He’s one of the founding father’s of London’s spoken word scene, was the first young poet to win the London Mayor’s Poetry Slam with his poem “Anthropos” in 2002 and, in 2015, he won the Groucho Maverick Award. Introducing Anthony Anaxagorou.
Writing is a very inward, very solitary process. You live in your imagination for 10-15 hours a day, seeing the characters revealing themselves by the second, bursting out of the shadows and before you know it you can’t hurt them, you can’t kill them, you can’t touch them like that because they’re that real in your head…
As Anthony tells me about his new collection, The Blink That Killed The Eye and other stories, the red wine in his hand swills around the edge of the glass. We’re at the Hoxton Hotel in Shoreditch and despite the buzz of after-work drinkers around us, our own conversation is a sombre affair. We discuss politics, the role of the modern poet and the sadness (Anthony specifically states that he doesn’t know what ‘depression’ means) that comes with writing from such a harrowing, truthful place.
Having spent 10-15 hours a day in his imagination for the past year, along with teaching and performing, Anthony’s collection of stories is finally ready and it’s been a long road.
When you’re actually writing, it’s just you and this very loud noise of an emotion. You have to try and find the language that can wrap itself around the noise to try and assuage it, to try and pacify it until you eventually become one with it .
Working from such a deep, emotional place for so much of the time is incredibly exhausting, so it’s understandable when he tells me the frustration he has by how little his work has been critically reviewed… officially. Anthony’s work is the kind that has people coming up to him, time after time after a show with battered copies of his work, highlighted in specific places saying “when I was down this is where I went, every night I was here”.
Anthony has often been labelled as a political poet or an activist (and even a racist by some who view his poem, What If I Told You as misinformed). I asked him what these labels meant to him. “With any form of art there is always a very strong parallel with society,” he explains, “it’s impossible, in my opinion, to make art living in such a multicultural, rigid, racist, sexist society without having elements of these embedded in your art somewhere at some point.
I wouldn’t say I’m a political poet, I don’t necessarily know what that means.
It is the truthfulness in his art that draws so many to Anthony’s work. “I try to approach love and heartbreak with all the same compassion and the same awareness and sensitivity as I would racism or genocide” he tells me. And he does, his poem Remembering Jessica, a heartbreaking personal story of one girl, is likely to hit you just as hard as listening to This is not a Poem, which deals with a number of political, social and economic issues of the modern world.
“I guess it’s a sign of the times that love poetry doesn’t have the same gravitas as more politically wired stuff,” he notes. If Anthony is right and writing and poetry are a reflection of the times, The Blink That Killed The Eye and other stories sounds like a particularly bleak look at modern society.
“It’s very unglamorous, unromantic collection,” he explains, “the settings are simple, everyday. A CCTV room or a street somewhere and while the language is very poetic, the stories are dark”. What makes the release of this collection particularly compelling for me is Anthony stating that some of the stories need him to go “back into places that I’ve been and when you do that, it can take you a long time to leave again.”
My aim is never to impose my opinion on others, it’s always been to try and inspire thought that enables people to look at things with a lot more scrutiny, rather than just buying into something as truth.
I asked Anthony about the role of the poet alongside the media and whether he agreed that they were becoming an alternative voice for the public. “We live in a society based around heroism,” says Anthony, “so it’s not necessarily what you’re saying but who you are when you say it. People like Russell Brand have become social commentators, political analysists. Brand has gone from a comedian to a social commentator and people are commending him for it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but people in that field have been saying exactly the same thing for years. He uses a specific dialect and always comes back to the fact that he’s on a journey and that he’s just starting to understand this stuff, which makes people feel like they can relate to him because they feel that he’s not an intellectual in the sense that he hasn’t been trained to think this stuff.”
This is what I like about this poet. While everyone else seems to be sharing and liking and commenting on the latest trend, like an investigative journalist, he sits back and questions it, questions everything, until he comes to a conclusion he thinks is closest to the truth.
Modern society has a fundamental mistrust of the mainstream media.
We move on to talking about Anthony’s experience of teaching, a subject close to his heart given that he didn’t have a good experience in his own school days. “When I was young I had a very bad experience in school especially with English. I was told that I wasn’t very good at it and I was overly imaginative and so I couldn’t actually focus on the task. They would give me an instruction and I would go off on tangents, they would say his imagination superceded what he was given and that actually played to my detriment.”
I got scared of my imagination and what it could do and the places I could take it so I had a very bad relationship with poetry in school.
“What I try and do now is give these kids the ability to express and use language to articulate and define their own cultural experiences after they’ve left school at the end of the day.”
And for Anthony, it’s not just about inspiring young people to write, it’s about asking them to question and rethink the education system they are in. “Schools don’t want to create poets and writers, they want to create critics, so they give you poets to analyse and say “What was Wordsworth doing in this poem?”. F*** what they’re doing, they’re already established, what are you doing? And when you give them that freedom they don’t know what to do with it. That’s the problem with freedom, we don’t know what to do with it.”
Even if one person reads my work and says “that got me”, I’ll be glad because I know where you’re coming from and I know what it’s like to have to go through and find that salvation in something.
As you might expect from someone who works in creativity, Anthony spends a lot of time experiencing other people’s art as well as creating his own. I asked him what poetry means to him as a reader. “Anything that you make, you see, you hear, your brain has to respond to it in a way that feels appropriate for it. Everyone has a cathartic method, a response, some are just more productive than others When I do get down and I get down often, I go into myself and try to analyse this… I don’t call it depression I don’t know what depression is, this sadness. It’s very vacuous and it’s very inward and stifling and gripping, it chokes you but it’s familiar. When I get upset and I put on a song, or read a poem or have a conversation, it hits me and everything cries but everything is rejuvenated at the same time. It’s the comfort in having someone echo what you’re thinking.”
How I can tell people don’t think of women like this, don’t think of black people like this and Muslims like that and don’t trust your government. How do I do this without being preachy? These are the challenges of our society
We spoke about the recent trend of men being feminists, or the idea that in order to achieve progress with feminism, men must be on board. I asked Anthony if he considers himself a feminist. Silly question.
“I don’t like labels” he tells me, flat out. “Feminism’, ‘anti-racist’, ‘activist’ – these are all manufactured pop terms that are being debated all the time. Feminists are fighting over what a feminist is. If my logical brain can see that there is an injustice, an inequality within the syntax of society, then it is my right and my duty to turn around and say that isn’t right. Now does that make me an anti-racist that you’re a feminist? No.” That’s that settled then.
Invisibility is the theme of Anthony’s latest collection (remember that CCTV room setting we told you about…?). I asked him what it means to be visible, to be invisible.
“Right now, the most romantic idea we are buying into is invisibility. You see it in all the fashion magazines, these romantic images of models looking distant and far away. Are you serious? You’ve got 50 cameras on you and you’ve creating this illusion that you’re actually distant and vacuous and yet everyone wants to be noticed and seen and heard and regarded highly of. You’re here, you’re very here.”
Anthony’s collection of poetry is available on Amazon and Waterstones and the book launch will be taking place on October 27th in Hoxton, London If you’d like to get more involved in spoken-word, head to Chill Pill for one of the best nights.