25 November 2021

Anthony Anaxagorou: ‘Write poems that surprise and behave in unusual ways’

by Katie Smart Author Interviews, Writing Tips

We’re so excited that our brand-new six-week online course – Writing Poetry  is open for enrolment. The course is led by the brilliant Anthony Anaxagorou. Anthony is an award-winning poet and spoken-word performer. His poetry has been published in POETRYThe Poetry ReviewPoetry LondonNew StatesmanGranta, and elsewhere. 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. In 2020 he published How To Write It with Merky Books.

We caught up with Anthony to talk all about poetry, spoken word and the brand-new course…

What first sparked your interest in poetry?

I first took in an interest in the way language works through songs and music. I couldn’t speak English until the age of six but navigating two languages drew me into thinking more deeply about the way communication works. At around fourteen I started to try and write song lyrics and rap verses. Nothing was very good, but I like to think of it as a time when I was having an emotional and intellectual response to words which is to say, I was being exposed to poetry and taking an interest in what words could do when distorted.  

You started out gaining recognition in poetry for your slam performances and now you run Out-Spoken, one of the leading live spoken word events in London. How important is the performance aspect of poetry? And how do you view the distinction between page poetry and spoken word?

I feel I can say now (without hubris) that I perhaps know both those modes of poetry quite intimately. Spoken word, for me, was about aligning the poem to the rhythms of my body, voice and politics. I noticed that when I was writing spoken word poems, I was very much building them around the way I would communicate language. My agenda or message was the priority poetry was just the vehicle I’d use to deliver it. There were occasions where I would look at a poem I wrote on a page and feel it lacked something, but when I stood on stage and added my body, my voice and presence to it the whole thing seemed to come alive. That didn’t mean audience members weren’t able to get something from it or didn’t ask to buy a copy of the book it was from I personally just felt I had more control over the poem and how I wanted people to experience it.

With page poetry there’s a relinquishing of authority that comes from the strangeness and subtlety it affords. A kind of plurality or an openness to what readers want or expect. The best way I think about it now is that much of the spoken word I wrote was predicated around knowing what I wanted to say, whereas the page poetry I’ve published since seems to be leaning into questions or phenomena I have no answer for and I’m comfortable in that grey space. For me, the only major distinctions are how both modes use space. One builds the thought and theatre of poetry around a stage the body and acoustics while the other situates itself around sound, space, compression and argument around a white space.  

Do you have any tips for new poets nervous to perform live for the first time?

I don’t think I’ve ever met any writer who naturally takes to performance. My first few months of standing up in front of strangers to read things was terrifying. Forgive the truism but I found the more I did it the more I worked out what to say, and how to be comfortable in the silence. And to ultimately enjoy it. If you’re having a good time, chances are the audience are too.

Your collection After the Formalities is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was shortlisted for the 2019 T.S. Eliot Prize. The collection plays with traditional forms whilst delving into themes of masculinity, racism, and family. Your personal experience of being a British-born Cypriot informs many of the poems. Did you know what you wanted to explore when you started composing the collection?

That book (and its follow-up, Heritage Aesthetics) started out with a series of questions more than anything else – what did it mean to be a diasporic Cypriot, a father, a British citizen in the time of Brexit? etc. How had the 1974 war with Turkey and the residue of British colonialism shaped mine and my family’s identities to both their original cultural and that of Britain’s? My son was still a year old when I started writing After the Formalities and I had a heap of things I was anxious about – my ability to be a good and supportive father, my relationship to my own father and how class and violence played into that.

Those were really my preoccupations where I was at then, alongside thinking about the ways these subjects overlapped to exacerbate or conflict with one another. I wanted to trouble the ideas because I think that’s one way of pushing thought into new ground. To guide the poems into places where nothing is set and to try to pass on some of the worry and puzzlement I felt to the reader.

What’s your writing process like when you’re working on a collection?

