An interview with Anthony Anaxagorou
Posted on: 11 December 2020 by Lewis Johnson in British Poetry and Class
Anthony Anaxagorou speaks to Lewis Johnson
Could you start off by saying how you entered into poetry, and if there were any issues surrounding access?
I started writing when I was around twelve. A few years in my mother entered me into what was then called the Respect Slam, founded by Joelle Taylor, which ran in conjunction with the Poetry Society. I was seventeen. The brief being to write a poem around the theme of Respect. I wrote a piece called Anthropos which went on to win the competition. That was really the first time in my life I’d felt a genuine sense of achievement. It also gave me a flavour for how you can make art and have it appreciated. I was involved for about a year until the promoter of a night said something quite disparaging, putting me off writing and performing for close to decade. From eighteen to twenty-seven I disappeared. I completed a degree in Commercial Music which took me nowhere. I went on to work as a delivery driver, caretaker, security guard and around several construction sites labouring until I was twenty-eight. After losing my job with a mobile content provider I was forced to reckon with what I wanted to do with life, which eventually led me back to writing and poetry. That was early 2009.
You launched Out-Spoken in 2012, which has been really successful - especially as a platform for marginal voices. Was there a particular moment that inspired you to self-publish your own work, and then others?
During those early years I felt like a pariah. I didn’t have any formal or academic grounding nor were my credentials particularly impressive. I was interested in auto-didacticism, partly because it seemed romantic and radical and estranged, but also I felt a sense of empowerment from being able to select what I was curious about and mapping out my own inquiry into those subjects. I needed to find a way of developing my writing, of enhancing my reading practice and relationship to books. After a year or so of writing I considered self-publishing the bits I’d been working on during the time I was unemployed. The poems were, to an extent, pedestrian; I knew little about the craft but at that point the very act of committing ideas to paper was enough for me.
Out-Spoken started in 2012. The grand vision was always to provide poets with the infrastructure I felt was missing during the formative years of my writing life. To have access to opportunities without being at the whim of an institution, which is to a degree self-serving and structural as it puts its own agenda and interests before those of people. For me it was about having a democratic space where people could come to read and share work in front of a discerning and attentive audience. Equally, it was important to incorporate a masterclass program for those wanting to develop their writing under the tutelage of professional poets, and eventually offer a place to publish work. First I programmed friends, the poets I admired who were easily contactable. Myself and the Ruby Kid (Daniel Randall) were curating the nights, then — after six months of sold out shows — it became apparent we needed a team to help manage where this thing was going, and to help develop the function of Out-Spoken. The philosophy was not to exacerbate or fan the flames between page and stage, or even to position ourselves as cultural gatekeepers (although I guess inadvertently that’s what tends to happen), it was to recognize and platform remarkable writing in whatever mode it needed to be in. And in doing so, establishing a way to sustain a live and written art-form traditionally kept at the fringes.
You also recently ran a course with the poetry school on working-class poetics. How did that come about?
I had a meeting with the Poetry School and proposed the idea of looking at working-class poetics outside of the conventional setup — council estates, scaffolding, fish and chips and cans of beer. I’m interested in other ways class can be explored, interrogated and celebrated without having to rely so much on exhausted socio-symbolism. Tony Harrison, Wayne Holloway-Smith, Rachael Allen, Hannah Lowe, Jay Bernard, Raymond Antrobus, Sabrina Mahfouz, Andrew McMillan, Joelle Taylor, Roger Robinson and Nick Makoha all explore class in ways I find innovative and compelling. I think it’s empowering for working-class writers to feel a sense of autonomy, to not constantly feel they need to present as victims of a class struggle in every poem. The nuances are important and I wanted to develop upon discussions refuting a singular class poetic. The course was well received and filled up within a few weeks. The discussions around the poems were honest and generative.
