Anthony Anaxagorou – poet, writer, publisher and educator – discusses spoken word after COVID-19, Cyprus, and poetry in the age of social media.
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Anthony – I’m going to start with a tough question. You founded Out-Spoken, which has grown into one of the leading poetry nights in London, and should just have finished a year-long residency at the Southbank Centre. I think live events as we know them will not be happening for a while. How detrimental is that to the performance poetry landscape, and to the specific part of it that is opening things up for the widest possible set of voices? And, to be a bit more upbeat, do you see opportunities for positive change that might result from these dire times?
It’s deeply upsetting to see what’s happening to theatres and live performance venues across the country. On Monday, the Southbank Centre announced it will most likely be closed until Spring 2021 – a devasting blow to everyone who uses and relies on their facilities for work and recreation. I really don’t know when or if things will ever resume to the way they were. I think times like these will require artists to start thinking more dynamically about the ways they produce work. How they engage with audiences online and keep sustaining themselves. I’ve seen several strong initiatives emerge over the last few weeks in aid of supporting theatre-makers, dancers, comedians and visual artists – the people who I feel are most likely the worst affected. Writers are quite fortunate in that respect; book sales seem to be doing relatively well, and most of our work can be done remotely. I really don’t foresee the Conservatives rushing to help the arts and culture sector any time soon, so it really is about how we, as a divergent and creative community, can adjust while still supporting each.
On a more exciting note, it’s just been announced that you’re writing How to… Write It, a part of #Merky Books’s new non-fiction series. Could you speak a little about the project, and how important you feel #Merky Books’s mission and work is?
I wrote the bulk of the book over seven weeks of being in lockdown, amidst juggling home-schooling and a heap of other anxieties. It wasn’t the most conducive way to go about writing, but it did mean I had no other commitments, so could fully focus my thinking on that. I’ve tried to outline my journey into poetry, my experiences at school, along with some of the bits I’ve learnt along the way. I don’t have any formal qualifications in creative writing or teaching, so a lot of what I know now has been the result of getting a lot wrong. There’s people who are keen to further their career in poetry and creative writing but don’t really know how to go about it. I was one of them about ten years ago, so I’ve tried writing this book with them in mind. It’s obviously by no means supposed to be a definitive guide on How To Write It, and is aimed at those who might be at the start of their journey, but I enjoyed the process nonetheless and feel I would have benefited from something similar had I come across it. I’ve got a lot of admiration for the team at #Merky/Penguin, who really are using the platform to commission and acquire important books.
Relatedly, could we talk a bit about poetry and gatekeepers? What readers/audiences get to read/hear, and which voices are represented, are points of inequity across the literature sector. Whereas performance poetry is becoming more and more ecumenical, in print poetry, the chain of writer, agent, publisher, critic etc. is beset by an absence of BAME and working-class voices. There are some important initiatives working to better this – like Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics – but what more is needed?
Yes, the tireless work of Sandeep Parmar, the Ledbury Critics, and that of Speaking Volumes and Dave Coates has helped shine an important light on the discrepancies you’ve mentioned. The British literary landscape is moving into a new way of thinking. Things are gradually improving in that we’re seeing a more accurate representation of our current society than compared to, say, five years ago. Editors and publishers with broader cultural palates are now taking up key roles, helping to break the monochromatic hegemony which marred literature for so long.
Another noticeable aspect is the increase in former spoken word artists who are now thinking about publishing with reputable presses. Perhaps this has come from the shift we spoke about and also having seen their peers, who started in a similar way, go on to achieve great things. My only real gripe with spoken word – something I’ve expanded on in the forthcoming book – is the critical aspect. Everything else about the tradition is brilliant, and I’m proud to have begun my career as poet among members of that community. But over time, what I realised was spoken word didn’t have what I needed to help take my writing to the next stage. I found only books could do that. Spoken word is a performance based artform that’s very formulaic and relies on the poet to carry the poem. The way they utilise their time on stage and how they engage with an audience. As poets grow and mature, they obviously want to experiment with different forms, and the page has the capacity for that – or they go further into dramatic monologue and the world of theatre. It is affirming to see artists work in different modes and not be afraid to try out new things. But I also think spoken word performers need more critical spaces to hone their writing – be it for a stage or a book. Over the last decade I’ve worked with hundreds of performance poets across the country and abroad. The focus tends to be on the performance much of the time, and how one delivers a poem on stage. I’m keen to address the quality of the writing before anything else and do what I can to help refine some of those ideas. I feel what’s genuinely lacking here in the UK is the infrastructure to develop our poets, irrespective of what mode they’re working in, especially if you consider the options available to writers in the US. Things are limited for everyone, and with the current pandemic it’s going to get even hard. So taking our work online might be the only solution.
Print / performance – are those false distinctions?
