British Jamaican’s debut collection challenges Hughes’s description of deaf children
Wed 27 Mar 2019 20.15 GMT
Last modified on Wed 27 Mar 2019 20.25 GMT
After fiercely challenging Ted Hughes’s description of deaf children as “alert and simple” in a poem in his first collection, the deaf spoken-word poet Raymond Antrobus has won the Ted Hughes award for poetry.
The 33-year-old British Jamaican, who has performed at Glastonbury and also works as a teacher, has received the £5,000 prize for his debut The Perseverance. Described as “compelling” in the Guardian, the collection touches on family life, particularly the death of Antrobus’s father, his diagnosis with deafness as a small child, and his biracial heritage. It has also been longlisted for this year’s Folio prize.
The poems often explore the nature of deafness, such as Dear Hearing World, which describes the discrimination Antrobus has encountered in the education system: “I was a broken speaker, you were never a broken interpreter.” He also details his protracted diagnosis, which he finally received aged six, recalling in the poem Echo how he could not hear the final syllable of his surname and pronounced it as “Antrob”: “And no one knew what I was missing / until a doctor gave me a handful of Lego / and said to put a brick on the table / every time I heard a sound.”
Born in 1986 in London to British and Jamaican parents, Antrobus is a deaf poet whose debut collection, The Perseverance, was a Poetry Book Society choice last year.
Salvador Dali in a 1950s McDonald’s advert,
of red gold and green ties
on shanty town dapper dandies, of Cuba Gooding Jr.
in a strip club shouting SHOW ME THE MONEY,
of the woman on her phone in the quiet coach,
of knowing you’ll be seen and served,
that no one will cross the road when they see you,
the sun shining through the gaps in the buildings,
a glass ceiling in a restaurant
where knives and spoons wink,
a polite pint and a cheeky cigarette, tattoos
on the arms, trains that blur the whole city without delay.
I want the confidence of a coffee bean in the body,
a surface that doesn’t need scratching;
I want to be fluent in confidence so large it speaks from its own sky.
At the airport I want my confidence to board
without investigations, to sit in foreign cafés
without a silver spoon in a teacup clinking
into sunken places, of someone named after a saint,
of Matthew the deaf footballer who couldn’t hear
to pass the ball, but still ran the pitch,
of leather jackets and the teeth
of hot combs, rollin’ roadmen and rubber.
I don’t want my confidence to lie;
it has to mean helium balloons in any shape or colour,
has to mean rubber tree in rain; make it
my sister leaving home for university, my finally sober father,
my mother becoming a circus clown.
There is such a thing as a key confidently cut
that accepts the locks it doesn’t fit.
Call it a boy busking on the canal path singing
to no one but the bridges
and the black water under them.
From The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins)
He once told the BBC of this period: “I couldn’t read, I couldn’t write, I was slow to start walking. No one knew why this was happening until a phone started ringing in my mum’s house and my mum said I was completely oblivious to this phone. She just looked at me and she looked at the phone ringing and she heard it really loudly and I was completely unmoved, I didn’t react.”
The Perseverance also includes an entirely redacted poem, Deaf School, by Hughes, in which he described the children as: “Their faces were alert and simple / like little animals, small night lemurs caught in the flashlight.” In a process he has described as “cathartic”, Antrobus erased Hughes’s poem with thick black lines, then responded with a poem of his own: “Ted is alert and simple. / Ted lacked a subtle wavering aura of sound / and responses to Sound.”
The judges of the prize praised Antrobus. The poet Clare Shaw called his book “universally relevant”, while fellow poet Linton Kwesi Johnson described it as “the most engaging collection of poems we have read in a long time”. And the Rev Canon Mark Oakley said Antrobus was “passionate but speaking from his scars not his wounds – this is a poet you sense very deeply that you can trust”.
Antrobus saw off competition from the Indian poet Tishani Doshi for Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, Birmingham’s Roy McFarlane for The Healing Next Time, Susan Richardson’s Words the Turtle Taught Me, and Hannah Sullivan, who won the TS Eliot prize last year for Three Poems.
Antrobus was presented with his award at a ceremony on Wednesday evening, alongside the poet Wayne Holloway-Smith, who was chosen from 14,000 entries to win the £5,000 national poetry competition for his poem The Posh Mums are Boxing in the Square.