David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by the German Book Prize winning Where You Come From by Saša Stanišić, a novel translated by Damion Searls that blends autofiction, fable, and choose-your-own-adventure to tell the story of a Yugoslavian family in the 1990s whose world is uprooted and remade by war: their history, their life before the conflict, and the years that followed their escape as they created a new life in Germany. Set in a village where only 13 people remain in lost and made up memories in coincidences, in choices, and in a dragon’s den, it’s a novel about homelands, both remembered and imagined, lost and found. Says Jennifer Croft, “Where You Come From is a triumph, funny and touching and subtly profound. As it ranges from chronicle to prose poem to folk tale, it builds a momentum that dazzles throughout. An exhilarating and powerful read.” Where You Come From is out on December 7th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Loaners’ The Making of a Street Library, out now from Perfect Day Publishing. In 2011, Laura Moulton founded Street Books, a mobile library serving people living outside in Portland, Oregon. That summer, Ben Hodgson became one of her most dedicated regulars, setting the still-unbroken single-season record for book borrowing. Then Ben’s routine changed and he didn’t cross paths again with Laura for almost two years. Loaners is the story they began to tell when they reconnected, offering a street-level perspective of a community whose stories are seldom told, alternating between their two unforgettable points of view in this addictively readable memoir. “The right book can change a person forever in a few hours time,” says Karen russell. “Anyone looking for evidence to pair with this grand claim of mine should read Loaners immediately.” I’d like to add something to Karen Russell’s comments here. As I watched Laura create this bike powered mobile library for people living outside, issuing patrons street book library cards without them needing the typical proof of address where it started as a small summer art project 10 years ago and has grown into a non-profit with many paid librarians, including patrons who themselves have become librarians, I’ve seen her do this against all the biases, all the naysayers that people living outdoors wouldn’t be interested in reading or wouldn’t return the books. There’s a reason Writer Omar El Akkad calls Street Books one of the single best ideas he’s seen in this town in Portland, Oregon and there’s a reason Laura’s book with Ben Hodgson, one of her patrons who became a street librarian and now co-author with her of Loaners, has become a local phenomenon. Given that we’re heading into the gift-giving season, if you go to streetbooks.org/loaners, you can check out a video trailer for the book, you can find a link to buy it, and you can check out Street Books itself for your holiday giving. I hope you do. Given that we’re heading not only into gift giving season but also a time when we think of resolutions for the new year, perhaps you’re a long time listener of the show, have found these conversations meaningful for your own writing or for your own art making or maybe simply meaningful and thought-provoking in their own right, or perhaps this is your first listen or first read if you’re reading the transcript, and you appreciate this long form conversation today with Raymond Antrobus, a deep dive into, among many other things, a deaf and disability poetics, and what this poetics means for all of us. Either way, whether long time or first time, perhaps it’s a time to consider, as we head into 2022, transforming yourself from a listener/reader to a listener/reader-supporter of Between The Covers, joining a community of people helping shape the future of the show. There are innumerable potential benefits, rewards, and gifts available for doing so. You can check them all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s program with the Poet Raymond Antrobus.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning. Welcome to Between the covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is British-Jamaican poet, educator, writer, and self-described investigator of missing sounds, Raymond Antrobus. Antrobus first found the community of poets in the London Slam and Open Mic scene where he won numerous poetry slams. He’s the Farrago International Slam Champion of 2010. He won The Canterbury Slam in 2013 and was joint winner of the Open Calabash Slam in 2016. Antrobus’ first published collection, his chapbook, Shapes and Disfigurements of Raymond Antrobus came out in 2012. In 2017, he published his second chap book To Sweeten Bitter. The same year, his poem Sound Machine was picked by Ocean Vuong for the Geoffrey Dearmer Award. But it was 2018 with the publication in the UK of his debut book, The Perseverance, when Antrobus found incredible widespread, critical, and public acclaim. Kaveh Akbar says of The Perseverance, “It’s magic, the way this poet is able to bring together so much—deafness, race, masculinity, a mother’s dementia, a father’s demise—with such dexterity. Raymond Antrobus is as searching a poet as you’re likely to find writing today.” Malika Booker adds, “The Perseverance is an insightful, frank and intimate rumination on language, identity, heritage, loss and the art of communication. Ranging from tender elegies about his father to frank interrogations of deafness, Antrobus highlights the persistence of memory and our need to connect. These colloquial, historical and conversational poems plunder the space of missing, and absence in speech/ our conversations — between what we hear and what we do not say. … Thought-provoking and eloquent monologues explore the poet’s Jamaican/ British heritage with such compassion, where the spirit and rhythm of each speaker dominates. These are courageous autobiographical poems of praise, difficulties, testimony and love.” The Perseverance was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize and The Forward Prize for best first collection, was the winner of the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award, The Ted Hughes Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Rathbones Folio Prize, the first poet to ever receive the reward and was a Poetry Book of the Year at The Guardian, The Sunday Times, and Poetry School. Since then, three of Antrobus’ poems have been added to the syllabus of the general certificate of secondary education in the UK. He has received a fellowship with the Royal Society of Literature, become a Member of the Order of the British Empire, headlined The London Book Fair as Poet of the Fair, hosted a BBC Radio documentary, Inventions in Sound, performed at the Paralympic Homecoming ceremony at Wembley Stadium, and even had a deaf school changed the name of its building to his name, usurping Beethoven himself. Along the way, he’s had poems published in POETRY, The Poetry Review, and The Deaf Poets Society, received a fellowship from Cave Canem and was one of the world’s first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word Education from Goldsmiths University. He’s a board member for English PEN, an advocate for DeafKidz International and National Deaf Children’s Society, and now also a writer of children’s books, having published this year the book Can Bears Ski?, illustrated by Polly Dunbar and selected as the 2021 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award Honoree. The original plan was to have Raymond on to talk about The Perseverance, which came out in North America in the spring of this year from Tin House but when I learned that he had a new collection on the horizon, his first since his 2018 tour de force and that it too was going to come out this year, both in the UK with Picador and in the US with Tin House, we decided to wait to discuss both books together, much as they have both arrived together here in North America in 2021. Raymond Antrobus’ second full collection is called All The Names Given and is already shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize. Camonghne Felix says of All The Names Given, “This collection is a brave, tender and generous piece of music, where family is a cord forever troubled by the process of being named With a knife-like precision, All the Names Given manages to caption the speaker’s dance with the ghosts of his bloodline, offering us a haunting study on what we can find in the silences of history when history is recognized as more than a noun, when recognized as something alive and kinetic, something constantly in conversation with the present. I can’t wait to see how this timely book ripples through our world.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Raymond Antrobus.
Raymond Antrobus: Wow, thank you, David. It is an honor to be here. What a thing to just sit and bathe in the light of one’s biography. [laughter] I’m like, “Oh my God, I really have been doing a lot.”
DN: It felt like an incantatory biography of all of the things that have happened, particularly in the last three years.
RA: For sure. It’s interesting as well, hearing the spoken words, accolades, and history, which is often not actually mentioned in literary spaces. It’s compartmentalized in this way that seemed to just happen. I actually appreciate hearing the breadth, the full biography, the full journey of the work in a way.
DN: I want to first just congratulate you on becoming a new father and for having this interview within the early weeks of what you described as the incubation of your new family.
RA: Yes, thank you. I appreciate that.
DN: Your poems often do focus on family, as well as on ancestry and lineage, and at times, your own childhood, being mothered and being fathered or not being so, and navigating being deaf before diagnosis and after, and both To Sweeten Bitter and The Perseverance are collections that are about, among many other things, your relationship with your own father and also your first encounter of language or one of your first encounters with language being him reading to you. I thought in honor of your newborn son and you yourself becoming a father, maybe we could just open up with the poem Happy Birthday Moon if you would be willing to introduce it to us and read it.
