On January 13, 2020, Trinidadian-British poet Roger Robinson was awarded the T.S. Eliot of Poetry for his poetry collection “A Portable Paradise”. The T.S. Eliot is a recognition conferred on the “best collection of new verse written in English that is first published in the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland.”
The judges praised Robinson's work for “finding in the bitterness of everyday experience constant evidence of a‘ sweet, sweet life '”.
The book is divided into five sections, each ending with a poem that explores the theme of paradise, covering issues from the tragic fire of the Grenfell tower to the Windrush controversy. The problems of migration, racism, identity and inequality manifest themselves in a bold, raw and honest way.
Perhaps it is the sting of disagreement or perhaps the touch of the West Indian emboldening that causes the reader to be curious to see where Robinson's poem is headed, but the poet has the rare ability to enter in the middle of things and yield to that immersion, although it retains its quality of truthful observer. Robinson's words are a balm for the bitterness of life – the collection compassionately recognizes humanity within us, united by an almost solemn tone of dignity, even in impotence.
I contacted Robinson shortly after he received the award and talked with him via email about the award, the collection itself and why empathy is so important.
Janine Mendes-Franco (JMF): Congratulations! “A Portable Paradise” is a really important work. Did you aspire to get the prize or receive it was a pleasant surprise?
Roger Robinson (RR): I never have my eye on prizes, but I appreciate the prize. I'm always about getting the poems to people rather than trying to win a prize. I do like how the prize is getting me to a wider range of reader, though.
Roger Robinson (RR): Getting an award has never been my goal, but I appreciate it. I always try to get poems to people, instead of trying to get a prize. Although, I do like how this award makes me known to a wider variety of readers.
JMF: It is interesting to note that Eliot himself was a man of American origin who chose to live and work in England. You, on the other hand, were born in England and, after living your childhood in Trinidad, you also chose to finally settle in the United Kingdom. Have you thought about those similarities? And why, for example, Trinidad may be good to form, but England may be better to create?
RR: Hmmmm … interesting. I think Trinidad is also good for creation, but England is good for commerce and access to the international publishing industry.
RR: Hmmm … interesting. I think that Trinidad is also good for creating, but England is suitable for marketing and access to the international publishing industry.
JMF: The guardian from the UK described you as a “poet dub British-Trinidadian ”. Do you identify with that? How would you explain what “dub” poetry is to someone who has never heard that kind of music or an interpretation of the spoken word?
RR: I've made a few dub albums. I think other people have called me a dub poet; I've not necessarily referred to myself that way. Dub poetry to me is poetry influenced by reggae rhythms, with a working-class focus.
RR: I produced some albums dub. I think other people have called me a poet dub; I don't necessarily refer to myself that way. For me, poetry dub It is poetry that is influenced by the rhythms of reggae and is oriented to the working class.
JMF: It's not a coincidence that music plays such an integral role. You have a band (King Midas Sound), you have produced recordings and music videos and, although all poetry has rhythm, yours has a musicality that remains with the reader. How did you perfect your art in something so unique that it feels so authentic?
RR: I don’t know. I think I write from the things that interest me in a moment and I’m truthful to my interests. I don't think it was a planned thing. Honing craft came through enjoyment of the rigours of practice.
RR: I do not know. I think I write about the things that interest me at the moment and I am sincere with my interests. I don't think it's something planned. The improvement of art was given through the enjoyment of the rigors of practice.
JMF: It is bold to tell the truth when it is difficult to obtain. Some of your works almost resemble an intersection of journalism and poetry. Is it important for you that people who see “truth” differently than you read your collections?
RR: I think that I write like I am, so I'm no more daring than my own emotional truths. It’s no more important to me for people who see truth differently to read it, even though I like the idea of people developing and practicing empathy. The practice of empathy by all different types of people would be more important to me.
RR: I think I write as I am, so I am no more daring than my own emotional truths. For me, it is not more important that people who see the truth differently read them, although I like the idea that people develop and practice empathy. That different types of people practice empathy would be more important to me.
JMF: Were there truths that you believed about yourself in Trinidad (which I assume were your reference point for paradise), which were not reflected in the United Kingdom? In that case, did poetry help overcome discrepancies? What made you start thinking about the idea that paradise could be portable?
RR: I started thinking that paradise might be portable because I wanted it to be – and because my grandmother went to England and brought most of her 11 children to England on the money she made sewing dresses. Her children were her paradise.
I think in England I got a sense of myself as an international artist, which I did not get in Trinidad.
RR: I began to think that paradise could be portable because I wanted it that way – and because my grandmother went to England and brought most of her 11 children to that country with the money she generated by sewing clothes. His children were his paradise.
I think that in England I could perceive myself as an international artist, something that I could not achieve in Trinidad.
JMF: Many of your poems in this collection support the idea of having faith in something more important – a more lasting paradise so to speak. What did you want to achieve with this?
RR: I wanted people to understand the power of prayer in their time of trauma.
RR: I wanted people to understand the power of prayer in their moments of trauma.
JMF: The “hero” of many of your poems is usually the disadvantaged and, specifically, the migrant. How, if anything, the experience of being an outsider forms your writing?
RR: Hmmmm… I can't tell; I'm too close to it to see. I'm sure it does. I mean, when I came to England I lived in tower blocks so I knew about living in one. I guess it made me see things in a different way.
RR: Mmmm I dont know. I'm too close to notice. I'm sure it is. I mean, when I came to England I lived in tower-type buildings, therefore, I knew what it was like to live in one of these. I think it made me see things differently.
JMF: I understand that there is a possibility that you visit Trinidad for the Bocas Literary Festival 2020. Are you interested in interacting with other Caribbean writers?
RR: Yeah, I am coming to Bocas and I'm definitely interested in meeting other writers. Trinidadian poets like Andre Bagoo, Shivanee Ramlochan and Muhammad Muwakil are gaining in world recognition, and I’d love to connect with Caribbean writers when I’m there.
RR: Yes, I'm going to participate in the festival and I'm definitely interested in meeting other writers. Trinidadian poets such as Andre Bagoo, Shivanee Ramlochan and Muhammad Muwakil are gaining worldwide recognition and, I would love to interact with Caribbean writers when I am there.
JMF: Who have been your biggest influences?
RR: Poets like Kwame Dawes, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Sharon Olds. People like Muhammad Ali. Musicians like David Rudder, Brother Resistance, and Bunji Garlin.
RR: Poets like Kwame Dawes, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Sharon Olds. People like Muhammad Ali. Musicians like David Rudder, Brother Resistance and Bunji Garlin.
JMF: Poetry in Trinidad and Tobago is not necessarily an item that is consumed so much, although it makes its way into everything, from soca and rapso music, to interpretations of the spoken word, all evocative of the Kalenda call and response tradition (Martial Arts). In a sense, all this constitutes Caribbean poetry. Why do you think poetry is an influential medium?
RR: I think it’s powerful because it helps people to practice empathy. It also allows people to observe someone practicing vulnerability. A lot of inhumanity will occur without empathy and vulnerability.
RR: I think it's influential because it helps people practice empathy. It also allows people to watch someone experience vulnerability. Without empathy and vulnerability there will be much inhumanity.
JMF: Any advice for the poets of the region?
RR: Keep writing no matter what anyone says; don’t stop writing.
RR: Keep writing no matter what others say; Do not stop writing.
JMF: What makes you the most proud of this collection?
RR: That I didn’t leave anything back. I gave it all.
RR: I didn't hold back. I gave everything.