Raymond Antrobus sits in front of me at St Chad’s College, leading an intimate discussion about the poems that made him the poet he is today, as well as the politics which surround poetry. A poet who recently received the Ted Hughes Award for his debut collection The Perseverance, Antrobus is this year taking on the role of Durham Book Festival Poet Laureate, which was the reason for his coming to speak to members of our university.
The influences of Antrobus are certainly cosmopolitan, setting the quaint bookshelves of the Williams library afire with poetry readings from writers across the world, including Nazim Hikmet, Miss Lou and Federico García Lorca. However, Antrobus also stresses the significant influence his family and childhood in Hackney, London has had on his poetry. By tapping into his father’s Jamaican culture, as well as that of his white-British mother, Antrobus claims his poetry is a blend of two distinct worlds. The Rastafarian songs from his father, worked in tandem with the traditionally English poets his mother so loved – Blake’s ‘London’ hung upon the wall of his childhood home – to create the poet he is today. His poetry is also peppered with the influence of his grandfather, who was a preacher, since his poetry contains a sermonic flair, capable of rousing and igniting compelling feelings.
Durham Festival’s poet laureate for 2019 is still more inspiring, since Antrobus has been deaf all his life. He doesn’t let this hinder him though, as he stresses how important it is for him to consider the word ‘deafness’ empowering. He finds the phrase ‘hearing-impaired’ puts too much focus on what he effectively ‘lacks,’ not what drives him forward in his quest to deliver inspiring messages celebrating his individuality and give a voice to a group of people often forgotten in a craft that relies so heavily on sound.
Antrobus proclaims ‘Deafness is a kind of Atheism’ to those who can hear, in the initial, spiritually infused poem of his new collection, ‘Echo.’ This claim could be controversial, yet very true. Many people view deafness as an absence of something, or as if there is a cell within a deaf person’s nature, which the wails of the world are locked out of.
However, Antrobus slashes this presumption in half in two ways. Firstly, his poems are phonologically brilliant. His poems utilize alliteration and rhyme masterfully, licking and curling round rich sounds, creating tension and pace; an energy, which parallels his passion for poetry. Secondly, he incorporates British Sign Language into his art. Antrobus wants his work to ‘serve the air and the page’ but I felt it served the eye just as well. As he read his poems in St Chad’s Chapel in the afternoon, Antrobus framed the words of poems such as ‘Dear Hearing World’ with sign language, which, though I have very little knowledge of BSL, seemed to suspend the words of the poem in the air for a moment longer. His poems became multi-dimensional. They transcended both the air and the page, the media through which we usually experience poetry. His poems became a visual spectacle, much more than a dance or a drama – an elegant rhapsody of visual language. This for me raised the question: can poetry be silent?
Can BSL, standing alone, still constitute poetry? It is a recognised language, which arouses emotion -it can quicken and slow, lull and explode; sign language has the power to make someone weep, smile or laugh. Furthermore, the Collins English Dictionary, makes no reference to the sound in its definition of poetry, highlighting the perennial aspects of poetry instead, aspects that go beyond the realms of our five senses: ‘spirit,’ ‘rhythm’ and ‘beauty.’ Things you feel. Things that are eternal and are woven into the fabric of being – sound is simply superficial and aesthetic. Though sign language cannot be transferred to the page without diagrams poetry can still be expressed through it, because all ancient poetic songs were devised not to be written, but to be performed. Poetry is a performance, and sign language can be performed.
This experience with Raymond Antrobus was truly enlightening. He will be a fantastic Book Festival Laureate and I hope to see his name grow in the coming years. His multi-layered style of poetry is original and individualistic – an inclusive style that everyone needs to both hear and see.