A Portable Paradise

Roger Robinson reflects on his TS Eliot prize-winning poetry collection

Photography Jack Orton

Tom Bolger: How does ‘paradise’ appear in your book?

Roger Robinson: It morphs. Paradise became hope when thinking about my prematurely born child; it was the idea of people coming to paradise and finding hell in Grenfell; it was grappling with where paradise was for the Windrush elders who were sent back. I was born in London, raised in Trinidad, but came back to the UK to put down roots – could I create paradise here? Can a text be a portable paradise? Can it give hope? All of these strands from my life coalesced, and the book wrote me as much as I wrote it.

Your opening poems focus on Grenfell. Beyond the terrible loss of life, what did it represent?

That people were devalued, underrepresented and not given an equality of opportunity. Many of us live happy lives, but Grenfell came along and showed that for some, there is no value put on their safety or general wellbeing. Why are certain people devalued in society? It’s not simply a race issue, it’s class, sociology. I drew attention to it because I thought the media was doing a hopeless job; they weren’t getting anything down that I could empathise with. Just the facts, that would inevitably get lost in the news cycle that turns and turns. I thought their lives were worth remembering.

Can poetry help process trauma?

You can rewire people’s emotions through the senses. That’s the power of poetry, as well as other art forms. When I see a Mark Rothko painting, I am literally different for seeing it. Witnessing the collisions of blood and light, spirituality, artistry, depression; there’s so much in so little. That rewiring is in me; I’m altered by it. That’s the importance of art – it’s the possibility to change someone and for them to practice that humanity with others.

How did it feel to win the TS Eliot and Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize? 

Really good! I’m into the idea of creative citizenship and would like to fill out the idea of what a poet is, what they can be in society. Poetry should not be people failing to solve a riddle and thinking they’re stupid. The poet used to be an important part of the community: These orators would stand up and be counted. If you look back at Latin America, they were busy creating revolutions, helping people get fed.

What care does poetry have to take when working with real life?

When things truly happened, you have to honour the moment. My mum always said that before something is a thought, it’s a spirit. If you move in a spirit of honouring the best of the person or event you’re writing about, then hopefully it will come out true.

In ‘Citizen III’ you write that “areas become ends”, suggesting some young people have little to hold on to beyond their postcode. How can we fix this alienation and fatality?

We still struggle to see capitalism as the driving force for oppression. Nobody wants to tackle how wealth, land and housing is distributed, or how generations get stuck on repeat. Society can flourish in most spaces, but to take the example of living in a tower block, the very nature of a mother being at the top of the block while her child plays at the bottom in a prescribed area – that physical distance in surveillance is a simple thing that can lead to social problems. Small details can make a massive difference, and we can begin by providing living conditions for people that don’t set them up to fail. My book looks at the context of somebody running away as a slave and the context of people being killed in tower blocks. These are not separate stories. When people say communities are “acting out”, you’re never given the context, because they’re trying to criminalise the act. I wanted to give context to resistance and the devaluation of black bodies.

Your poem ‘Beware’ (“When police place knees/ at your throat, you may not live/ to tell of choking”) has only gained more urgency. Why have we seen global protests during lockdown?

COVID-19 is a collective trauma, but one that disproportionately affects minorities. Black men are dying at three times the rate of white people. Then we had the entire global arena looking at George Floyd’s death with terrible clarity – a metaphor for how we’re perceived in the world. People had time to sit still, assess their lives and build a collective voice. With all that trauma, past and present, things will explode. I have a lot of hope in millennials though: They’re politicised, serious about diversity of thought and employ unapologetic change quickly.

You’ve written that “Your strength lies in the very humanity of the questions that your poem asks of the reader.” What are some questions we need to wrestle with?

Here’s one everyone should think about: If you don’t worry about your son being attacked by the police, that he will be safe coming home, or you can clearly see him living past 22, then you have some privilege. Are you willing to lend some, and do some heavy lifting for those that don’t?

Photography Jack Orton

A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson is published by Peepal Tree Press

This article is taken from issue 27. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here