RA: This is a nice place to begin. Happy Birthday Moon is a pantoum I wrote. It’s the last poem in The Perseverance. I guess the difficult question it asks is where does language begin for me. The memory that was evoked with that question was being read to by my father at night time. There’s a particular book called Happy Birthday Moon, the same title of the poem, which I would often ask to be read to. The book is a children’s picture book. It’s about a bear that lives out in the woods, the forest and this one particular night stands on the highest hill of his woods, looks up at the skies. She’s a full moon. The bear says, “It’s my birthday.” The bear’s voice echoes through the forest, through the valleys, through the trees and hears his echo, “It’s my birthday.” He looks at the moon and he says, “Wow, it’s the moon’s birthday too.” It sets up this what I recognize now as a deaf poetic device, a call of response because in being a deaf person or a hard of hearing person in the hearing world, you’re often asking people to repeat. Then when you’re looking at different poetry forms and how many of the most enduring poetry forms depend on that poetic device of repetition, there’s just such a fusion of opportunity and play in language. One thing I should also say is my dad had a very deep voice. The deafness I have, I don’t hear any high-pitched sounds. I don’t hear anyone who has a light voice. I hear bassy sounds, deeper pitch sounds, a lot more fluidly. My dad had this presence in his voice that I had a relationship with in itself and that I think comes into this poem.
[Raymond Antrobus reads a poem called Happy Birthday Moon]
DN: We’ve been listening to Raymond Antrobus read from his first full collection of poetry, The Perseverance. You call yourself the investigator of missing sounds. In this poem that we just heard, it is the way you speak before your parents realize you are deaf that we hear. But in many places in your poetry, it is what you don’t hear, the missing sounds. The book you just read from The Perseverance opens with an epigraph from Robin Coste Lewis. That epigraph goes, “There’s no telling / what language is inside the body.” But this line is a mishearing of her, reading her poem, which is written on the page as, “There’s no telling / what languishes inside the body.” Your first children’s book that came out recently, which nicely creates this circle with Happy Birthday Moon, your book Can Bear Ski? is named after what you heard when people would ask you, “Can you hear me?” What strikes me the most is how the missing sounds have affected your name, both you’re speaking of it in Happy Birthday Moon and the way you hear it, and as you mentioned, not hearing the highest pitch sounds. What we learned in the poem Echo is that when people would say Antrobus, you would hear antrop and that you thought your name for a while was antrop but thinking about a name as part of our sense of self, and you both speaking it and hearing it differently, what strikes me is that when the deaf school wanted to change their building name from Beethoven House to Antrobus House, you wanted them to change it to Antrop House, which is what it is. This gesture of you naming your children’s book after a “mishearing” suggests to me this might be a clue into your poetics. I wondered if you could talk about the investigation of missing sounds in light of the way you, in both of these cases, are centering what you actually hear, the way you actually hear these sounds, not what you are “supposed to hear.”
RA: For sure. That is such a concise take on what I call my poetic practice of deafness or deaf poetics as Ilya Kaminsky would say. Something I noticed in my early work of trying to get poems published was often with editors or often my conversations around my work were people asking me to explain, correct, clarify moments like that, mishearings. It seemed like people were often telling me, “No, you can’t confuse your reader.” My argument would be, “I’m not confusing my reader. I’m bringing them closer to what the experience is.” I don’t assume that all my readers are hearing people. I assume that my readers are also interested in what was so cool, I think Meg Day called it a mythology of silence, mythology of noise of sounds, which is this strange idea that everyone has the same experience with sound. You either can hear or you can’t. That binary is a lie. I realized that in my work, this is what I was trying to do. I was trying to assert what my relationship with sound and language is, and I’m also trying to disrupt a mainstream-assumed idea of what sound and language is. I’m doing that through the prism of poetry where all of these investigations, testimonies, passions of mine meet because I was raised on poetry. I’ve said this so many times now about my parents. Even though both my parents weren’t poets, they loved poetry, so I had this really rich childhood in terms of what they call culture capital. I never felt like being a poet or pursuing poetry was something that I couldn’t do with something outside of the imagination for me. This was a complete accident in itself. Even that aligns with the idea of a mishearing or a disruption or an accident. I think when my parents, particularly my dad, realized that I was trying to pursue poetry, he was confused and was like, “Well wait, how do poets make money again? What is it that they do?” [laughter] Then I had to revise that. I had to stop telling him that I was trying to be a poet. I had to tell him that I was being a teacher. As soon as I told him that being a teacher is more of a traditional job description, he relaxed a bit and was like, “Okay, that’s respectable. You can pursue that.” But the question about the mishearings and what that is, have I gone off on a tangent? Am I still answering your questions?
DN: You still are answering my question but I’m going to make my question more difficult in the spirit of some difficult questions you’ve posed. [laughter] In your companion piece for your latest book, the BBC Radio documentary, Inventions in Sound, you look at the art of translating sound for the eye, and you ask your deaf artist guests what seemed to be really evocative questions but also, at least to me, really impossible questions, like what is sound? Similarly, in the middle of your new book, All The Names Given, you have a two-page spread; One blank and the other that is mostly so with only a short quote from the deaf sound artist, Christine Sun Kim, where she poses a similar question, “What does sound mean for us?” At the end of your US version of The Perseverance, there’s a question and answer section between you and Ilya Kaminsky, and he asks you what noise is for you. In the spirit of the questions you’ve asked each other, talk to us about sound and about noise, both for you now but also perhaps also how it’s changed and evolved for you through the years of puzzling through your sense of identity, and how you want to orient, as you’ve already mentioned, both to the hearing and deaf worlds as an audience, what are sound and noise?
RA: Again, you’re right, rich impossible questions, but I can ground myself from this question in a number of ways. I can ground myself in the medical language of how I would answer that so I would then talk about how my deafness was discovered when I was around seven years old and had to be given hearing aids. From the age of seven to now, I’ve had so many different kinds of hearing aids. The technology and the evolution of technology over that time, over the last 25 years, has been rapid, powerful, really incredible gains in hearing aid technology and what it is. The kind of hearing aids and the way I experience sound as a kid, even a teenager, even in school, are very different. Only for about three years now, I’ve been wearing digital hearing aids, which are really clear. They also have an external mic to them. There’s an app on my phone and I can connect the hearing aids to the app on the phone where the powerful technology that’s in the iPhone also serves as an additional microphone for me to pick up sound. It was so interesting to me that I could remember my dad, as the hearing aid technology improved, I can remember this perplexing him and being like, “Is your hearing getting better or is it just me?” I’m like, “Well, no but technology is getting better.” Also and this is, I suppose, a bit of a side note that because I’ve been wearing hearing aids for so long, my brain is quite well adapted to them. On top of that, I’ve had years of speech therapy, years of hearing therapy, and all of this pretty intense medical support to help me function in the hearing world. It’s only actually as an adult, particularly as a teacher going into classrooms, into deaf and hearing schools, that I come to realize being in that space gave me the perspective of how privileged actually that journey has been for me because most deaf students I interact with, even today, haven’t had that kind of care. That’s partly because in the UK—we’re going to get even more political now—we’re going to talk about funding and how children with special educational needs are often mismanaged, unsupported, misunderstood, falling through the cracks of the system. This isn’t just significant to the UK, this is a worldwide thing. I’ve gone into deaf classrooms, not only in the UK but also in the US, in the parts of the Caribbean and parts of Europe, and I’ve seen this consistent challenge for deaf, particularly for deaf young people, just in an education system, just being totally unsupported, unheard. I’ve been writing anecdotally, some of the conversations I’ve had in those classrooms. None of that has been published yet. I’m still figuring out what to do with this and how to present it as a case against ableism, and as a testimony, an empowerment, a self affirmation document for the care, support, and funding for the education of deaf people everywhere. I’ve just rooted myself in the medical, political area. Philosophically, [laughter] I don’t know where to begin with it but I do like what Meg Day said. I’ve already said it, but about this idea of sound being a mythology to hearing people. As poets, we get to, in a way, revise and create our own mythologies. The relationship that we want to have with sound is something that we can explore through our poetry. Again, it’s not just philosophy. Deaf, as a culture, is rooted in its history, of its education of the deaf and the history of sign language, which is a really complicated fragmentary one all over the world. The history of deaf communities and the way that they develop differently, and their language, then as writers, as activists, as academics, we get to align ourselves with what we call Deafness, which is outside and beyond the medical language. It’s huge. It’s wide. I still feel like I’m skating on an iceberg right now, just with that. [laughs]
DN: That was a great, obviously, brief tour through these questions. But I loved when you asked your guests on the BBC what their relationship to radio was, given that the program you were producing on the radio, and the radio as a medium, was one that excluded you and them in a sense through the way it’s not your program but the radio itself as a medium, largely not thinking of you and them as a technology. I love their answers. You mentioned Meg Day and they were mentioning how the radio feels like a drum for them and that you could put your hand on it and feel its vibration. They also mentioned how they would notice people congregating around it, it was something that brought people together. Another guest said her and her friends would fiddle with the radio dial in the car while driving until they found something with a lot of bass, something that they could feel in their body as vibration, which made me think of your dad’s low voice and you lying on his chest when he read to you; but it also made me wonder if we could extend something of Robert Frost’s notion of the sense in poetry, not being in the words but in their sound. In his idea, he was saying that if you hear someone speaking on the other side of the wall to someone else, you can’t hear the actual words but you hear the music, the rhythm, the volume, and the tone. It’s in all of those things where the meaning lies. I wondered if we could take that further and say maybe there’s something tactile, and bodily also, in the vibrations that meaning can arrive this way in the vibrations. It makes me wonder about the captioning throughout your latest book. Captioning, we might normally think of seeing while watching a film or a TV show, but you include captions between poems and within poems in a way that feels like it’s doing something very different than that. Even though we normally think of accessibility with captions, in this case it seems like it may even be another mode of language in the book. Maybe it’s another mode of language, the way we could imagine touching the radio and feeling the vibrations of the radio is another language of the radio. I don’t know if I’m going in the right way but talk to us about captioning because the captioning in your second book, the one that just came out, is very prominent. I feel like it just brings up a lot of curiosity for me.
