Ted Hughes Award, as well as the Rathbones Folio Prize in May – the first time it was awarded to a work of poetry – and the Somerset Maugham Award in June; the year before, ‘Sound Machine’, from the same collection, won the Geoffrey Dearmer prize, judged by Ocean Vuong. It is vindication for a poet who fought to find his voice in a hearing world that “erased what could have always been poetry”. Yet, as Keats wrote to his friend, John Taylor, from the house where we sit and chat, “if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all”. For Antrobus it comes sure and certain, blossoming into shape and colour, lyrical and bold.