STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
For people who are deaf, the world can be split in two. They live in a world where other people take sound for granted and a world with its own rich culture of deaf history and sign language. The poet Raymond Antrobus has always had to navigate between those two worlds, and he examines that experience in his debut book of poems out next week called "The Perseverance." NPR's Jeevika Verma spoke with him.
JEEVIKA VERMA, BYLINE: Raymond Antrobus was born in East London to a Jamaican father and British mother. Neither knew that he was deaf at birth.
RAYMOND ANTROBUS: It took them about seven years to work it out. At first, it was assumed that I'd had learning difficulties, maybe dyslexia, until a day when my mum bought a new telephone for the house and it was quite a loud telephone. And when it was going off, I was the only person that never responded to it. So it was the telephone that kind of diagnosed my deafness.
VERMA: After school, Antrobus went straight into the workforce and had a lot of jobs.
ANTROBUS: But I was losing a lot of my jobs because I left school pretending I was a hearing person, so I wouldn't wear my hearing aids.
VERMA: It was around then that he realized that maybe he could turn to poetry.
ANTROBUS: Since I was a kid, I've always been writing. My grandfather was a poet. He was a preacher. And that kind of, I think, was part of grounding me. So I think that, for me, poetry always had a place where I could go to listen or to be heard or to belong.
VERMA: The medium became a place of solace for Antrobus, somewhere he didn't have to pretend anymore. Back in school...
ANTROBUS: I had a teacher who knew I was writing poetry and was really encouraging of it. I used to carry around what she would call the big red book. She was like, Raymond, where's your big red book? And she never corrected it, you know, so it always had this kind of space where I could just be.
VERMA: And when his father died five years ago, he started working on the debut while thinking about his childhood. In one, Antrobus says his dad would never call him deaf, just limited.
ANTROBUS: I would go to Jamaica as a kid with him, and I remember him saying to me, you know, you're lucky we're not in Jamaica because - there's a poem based on it loosely in the book. But he had a friend whose ears were stabbed with pencils. His eardrums were bursting and he said he just disappeared, just never saw him again.
VERMA: His father's understanding of deafness was rooted in a different time and a different place. And as a kid, Antrobus was glad that he was in the U.K. where he had access to hearing aids and schools.
ANTROBUS: The funny thing is, though, since writing the book, I've gone to Jamaica and worked with deaf Jamaicans. I've learned a little bit of Jamaican sign language and I've seen the kind of deaf schools that they've got in Jamaica and they're great. There are some really great ones.
VERMA: Knowing this now has eased some of the fears that the poet had been holding onto because when he was growing up, he wasn't taught about deaf culture or about how rich sign language can be. He explores this upbringing in his poem "Dear Hearing World." Here he is reading an excerpt.
ANTROBUS: (Reading) I was pronouncing what I heard but your judgment made all my syllables disappear. Your magic master trick hearing world, drowning out the quiet, bursting all speech bubbles in my graphic childhood. You are glad to benefit from audio supremacy.
VERMA: Fellow deaf poet Ilya Kaminsky, who didn't get hearing aids until he moved to the United States from the USSR at 16, relates to this experience of deafness being ostracized, so he appreciates how Antrobus meditates on language.
ILYA KAMINSKY: He's meditating both in English with all the colonial history of English language and also on sign language, which is very much part of its own unique and distinct culture and history.
VERMA: And Kaminsky is personally moved by how Antrobus' poems speak to the senses.
KAMINSKY: The poems are alive on the page but also in the palms. The poems are alive on the hands but also in the ears.
VERMA: It's this duality that Antrobus now celebrates.
ANTROBUS: It was never really a thing that I sat down and thought, oh, I'm a deaf poet, now I'm going to write about how I experience sound. Poetry was a way for me to write just what my truth was. I think there was a kind of listening that I had to do to myself and to my own history and to give that to the page.
VERMA: Raymond Antrobus' debut book of poems is called "The Perseverance." Jeevika Verma, NPR News.
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