RA: That’s great. Again, there’s so much there. What you just said about Robert Frost is so true. I also think of E.E. Cummings who has a line that says something like, “There’s a universe next door; let’s go.” That’s the way out of this poem, then he had this way, for me, I remember being really stimulated and excited by quite a bit of E.E. Cummings not just because of the brevity of his lyric but it was also this way in which it made you look at the white space around the poem, it charged it in a whole new way for me. This was years ago. This was when I’m probably reading him, maybe when I was about 21-22. But I remember having a very particular kind of revelation while reading him. I get obsessions with individual poets, which become very concentrated and intense. You, bringing up Robert Frost, made me think of the time he comments that way. What you say about the captions, the different languages, and the different mediums, the different ways of being through sound, through spoken language and the heard language or felt language, yes, all of that. One of the other things I was trying to do with all of my work, I suppose, is have different versions of it. All The Names Given and The Perseverance, yes, they are books, they are documents but they’re also audio books, they’re also sound projects. There’s audio versions of those books, which are slightly different. A few of my friends are really great British sign language translators and performers. I’ve been working with some of them; Vilma Jackson, Anna Kitson, Jacqui Beckford, in particular, just three examples, three names of BSL performers that I’ve worked with. That performance or that collaboration of the spoken word, the written word, the performed word, the seen word, the invisible word, that is also having a living life. I’m interested in the book, not just as a singular thing, I’m trying to make living documents. I think it might have been an interview with the Poet Chen Chen, years ago who said something like, “We ought to revise towards aliveness.” I remember that. There’s that idea of aliveness and feeling so invigorated by that, like, “What does that mean?” I really investigated why I am so moved by the use of that word aliveness in the context of poetry, revision, performance, and writing. I think that this is something that has been unearthed for me. This is what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to create living documents and show that language itself is a living technology, a living organism. If we engage with that critically, poetically, creatively, we ourselves become alive in it. At least that’s how I felt. Now, I’m going to try and ground myself in what you say about where the captions idea came from. The story of that is during the pandemic, I’d written the first draft of All The Names Given without captions in fact, and I felt like there was something missing in the book in terms of sequencing. The first draft of the book had a lot of sequences. For example, what you said about my name Antrobus, and not only about the mishearing and the history of that name but also the very real etymological history of that name is that it’s a locational name. Anyone with the name Antrobus can be linked to a town in Cheshire, middle England, a tiny little village and also a gift for a poet really. [laughs] I went to this village and had a day there with my mother, and I wrote about that in All The Names Given. While I was writing that poem, I thought I was writing a very different specific book, but then the pandemic happened and I moved to the US, and I was involved in a whole complicated visa immigration process, because I was married but I wasn’t yet given a green card. Anyway, that’s a whole long tangential story, but with the pandemic, my wife, her name is Tabitha, and we were separated. She had to stay in the states. I had to stay in the UK. I began just watching loads of TV, loads of media content. I’m not a big TV watcher, I never have been, so I felt guilty actually at first, watching just loads of stuff and catching up on the cultural moment that TV is having. But I was watching all of this content with captions. I’d watch anything with captions. I don’t watch anything that isn’t captioned. I found that I needed to engage creatively to alleviate myself of the guilt I felt watching so much TV. I think that my parents really hit it home for me that we shouldn’t be spending all of our time in front of the TV, eating sweets, having our eyes go square. [laughter] I’m like, “How do I subvert this and create this into worthwhile time?” Then suddenly, it dawned on me, I was watching films, which I watched as a kid, which were never captioned. When I was watching them with the captions, I realized that I had a completely different understanding of what was going on in these films because these are films that I was watching on VHS as a kid with my friends. Some of them are like violent films, which we had to watch with the volume turned down because the parents walked by you, obviously, coming and being like, “What are you watching that’s got all this violence in it? I’m hearing people screaming. I’m hearing gunfire, all this stuff.” [laughs] I was re-watching one of these films, like Boyz n the Hood was one that I’d never watched with subtitles until the pandemic. Oh man, there are so many but they skipped my mind now. I just realized I had a completely different sense of these films. I felt almost disorientated by it. I realized that actually, the stories that I had with some of these films were my own inventions, so I wanted to take that further. Then I remembered I happened to see Christine Sun Kim’s exhibition in London in 2015. It was called Closed Captions. Christine Sun Kim, as you say, an amazing deaf sound artist whose whole philosophy is a similar thing to mine of disrupting what the hearing world’s relationship or assumptions of sound is, and trying to revise or challenge actually the sound in this way. She did this thing of asking four of her deaf friends to write the captions or rewrite the captions for a scene in the Little Mermaid. It’s the scene where it’s revealed that Ariel has lost her voice. You see in the corner of this room, four screens playing that same scene from Little Mermaid on a loop. Each individual screen is the same scene but captioned differently. I remember being just blown away by that. Visually beautiful and complicated but conceptually as well, just so rich. I know a light bulb went off and I thought, “Oh, I can incorporate this.” This is death poetics again. Then I was watching a film, which had loads of high-pitched sounds in it, so I didn’t hear many of the sounds in this film but the captions were cueing me. The captions would say things like, “Bell rings, birds squawking,” whatever. I’m reading the captions and I’m not hearing the sound. When I realized that this is a conceptual experience for me to read this piece of language, a description of a sound—which you then don’t hear, it’s conceptual, it’s completely abstract—then I realized, if you just write them down, you put captions on a page, that democratizes that experience to everyone because then no one can really hear what it is, then what it does is it invites your imagination into that sound. When I started putting these captions in the manuscript and I was realizing that they serve as a transitional device, as well as a kind of evocative poetic mode, I really wanted to not be doing it for the sake of it, it really had to be grounded in deaf poetics but specifically into the book because the book is like a splurge or an emotional, and in some ways, historical response to me trying to articulate some of my shared history with my mother actually growing up. It was my mom who was my biggest campaigner and ambassador to get me hearing aids, to get me into deaf schools, to ensure that I got that support I was talking about earlier on. I say that quite explicitly in the book that it is a book for her because I have the relationship I have in sound because of, in a way, her vigilance and her campaigning. Sorry, I’ve been talking for a long time. [laughs]
DN: No. That was fantastic. I want to stay with these questions of technologies of exclusion and also questions of accessibility, and what you mentioned, democratization of experience. But before we do, I was hoping maybe we could start with you reading the poem Echo. It’s not one of the caption poems but I think it would be a good introduction to some of the questions that I have that would follow it.
RA: Sure. I’ll just give a quick context to Echo. Echo is the opening sequence of The Perseverance. It was literally the first poem I wrote after my dad passed away. We were pretty close and I found myself having to just get away on my own, just take a trip somewhere after his funeral and I ended up in Barcelona. I stayed there on my own for a week. The first place I went while in Barcelona was Gaudí’s Cathedral. I took the audio guide, then the audio guide had told me that there’s a particular design on the roof of the Gaudí’s Cathedral where you’re invited to stand and look up into the roofs, and shout and sing, and be vigilant of how sound moves, then the audio guide explains how the way you experience sound under that particular roof is how angels experience it. I was having that experience artificially through hearing aids. I was like, “Well, are deaf people invited into this idea of divinity and holy sound that we ought to be experiencing?” That question brought forth this sequence called Echo.
