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UEA Live: Raymond Antrobus and Joe Dunthorne on the persistence of poetry

On Wednesday, Lewis Buxton (poet and producer) was joined by Raymond Antrobus and Joe Dunthorne to discuss poetry, positivity through the pandemic, and the value of community. The three kept up a friendly rapport, and the talk felt much more like a catch-up between friends than a formal discussion. The session alternated between question-fuelled discussion and poetry read aloud by both men.

Raymond Antrobus, a British-Jamaican poet from London, is UEA’s UNESCO Poetry Fellow for 2020. As a deaf poet, he is particularly interested in sound, favouring spoken word poems. His debut collection ‘The Perseverance’ (2018) garnered critical acclaim, and has a second collection (‘Between the Woods’) and a children’s book (‘Can Bears Ski?’) on the way. “And you’ve got an excellent hat on,” Buxton added, which saw the men dissolving into laughter within the first five minutes. 

Joe Dunthorne studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, graduating in 2004 and completing a Masters in 2005. His first novel, ‘Submarine’ (2008) was adapted into a film by Richard Ayoade, and he has published two novels and two collections of poetry since. When asked how he was doing, Dunthorne said that he had achieved more than six hours of sleep, so he was feeling pretty good.

Through each reading, the heartfelt power of Antrobus’s poetry, combined with the profound humour and wit of Dunthorne’s work, often left Buxton speechless, and there was a real sense of community harbored through these recurrent readings. “This is called poem envy,” joked Antrobus, after Dunthorne read out ‘Due to a series of ill judgements on my part’, a poem about his son. The aftermath of every reading brimmed with positivity; it was impossible to miss the love that each poet had for the artform as they enthused over certain lines and features. 

The discussion bounced between topics, from the nature of epigraphs to the merits of poetic form. The poets bonded over mutual difficulties for the sestina form (a sestina, as Buxton struggled to describe, is a seven stanza poem where six words repeat in each stanza in an alternating order), and the classist ideas that poets who cannot write in a certain style are inferior. 

The nature of winning prizes also came up; Dunthorne’s ‘Due to a series of ill judgements on my part’ was highly commended in competition, and when asked whether that changed how he viewed it, he said, with a laugh, “I guess I like it more.” Both poets emphasised that they aren’t the types to write poems to win prizes. In fact, sometimes what they think is brilliant won’t go down well with an audience, or vice versa. There was a particular emphasis on remaining positive when reading to a blank-faced audience; poetry is an inherently verbal medium, but the difficulty with that is the way an audience member reacts can completely alter the way a piece is viewed by the poet. 

When the topic circled around to UEA, the two only had positive words for the university. Dunthorne fondly recalled memories of workshops run by Bernadine Evaristo as a first year Creative Writing student, and labelled his Undergraduate and Master’s degrees “transformative” for his experiences as a writer. Antrobus similarly labelled his position as Poetry Fellow as “an honour”, making sure to mention “how many brilliant poets and writers have come out of UEA”.

The future of poetry is in good hands. Antrobus praised the “whole canon of poets just coming through” that he has witnessed, especially through his work with UEA. Despite the threat of this year’s global pandemic, and despite the lack of opportunities to showcase this inherently social medium, poets have been flourishing. 

“Poetry as an artform is in the best health I’ve ever seen it,” Antrobus said. Dunthorne also surmised it beautifully: “part of [poetry’s] quality is that basically all the people in the scene are in it for love”.

06/11/2020

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Ally Fowler