Writers & Company

Award-winning poet Raymond Antrobus on hearing, seeing and grieving through verse

The British-Jamaican author of poetry collection The Perseverance met with Eleanor Wachtel to discuss race, identity and his experience growing up deaf.
Raymond Antrobus spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 2019. (CBC, Penned in the Margins)
Listen to the full episode57:29

Episode Transcript

British-Jamaican poet Raymond Antrobus is taking the literary world by storm.

His new collection, The Perseverance, is the first book of poetry ever to win the U.K.'s prestigious Rathbones Folio Prize ― awarded to the best work of literature in any category ― and also won the Ted Hughes Award. It was named Poetry Book of the Year by the Guardian, the Sunday Times and PBS and was a finalist for Canada's International Griffin Poetry Prize.

In this powerful book, Antrobus explores his Jamaican heritage, his complicated relationship with his late father and his experience growing up deaf ― a diagnosis he received when he was six years old.  

Raymond Antrobus spoke to Eleanor Wachtel while in Toronto for the Griffin Poetry Prize.

Flavours of poetry

"Both my parents were into poetry, so I've had a kind of poetry in my upbringing. Once they pointed out that I was also into poetry, there was no kind of defensiveness. There was no reason for me to not feel like I could be a poet. I can own that.

"My mom is a huge fan of William Blake. She would recite William Blake poems to me and tell me about William Blake's life. On my bedroom wall she put up a picture of the poem London by William Blake. So every time I hear or see that Blake poem, it grounds me with my mother in a way.

"My dad also loved poetry, but his relationship with it was a bit different. The poems that he loved were by poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson and Miss Lou. These are poets from Jamaica who would perform their poems. He would have cassette and video tapes of these performances and he would play them to me when I was growing up. 

"Miss Lou, for example, would perform these lines that were so musical. These are lines that are still in my head. So I've got those two kind of angles, those two histories of poetry that were just around."

Spoken word versus poetry

"I've never really found it useful to compare or to separate spoken word from poetry. Because when you think about how long and deep and sophisticated the oral tradition is — and then in comparison how young and also deep and sophisticated our history of literature is — they complement each other. They speak to each other. So for me, trying to say that you can only have one without the other, or that one has more value than the other, is not useful.

"Having said that, I wouldn't deny that there are aesthetic differences. But the same way we have poets who you'd go to because of their sound — because of how they lean on sound — there are poets you would go to just because of how they present and prioritize images."

"I've never really found it useful to compare, to separate spoken word from poetry.

A complicated love 

"My dad would drink, and he would be a different person to who he was when he wasn't drinking. For me, much like any child, I was a boy who just wanted to be loved. Children want that, they need that. It grounds them. But for me it was like trying to love two very different people. I was this boy who was just caught up and confused in that. It was not only about 'How do I love this man?' but even that question of 'Is there only one version of him that loves me?'

"I'm really trying to be kind to that boy. He's still in me. We don't really grow up and become someone else. I think we grow with those other versions of ourselves. And I think those other versions of ourselves deserve compassion and understanding and, in some cases, forgiveness."

Hearing aid

"I've gotten to a point now where I wouldn't necessarily call it a hearing problem, which implies that there was something wrong with me. The problem was that the world around me didn't understand what my needs were. My mom bought this telephone and when it was installed I remember her saying that it was really loud. At this point I'm about six or seven.

"The first day, the telephone rings and she's looking at the telephone ringing and she's looking at me not responding.  Then something just clicked for her. She's like, 'I think Raymond might be deaf.' So I had a hearing test and, lo and behold, it's true.

"Before this happened, I was told I was dyslexic and I had severe learning difficulties. I was struggling to read and write. So I was getting attention for it, but it was a misdiagnosis. Even when I was that young I remember thinking to myself that I wasn't stupid or incapable. But I became very aware that that's how people were suddenly perceiving me.

"That is an ingrained memory in me. My response to that trauma is to still believe that I have to prove my capability. I have to assert who I am. I have to find the language which can correctly present who I am to the world. I still feel that urgency to do that. It's poetry that has given me that medium in a way."

Raymond Antrobus's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

Watch Raymond Antrobus perform his poem Two Guns in the Sky for Daniel Harris

Award-winning poet Raymond Antrobus performs his poem, "Two Guns in the Sky for Daniel Harris" 1:26