[Raymond Antrobus reads a poem called Echo]
DN: We’ve been listening to Raymond Antrobus reading from his first full collection of poetry, The Perseverance. I wanted to take this poem as a departure point to discuss exclusion further. Obviously, we have this sense of the architecture of this church like the radio, in a sense, as an architecture of exclusion. But this question of can deaf people experience divinity has a legacy, not only were deaf people written off as lacking intellectual capacity forever, for centuries, or millennia but sometimes, it was questioned whether they had souls to redeem. It was an abbot in 18th-century France who believed they did, that eventually led to the development of the first fully developed sign language language. But in thinking of the Gaudí’s Cathedral in this light, you’ve quoted in conversations about this poem, a line from Rilke’s Duino Elegies where he said, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?” Then also Philip Larkin, when he describes the same church as, “A tense, musty, unignorable silence,” both of these quotes inverting the narrative on the church. But I was reading a roundtable that Poetry International put together of disability poetics and deaf poetics, a series of roundtables; and one person on the panel was a deaf-blind poet named John Lee Clark who says he isn’t able to read nearly any contemporary poetry because no one seems to care about Braille readers in poetry. His main source of reading material is Project Gutenberg, which means only poets who have been dead for the required 90 years. He’s often startled when someone says to him that his poetry reminds them of Frank O’Hara or Robert Lowell because he’s never read Frank O’Hara or Robert Lowell; that G. K. Chesterton or Christina Rossetti would be the poets he would think of as influences. Then I think of two readings of Ilya Kaminsky that you attended; one where he had a hearing poet read his poems after he read them, and another where he handed out printouts of his poetry, so people could read along as he spoke in case one didn’t understand his words as he said them. All this made me think of questions of both accessibility and of audience because obviously, with Ilya Kaminsky, we’re talking about making his poetry spoken accessible to the hearing world and that’s the opposite question for John Lee Clark. You’ve talked about how the word accessible in poetry and literature has a stigma; that if you make art accessible, the common notion is that you’re dumbing it down. But as an educator and a poet, two things that you’ve said are very deeply linked for you; accessibility is important. I was hoping maybe we could talk about this. Thinking of John Lee Clark, of the Gaudí’s Cathedral, and of Ilia Kaminsky’s attempts to give different portals into his poetry, talk to us more about your considerations regarding both your written and performed poetry in that regard around these questions of exclusion, inclusion, and democratization of experience.
RA: That is, again, a huge but useful conversation to have. There’s no one-size-fits-all for this. It feels like so much is erupting in our culture right now. So many things have been pulled apart. Institutions are being ridiculed and also revised their principles, their code of conducts, and all this stuff. Really this is a great time to talk about the people that aren’t often bought into these kinds of conversations because they’re just not accessible. I’m a big fan of John Lee Clark and his work. I’ve never met him, so I love that he’s been brought in here. Obviously, Ilya Kaminsky is like a friend but—I’m hesitating to say this—almost like a mental figure to me actually. I’m hesitating to put a label on it because that doesn’t quite feel right but he is basically a poet I look up to and I check in on to see what they’re up to. You’re right, I think what you say about the assumed dumbing down of it to make it accessible, something I noticed when looking at criticism actually of my work, I saw that someone had said something like my work is along the lines of accessible to a fault. I found that interesting. [laughs] I was offended, I’ll just say that, I was offended because I felt like, “Well, I don’t feel like you’ve understood my intentions of the work and my history.” Because when I was at school, I was often told that I couldn’t write, that I had learning difficulties. I was probably dyslexic, I couldn’t write a straight line, all this stuff that I was pathologized with. I came to realize that one of the reasons these assumptions were being put on me were racial. For example, I remember having a teacher who the day she learned that my father was Jamaican, suddenly started asking if I was smoking weed. I was overheard saying words like, “Bumboclaat, rass.” [laughter] That just made my dad absolutely howl, but they didn’t take too kindly to my patois. [laughter] Even in reading my school reports, I could see how all of these assumptions were made about me, then my deafness. Then the statistic that I often think about, an estimated 75% of people born profoundly deaf in the UK grow up illiterate. That’s a complicated statistic because it’s not entirely true. It’s like, “What do you mean by literate and illiterate? Literate to whom?” Because a lot of these people are fully functioning articulate British sign language users and lit readers, and people who have other modes of communication and articulation. Again, it is what I’m saying, there’s no one-size-fits-all. Even presenting statistics to you wouldn’t present a full picture of how to create a truly inclusive but also a fair and critical world or space. One of the things I got asked about after a reading I did with, like I said, a friend of mine who is a BSL interpreter, was from a deaf man who described himself as illiterate. He says he didn’t write or think in English, which I liked. He stated that actually and he said to me, “When is the publishing industry going to catch up with QR codes?” He showed me how he has some books which are translated into QR codes, so he can use his phone to see or read in sign language the text. I haven’t seen it before. That was an actual revelation to me, and again, was something that I couldn’t stop thinking about when putting out my own book because I don’t have QR codes in my books. I don’t have Braille versions of my books. It’s something I want to do but also I’m not a publisher. It’s not just on the authors to create that. We need an industry that creates that but at the same time, maybe authors need to refuse to have their work published without these different versions. I suppose in some ways, some of my poetics are an attempt to compensate for these—I’m even going to use a piece of interesting language now—oversight.
DN: Let me suggest a reframing and see what you think of it; a reframing of the offensive characterization of you as your work being accessible to a fault, because it feels to me like accessibility is a question and concern in your work but that at any given moment that a given moment in your work is accessible not always to the same audience, so it’s less accessible to certain audiences at a given moment and more accessible in a different moment. Because when I think about it, I think it’s obvious, at least to me, we can see you as the educator in your collections. That has no subtext. I’m not saying that as some veiled critique because it isn’t for me, but I think you have further reading lists at the end of your books, which I really appreciate. You have notes at the end of the book that talk about the references and influences. Some collections have neither of those. Those are prominent in your books. But there are these ways, it feels to me like the books are shifting modes around accessibility where in one moment, maybe you’re more accessible to a hearing audience, in one moment, more accessible to a deaf audience. We have the presence of a sign in the books with the drawings of sign. There are poems that end with a sign that in performance would be more or less legible to a given listener/viewer, but when I read them as a person who doesn’t know sign, that’s going to be a moment of less accessibility, perhaps, for me. So that goes against this critique I think of, in my opinion, this shifting notion of it but it also raises questions of audience. Then I’m also thinking of the signs of the book are in British sign language. I mentioned this because unlike British-English and American-English, which are variants of the same language, British Sign Language and American Sign Language are entirely different languages, and you’ve decided not to translate the signs when the book has moved from the UK to North America. That’s a question of accessibility within the deaf audience. You’ve also mentioned in interviews, you felt that The Perseverance might open you up to critique from certain sectors of the deaf world. All of this again brings back this question, first, it points to a much more sophisticated relationship to accessibility than what was leveraged against you but it also raises this question of audience to me and whether that question of audience for you is indeed shifting from moment to moment. If you could talk about that maybe a little bit, who is being brought in and when doesn’t feel like it’s a stable thing when I read your books.
