“Poetry Does Nothing.” In conversation with Anthony Anaxagorou

by Gaia Lamperti

 
"The world is not straight. The world is not readable. The world is not logical."
Image credit: Julian Knxx

Anthony Anaxagorou thinks of poetry in a playful way. “When I have a line, I don't know what the line means,” he says, “and my excitement comes from having that line on a piece of paper, and interrogating what it could mean. That's very much how I like to work.”


His ‘playful’ lines have been widely acclaimed, leading him to publish four books over seven years – with an upcoming one in 2023 – and his work appearing on major outlets like the BBC, Sky, Vice UK, The Poetry Review and Radio 4.


Influenced by Eastern thought, but “not a hippie” as he remarks, and inspired by great poets like Antonio Gramsci and Miguel Hernandez, with his poetry, Anthony explores the British empire’s legacy on the history of migration, discriminations within society and the abyss of the ego.

 

Your latest collection of poetry is entitled After the formalities. Tell us about these formalities and the way they shape, or harm, society.


I look at formalities as being this kind of modus operandi, the dominant paradigm, how things are supposedly done. And talking back to those things, subverting and challenging them is what I was really interested in. I did it through a fusion of academic theory and anecdotes, sequences of lived experiences that take place within somebody's life.


The poem called 'After the formalities' in particular, looks at the history of race as a construct, at the ways in which racial thinking has impacted people's lived experience. So, my intention with the poem was to show these formalities, which are essentially the way race is thought about and the way that evolved over the last 700 years.


While tracking that progression, I used each formality as a point of departure to explore my family's history of migration and otherness coming from Cyprus as people who were part of the British Empire, and then how they integrated and assimilated to life in the UK.



This poem was written before Covid. How do you approach the same issue in the aftermath of the pandemic? Did Covid expose even more inequalities or rather, fuelled change on many levels?


I think the pandemic has opened up people's awareness, a global consciousness to the way that we live is just not sustainable. I think people are very acutely aware that we are not impervious now.


It has shown human arrogance, there's an arrogance to human beings thinking that they are above, that they have got the technology, they have got the billionaires, the banks, the corporations but still, the pandemic happened.


And many, many people have died across the globe, because of the pandemic. I guess now many people are aware that we are not as kind of bulletproof as we think we are.


You called this a moment of "global consciousness". Was it the same for you as an artist? Or did you experience a creativity block during these times?


Personally, I don't have any inhibitors, I think that when I hit a situation, I just have found a different way of thinking about it. And that might take some time, but I don't register that in my head as me having a block because of an external factor, such as a pandemic, or a lockdown. I mean, many of my favourite poems are written by men in prison by political prisoners, I'm thinking about Antonio Gramsci, Miguel Hernandez, Angela Davis. So yeah, you just have to think of a different way around it.


Image credit: Dave Shrimpton

You chose words for your life, your profession, your way of expressing messages. But we are in a time where images predominate and catch the most attention. So, how can words still be heavy, stand out and deliver strong messages?


I think that it's important to distinguish between two different kinds of language-based art. Like theatre and music have other mediums on top. In theatre, you have a stage and actors, in music you have sound and notation. I think that poetry is the purest form of linguistic arts because it is just involving words. But those words are very intensified, they are very heavily concentrated and the language is doing more than what it would do, typically. And I think that because of that, it creates more possibilities. People go to poetry wanting to be stimulated, wanting to figure something out within themselves. I think the stranger the poetry, the more difficult or tricky poems are, the more you give agency to the reader, and you say to them, "This is for you, you figure it out." So it's not pretentious, because you are removing the ego.

"I was heartbroken, I was in a different country, I was completely isolated from my friends and family"

In your previous collection, Heterogeneous, the theme of solitude has a big part. What's the value you give to solitude? Is being alone sometimes needed to listen to our fears, reflect and progress?


I think there's a difference between solitary days and being alone. For me, solitude is very wanted. I like being in my head, thinking, wandering. There's a calmness and also a sense of control and agency, to the fact that when you are on your own, you're not accountable to anyone. But being alone is a deficit, it means something is missing and that creates that feeling of loneliness. And when I wrote parts of that book I was actually alone. I was heartbroken, I was in a different country, I was completely isolated from my friends and family. And yeah, that was different from my solitary days.


Image credit: Julian Knxx

And do you believe that loneliness, which forces us to pause, listen to our fears and reflect – just like we happened to do at a societal level – can spark a change? Are loneliness, frustration and exclusion the push to coming together and creating mass movements?


Well, I don't think of change as an A to B kind of situation, that’s a very reductive and a slightly miscalculated way of thinking about how social reform works. I think that it's an ongoing process that involves a lot of people, a philosophical framework and an intellectual framework. It's very complicated, especially because we live in a country in, the UK, that's very heavily divided. And the people that live in the cities are very much out of touch with how the towns in this country work, which is the majority of the country, really. They are very conservative, very white and very much obsessed with maintaining things as they are. So I think we shouldn't look at change as a reactionary binary, if I do this, then this is going to happen. We need to see it as something that we devote our lives to, but also something that we can live our lives from and through. If you're interested in Black Lives Matter or equal pay for women, what are you doing, aside from tweeting and posting pictures on your Instagram? What are you doing about it? And that's the bigger question. And a lot of people that's what they struggle with.


Is this the precipice? Have we fallen off yet?


I don't know if it's a precipice. I think that you have ups and downs like nooks and crannies hills. But I think that on the positive side. I'm very much passionate and sensitive to race relations around the world, particularly from a perspective of empire and white supremacy.


What we're seeing now, is a global push against the status quo, against the way things are done, against the white, straight, heterosexual man, against how these people preserve power. And we're seeing black people, white people, brown people, mixed people, everyone is coming together.


So, that for me is the silver lining, but then again, at whose expense? Like when we say that women are disproportionately raped and abused by men and most of those men are their partners. And so we make documentaries, we give lectures and write books, but meanwhile, women are still being raped, hurt and violated. At whose expense? What I'm saying is that sometimes you need immediate action.


Image credit: Julian Knxx

And how does contemporary poetry tackle that?


Well, I think poetry does nothing. I don't believe it has the power to change things at a political level. And I don't think that's its job. How I think about poetry is like a paramedic. The job of the paramedic is to keep people alive and get them into the hospital. Poets are paramedics in a way that they see something and they respond to it. And everything else comes later. People want to feel and they go into poetry to be moved, to be compelled, to be confused because that's what the world is. The world is not straight. The world is not readable. The world is not logical.

 

Gaia's interview is part of our eighth issue, PRECIPICE. For more high-quality interviews, features and empowering artwork, you can purchase a copy here.