I don’t know if everyone from the group identified as a working-class writer but then it didn’t matter. I often wonder how helpful all this essentialism is. For me, class and race are two of the most complex sociological phenomena I’ve been made to reckon with. For this reason so many of us have to simplify or reduce the complexities of our lived experience down in order to try and make sense of them, but that too is a form of erasure. Publishers like Broken Sleep, Bad Betty Press, Verve Poetry Press, Smokestack, and Burning Eye have been championing working-class poets for over a decade now. There’s huge variation in how we can think about class without the need to rely on false binaries, material signifiers or being made to feel that unless we exploit our shortcomings the middle class literary establishment won’t accept us, or take us seriously.
And then certain subject matters become expected of you.
Indeed. In After the Formalities I was conscious of how I wrote class. What symbols I could use without being trite or cliched or predictable. For me the idea has been to tuck my working-class sensibilities in, rather than have them hang out.
One of the poems from After the Formalities, ‘Separation Has Its Own Economy’, explores the idea of navigating society with heightened cultural capital without being able to actualise a middle-class lifestyle. Do you think there’s an issue here, particularly in the arts where precariousness and low wages dominate?
The issue, as I see it, is the way different art forms in the UK are monetised and valued culturally. We understand film and music to be two of the most lucrative genres but, in saying that, they also possess the widest disparity between the wealthiest musicians and the poorest. The same could be argued for drama. In poetry, it’s more of a level playing field financially - mainly because it’s not a profitable practice or industry. This might be down to how much people are willing to pay for a poem, or a collection, or a ticket to a live event. Many poets and writers need to maintain multiple revenue streams including teaching, working within academia, curating, consultancy and performance-based work. The problem we face as a community is structural, in that working-class people across the social spectrum are denied the opportunities those from more privileged backgrounds are afforded. And yes, it’s a truism to make those kinds of pronouncements, but it’s important to highlight that it’s not people who are incapable of achieving significant things in their lives, it’s the systems they are born into and the inequality they inherit.
In the collection’s title poem, you discuss your grandparents moving to England; they’re described as living with just a radio and a paraffin heater. I wondered if you wanted to touch on this intersection of financial hardship and migration?
For many people in the west, the idea of socio-economic and postcolonial hardship is divorced from the reason people tend to immigrate. We understand the grave and immediate danger of war along with ongoing conflicts, but countries recovering from decades of colonial rule are often faced with more nuanced difficulties that people outside fields such as academia, the arts and humanities, etc. might feel less inclined to grapple with. People in the UK, and I’m speaking generally here which of course has its own limitations, might well be aware of the more complex issues surrounding economies, fiscal debt, infrastructure, education and resources — but then harnessing empathy through a predominantly soundbite-dependant media becomes increasingly challenging. Language and terminology are vital — who qualifies as an immigrant or expat? What are these terms euphemisms for, and who exactly do they denote? After traveling around a good portion of the world, I’ve seen how a British education comes with international prestige. Which again dates back to the project of empire: one obsessed with installing a cultural hegemony which many of us, my family included, have internalised and accepted.
My parents saw themselves very much as the children of immigrants who found themselves at an inauspicious start. We were often reminded of the hardships they endured while made to feel guilty for how our lives were considerably more comfortable than theirs had ever been. But they also held onto this prevailing idea that working-class culture, in all its facets, was provincial and uncivilised. Now I see my father, more so than my mother, was part of the aspirational class common among immigrant groups. Conservative in their politics, suspicious of anyone outside their culture, but also desperate to be accepted by the opulence and urbanity of Middle England.
One set of grandparents were semi-literate. My grandmother (my dad’s mum) was actually the first woman to be accepted into one of Cyprus’ gymnasiums set up and governed by the British in the 1930s. They left Cyprus in the 50’s due to the rise of nationalism, ongoing poverty, and other issues. That’s really what the start of the poem is looking at — involuntarily migration; the reasons people migrate, but ultimately, the fear that drives them. The fear of living in the country of your birth and lineage, but also the anxieties of moving to where you can’t speak the language or understand the culture. There’s a lot of fear manifesting throughout After the Formalities which also gives way to danger and violence in other forms. My other grandmother (my mum’s mum and the person who raised me for the first 5 years of my life) ended up living in Britain for sixty-six years, but never felt obligated to learn English because her husband took care of all matters outside the home. She also had very little interaction with English people having worked solely in clothing factories as a seamstress for other Cypriots. When I asked her about assimilation, she said she felt intimidated and scared that English folk would judge her for being poor and foreign, and coming from a country plagued by war and bi-communal conflict.