RA: For sure, that is a poetic decision as well for me, the poetics of uncertainty is in my work. It might have even been your conversation with Ross Gay when Ross Gay was talking about generosity and gratitude, and that being its own poetic. I was really invigorated again by those ideas and how you bring in practices that you want to see in the world. I’ll speak to myself and say it’s not just writing for me. I think I do align it with my work with spiritual practice, and that I am trying to create a tangible thing out of language, which actually brings about practical change. That’s an interesting thing to do because that gap between action and language is actually a quite a large gap but in my case, I’m writing books, I’m writing different versions of those books and I’m going into the spaces where I think some of the most groundbreaking change in our society takes place, which is in classroom. Also going into prisons, I’ve gone to a number of men’s prisons now and that’s always been such a powerful, and evocative place. You talk about exclusion and invisibility, and even this idea on something that people are talking more and more about now, like transgressions in our work; if we’re going to be truthful in our work, we’re not going to be saints. It’s a complicated thing. I know I’ve just opened up about 10 different leads there. [laughter]
DN: We could just open them up. [laughter]
RA: What you said about the Tin House, the US versions of my book still have BSL in them, that was a conscious decision because I don’t know American Sign Language. You’re right, it’s so different. So much more like it seems to me from the outside, just observing it, there’s a lot more finger spelling in it. I’m not the best finger speller even in BSL, so I get so lost with the spelling like, “Oh no.” [laughter] But also for me, keeping the integrity of the sign, which I have a relationship with, a very sign specific place, BSL, I went to a deaf school in North London, I learned BSL. The deaf world, the work is conscious of its sight, of its space, so even in that transatlantic translation, I felt a need to ground it still within my own context. You’re right, that’s complicated because there’s also an exclusionary–
DN: In your own context, grounding something in your own context is also complicated. I wanted to spend a moment with that too, because it feels like there are many ways your life and your work exists in between but also insists upon not collapsing the tensions in favor of one side or the other. You went to school in both hearing and deaf schools. You were teased by hearing students when they saw you signing and deaf students would mock you for your lack of fluency in sign, calling you a baby signer, or if they saw you speaking instead of signing, wondered if you thought you were better than them. Because you have really high quality hearing aids, ones that are now small and not super visible, people have said to you, “You don’t look deaf,” or they might not know that you are. You’ve mentioned that’s been hard, particularly during the pandemic because you can’t lip read when everyone has masks on. But this is also true for you around race. You’ve talked about how people have said to you, “You don’t look black.” You have many poems like Ode to My Hair or Jamaican British that engage with your mixed heritage but you also have a poem in the new collection where you are filling out your marriage registration and it asks your race, and you fill it out, black-white. That feels to me like a really rare move, at least, in American racial discourse where nearly everyone in your shoes would call themselves black. But we see you insisting upon both aspects equally and in both books, we see you traveling up both lines of your family tree with what seems like equal emphasis. Even the opening of All The Names Given enacts this gesture where the first poem has the line, “Give thanks to your name, Antrobus,” which is your white British name. In the next poem, we find you in Jamaica, engaging with the Orisha of deafness. I wondered if we could talk about what feels like this insistence, I don’t know if we call it even-handedness, but if this insistence on not collapsing the binary one way or the other and if that is something that is shaping your poetics.
RA: Oh, yeah. For art to be interesting, you need contrast and you need conflict. When you can pinpoint the two sides of that, then you have to make that line of having these two seemingly opposing things both be true despite their contradiction. That’s great for any artist really, but it plays directly into my trauma and seems to be a trauma of a lot of people who grow up with a need to identify in a certain way or articulate themselves. They struggle to be understood for who they are. There’s a need to develop a language or presentation for that. It turns out though that is actually a really universal thing. As I’ve got older, I’ve come to really see, it seems like actually, most people feel misunderstood. Most people, it seems, I’ve met in my life anyway are often battling some childhood trauma or some misunderstanding and have that urge to be fully understood. Then there are people who just don’t really care, just like, “I don’t mind.” Let me be a mythology. [laughs] Let me be an enigma or anomaly. I think for my own practice as a poet, as a writer, as a creative thinker, I’ve grounded myself in that very personal, complicated, contradictory territory. Even looking at the hierarchy, it’s so clearly a hierarchy in the Western world of the over-privileging of the written word and the often assumed primitivization of the spoken word or the performed word. Then there’s this really interesting—I mean this might be a judgment, so people, feel free to push back against me on this—but it’s like in order to justify, say, the oral tradition, it always has to be rooted in Greek. It’s like, “Whoa, whoa, because of Homer…” It’s a way to validate it. Because when I think about, again, my own upbringing and I mentioned in the poem about my dad’s tapes, and how my dad’s love of poetry wasn’t limited to the written words and neither of my parents, there was no binary between a poet who was performing folklore, like Louise Bennett or Jean “Binta” Breeze or Linton Kwesi Johnson, these dub poets they call them, there’s no reason to reduce them and their craft, and say that they’re not as sophisticated or worthy as say a poet who we only know through their written words, like John Keats or Wordsworth or romantic poets who, when you read their lives, actually had really complicated relationships with language too. John Keats was a working class man from East London who was ridiculed constantly for his dialects. His colloquial way of speaking was Cockney. The critics said he had no place in poetry. All of that context of someone like Keats has been erased, often, it seems. It often takes a working-class scholar or someone with a deeper appreciation for the range of language and what language says about one’s identity to exhume that context to Keats. I think it’s a really important context to him actually. I see and I notice how one’s contradictions and complications ought to be embraced if they are going to be truthful and useful because otherwise, we’re putting out propaganda, otherwise, we find ways to just tell a half truth about someone or something, and people can get hurt or harmed in them. That’s something I have spoken about a bit in my poems, like how there’s a real danger that we’re in if we fail and we keep failing to really understand each other in the most human way.
DN: Maybe this is a good time to hear the first poem from the new collection. I was thinking of Plantation Paint, if you’d be open to introducing us to that, which I think also is a poem that looks at two sides of race but also again, with the word and the image too.
RA: Plantation Paint is a poem. Like I said, I thought I was writing a very different book about Antrobus in my name, so given what I’ve already shared about the Antrobus name, I end up having to abandon that because I felt like I had to be in England to write that book, but then just before the pandemic, it really taken on and caused a shutdown everywhere. I was living in New Orleans and I came across a painting called A Plantation Burial, which is in the historic New Orleans Collection. I’m looking at the painting. If you’re listening to this, I’d recommend maybe Googling it, Plantation Burial, so you can see the painting. I was really struck by the huge canvas that this is on. I was really struck by it. It wasn’t until though, I looked at the description on the wall and it said the painter’s name, and it was John Antrobus, painted in 1860 (oil on canvas). It just felt like an intergalactic experience to see that. I thought, “Okay, well, I already know this is going to be a poem. Who is a poet now that I could summon to help guide me through writing a poem like this?” I instantly thought of Lorna Goodison. She’s a former poet laureate of Jamaica but as well as a poet, she is a painter. She’s written collections actually about the practice of writing poetry and painting. She’s got one particular poem, I think it’s called To Make Various Sorts of Black. It’s about how black paint is made. Now, my wife, her name is Tabitha, she’s an art conservator. She was looking at this painting and she was explaining how the men that are in this painting, the black men, their skin, the paint that’s used to paint their skin is of such a low earthy quality; that those men, without proper care, without professional care of an art conservator, would deteriorate, would disappear from that painting. But it turns out that loads of work has been done recently, x-raying 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th Century paintings and they’ve found black figures in the x-rays; because they weren’t conserved, they disappeared from the painting.
RA: The conservators that had come along later on had painted over them, thinking that it was just a mark. It’s such, again, another complicated rich idea that’s also a real life material manifestation of how we value and devalue life. This is called Plantation Paint.
[Raymond Antrobus reads a poem called Plantation Paint]
DN: We’ve been listening to Raymond Antrobus read from his latest collection, All The Names Given. I wanted to spend a moment talking about writing about your own family, particularly when it involves living family members. For instance, we just heard a poem where Tabitha is in the poem. It’s a question that often comes up for memoir writers, what considerations people have about representing people. But also in one conversation, you were talking about the autobiographical elements of a lot of your poetry and you made clear that these poems are not therapeutic or a form of poetry mediated therapy. That actually, when you’re working on a collection, you make sure that you’re also seeing a therapist to make sure that you have a place external to the poetry for the therapeutic. I wondered if you could talk about both of these things. What are your considerations when you’re writing about a close family member or loved one who might read your work? Then there’s also this question of the therapeutic.
