The first time I met Raymond Antrobus we were performing on a barge, because Britain. But he’s one of those poets who, despite being sickeningly young, has been a mainstay and highlight of the UK spoken word scene for years. It was quite cool to perform with him, made me feel I was finally getting somewhere. Raymond Antrobus co-curates Chill Pill, one of the UK’s most exciting and successful spoken word nights (seriously, if you find yourself coming to London, try and organize your trip around a Chill Pill. They sell out theatres. They also have a great youtube channel worth keeping an eye on. Fab way to get to know the UK scene) and Keats House poets, as well as being one of the only poets in the world with an MA in spoken word education, a program he now helps facilitate.
Even if you ignore all that, just go sit down with one of his books. “Shapes and Disfigurements of Raymond Antrobus” (Burning Eye Books) is one of the most moving collections I’ve ever read. You know those poems that are too good for slam? As someone who absolutely came up through slam, I realise that’s a controversial thing for me to say. But these poems are too wide, too deep, too…..they take up too much space inside you for something as..arbitrary..as slam. They’re the kind of poems that make you want to write. Which is why it’s such excellent news that Raymond Antrobus is now in the business of educating and guiding young writers.
In my (massively controversial) opinion, youtube was one of the worst things to ever happen to UK spoken word. More and more poets now sound exactly alike. And that’s completely understandable, when you see one specific style of poem garnering millions of hits. But as an audience member it’s difficult to sit through. No matter how great the writing, how deep the topic or how well addressed, if you sound like the last five people, I just can’t engage. We each have our own unique voices as poets. But it is such a challenge to discover that, to protect it, to allow it to grow. Especially when, slam after slam, you see one style winning. This is the challenge faced by teaching artists and spoken word educators. Many poets who go into schools have no real training as teachers, don’t necessarily know how to help someone else discover their voice. It’s a very different skill set helping someone else find out who they are as a writer. And as someone who’s been teaching for years, I admit some jealousy of those poets who’ve been able to go through the Goldsmith’s University Spoken Word Educator’s Programme (which was set up by an American, Peter Kahn). I think more of us should seek out proper training, should be accountable for both the responsibility and challenge of helping young writers develop.
If we go to poetry night after poetry night all across our respective countries and find young poets really only exploring one style, then we as workshop leaders need to examine our own practice. I’m not sure I know how to help someone discover their voice. So I am extremely relieved there are now programmes available that will strive to properly train us, to equip us with the tools to spread this genre in a productive way that fosters creativity and diversity of voice.
At the bottom, you’ll find a video of Raymond performing for Chill Pill shorts, which is a brilliant youtube channel. We don’t have a button poetry equivalent over here, but Chill Pill gets a constant stream of the best UK poets hitting their stage, so in terms of one stop shop for high quality British poetry, the Chill Pill channel is probably your best bet.
1) What made you decide to undertake the spoken word educator’s course yourself? How has it impacted your career as a poet?
It was an accident really, in 2010 I won a London Slam competition and went to Chicago to perform at the famous Green Mill. It was on tour that I was introduced to Peter Kahn, an English teacher and community leader. I walked into his classroom and there were 80 or so teenagers writing poems, I’d never seen anything like it. Peter introduced me as a “poet from London!” and the students all lined up to show me their work. Peter watched me from a distance as I read the poems and gave the kids feedback. After that he told me he thought I was good with kids and that we’ll be speaking again. Almost two years later Peter shows up in London and tells me he’d like me to apply to pilot his Spoken Word Education course. I didn’t have any academic background, I left school at 16 with three GCSE’s to my name (exams you take at 15, the only qualifications you will get if you leave school at 16). I was interviewed by Peter, Apples and Snakes and professors at Goldsmith University and managed to somehow talk my way into the programme… it’s great that institutions like Goldsmith’s make this possible.
2) What impact do you anticipate putting spoken word educators directly into school will have on the UK poetry world?
