“I want these poems to help people to practise empathy”
About Roger Robinson
Roger Robinson is a fervent, generous poet. His most recent collection, A Portable Paradise, won both the 2019 T. S. Eliot Prize and the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize 2020 for a distinguished work evoking the spirit of a place – in this instance, post-Windrush Britain. His poetry has been featured in a number of prominent anthologies, including The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain and Bloodaxes’ Out of Bounds: British Black and Asian Poets. He is an alumni of The Complete Works, a national mentorship programme founded by Bernadine Evaristo MBE, and Robinson’s own work as an educator is now core to his practice: his workshops have been recognised by various organisations, including the Gulbenkian Museum Prize, and he is a co-founder of both Spoke-Lab and the international writing collective Malika’s Kitchen.
Robinson’s approach evinces a desire to reach others in tangible, lasting ways, as demonstrated in his poems’ narrative qualities. One of his most widely read pieces, ‘The Missing’ is an elegy for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire which evokes both the shock and horror of the event as well as forming a comment on its subsequent effects: ‘Ten streets away,/a husband tries to hold onto the feet/of his floating wife. At times her force/lifts him slightly off the ground, his grip slipping.’ ‘On Nurses’, a speculative prose poem, alludes to the traditional hero figure, attributing such status not to a warrior, as in Ancient Greece, but to someone who saves lives rather than puts them out: ‘their instincts can sometimes pull spirits back from the brink into their bodies’.
But Robinson’s comment, across the full length of A Portable Paradise, is a complex one. Indeed, the final line of ‘Nurses’ refers to the conditions under which nurses are forced to work: ‘pressing their uniforms for the next shift, washing their hands with a soap that makes their palms peel’. A later poem, ‘Citizen I’, acts as a kind of palinode to these earlier poems, which largely celebrate individual spirit and perseverance, offering a tract on recent history – ‘after slavery, colonialism, two world wars, teddy boys, skinheads, rivers of blood speech, neo-nazis, thatcher’ – and the insidious acts of those who are complicit – whether directly or indirectly – in white manipulation and black oppression: ‘As soon as the labour’s/done we could hear as we turned our backs:/Darkie! Sambo! You must think we’re dumb./Are we dumb? From the slaveships to world wars,/to the underground and the hospitals, it’s always/been about the labour, never about the living.’
Throughout this selection of recordings, Robinson’s ethereal imagery, which gives the reader the impression of having one foot in this life and one in another realm, is frequently borne out in his engagement with form. ‘Day Moon’, a sonnet, uses this traditional set form to bend the often-deafening whiteness of the contemporary British nature poem, and many of these pieces comply with the parameters of the Japanese haibun, as short descriptions of a place, person or object, or else an account of the speaker’s journey. Ultimately, the poems in A Portable Paradise – whether read or listened to – are incantatory, and, like prayers, they generate hope, ‘the fresh hope of morning’ (‘A Portable Paradise’).
We are extremely grateful to Roger for providing the Poetry Archive with these recordings during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Poems by Roger Robinson
Featured in the Archive
Books by Roger Robinson
TS Eliot Prize
RSL Ondaatje Prize
Derek Walcott Poetry Prize
The OCM Bocas Poetry Prize
The Oxford Brookes Poetry Prize