I tend to think now that as we age, so too does our relationship to the world which means certain subjects become more complicated, or you grow to understand the importance of nuance and care. As a result, the poems I write now tend to reflect that so I take much longer building a poem than I might have done, say, a decade ago. Like most writers, when I’m working on a collection, a project which usually lasts three to four years, I need to feel an association with the subjects first. This usually finds expression through an ongoing spiritual/intellectual discomfort, a restlessness or tension I’m forced to reckon with. I write intensely over a year or two, mixing up editing previous poems with generating new ones. Not everything I write makes it to the end of the line. Some things I abort or lose interest in, others I just scrap for parts.

I have a notebook where most of my poems start their life. Throughout the weeks and months, I’ll be jotting down a line or phrase I think may contain the kernel of something bigger. Sometimes I write down lines from poems or novels or essays if I’ve had a response to them. It’s basically anything that energises me. Then I’ll follow words down to see where they take me. The overall process of writing poetry, which differs from piece to piece, is one where I feel totally and utterly alive in both my mind and body. There’s nothing I do, or have done, that offers quite the same sensation.

You founded Out-Spoken Press in 2015 with the aim to provide a platform for poets who are under-represented in mainstream publishing. What inspired you to launch the press, and what do you look for as an editor?

The press is interesting because I never really intended to start up a publishing house. I was self-publishing my own work for a number of years until it struck me that I had the basics to set up a press of my own (aside from distribution and funding, which came later). I was around poets who I thought were making new, ground-breaking work in a way that just didn’t seem to exist anywhere in the UK back then. These were queer writers, non-white, and working-class poets who I met through spoken word and who were now thinking about page poetry more seriously.

I started by putting my own money into the production costs, then offering the poets a royalty rate once I broke even, selling books via our website and through Amazon. The idea was to publish three books a year, which seemed manageable. But by 2017 Out-Spoken Live had grown to such a considerable size to the point where eight of us had become involved – that the project shifted to being fully funded by Arts Council England. I thought it would be a good time to expand the press too, so I teamed up with Patricia Ferguson, who still does an amazing job working as publishing coordinator, to get some proper funding to increase our output and further our resources. For the last two years guest editors Joelle Taylor (2020 – 2021) and Wayne Holloway-Smith (2022 – 2023) have taken over to commission several new books from poets who excite them. In this way I think the press stays current and fully reflective of the demographic it writes and produces for.  

What poem or collection do you always recommend to others?

I think about two books quite often. The first is Terrance Hayes’ Wind in a Box a work that’s amazingly ahead of its time. Persona poems, pop culture references, history, wild new forms… The book has literally everything I want from a collection. The second is Lisa Olstein’s Late Empire, which is a more recent book. She’s very much a poet who uses philosophy, thought and lyricism to get to the heart of her subjects. There’s a resistance in the book that I love, something that doesn’t make it easy for the reader but at the same time fuses so many different sounds and modes that you never feel you get the same poem twice. There’s also a sequence of prose poems that I think might be some of the best I’ve ever read.

We’re so excited to have you on board as the teacher of our brand-new Writing Poetry course. What was your favourite part of creating the course?

I generally just enjoy being given the chance to talk about poetry, or to have to find different ways to explain ideas as and when I land on them. I might be reading a poem and suddenly notice something that I try to translate into prose so it would work as an instruction or explanation. For me that’s why I teach. Writing courses like this increases the chances of learning something new about poetry, which works to enhance my own practice but if I had to whittle it down, I would say I probably enjoy the nerdy stuff; technique, metaphor, language association and so on. How poets manage to pull in such disparate ideas and material, yet somehow make a whole world appear.

You are also the judge for our New Beginnings Poetry Competition. Do you have any advice for the poets getting ready to submit to competitions and journals?

Write poems that surprise and behave in unusual ways. Try not to do the same thing repeatedly you risk becoming predictable and boring if you do. Personally, I’m drawn to poems that use interesting syntax, which play and roll around the floor, but at the heart have a complex question they’re working around. I like poems that make me slow down, which fuse different disciplines and pull ingredients in from all over the house.

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