Rathbones Folio prize: Raymond Antrobus becomes first poet to win award
‘Exceptionally brave and kind’ – judges praise The Perseverance which uses the writer’s experience of deafness to explore human communication
Raymond Antrobus: “the book we all needed to read”. Photograph: Caleb Femi
Poet Raymond Antrobus has become the first poet to win the £30,000 (€34,000) Rathbones Folio prize, taking the award for his “exceptionally brave and kind” exploration of the deaf experience, The Perseverance.
Born deaf in Hackney, London, the prize-winning writer and performer was thought to have severe learning difficulties when he was a child. His material has drawn from his own disability, masculinity, the alcoholism of his father, and the experience of his own mixed heritage.
Antrobus’s first collection has been praised by judges for its kindness and universal appeal in an “atomised” age.
Kate Clanchy, chairwoman of the judges, said: “We chose eight books we loved in different genres and deciding between them was painful. In the end, though, we agreed on Raymond Antrobus’s The Perseverance, an immensely moving book of poetry which uses his D/deaf experience, bereavement and Jamaican-British heritage to consider the ways we all communicate with each other.
“It ‘s an exceptionally brave, kind book. It seemed, in our atomised times, to be the book we most wanted to give to others, the book we all needed to read.”
The prize is intended to reward “the best work of literature of the year, regardless of form”, and this year’s shortlist included Booker winner Milkman by Belfast writer Anna Burns, Diana Evans’s Women’s prize-shortlisted novel Ordinary People, and Ashleigh Young’s collection of essays Can You Tolerate This?. But in the end, judges said the Antrobus’s poems, which move from his childhood diagnosis to his late father’s alcoholism, edged ahead of close contender Mary Anne Sate, Imbecile, a verse narrative by Alice Jolly.
Paul Stockton, chief executive of Rathbones, said: “Sincere congratulations from all of us at Rathbones to Raymond Antrobus for winning the Rathbones Folio Prize 2019 with his book The Perseverance.
“It is an impressive feat to be singled out amongst such a diverse and impressive shortlist, and is very well deserved.”
Antrobus was born to an English mother and a Jamaican father. He was at first thought to be dyslexic with severe learning disabilities while at school, with his deafness only discovered later.
Antrobus described his experiences in an article he wrote for Poetry Magazine in 2017. “It wasn’t until the phone rang while I was sitting in my mum’s kitchen one day that she realised I was totally oblivious to the shrill, high-pitched sound. This changed the pathology on my school reports from slowness’ to deafness’. It’s our first seven years of life that are vital for our language acquirement, most of which comes from what we pick up through hearing.
“Why have I turned to poetry to publicly explore this? Because poems are careful things – if done well, every sound and word has something to carry. My poems are Deaf poems because they are defiant in how they take up space on the page, not searching for loss, but for something gained.”
The Perseverance also includes an entirely redacted poem by Ted Hughes, titled Deaf School, which contains the lines: “Their faces were alert and simple/ like little animals, small night lemurs caught in the flashlight.” In a poem in response, Antrobus writes: “Ted is alert and simple./ Ted lacked a subtle wavering aura of sound/ and responses to Sound.”
“When I read that poem, my response was intense anger. I realise that to be able to find a way into my poem it had to begin with crossing out the old one. It’s significant that he is renowned as one of England’s greatest poets, and he went into a space, had an interaction with people he did not understand and felt the need to write this,” Antrobus has said.
In March, Antrobus won the Ted Hughes award for poetry, when he was described by judges as a writer who is “passionate but speaking from his scars not his wounds – this is a poet you sense very deeply that you can trust”. Published by small press Penned in the Margins, The Perseverance has also been shortlisted for the Griffin prize, the Jhalak prize, and the Somerset Maugham award.
The Folio, which was initially set up as a fiction prize to challenge the criteria of the Man Booker but has since been opened up to non-fiction and poetry, has been won in the past by titles including Hisham Matar’s memoir The Return, and George Saunders’s short-story collection Tenth of December. – PA, Guardian