This part of my life has very much unravelled without any clear plans or expectations; finishing my MA in Spoken Word Education and spending the last three years using poetry and performance as an educational tool has changed my life before it changed the students I work with. I have so much respect and admiration for teachers, my role is a collaborative role and doesn’t work unless the teachers themselves set up the tone and space to make learning engaging and a form of discovery as opposed to a passive, copy and paste experience. It is then my job as a Spoken Word Educator to demystify poetry and inspire an experience with language which students can take ownership over. At best, students will realise the potential of a word and language based career, at the very least, they’ve had at least one interaction with poetry that is living and breathing.
3) Do you think it’s necessary to diversify in order to have a financially survivable career in poetry? Why (or not)?
Diversify? as in learn other skills? absolutely! When I started out I went to poetry events and asked if I could take photos. This got me in to events for free, gave the chance to practice my craft as an events photographer and experience live poetry. I then got friendly with promoters, so they knew who I was. I have done many part time jobs in the early years from flyering to warehouse lifting and I even tried working as a paparazzi photographer (dirty secret, only lasted a week). But look, I was working in the fitness industry from 16 – 22 and made good money as a Personal Trainer but because I knew I didn’t want to own a gym or manage one, there was no next step to take, my passion for the work was fizzling out. Something that excites me about my career as a poet is you never know where it’s going to take you but look, I got to be real, I’ve never been driven by money, I’ve grown up in a working class home… I’m used to not having money.
4) You’ve been involved in some successful groups in poetry, been involved in nights run by many poets like Chill Pill. Is it harder to make it as an individual in UK poetry? Why (or not)?
No, it’s not harder. There are no Wu-Tang Clan equivalents in the poetry world in terms of mainstream appeal but I’m less interested in the idea of “making it” these days. As a community so few of us even know what that means. What, you want a record deal? look at the kind of poetry that gets millions of hits on youtube, it’s awful and I wouldn’t want to be associated with it. The BBC have taken an interest in “Spoken Word”, but they’re commodifying it, when it all dies down, all the bandwagon poets will go down with it. On a positive note, it’s great that poets that have done lots of groundwork on the circuit are getting highlighted – Vanessa Kissula, Anthony Anaxagorou, Sabrina Mahfouz, Deanna Rodger… these aren’t fad poets, these are poets who have been writing long enough to know they’ll at least be writing for the rest of their lives.
5) What does being a professional poet look like? (In terms of where your working hours are actually spent, like..how much of your time is actually spent writing and performing poems vs admin and chasing work)
When you got a PA and you’re investing your own money in your own work you’re a hustling poet, not necessarily a professional one. Right now, I’m spending more time reading widely and travelling… I’m still trying to balance everything and I struggle… but there are payoffs and enough opportunities for me, I’m one of the lucky ones.
6) What advice do you wish you’d received starting out?
I wish I wasn’t so aggressive on stage, I had to learn some things and understand how I am received as threatening because of my physique and skin colour. I was bodybuilding when I started out, I’m much slimmer now, I had more to prove on stage when I was muscular, I had to be aware of the kind of space I was taking up but hey, I learned so much… I’m proud to have 10 years of performing under my belt. I’ve been boo’ed off stage, heckled and performed alongside comedians, belly dancers, burlesque performers, magicians, lecturers… I mean, 10 years ago it was hard to be a poet and not end up in some kind of novelty, variety show. Anyway, I carry all that experience on stage now and I’m better for it.
7) What mistakes are you so glad you made?
Pursuing Slam poetry – Most of it was misdirected energy but I’m so glad I went through it. I learned a lot about audiences and myself and how to keep the anticipation of applause out of my writing space.
8) Where do you hope poetry is going? If you could speak to younger poets on what this form could and should be, what would you say?
I do speak to young poets, almost every day. You don’t need my words here, trust me, poetry has never been in better health.
Find out more about Raymond Antrobus below: