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

Ars Poetica

Associate Professor Elizabeth A.I. Powell shares a poem on purity and control

My first real speech rose scented

                off of a cake of soap,

molecule congealing in my salivary gland

          that held the mellifluous

obscenity I spoke, the words my mother found

          horrid, disrespectful, utterances I loved

                       and let loose, becoming bubbles

          floating out my mouth

in punishment, the lather bubbling up

          my nasty sentiments:

                       how I loved the world so hard I hated it.

Things either clean or dirty,

           smelled lovely or nasty,

my mother tried to make me say it nicely. I couldn’t.

           The lavender tallow, glycerin atoms ascended

from my lips into silencing

           my words to God,

                               which then smelled of Yardley’s,

           Lavandula Angustifolia, disappearing until now.

I try to make it pretty. She never said

                  cleanliness was next to Godliness,

           she didn’t believe that. She just liked the scent

of lavender and submission,

           hated the words “fuck” and “suck” and “no”.

The molecule of soap a measure that held the grease in my mouth

           called bad words. To make what I felt evaporate

into the bourgeoisie submission of my stink

           into the parfum and titanium oxide

                   sanitary normalcy

of control.

Intimations of Mortality

Thomas Centolella’s pandemic poem 

Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth

I thought the teacher had to be kidding.

Come up with eight moments of immortality.

First of all, wouldn’t one moment do?

Second of all, I was already working al fresco,

painting window-sized blossoms of velvety burgundy

and buttery yellow against a background of emperor green.

I was like Picasso in the documentary, wild-eyed,

always in motion, master of the fluid hand.

I wasn’t yet like Pollock, who had entered so deeply

the canvas spread on his studio floor he couldn’t get back

to a simple cup of coffee. Teacher was breaking for lunch

but first she looked me in the eye. Eight moments. Immortality.

Did I pick up a glint of mischief, or was it something more

serious? Can you be cryptic and condescending

at the same time? I supposed you could. It didn’t matter

this was a dream—I had my assignment. When I woke up

to the larger dream, I thought of my own students,

each sequestered in their rooms, which I hoped

hadn’t taken on the dimensions of a prison cell

or one of Dante’s infernal circles. All we had to do

was wait out the pandemic together

with generosity and humour and whatever creativity

we could muster. All we had to do was flatten the curve

of the infection rate, including the newly perished

who, through no fault of their own, had died alone

out of sheer arrogance and incompetence and fear,

and who would not be honoured with a proper burial,

their caskets stacked like cords of wood

in the empty churches. I wondered how soon I’d get sick

of sheltering in place, of wearing gloves and a mask

to the corner store, of cursing the hoarders and the empty shelves,

of gorging myself on too many statistics. And touch,

without which we’d be spectral sadness, touch had become

something to shun: the automatic hug, a homely doorknob,

even my own face. This was the larger dream

turned nightmare, and all any of us wanted

was to return to normal, whatever that was. It seemed

there was nothing more loved. Not even the immortal.

Particular Flow

Guggenheim Fellow Thomas Centolella shares a poem on pleasure and the self 

Martin Leuvrey, Overflow

It came to be a matter of looking

for the pleasure inside the pleasure.


How the trees in summer heat keep their cool.

(Trees on a street calm me.)


The bougainvillea’s purple petals fallen during the night: rune.

And swept by late morning: ruin.


Today’s word is “here.” Tomorrow’s word?

You’ll just have to wait until it’s here.


Quote from a dream: “God is beauty without fragrance.”

(And I thought God was that bush, that blush


of roses—Sweet Akitos, labial-pink, off the Japanese veranda.)

And then it came to be a matter of looking beyond the pleasure:


When confronted by a becoming creature, said the guru,

imagine the body as it decomposes.


A different tack from a different teacher: Beautiful bodies

and beautiful souls are rarely ever found together.


And Aitken Roshi: “The self is a particular flow, sustained

by the gecko, by conversations with friends, by reading,


by eating, by sleeping.” (Sustained by the gecko

because he lived on Oahu. Trees on a beach calm me.)


Tearing through the ancient lobby past a man bent over

his walker, I hear: “Where’s your fire?”


Current status of my fire: crackling, but banked and secluded,

like the one deep in Kaibab before the ranger caught us.


Former status of my fire: balls-deep in the wild rose, where I believed

all would be well and all manner of things would be well.


Today’s lesson, from the great beauties:

Be cordial and give nothing away. (If only.)


Today’s dessert is kashiwa mochi: dumpling

of sweet bean paste wrapped in, of all things, an oak leaf.


Always the see-saw of discerning

which paradigms to abandon, which to embrace.


A town in the heartland that’s my kind of town

because its sign says: “On the way to everywhere.”


The two Syrians, new friends, sharing a plate of kibbeh nayeh

in their UN tent, eat the raw ground lamb with their fingers


not because they have been driven from their home

but because they have taken their home with them.


Centolella has taught creative writing in the Bay Area for 33 years and has published four collections of poetry. The most recent is Almost Human, from Tupelo Press

Hanyu and the Slide Rule

New poetry from Arpine Konyalian Grenier, taken from her recent manuscript Silk to Maidan Complicit

He taps numbers on the dance floor or ice or

on top the mountain at contested terrain

as we contend with how merciful

long division has been


          how tapping stripped it all over time


tap tap yak yak having criminalised the swooning

we all craved still but secretly as the slide rule

still breathes in complicit dumpsters

having had a peek at Hanyu


                        he’s grinning and in tears


he has been on the Silk Road for years now

liquid silk the commentator called it

feel it deal it heal heal

Leopardi had said


beware of words like success and failure

the well lived life otherly beguiled

tuck and all the rise to stretch

plead and flag memory


          then punch and settle the minuscule hobblers


thinking a saying clouds saying pinned inventories

star or starling uploads and seasoned memories

the litany of private parts and wishes

the appraisal of half lives


the blink the blur the smudge the grab

the rebellion of tears and waits

a prayer and branches


          yell yell they yelled for prairies and stability


I could not.


Arpine Konyalian Grenier was born and raised in Beirut after the post-Ottoman era induced French rule of the region ended. The Silent G is her next volume forthcoming from Corrupt Press. Recent work has appeared in Journal of Poetic Research, Tammy and Barzakh. She lives and writes in Los Angeles