They are distinctions but it’s somewhat reductive to argue, as some do, that one supersedes the other. They both require a certain skill, a way of calibrating language, and both are designed to work in different ways. I’ve watched some very celebrated poets read their work ineffectually, then heard a pretty average poem read astonishingly. There really isn’t one way to think about this stuff. We’re obsessed with polarisations and false binaries which we assume relate to a poem’s form, but with these taxonomies we end up jettisoning so much because some work simply can’t be pinned to just one thing, it’s working across several modes. I feel the Americans, partly due to the array of their literary traditions and their own history with empire which of course is instrumental in how arts and culture is shaped, are far more accommodating when it comes to fusing and appreciating differing styles of poetry.
Turning to your own work, I’ve always been compelled by how you put “current affairs” into the service of poetry – not just as a resource with which to write, but as source material from which to reveal injustice and inequity, and conversely humanity and hope; in a way, to use poetry to redress. What role do you think poetry – printed and performed and both – has to play in resistance?
I’m not big on thinking everyone needs explicitly to make political writing, or suggest all art needs to engage with its subjects in an overtly radical way. Again, there are variables. Personally, I come from a world which was and still is politicised – my parents were both born in a country subject to British rule. My identity as a Cypriot – someone who isn’t quite Greek or Turkish, or white or black – floats into a perplexing and complex grey area when thinking about the island’s peopling, its ethnic composition, and its culture. My latest book After the Formalities explores some of those ambiguities and poses questions around the ways we perceive each other. I read a lot of history books and other non-fiction titles which find their way into my poetry. I’m cautious not to make it look too contrived or predictable, so I’m selective when dispensing those references. Ultimately, I write to express myself, but I’m also part of a much larger discussion around empire, race, migration and intergenerational trauma.
How central is Cyprus to your poetry?
It’s an area which causes me a lot of anxiety, mainly because it makes little sense. To be Cypriot: does that mean we are Greek or Turkish or Maronite or Armenian? Or are we just Cypriot if we consider how long ago those people arrived on the island? The republic itself is divided. The south an EU member since 2004; the north only recognised by Turkey. The number of colonial powers who annexed the island for its geographical location over millennia, either as a protectorate state or part of a larger expansionist project, has resulted in what anthropologists call a Greco-Turkic culture – one of hybridity. Our Cypriot Greek or Cypriot Turkish dialect, along with foods and customs, differ somewhat to those of Greece and Turkey, which is why many identify as Cypriots firstly, to honour that specific lineage and history. We can present as Middle Eastern, North African, European and Asian. We’re a tiny group of people – 1 million in Cyprus and around 250,000 in the UK – who involuntarily often get absorbed into the hegemonies of either Greece or Turkey – two NATO states with their own long and complicated grievances. My poetry is really working around those blurred lines, the flaws in logic when it comes to race science and thinking. I use Cyprus as the case study as it can’t be clearly delineated or categorised regardless of geopolitics. The current Cypriot government supports Israel as well as the British army bases who send munitions over to Saudi Arabia. These supplies are essential to the Saudi bombing of Yemen. My relationship to the island of strife, as one British journalist put it in the 1950s, is fraught, but I do think it makes an interesting point of enquiry when considering the nuances around empire, race, culture and the subsequent intersections.
Could you speak a bit about your experiences of social media and poetry? What about social media is good for poetry? And what about it is bad?
If we consider the ways social media has democratised poetry, while also giving poets, publishers and editors agency to connect directly with their readerships, it truly is a remarkable feat. I tend to use social media more as a resource than anything else. In the past, I’ve felt it become quite performative and toxic, so it’s important for me to mediate it sensibly. Poets may share poems which I’ll really like, prompting me to go purchase the book. For that it’s brilliant. But then, like anything, it has its drawbacks too. It does allow us to be more selective with who we engage with, who we want in our space, and whose work we’re interested in learning more about. In a standard bookshop you don’t have that many options; it’s all the titles you’d expect to be there. But online there’s far more range.
I went to New York in February 2019 and was shocked at how many bookshops had sections specifically for pamphlets – something I’ve been thinking a lot about since. The pamphlet or chapbook in the UK has never been a product larger bookshops have wanted to stock. Mainly because of how hard they are to sell, and because many don’t have spines meaning displaying them on shelves is an issue. Social media has meant more independent publishers are now able to sell directly from their websites and other social media channels, opening up opportunities for emerging poets, or anyone who has ten to fifteen poems they want to put out. The pamphlet is a low-cost and efficient way of introducing poets to readers. I’m hoping we start to see more both online and in bookshops.
Anthony Anaxagorou is a British-born Cypriot poet, fiction writer, essayist, publisher and poetry educator. His poetry has been published in POETRY, The Poetry Review, Poetry London, New Statesman, Granta, and elsewhere. His work has also appeared on BBC Newsnight, BBC Radio 4, ITV, Vice UK, Channel 4 and Sky Arts. His second collection After the Formalities published with Penned in the Margins is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was shortlisted for the 2019 T.S Eliot Prize.It was also a Telegraph and Guardian poetry book of the year. He was awarded the 2019 H-100 Award for writing and publishing, and the 2015 Groucho Maverick Award for his poetry and fiction. In 2019 he was made an honorary fellow of the University of Roehampton. Anthony is artistic director of Out-Spoken, a monthly poetry and music night held at London’s Southbank Centre, and publisher of Out-Spoken Press.
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.