RA: One of the ways I want to answer this is by talking about my education as a teacher. At Goldsmiths University, my MA was called a Spoken Word Teacher MA but actually, I spent not that much time writing and reading poetry, and a lot more time, creating a pedagogy for the classroom in which I’m able to basically serve as a someone who is functioning as an advocate for emotional literacy. In the classroom, I’m more than just, say a teacher, which is traditionally for someone just standing there, spewing facts at people for them to memorize and write down. Actually, it’s more of sharing. I spent a lot of time learning about different models of learning environments, what is a democratic classroom, what space does humor and storytelling have in the classroom, and how do we create that, how do we even assess it when we’re talking about our intense exam culture, which is making a lot of us very sick actually. How do you get in there and subvert all of these things, which we know, looking at all the research, is actually to the detriment of learning and what learning is. We learn about how stress on the brain, cortisol in the blood prevents us actually retaining information. Yet for some reason, we still have this culture which insists on this high pressure, high stress means to get someone to, I don’t know, it’s so bizarre. The idea is that poets, creative people can be in the classroom and provide some antidote to what we see is a pretty toxic environment, often especially the higher up you go, the more money that is involved in education seems the worse for you it gets. It’s really interesting but also scary. It’s a really long way of saying that my practice in the classroom as someone advocating and practicing emotional literacy as it serves a different purpose to coming out of that classroom and writing, and publishing poetry, I do draw a line between those two spaces. For example, in the classroom, particularly with younger people—I spent most of my time working with teenagers—I found that teenagers, young people have so much to say, even just generally. I’ve never met a teenager who doesn’t have a lot to say, even if they’re quiet, or standoffish, or whatever like, they’ve got something to say. When you can get that out of them and not just in a purely therapeutic way but that’s part of the process, getting something out of them and then getting them to do something creative, with that thing that’s going on in their life, often it’s like an autobiographical thing about them. Sometimes it’s a difficult thing, sometimes it’s not. But I’ve seen in this practice how we’ve literally saved lives doing this. I’ve seen students write or share something in a poetry workshop that has then led to very real and positive interventions. We’ve had a number of students write about self-harm, I’ve had a number of students write about losing someone close to them who they hadn’t shared or confided in anyone in the school environment and then it came out. Then they’ve been able to be cared for and attended to in this way. All of that though, it’s different like I say, if I would then going to take those students out of that classroom and say, “Okay, we’re going to publish a book with Faber and Graywolf,” that’s a different thing. We were talking about audience earlier, that’s a different audience with different expectations, different experience, and quite frankly, I’m not interested in someone putting out work that is just, I don’t know if you want to call it self-aggrandizing therapy. I don’t want to sound like I’m judging or I’m being overly critical but I’m talking about my own practice and what it is I’m trying to do. When I put out the perseverance, I found that a lot of the interviews I was having, people were very interested in a lot of the autobiographical parts of it. It’s like, “Hey, no one’s talking about the fact that every other poem in here is a different form,” I was talking about the craft basically. I know the craft can be a complicated thing to talk about in and of itself, hierarchies, and all this stuff but it is poetry. It is a practice, it is a tradition. I am very invested in aligning my work with the poets that excite me or that have moved me or that I feel I’m in some kind of family with them. I do subscribe to this idea that through poetry, through active reading practice, you can create your own company, your own literary company, and that can be a very powerful, important, worthwhile, sustaining practice and thing to have as you move through your life. I take that seriously. It’s important to me to have a distinction between a therapeutic practice and a poetry craft practice. I still feel like I’m being a bit, I don’t know if I’m being fair in how this is coming out, but this is how it’s coming out today. [laughter]
DN: Fair enough. We’ll put an asterisk by that response. There’s another way in which I feel like you’re an investigator of missing sounds beyond being an investigator of sounds that you do not hear. But you’re also an investigator of sounds I think that are not spoken in the first place of missing histories, that your ancestral investigations are part of that but also lots of other things are, too. For instance, when you were asked to engage with the legacy of Beethoven, you weren’t interested in focusing on a narrative of “look at what this deaf person overcame” which you felt like was an overdone narrative. Instead, you wanted to focus on a violinist that Beethoven collaborated with, George Bridgetower, who was mixed race with a Caribbean father and who Beethoven dedicated the Kreutzer Sonata to until they had a falling out and Bridgetower is erased from the musical history that we know. I wanted to spend a little bit of time on deaf history because it’s this interesting intersection between science and medicine, and education and a lot of really terrible examples of good intentions causing great harm. For several years, I was writing a lot of ear-centric work and during that time, I read Oliver Sacks’s book Seeing Voices. It was a book that–
RA: Did you say ear-centric?
DN: Ear-centric. Yeah.
RA: I like that.
DN: Yeah, during that time when I was writing a lot about ears, I read Oliver Sacks’s book Seeing Voices. For me, that really was a book that blew me away in showing me what I didn’t know about deaf history. I was going to ask you your opinion of this book but then I saw that you had listed it in your further reading section. But what I loved about the book as a hearing reader is that Sacks comes from a certain natural bias which he admits. He comes with a natural bias as a pathologist; and that bias being that, of course, if there were a technology invented that eliminated deafness, that would be a good thing. Yet he came away instead with something very different as an impression; an immense admiration for the culture of deafness and the unique qualities of sign language so much so that after he wrote the book, he began himself to become a student of sign. You’ve mentioned this earlier in the interview, but this dynamic that he goes through in this process he goes through brings to the fore the difference between little “d” deafness, the medical condition and capital “d” Deafness, the culture and how if the latter isn’t recognized and the former is emphasized at its expense, the results are often disastrous. I was wanting to spend a moment with you about that because you engaged with us in many different ways in the collections. For instance, you engage with the legacy of Alexander Graham Bell who dedicated his life to the education of the deaf, but in such a way that it reversed a century of progress for deaf culture. His mother was deaf, his wife was deaf, the telephone arose partly as a result of his interest in deaf education, and his belief in the possibility of a universal language. But his approach called “oralism” where deaf people are denied sign language and encouraged not to marry other deaf people and to focus on speech therapy at the exclusion of signing, had really disastrous results. All that time learning to imitate speech sounds for one is time not spent learning math, or learning science, or learning literature, or learning, or interacting within sign language, which Sacks is very clear is a complete language unto itself, even though as late as the 1950s, it was still not viewed as a true language but rather as a pantomime; and even many people don’t realize that ASL or BSL are not signed English but entirely different languages. The irony of Bell’s attempts to separate deaf people from each other with the goal of assimilating them is that, in some ways, the most advantageous deaf person is one born to deaf parents because they get language acquisition without any gaps, and that’s crucial. Sacks was quoting the South African deaf poet, David Wright; a poet who went deaf at seven years old after he acquired language. He would hear what he would call phantasmal voices when he wrote because he could still remember when he could hear those words even though he lost hearing at seven. He says that his ability to imagine what being deaf pre-language acquisition with no access to language would be like is as hard for him to imagine as it would be for a hearing person to imagine; that it’s not a question of degree but of a fundamentally different scenario of somebody who loses hearing and is not given access to sign language or language while the brain is still plastic. I’m not sure where I’m going with this entirely but I wanted to deliver all of that information because it’s been something that, I have to say naively, I was so shocked that I was never taught any of the history that I learned in that book. But I wondered if this sparks any thoughts for you, both because you are obviously meditating on these figures, Bell being just one of them who is engaging with pedagogy like you are and with science but really causing great harm that has taken forever to start but probably is still going on trying to reverse the process of oralism.
