“I want these poems to help people to practise empathy”
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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’).
The poems in this collection offer sharp and insightful meditations on the black experience. Written with an intense sense of purpose, these poems are unapologetically political, philosophical and uncomfortable. What’s especially satisfying about listening to all four in this collection is experiencing the tapestry as a whole, one which examines protest from many different angles. The marches described in ‘History’ and ‘The Crowd’, the private acts of defiance described in ‘Benin Security Guard at the V&A’, and the attempt made by the character in ‘Interview’ to simply succeed in a world that doesn’t wish him to, all forms of protest which Robinson cleverly uses to explore what is means to be black in 2021.
‘History’ plays with the relationship between political oppression and emotional repression, as Robinson ruminates over the ‘constant forgetting’ associated with the black experience. Like so many of his poems, this is an exploration of a significant moment in black history. With wise insight, which can be especially heard in his recording, Robinson speaks here to the juddering stop-start nature of socio-political progress. Before we can get carried away by his expression of the emotional empowerment that was felt when the Black Lives Matter movement thundered through the world, Robinson swiftly reminds us of the great toil that ‘remembering’ can take. ‘We screamed, we cried, we knew, we ran into streets with our placards shouting, as our grandparents looked on from their bedroom windows wondering if the knowing was any better.’
The BLM movement features again in ‘The Crowd’ - a piece in which Robinson brings black civil rights marches through the ages together into one picture. ‘They streamed from tributary side streets into a river of protests, some in black and white, some in technicolor, others in high definition.’ Robinson again demonstrates his capacity for complexity in this poem. The image he conjures here is full of both hope and fear, joy and despair, determination and resignation. Indeed, the different generations described in ‘History’ may themselves take away very different readings from this poem. It provides space to feel empowered by this symbol of endurance, and also exhausted by it.
In ‘Interview’, Robinson further provokes our thoughts, demanding that we confront the ugliness of racism. Injecting an uncomfortable dose of urgency and desperation into this narrative piece, Robinson delivers a neat demonstration of the black struggle against the tide of discrimination. As we, wincing, watch the young black man, who just wants to give his interviewer ‘the impression that he’d be pleasant to work with’, be met with violent apprehension from the very establishment he hopes to work for, Robinson cleverly puts the reader in the position of the passive bystander. He invites his readers to examine their own role in this injustice, while demonstrating with absolute clarity how when the rules are changed for each player, we can’t claim to be playing the same game.
‘Benin Security Guard at the V&A’ is a stand out poem in this collection, in that it invites us into a much more intimate scene, where the titular Benin security guard performs his nightly ritual of ‘pulling strands of ancient African culture into a moment’ by dressing up in the Benin artifacts. Robinson shows us here that not all protest is public or violent - some can be private, almost sacred. Robinson beautifully builds this sense of secrecy and reverence with opening lines reminiscent of Clement Clarke Moore’s ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ - to the point where readers and listeners feel lucky to be able to share this moment with the guard. It is a sweet and melancholy piece, and a wonderfully contemplative way to round off this powerful and necessary collection.
We are extremely grateful to Roger for providing the Poetry Archive with these recordings he madde for us in his home during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021.
Poems by Roger Robinson
The Missing, for BBC 100: T.S. Eliot Prize Winning Reading - Roger Robinson
Books by Roger Robinson
TS Eliot Prize
RSL Ondaatje Prize
Derek Walcott Poetry Prize
The OCM Bocas Poetry Prize
The Oxford Brookes Poetry Prize