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Anthony Anaxagorou

After The Formalities: An Interview With Poet Anthony Anaxagorou

19 September 2019 | Billie Manning

The first time someone suggested he take part in a poetry slam, Anthony Anaxagorou declined.

He had been writing poems in his bedroom, but had never considered sharing them with anyone, and told his mum – who had suggested his taking part in the Respect slam, a poetry slam for young people (now called Slambassadors) set up that year by poet Joelle Taylor – that he wasn’t going to have anything to do with it. This April saw the 7th anniversary of Out-Spoken, the poetry night he runs – of which Taylor is now a host and member of the curation team, and this September sees the publication of what is being called his breakthrough collection, After the Formalities
 
How did that happen? Well, he won the Respect slam, of course, with a poem his mum and auntie had pilfered from him and entered into the competition without his knowledge. “For a kid who had never been shown any kind of enthusiasm before and was in all the bottom sets throughout my schooling life for every subject imaginable… it really meant a lot.” He continued shadowing Taylor, doing workshops and talking on the radio, but in 2002 there was nowhere near the number of schemes for young poets as now exist, and the momentum petered out. He didn’t receive much support at home, and after a disparaging remark from a poetry promoter hurt the teenager, he decided to stop writing poetry. And he did – for almost a decade. Then, at 28, having been made redundant from a media company and in a precarious relationship, Anaxagorou found himself thinking "‘What’s the one thing I’ve done where I never really noticed time?’ It felt like time was all I had.” That thing turned out to be poetry. In 2012, a decade after his first slam, he set up Out-Spoken, a night consisting purely of performances by professional poets. “And 7 years later, we’re at the Southbank!”
 
He’s largely happy with how he’s seen the poetry world change over his long career. He doesn’t think spoken word holds the sway it did five years ago. He believes the ubiquity of social media, and open and broad presses like Burning Eye and Verve, mean young poets from less privileged backgrounds can see that there is a world in books for them, in being published. And thankfully, booksellers are making “a more conscious effort to stack and store a broader variety of poets, other than the dead white guys. How many times are you gonna sell Birthday Letters or The Whitsun Weddings?” 
 
 
He wouldn’t want to draw a line completely between spoken word and page poetry, though. “Poets limit themselves by calling what they do spoken word. By that rationale, labelling themselves as spoken word artists or page poets, they’re very restraining definitions. Spoken word is something you do, it’s something you write, doesn’t mean the next one you write is going to be that,” he says thoughtfully, citing Arundhati Roy as an example of multidisciplinary practice. “I think we live in a time of specialism. The idea of being able to cross genres, being interdisciplinary is something that is anathema to a lot people, which is dangerous because you limit where you can go.” 

And that limiting is anathema to him – he is very clear about that. “I’m entering new terrain,” he says. “People who know me and know my writing know me from the YouTube stuff, the performances.” And After the Formalities is different. It explores Anaxagorou’s British-Cypriot heritage, which he describes as “an identity which doesn’t fit neatly into a box” which can be confusing for the person whose identity it is and awkward “for those looking in”, as well as fatherhood and family. A series of prose poems tiptoes back and forth across the heady mix of tenderness and fear that parenthood inspires, and delves into the generational tensions it can rouse. A spiky, stuttering, punchy poem on the reality of living in a country where overt racism is on the rise juxtaposes with a garrulous, smooth prose poem on the insidious racist remarks that non-white people living in Britain have always experienced. 
 
Writing about himself wasn’t the initial plan. He began working on the book that would become After the Formalities more than three years ago, but he felt he was rewriting poems he had already written. He discussed the problem with a friend, who in response asked him who he was. When Anaxagorou asked what he meant, the friend explained, “Well, no-one knows who you are. All your work is about society. It’s commentary, it’s polemical, it’s historical. But there’s no you.” This seemed to him a fair point, and he set out to do something he’d never done before – explore his own life through poetry. That’s not to say the historical and social aspect of Anaxagorou’s poetry isn’t present in the book. The title poem is the clearest example of this mix, combining the history of the word ‘race’ with moments from his life. He believes it is the most ambitious thing he’s ever written – mainly because of its length. “It’s 7 minutes to read, four pages in a book. I’ve always wanted to write about the Cypriot identity, I’ve just never known how.” The poem came about after reading about the origin of the word race – first used by a French poet to differentiate between breeds of dogs. 
 
Forms are inventive across the book, lines scattering across pages or arriving close together.  Anaxagorou knew he wanted to write something risky, to push the boundaries of his craft, and found “permission” to do so in poet Jack Underwood. “Working with Jack on form really brought out a side that I was scared of... I wanna get experimental, I wanna get weird, I wanna get strange.” He gets passionate talking about surrealism. “I love it more than anything else because it’s bottomless. It doesn’t end. I love art that is endless. With surrealism, the more and more you go over an idea or a line or a poem, more things happen to you and that’s the beauty of it, it gives you complete and utter agency to just interpret things as and how you want.” 
 
He’s reluctant to predict success for the book, despite being confident in its content. “I don’t know what a mainstream book is, I don’t know what an accessible book is, I don’t know what a hit is.” But one thing is sure: there will be no more 10-year breaks from poetry. “I’m scared shitless by it," he says, “but it’s the thing I’m most passionate about. I live for it. I never want to do anything else.” 

You can purchase After the Formalities from bookshops UK-wide, or from anthonyanaxagorou.com, where you can also find details of upcoming performances.
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