RA: Yeah. That’s still very much alive and well, the legacy of that. Even in the UK, in the last five years, we’ve seen even more Deaf schools being closed. This is capital “d” Deaf schools, these are deaf-led, Deaf schools, one of the oldest of which was in Hastings in the suburbs part of England. It’s closed down now for good. The more prestigious deaf schools in the UK are still often the schools that practice the oral method that discourage sign as a first language and speech and oralism over that. There are some students that benefit from that system but many that live damaged and traumatized from it. Many refuse to ever speak vocally and only do sign and don’t speak to any of their biological family. I’ve had a number of friends that are like that. They just cut everyone off and only interact and engage with the people that love them for who they are, their chosen family who are also mainly deaf or deaf and sign language speakers. It’s again a complicated thing. Yes, I completely love Oliver Sacks for his book, Seeing Voices. I think that is a great model for anyone, any outsider going into a community and wants to write about that community with kindness, generosity, intelligence, tact. It’s wonderful. It’s just brilliant. I do know that there were a couple of deaf people who had some reservations about it. I personally defended Oliver Sacks because I didn’t feel he’d gone in there with any assumptions or at least any assumptions that he wasn’t willing to change his mind about. So you see how he changes his mind throughout the book and that to me is pure, investigative, meaningful, educational work. It’s just work. You see how someone goes from one point of view to another and that changes purely through on-the-ground experience and actual communication. Then like you say, near the end of the book, he says, “I continue to learn sign language, I continue to learn about deaf history and the culture and the history, the sensibility of deafness.” He’s completely a student in that and not an authority. I think that’s where we often see things go wrong where people like Alexander Graham Bell, had his own agendas, his own fixed vision. But when you look at it compassionately, Graham Alexander Bell clearly had a lot of trauma, clearly felt like he couldn’t communicate or connect with his mother, yet somehow ends up in, well it was actually through family and friends and acquaintances that he meets his wife and then he invents the telephone. The man is a millionaire when he’s in his 20s. There’s a real arrested development happening for him there. It’s when you really look at, again, the emotional history of these factual cold figures, you can see a little bit of further complications in it, which enrich that history. But that’s often not how history is taught or understood. I should say that there are some great deaf scholars and historians, Harlan Lane is one of them. Paddy Ladd is another one who’s done some really groundbreaking work particularly on British sign language and the history of British sign language. So much of this stems, talking about legacy, so much of this stems as well from the enlightenment era when people, if they take away from hundreds of years of philosophy of this one question, “What makes us human?” the answer was language. That was the thing that they all agreed on. Language makes us human and then suddenly, they started putting up barriers around what a language is. Like you say, into the 50s, sign language was still not recognized as an official language. It wasn’t until 2003, which is the year I left secondary school education which would be high school in the US; 2003, when British sign language was recognized as an official language. Well into my life at this point. I remember I just left this deaf school and then suddenly, it was announced that the government wants to recognize BSL as a language but they don’t want to teach in schools. They don’t want it on the curriculum. We’re still, to this day, there’s an activist, a young teenage activist by the name of Daniel Jillings who is doing incredible campaign work to get BSL under the National Curriculum in the UK. That’s a very specific thing. I don’t know how true this is but I did get an impression that ASL does have a presence in American education, it seems, but I can’t speak to that, I don’t know. But I’m just bringing that up to say that they’re two different histories, contexts. You said earlier how I anticipate criticism from other deaf people, and I’ve received my fair share of deaf criticism from friends as well who have just questioned, just making sure that my practice is grounded. I’m talking about deafness that I’m bringing forward, deaf-led organizations, deaf-led activists and movements because I do have a privilege in cultivating my voice, to be able to have this conversation right now. Cultivating my language is something, again, that I don’t take lightly. That’s something I really try to weave into, both those spaces, that classroom space and the work. So there are overlaps in terms of practice and impact to how I’m hoping to move through the world and the work itself move through the world. Because once the book is published, once it’s out there, it’s beyond you. People are going to do what they want, really, or to take what they need or what they want from the work. Then I’ve had all kinds of people take away things from my work that I’ve had no imagination of actually. I get messages quite fairly frequently from people who have stammers or stutters and say that they feel a kinship, I suppose, with elements of my work. That interests me as well, even thinking about the Audrey Lorde idea that there’s always an “intersectionality.” There’s an intersectionality with my work but I didn’t consciously intend but has come back to me in a way that has been a delight to see.
DN: You do have many poems that engage with historical deaf people, for instance, The Wife of Bell, and poems also that engage with representations of deaf people in literature, both more positive like Dickens and clearly negative with Ted Hughes. You also have poems about unarmed deaf people and their deadly encounters with law enforcement or with anti-deaf prejudice. I pulled out some of them and I was hoping maybe we could read a trio of those poems if you were open to it.
RA: Oh yeah.
DN: The three poems I pulled forth were For Jesula Gelin, Vanessa Previl and Monique Vincent, The Ghost of Laura Bridgeman Warns Helen Keller About Fame, and then finally, For Tyrone Givens.
RA: Okay. Wow, yeah. Great choices. I’ve never been asked to read these poems. For Tyrone Givens I have, but not these ones. Okay, interesting. I’ll give it a go.
[Raymond Antrobus reads a poem called For Jesula Gelin, Vanessa Previl and Monique Vincent]
[Raymond Antrobus reads a poem called The Ghost of Laura Bridgeman Warns Helen Keller About Fame]
RA: This poem is called For Tyrone Givens and I wrote it after, Tyrone was a friend of mine from school. I found out that he committed suicide. It was such a shock and a moment for anyone who finds out a friend of theirs has decided to take their own life. I didn’t really know if I had anything to say about this other than it’s tragic, it’s sad and it shouldn’t have happened. I was invited to write a poem though, I was commissioned to write a poem responding to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so I had to look at them and choose one to respond to. One of the declarations, number five says, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” and I instantly thought of Tyrone and the injustice which he lost his life because of it. I should also say that James Baldwin appears in this poem because during the pandemic, I realized that I was lying to people. I told them that I’d read every James Baldwin novel and it was not true. I’d only read two, [laughs] so I made it my thing, once we’re out of lockdown, I would be able to say, “I really have read every Baldwin novel,” and I can say that now. You know what blew my mind? Every Baldwin novel has a suicide in it, and so that’s partly why he appears in this poem.
[Raymond Antrobus reads a poem called For Tyrone Givens]
DN: We’ve been listening to Raymond Antrobus read from both of his poetry collections, The Perseverance and All The Names Given. I wanted to return to Sacks but before I did, I just want to acknowledge what you said around your engagement with the deaf community in a bigger sense of centering deaf voices and the limitation of the fact that that is the book that I’ve read, that I’m so captivated by. I do want to read the people you’ve mentioned. One of the things that was fascinating about the book for me was also two extremes that he portrayed. I wanted to just lay both of those out for a minute and hear your thoughts. Because on the one hand, pre-sign language development in France in the 18th Century, at least in his characterization, pretty much prior to that, not only were deaf people usually considered “dumb and incompetent”, they were unable to inherit property, to marry, to receive education, or given adequately challenging work. At one point, Sacks was at Gallaudet University, which at that time he was there, was the only liberal arts college in the world for the deaf.
RA: Still is.
DN: Still is, okay. And at the time he was there in the 1980s, it was being occupied and barricaded by the Student Body who were demanding a deaf president which they had never had. It’s a 124 year history, and even there—where Sacks was utterly personally transformed, sitting in on classes in philosophy, chemistry and math that were all conducted in sign—even there, the administration treated the deaf student body in an infantilized way in his mind. Sacks said that 20 years before that, he’s referring back to the 60s, that in the 60s there were less than a half dozen deaf people with PhDs in the world. You were quick to clarify that the literacy rate scenario is problematic but you’ve mentioned that the illiteracy rate among deaf people in Jamaica’s 95% and 70% illiteracy in the UK. In your conversation with Ilya Kaminsky and then again, here today, you’ve talked about how, through much of your educational experience as a kid, you were met with low expectations from educators. That was probably a nexus of both questions around deafness and questions around race. But I guess I wanted to say all of that and then read a quote from Sacks’s because he also presents this other countervailing reality for him, which both speaks to lower “d” deafness medical and capital “D” Deaf culture, but in his quote seems to mix the two. I just wanted to hear your thoughts on it. Is this appealing? Is this problematic? Or is this both appealing and problematic? It was really eye-opening as this completely different way to flip the script. This is Oliver Sacks. “Those who are born deaf, and most especially those, and most especially those who are exposed to Sign from the start, that what would normally be auditory areas of the brain associated with hearing can be “reallocated” for purposes of visual analysis; that with constant exposure to and use of a visual language, the entire brain of the deaf person can adapt itself for a special, supervisual sensibility and organization, a special enhancement of visual powers that may not occur in any other situation. What neuroscientists have insufficiently regarded or respected, and have scarcely yet begun to explore, is the unusual quality of imagination and imagery in the deaf, particularities that the brain and mind have been taught through being exposed from the start to an exclusively visual sensibility. The language and culture and rich differentness of the deaf (unlike those, say, of the Welsh) have a neurological basis. It is not just culture (the culturally transmitted) that is different in the deaf, but nature, the nature of their experiences, dispositions, and thoughts. Deaf culture is reared upon deaf nature, though at this point one almost has an impulse to drop the word “deaf,” and replace it with “visual” and to speak rather of an intensely visual culture emerging from a physiological enhancement of visuality. Sign, I was now convinced, was a fundamental language of the brain.” I’m curious what that evokes in you. You have the text image sequence in All The Names Given, there is lots of engagement with visual art, there’s the drawing of the hands signing in your books, what do you think of when you hear Sacks speaking into this?
