After the Formalities
Anthony Anaxagorou, Penned in the Margins, 2019
In his poem ‘I Kissed a Dead Man’s Mouth in May,’ Anthony Anaxagorou writes ‘let me hold you one last time uncle & try to get the letting go right’. We are halfway through our conversation when Anaxagorou begins to talk about that poem and its context. ‘My uncle drowned when I was 18,’ he tells me. ‘He died in my arms, and I tried to give him mouth to mouth. His breath smelled of bread from the sandwiches we had eaten together for lunch.’ His tone is neutral and controlled as he speaks. I have a sweet potato fry in my hand, paused mid-meal, not wanting to chew through his trauma.
Anaxagorou’s poetry was not always about his family. Nor, indeed, was it always just about him. Now aged 36, he first tumbled onto the London poetry scene in 2011, when a YouTube video of his went viral. In the video, images of various historical moments flash in a slideshow format, while Anaxagorou reads us his poem entitled ‘If I Told You’. The poem is structured through variations on the same question, asking ‘What if I told you nothing has really changed and that racism is ever present? / What if I told you about that battle at Wounded Knee in 1890 and the massacre of/ 300 Native Americans with the Hotchkiss gun?’ He goes on to list various omissions in history textbooks and castigates racist media narratives (‘What if I said everyone that looked like you was a killer, a bomber, a terrorist?’). The poem ends ‘Now/ what if I never told you?’
If this meditation on systemic injustice announced his presence as a poet for the people, Anaxagorou’s latest collection has earned him recognition from the poetic establishment. After the Formalities was shortlisted for the 2019 T S Eliot Prize, and has earned glowing reviews from The London Magazine and the Guardian, among others. It is clear that Anaxagorou is still navigating the new accolades heaped upon him. Over pizza and fries at a members-only club in Shoreditch, he mentions frustration with white reviewers and critics in particular, asserting that they easily misinterpret his poetry because they lack the experiential insight to truly understand it. Later in our discussion, he speaks about how Ian Macmillan introduced him at the T S Eliot Ceremony as an ‘angry’ poet. ‘I didn’t like that. Angry feels base, irrational, reactionary.’ He takes a bite of his pizza and continues: ‘I like to think of these poems as intellectual responses to systemic issues’. He mentions the irony in being called angry by Macmillan and goes on to talk about how he feels critics and readers often project assumptions onto this work.
Assumptions about his identity and his work are not novel for Anaxagorou. He grew up in a working-class family of Cypriot heritage in North London. Though it was his mother who first encouraged him in his work –– submitting his winning poem ‘Anthropos’ to the London Mayor’s Poetry Slam in 2002 –– his family was not bookish. Nor was he an academic star. When I ask him whether he was exposed to poetry workshops or any kind of creative stimulation at school, he chuckles and replies, ‘Nah. We just had detention. That’s all I got anyway.’ There is the sense that it was not only the outside world casting assumptions about what Anaxagorou could or could not achieve. He also self-imposed limits, distancing himself from the poetry world after his initial win. He only came back to writing after a near decade-long break, when he felt he could stay away no longer. He feels he has catching up to do, masses of poetry to read–– the implication is that it is all this recent reading, in part, that has helped his poetry mature.
And it is true that After the Formalities has shed the anger and urgency that characterised his earlier work. He stresses this himself, mentioning that he feels more ‘centred’ than he did when he first started writing. Now, he is still unafraid to intertwine the personal and the political, but there are new themes in his work. Parenthood has been defining for him, as has the death of his grandmother, the loss of whom saturates the text. In ‘Biographer,’ he writes of her as ‘she. who taught me to write. to sip sound’. His voice is subdued as he relates that this poem was written in ‘real-time…I was on the phone and writing it as they gave me news of her. I finished it in 15 minutes’. He went on to recite the poem at her funeral. And though he now dislikes parts of it, and thinks that some lines could be sharpened, he decided to keep it as it was first written for the collection. ‘Because it wasn’t about that… The poem is like a photograph that isn’t perfect, but isn’t supposed to be’. He tells me that he tries to write only for himself, instead of for a specific audience or critic, a practice which he considers to be a form of writing for commission. ‘Biographer’ confirms this mentality.