This seems compounded by an instance of racial violence in the poem which takes place outside a KFC. Could you maybe discuss the heightened vulnerability of being a British-born Cypriot in a predominantly working-class space, which is often associated – if not dominated – by whiteness
I reached racial puberty at around eleven, having been made aware of my ‘otherness’, my Cypriotness along with my proximity to whiteness by school friends, teachers and the experiences I encountered on the streets with police and such. The issue was I had no real language to understand what it all meant, and where I sat within the white, black, brown nexus. We were Cypriot, many of us present as Middle Eastern, Asian or North African, but then some look European too. This was before Cyprus’ accession into the EU and before I really understood the taxonomies of social groups. Race, class, gender — these were all anathema. Nobody distilled real-life events through the lens of oppression. Now I see nobody really wanted to admit we were perhaps the products of something larger, more insidious and systemic. Whether it happened be it fighting, harassment or micro-aggressions, everything was trivialised to be part of growing up, or an unfortunate adjunct to being a foreigner.
My father would tell us we were ‘Greek’ — a shorthand used in diaspora to mean Cypriot, which again only added another layer of confusion. In Cyprus we say Κύπριος which means Cypriot, a Greek or Έλληνας is the noun given to someone from Greece. Not only that, but the two sovereign states have very different histories and ethnographies. Cyprus, a hybrid and heavily colonised island has subsequently produced what some scholars have dubbed Middle Eastern Hellenism or Turkism — its only unique blend of Greco-Turkic culture. The Greek prefix in the context my father used it in was to highlight whiteness, Europeanness, philosophy, erudition and all things seen as cerebral and esteemed in the west. The latter, the Cypriot, the part so many of the community wanted to ignore spoke of an island nobody had heard of making us identity as either Greek or Turkish for the sake of accommodating others. For those who did know Cyprus is/was an island burdened by contested myths, situated in the Near East and home to a long and bewildering two-thousand-year history wrought with multiple imperial conquests and foreign rule, which culminated in the civil war of 1974.
W. E. B. Du Bois termed it double consciousness, which relates to the African American experience but can work in concert for those living in diaspora. How you perform your prescribed identity and how you’re made to hold several immutable ideas about your racial group simultaneously, eventually becomes exhausting. For me, it was Britishness straddling the Cypriot - which is not the same as being Turkish, Maronite, Armenian or Greek. Social class was something rarely mentioned at home, or regarded as a significant status marker. Everyone was in the same position and my parents with their subtle preoccupations with social mobility and a middle-class aspirations, would never dream of thwarting our chances by claiming to be working-class, even though that’s exactly what we were. We also believed the working-class rubric was designed to demarcate and serve white English people only. We as immigrants who were born in England had no name for what we were.
Everyone around me, from family to friends, had little in the way of privilege so there was no need to compare or try redressing the imbalance. My real torment, and something I still wrestle with, is the ambiguous and multifarious construction of the Cypriot self. Past travel writers, anthropologists and historians have all noted a similar conundrum — who exactly are these people and how do we classify them? When your identity, which paradoxically is something so personal yet so commonly shared, is made to feel as if it needs to explain, justify or humanise itself, or fails to meet the preconceptions and racial criteria of others, how then does one navigate the world with a clear sense of who they are? When I sat with these questions the Cypriot identity as I saw it was unable to be properly accommodated by the available options. A social group situated between Europe, the Levant and North Africa, with a physiognomy as I mentioned that presents as white, brown or racially ambiguous in the way many of the people from the region can – think Berbers, Alawites, Druze, etc. All these variations and inflections can be found in people who have complex colonial histories, which for Cyprus gets further inflamed when coupled with the ideological prefix of being a Greek or Turkish Cypriot.
After the Formalities as a conceit is probing and orbiting these questions along with the faux absolutism of racial thinking and grouping. It also concerns itself with how dangerous the world is and can be when you’re not entirely sure where you stand. It considers how perceptions and understanding shift depending on where you are in the world, and your proximity to the imperial motherland.