RA: I think he is speaking of scientific brilliance. It’s true. It’s so true and I can attest to that. When I did go through a period of just wanting to sign and not having as many voice conversations in that time, I would say that my peripheral vision improved. I started to notice it. It widened. Also, my dreams changed. So the way that I would dream was that all my conversations were insane. I would dream about people who I know in real life who I’m only able to talk to orally, vocally, and they could sign; and in my dreams became this deaf Utopia. I found that those are some of the best dreams I’ve ever had, honestly. Like you say, in how visual and evocative they were for me just waking up from them, I still remember them, they really left an impression on me. I want to also mention architecture, that is the kind of idea, the way that the world is built, the world is not built by deaf people—meaning the mainstream world, the hyper, powerful, capitalistic world that we recognize as a city that’s just not built. Maybe with the exception of Rochester, which I hear 90,000 deaf people live in a single space, that’s apparently the biggest deafs city or concentrated deaf population in the world. But generally buildings, architects, designers are not thinking about sound and how sound travels and operates in a space. If civilization was to start all over again and it was like a town meeting where we had to get a bunch of people in a room to design the equivalent of a constitution and it was like ground level, they literally had to build everything from scratch, I would hope that there are deaf people there and people with all kinds of perspectives in that space. Because I really do think that if we’re going to do this analogy of new building or building, again, talking about inclusivity and we’re talking about even just the power of the visual in some sense or the power of the representative being understood in that way, then that’s how we’ve got to go about it. I mentioned Daniel Jillings, this deaf campaigner for sign language in the UK. I remember thinking about that analogy when I met him. When I met him, he was 13 years old. I just thought, “My God, we’ve got to get this deaf young man,” even though he is a kid, “…into rooms, into powerful rooms where they are making buildings, they are building things from the ground up which are going to impact how we live, how we view our life.” The brilliance of what the quote you just read from Oliver Sacks is that he is asserting a value on the deaf sensibility and the deaf being, the deaf personhood. He’s also going a step further and saying, “We, hearing people, or you, hearing people can learn from it.” There’s an actual physiological and intellectual lesson or advantage here and I totally see it. I totally agree with it. Even in the school I was at, I had deaf friends who, the ways some of my hearing peers would talk about some of my other deaf friends, we’re kids but it’s still like, “Huh? You really underestimate that kid? Because he’s pretty cool, he can do some pretty cool stuff.” But at the same time, just to put it in the most male sports-based field, I suppose, and field of language, there was a deafs football team—you would call it soccer but I’m going to say football as in soccer in America—there was a deaf football team and a hearing football team. The deaf football team of my year, we would beat the hearing team. I remember when we beat the hearing team, the deaf team, that was probably the closest that those hearing students had to the equivalent of what Oliver Sacks articulated there like, “Hey, we’ve got something to show you, don’t underestimate.” [laughs]
DN: That’s wonderful. I love that you just brought up both literal dreams and this dream Utopia that you have while you’re asleep then this dreaming for the future. Because dreams are a huge part of All The Names Given, like the epigraph from Juan Ramon Jimenez, “The body as it daydreams goes towards the earth that belongs to it, from the other earth that does not.” But I’m curious about dreams more generally because in the collection as a whole, many of the poems are poems happening within dreams. So for much of the time, the poet is dreaming in this collection as we go through the collection. What is that about?
RA: That’s just about, again, within deaf poetics, the poetics of uncertainty. There’s an uncertainty or a real disability to dreaming in the sense that you don’t know what one is capable of in a dream. It just unfolds in front of you in a way. I’m British and a lot of English poetry from the 15th, 16th, 17th Century which I started reading, there are loads of dream poetry. There are so many dreamscapes and stuff that happen. There are all these fables and there are whole sequences that take place in dreams. I can’t remember where I saw it now, but as a piece of language, it stuck with me, it said something like, “The dream is the striving of the soul,” and I just resonated with that because there’s a non-linear surreal truth to dreaming. The whole idea that everything you dream is a piece of you no matter how bizarre it is. In a way that your soul really does try to communicate in the dream. I believe that I’ve felt that. To explore that poetically within the context of uncertainty, mishearings, and miscommunication felt poetic, a device that really has a place in that book and what I was trying to get out. Because also at that time I was writing them, me and my wife, Tabitha, were living in separate countries. We’re not able to see each other because the immigration officers had shut down. So a lot of the language that comes into those dream poems in All The Names Given is all lifted from that’s what we would do, we would wake up and we would share a dream that we’d had the night before. It was a way for us to stay connected. There’s a lot of reasons. [laughs]
DN: For a final question, I want to stay with dreams and Utopias. I’m thinking of Sacks when he’s exploring what was a long-standing cluster of hereditary deafness that occurred on Martha’s Vineyard up until the 1950s, where everyone in this community, both hearing and deaf people, signed. Up until then, it perhaps suggests a different way of being where even the hearing people, among themselves, would mix speaking and sign. The deaf people in the community were included in a way that was, at least, partly on their terms. In that spirit, I want to read a quote from Meg Day as a preface to a final question. Day said, “Do much of one’s experience as dis can be dictated by nondisabled folks. I’m trying to think about my poetics outside that paradigm, but it’s kindov foolish. I was taught to write for a nondisabled, hearing reader. I came up knowing that part of what made a poem a poem is its musicality, its sonic play. But play is such a misnomer. Hearing folks don’t want you to just play with sound, they want you to play with sound in majors & minors, chords & harmonies. Even what we call dissonance in a poem is a certain kind of bending, a certain kind of agreement with the way hearies process sound. I’ve memorized rhymes. I know where in the mouth you like your vowels to match. It’s a lot of labor & who gets to enjoy it? Who benefits? Whose poetics are erased? I’m done with that. I’m working on being done with that.” In the light of that, as your poetry and your poetics evolves; the writing, the teaching and the performing that you’ve made into a nexus, the use of sign in the books, and now the work with captioning—not just as captioning but as a different mode, a different poetics—I wonder when you look at the horizon and dream, where do you see your curiosity or your ambition leading you in terms of your poetry now?
RA: That question keeps me aligned with the poetics of uncertainty. [laughter] Honestly, All The Names Given, I set out to write a very different book and it came into what it was. I really loved writing for children in a way that really surprised me. I did it. I wrote this children’s book Can Bears Ski? quite reluctantly because I wasn’t sure if there’s snobbery in that literary world about that. I’d internalized some of it, maybe, but I could see such a concrete place for that book in the world considering the lack of books with deaf protagonists, deaf stories even in going into deaf schools and looking at the library, seeing even in those libraries there weren’t many books. There were some but not enough, not nearly enough. I’d like to do more of that, especially being a dad now, thinking and looking at language. My son, just in the last week, has started to become more vocal. He’s practicing his consonants at the moment and some of his vowels. This is interesting. Here it is, at the lived experience of language being developed in front of me. I now get the privilege, the honor, burden as well to give him language and to pass that on. I’m going to give him sign. I want to teach him in a way that he can develop some sign and speak, and that’s what’s been best for me. There are people that have been quite, Alexander Graham Bell is at one end, so pure oralism, never sign, otherwise, you limit yourself. For me, even the militant deafness which is voice off, only sign like don’t speak to anyone who can’t sign, I feel like there’s a limitation to that, too. But again, this is a personal thing. For me, the thing that’s helped me thrive in the world is the integration of both the sign, of the written, of the spoken and trying for all of them to co-exist. I hope I’m doing that in a way that’s not trying to prescribe or be didactic to that. It really is and that’s why I say, we were talking earlier, an investigation of missing sound. That investigation of missing sound is a life work for me. It’s like if you put everything I create or I’m going to create in a folder, in a box or on a shelf, it’s going to be called the Investigation of Missing Sounds. That’s almost like a placeholder title for anything I write. So whatever I write in the future will be in that folder, on that shelf.
DN: Yeah. Well let’s go out with the final poems in All The Names Given. I was thinking maybe we could hear Lovable and Closer Captions.
[Raymond Antrobus reads a poem called Lovable]
[Raymond Antrobus reads a poem called Closer Captions]
DN: Thank you so much, Raymond. It was a real honor to be with you.
RA: Likewise, I’ve been a big fan of the show. It’s such a surprise and like I said, it’s just great. I’ve been listening to you talking to so many of my favorite writers and peers and people. Your generosity and the depth that you’re going with your guests, particularly poets. Poets often don’t get that strenuous, scholarly, but also loving attention, so I thank you for that.
DN: Thank you. We’ve been talking today to Raymond Antrobus about both of his latest books out this year from Tin House, The Perseverance and All The Names Given. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener and reader-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Raymond Antrobus’s work at raymondantrobus.com and I definitely encourage you to check out his video gallery there in particular. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, consider becoming a supporter of the show. One of the potential benefits of becoming a supporter of Between The Covers is the bonus audio archive, which includes bonus material from Tice Cin, Jorie Graham, Alice Oswald, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Douglas Kearney, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Arthur Sze, Teju Cole, Ted Chiang, Layli Long Soldier, Richard Powers, and many others. There are also rare collectibles from past writing guests, the Tin House Early Readership Program, the collective brainstorm about who we should invite going forward and much more. You can find out about all of this and more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team who help make this show run as smoothly as it does, Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.