But in the end, all that is personal in Anaxagorou’s verse is also firmly situated in its political context. In the second poem in After the Formalities, entitled ‘Cause,’ he uses the powerfully evocative phrase ‘flames lambent’ to remind us of Enoch Powell’s racist Rivers of Blood speech. A London Magazine reviewer lauded this decision, writing about how ‘Anaxagorou turns the words of politicians back to the service of a poetry that expresses, inquires into and accounts for, rather than incites, “the burning’ within and around us’. In this same poem, he writes ‘I’m here as my grandparents were/ only with a moving mouth’. Here is quintessential Anaxagorou, melding his lived experience with the fraught circumstances that define it. This approach echoes throughout the collection, with a particularly cutting piece tackling the dreaded question of ‘but where are you really from?’ Disarmingly, this poem is titled ‘A Line of Simple Inquiry.’
Yet there is a reason that ‘where are you really from?’ is now widely understood as a racially insensitive question, especially in the creative world. Where there was once the lone Anaxagorou stringing together images and a voiceover on his YouTube channel, there is now a defined ‘scene’ encompassing young, often BAME creatives who are also speaking about the themes that crop up in his work. ‘Diaspora’ or ‘second-gen’ (used to refer to the children of immigrant parents) poetry abounds in today’s Britain. Some of its most prominent flag-bearers include Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Momtaza Mehri, and Will Harris. These poets explore themes of Empire, ‘immigrant mentality,’ and similar issues which existed on the peripheries of mainstream British poetry until recently. Anaxagorou is aware now that he unknowingly tapped into an embryonic poetic movement when he began writing. He recalls how a rising poetic star recently said to him of ‘If I Told You,’ that it was ‘basically what everyone is doing now’.
In part, some of these new poets have a voice because Anaxagorou gave them one. As the curator and founder of ‘Out-Spoken,’ described on the Southbank website as one of London’s live poetry and music-nights, he is passionate about platforming poets from underrepresented backgrounds. He delights especially in bringing together more established poets with ones at the bottom of the ladder, with a recent night featuring former Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and relatively lesser-known poets. Indeed, the line-ups of ‘Out-Spoken’ nights encapsulate Anthony Anaxagorou. He exists in a space between the established London literati, and the younger, up-and-coming poets of tomorrow. As he wavers between the two worlds, he struggles with how they define him. During our meeting, he speaks sadly of a comment left on the Amazon page of his collection, by a long-time admirer who feels that Anaxagorou has abandoned his roots for a ‘pretentious, wanky writing’. He relates this comment but then reminds himself that ‘when you make art, it is really important to not compromise yourself in any way. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it for me––not because I want the bloke over there in the yellow jumper to like what I am doing. Or because I want the editor of that magazine to really get behind it’.
Despite his words of self-belief, Anaxagorou’s internal conflict is clear. As a working-class poet, as a Cypriot-Briton, and as an artist who is politically outspoken, he is aware that there exists a very specific pigeonhole for creatives like him. And now that he is shifting away from his foundational style, a quiet backlash can be detected. He tells me about critics who are unimpressed by his form, deeming it experimental for no reason. On the other side are former fans who don’t appreciate his sudden need to use metaphorical language. Torn between what the world wants of him, and what he wants to write, Anaxagorou is trying to stay afloat. As we finish our coffees and say our goodbyes, I walk away with the sense that I have met a man in flux.
ZEHRA MUNIR reads History at Wadham College, and edited the latest issue of the ORB. She can be found gazing out of windows in lecture halls, thinking about her next meal.
Art by Abi Hodges