It seems quite apt that Raymond Antrobus was in Stratford-upon-Avon — the birthplace of the world’s greatest playwright and poet, William Shakespeare, on a week-long artists' residency with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust — when he was announced as this year's winner of the Poetry Society's prestigious Ted Hughes Award.
The British Jamaican poet, who is deaf, will be back in June to perform for the first time in Shakespeare’s hometown, at this year’s Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival. Here he talks to us about his poetry career so far and how Shakespeare inspired his family.
Tell us the sort of poetry that you write and where you get your inspiration from?
My poetry explores language, family, conversation, connection, travel and education, and that’s a big one for me because I’m a teacher as well as a poet. I visit schools, prisons and pupil referral units and youth centres, so I’ve brought poetry into so many different settings and seen how it can be, and might be, made relevant to people who might not be used to engaging with poetry, as well as people who are as fanatical and passionate about poetry as I am.
Watch Raymond perform an extract from his poem 'Echo' in the garden at Shakespeare's Birthplace:
How did you get into poetry?
My parents were both into poetry. My mum’s favourite poet is William Blake, and Adrian Mitchell, and my dad’s favourite poets were Miss Lou and Linton Kwesi Johnson, and I guess poetry was around me when I was growing up. It was never something I felt intimidated by, it was always something I felt I could own and practice, and have fun with. I explored living poets, and made myself part of a community on the poetry scene, became known in that circuit around London, and then got opportunities to travel and meet other poets.
You’ve just won the prestigious Ted Hughes Award, how does that feel?
I feel like it’s kind of surreal to have won the award, it’s still sinking in. It’s significant because there’s a bit of the book that I wrote that challenges Ted Hughes and some of the language he used when describing deaf children, but I like that poetry that’s living today can be part of a conversation that’s alive and open to new interpretations and new ideas.
What does someone of your age and background take from Shakespeare in terms of inspiration?
It’s an interesting question, because my dad grew up in rural Jamaica, but on the Caribbean islands they teach Shakespeare, they study Shakespeare, so my dad knew quite a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets, as well as some of the romantic poets, and my mum did too, growing up here in England. It that that’s interesting to me, that there’s that kind of relationship, and how Shakespeare’s work travelled and exists in places that can be quite contested, quite complicated when you think about colonialism and what it was like to have people from other places speaking language that came from Europe.
To me that makes Shakespeare even more charged; complicated; loaded. There’s a lot to delve into, particularly so if you’re from two places; from somewhere in Europe and somewhere in Africa, somewhere in the Caribbean, somewhere in Asia, there’s going to be a link there, I think, when looking at work by someone as revered and long-lived as Shakespeare.
I reckon that there are speaking points for all of us, even in Othello, where there’s a line that says something like ‘I’d walk across the Palestinian desert to touch his nether lip’, so it’s clear that Shakespeare travelled, it’s clear that Shakespeare had some knowledge of colonialism and wars and what was happening at the time. There’s a history there that can be opened and be relevant to anyone from anywhere.
What can people expect from your performance at the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival?
I’m really looking forward to it, it’s going to be my first time performing in Stratford. I’ve recently visited Stratford for the first time and seen the birthplace of Shakespeare for the first time, which is fantastic because I’m a big Shakespeare fan and I’ve also taught Shakespeare. I like to read work that feels very relevant to the moment or is responding to things that I’ve seen throughout a day.
I write quite regularly, so who knows what people can expect from me. But I will definitely touch on things like deafness, education, language, identity and the many different strands of it, so beyond national identity, also the identity of a teacher or a parent, so there’s a lot. I don’t usually plan my sets until I’m in the space and sensing what I can respond to in the moment. So in that sense you can maybe expect something quite improvised but also quite well rehearsed.
Raymond Antrobus will appear at the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival on Thursday, 20 June. For a full programme and ticket details see www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit/whats-on/poetry-festival/