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A Good Score
An interview with Roger Robinson

(Issue 42, autumn 2020)

Roger Robinson’s recent poetry collection, A Portable Paradise, was awarded the Ondaatje Prize and the T. S. Eliot Prize. A musician as well as a poet, Robinson lives between England and Trinidad. ‘I can see Venezuela from my house in Trinidad. On a super clear day, I can get radio and TV stations from there. 
‘My mum would get up in the morning and say, “You better find something to do, otherwise you’re going to be cleaning this house all day.” So most days in summer, six o’clock in the morning I’m out. It would be football in the morning, basketball at lunchtime, table tennis until midnight. I wasn’t even 15 years old yet. And nobody worried. They knew where to find me. And if there was a girl waiting there for me at football, nobody was going to tell my parents. You know what I’m saying. It was kind of like the Wild West. 
‘I have a six and a half year old son now and I think to myself, what on earth, how does this even work now? I don’t think there was less danger, to be honest with you, but the internet has made people more aware of how dark the world can be.
‘At the age of 14, there was a house that my parents let me live in by myself in order to so-called prepare me for living by myself. They thought, he’s going back to England so we have to train him to live by himself. The house was in the centre of what you would call the ghetto. I had to cook, I had to clean, I had to go to school, catch a taxi.
‘I went to a really good school called Naparima College. We had to read Classics. We had to have elocution lessons, orations contests, the kind of standards that you had in public schools in England. It was quite prestigious but I had no sense of that. I was just there to play sport, and I knew I could write, even in school, because people would ask me to write for them. I knew I was good at things like poetry because I’d do the poetry recitation and I’d win everything. 
‘We were studying Caribbean poetry, so people like Nicolás Guillén from Cuba, and I was interested in things like Shakespeare too. I was really interested in Paul Keens-Douglas, who was one of the only writers who I knew who lived solely by his writing and performing. He toured the Caribbean and New York. He had albums and everything. He was a friend of my uncle. My dad was really into writing too. He wanted to be a writer. And one of the most prominent writers in Trinidad, a guy called Ralph Moraj, was my English teacher. 
‘Oral culture was a big thing in Trinidad too. We have this thing called liming. It’s really about talking. Every time I see an episode of Seinfeld and they say it’s about nothing, I’m like actually it is about everything. It’s quite similar to Seinfeld. We have no general goals but we talk about everything in life. My mum was a big storyteller. She would hold court and you often wouldn’t know what she was trying to tell you because often it’s to try and educate you about something but she wouldn’t talk about “the thing”, she would tell stories around “the thing”, do you know what I’m saying? Some kind of periphrasis, you know.
‘So I left Trinidad because I think my parents just had the idea that I’d get into trouble somehow. I don’t rightly know what it was about but I was never in trouble, ever. Soon after A-levels they were just like, yeah, you’re going to England. And I was like, what? Why? And they were just like, we’ve got you a ticket, this is the date, this is happening. And so I went to England. I worked for a little bit, because I had to stay a number of years before I could actually get local university fees. I went to study education and sports at Roehampton University, and then I started teaching there because I had done a thesis that they were super interested in and they wanted me to do a Masters or perhaps a PhD on it. But by that time I was like, this isn’t going to work, I don’t love it enough. 
‘I had a girlfriend who was a practising poet, and I would go with her to readings and I would think about how terrible all the readings I heard were, and she would be like, okay, show me some of your poems then and you go and do it. And I did, and she was like, wow, this is really good. So I kind of became a poet out of spite, you know, in a way.
‘I wouldn’t say I was confident because I wasn’t going into things thinking that this is going to work out well for me, but I was peculiarly non-risk-averse. I didn’t go into things thinking that if I fail it’s going to be the end of my life. That’s what I had. And I think that’s what I still have. The idea of failing was never a big thing for me. I think a lot of people don’t become writers because of it.  I was just like, whatever, I’ll just do something else if I fail.
‘Once I have enough money to live and to feed my family, I’m pretty good, you know. I’m so process-based that it’s really irrelevant what anybody else thinks. I remember finishing the last book and saying, people will either love this or hate this, I do not care. I realised that I have absolutely no control over what people like. What you do have control over is your process. I’ve been practising for 25 years with a few small prizes but nothing major.  After a while you’re just like, I want to do it. Just keep on doing it. Who cares.
‘The first thing I did when I started trying to write seriously was to get a mentor, Kwame Dawes. He said, you’re clearly someone who reads and writes poetry you like, but you get to another level when you start reading for craft. He was giving me Russian poets to read, he was giving me Eastern European poets, he was giving me Chinese poets. And so he kind of opened my world. It was about how you attack it on the page and how you make decisions on the page that can be perceived as art, as opposed to just telling stories, how you’re showing someone a different way to see something, you know?  Don’t think about performance. One of the failures of my very first book was that I wrote it with the sound of a Trinidadian accent. I wrote it for my voice, my accent and my music. If you’re writing a score for piano players and you need more than three hands to actually play what you write, then you’re not writing a good score. It’s being able to work with sound so that everyone can read it. I’ve heard people read my poems, especially from A Portable Paradise, and nobody ever trips up, and that’s what I’m super happy about, because my first book, if I give it to somebody to read who is not Trinidadian, then you always hear that trip-up. 
‘Music is completely different. Sometimes something from music will migrate into a book, sometimes something from a book might migrate into music, but it’s a completely different headspace. To some extent you can skirt the border of cliché for sound in songs, and you can disrupt narrative a little bit. You can have a chorus that has nothing to do with the verse but once the melody’s right, it can actually work in kind of a dynamic tension, you know. And to some extent I don’t feel like I have that space in poetry. People like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, they have an ability to be very tense with words and still make it into a kind of melodic poetry, and that’s kind of amazing. 
‘A lot of my Covid time was trying to either organise to take care of my young son or do his home schooling. Or writing, writing a new book. And recording a new album from home, because I have a home set-up. I’ve been pretty productive. I’m probably a third of the way through the new poetry book and I’m seeing where I can go with it, you know, and asking myself a hundred questions. The process of writing a book for me would be first drafts of 150 poems, without judgement, and then I would say, well okay, where do I want to take this – because it’s still like plasticine, like clay – what is it really about or what could it be about? What do you not know that this will make you know? And then things start to kind of raise themselves up. It’s a kind of living process for me.’