For this next installment in a series of interviews with poets, contributing editor Peter Mishler corresponded with Anthony Anaxagorou. Anaxagorou is a British-born Cypriot poet, fiction writer, essayist, publisher, and poetry educator. His poetry has been published in POETRY, The Poetry Review, Poetry London, New Statesman, Granta, and elsewhere. His work has also appeared on BBC Newsnight, BBC Radio 4, ITV, Vice UK, Channel 4, and Sky Arts.
His second collection After the Formalities, published with Penned in the Margins, is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was shortlisted for the 2019 T.S Eliot Prize along with the 2021 Ledbury Munthe Poetry Prize for Second Collections. It was also a Telegraph and Guardian poetry book of the year.
In 2022, he founded Propel Magazine, an online literary journal featuring the work of poets yet to publish a first collection. His third poetry collection Heritage Aesthetics was published by Granta in November of this year.
Peter Mishler: Is there a moment, image, memory, or feeling from your childhood or youth that—thinking about it now—in some way presages that you would become an artist in adulthood?
Anthony Anaxagorou: Since I can remember I’ve always been drawn towards language and sound. When you grow up bilingual you fixate on certain words or speech patterns because one language always seems to be trying to dominate the other. Both fighting for relevance or maybe existence. You notice how phrases and sounds shift depending on whether you’re at home speaking your native tongue, or in school with friends.
Demotic registers were the early modes that turned me towards poetry, or at least piqued my interest in what you could do if you reorganized and positioned words in unexpected ways. Who you could include or exclude from a conversation. Cypriot Greek, Jamaican patois, cockney and American hip-hop became my lingua franca. In these registers I saw my own way of speaking stylized and made urbane by the thoughts they dispensed.
These idioms, as admonished as they might be, I realized were in fact liberated from standardized speech, they were there just for us at a time when nothing felt like it was. Innovative, culturally specific, politically charged, coded and profane—all things which I later realized poetry could be too. Knowing I could occupy and inhabit and disrupt language through my body and imagination was key to my artistic awakening.
PM: I want to dive right into the eponymous poem in your new book—can you talk about where in the writing of this book did this poem emerge? Early? Late?
AA: My previous collection After the Formalities was heavily organized around the title poem. The intention there was to have all the pieces orbit that one central poem, so with Heritage Aesthetics the ambition was to try to and melt the walls a little more, in the hope there wouldn’t be a central poem, but instead thirty or so pieces that appeared networked and indivisible—a bit like a family might be in a time of crisis.
When I began to discover how the British would treat Cypriot men in the 50s, I noticed similar patterns of cruelty and control which I was exposed to at home.
The eponymous poem came quite late into the writing—maybe a year and a half in—but I liked how it captured and synthesized many of the main themes in the book. It’s clipped, restless, intertextual, and elliptical while the camera work never manages to leave the starting point of a set of childhood friends and their struggles with nationality, language, place, and masculinity. It was Rachael Allen at Granta who thought to make it the title of the book after a good portion of the writing had been laid down.
PM: That’s interesting because the poem does feel like it canvases a great deal of the book’s concerns.
AA: Yes, it definitely holds lots of the book’s central themes, but as I said, that came later. Once I’d worked out the book’s tone and temperament, I started to slowly chip all the other poems into shape, so as to have them more aligned and congealed. I knew little about where these poems were going at first and I think I prefer working that way.
One thing I tell the poets I work with is that when you write from a place of certainty you limit the poem’s scope because you know too much about what it is you want to say, whereas if you write because there’s something you want to discover you increase not only the poem’s size, but its ability to offer complication.
I don’t want my poems to click into place at the end, nothing in my life or the world clicks. I’m suspicious of poems you “get” because it usually implies some kind of obvious trick or intention. The reader has little agency as the poet has done all the heavy lifting for them. To me those poems often feel simplified and contrived or too neat which is another way of being artificial. I prefer the broad orbital poem which suggests everything is interlinked while also being in a state of disarray—to find order within that is something we need to work for and construct alone.
PM: Is there an aspect of Heritage Aesthetics that you feel you’re able to grasp on to—however obliquely—now that you’re looking at this book in its finished form and performing poems from it for audiences? Is there something that strikes you that you didn’t expect?
AA: The main organizing principles for the book were several broad questions which I had no real intention of answering (I don’t believe poetry to be a solution-based artform, that’s the job of civil servants)—only to develop a vessel which can carry the moment over to the reader. My aim wasn’t to find the heart of a poem’s conceit, but to try and establish a language that could articulate the color, shape, and feeling of its membrane.
Cypriot Greek, Jamaican patois, cockney and American hip-hop became my lingua franca.
When the writing was done some three and half years later, I felt I still knew little about my starting points other than now they existed. This was probably the first breakthrough. To be able to step back and see the trail you left after years of experimenting. I’d metabolized my uncertainties, discomforts, wonders, and obsessions to create what felt like a fully formed, muscular representation of my thinking. I could see the outlines more clearly, and with the additional editorial eye of luminary Rachael Allen, the poems began their conversations with each other.
PM: Do you find you can talk about the poems more fluently now, say when introducing a poem at a reading?
AA: I recently decided I didn’t want to contextualize the poems before a reading; I wanted to launch straight in and plunge the audience into the very heart of them. A fellow poet was in the audience at one such event and remarked how this kind of performance challenges audiences to “listen harder.” Without a preamble, or a title, or context the poet is asking the listener to find their own way around the poems.
It’s a bit like putting on a record and jumping to track eight or standing in front of a painting at a gallery—what are you supposed to do? Do you read the wall text first or experience the art piece? What you notice vs. what you’re supposed to notice?
Eventually you find yourself leaning into certain images, symbols, contrasts, tones, and textures until you’re having a unique and rich experience. It’s an approach I feel very much speaks to how the book was composed, but also mirrors my own beliefs around language and agency when it comes to both the reading and writing of poetry.
PM: I ask this of everyone in this series: what is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?
AA: I’m interested in how poetry can create a condition for the impossible; or how it manages to enhance what is often incommunicable. When I’m writing I know little about where I’m headed. The primary enquiry is in language, thought, sound and feeling. The journey that ensues is never quite the same despite the process being so familiar. How does that happen?
How can we repeat a determined pattern and yet land in strikingly different and sometimes antithetical places? This says to me that language-making (like consciousness) is a fluid, uncertain, and often chaotic process, one which invites ambiguity, disorder, and digression. Within those categories we find the contours of a poem or atmosphere which itself is almost aquatic; an immersive, private experience that asks readers to step in, like one would a bath or a room.
I found myself wondering why I rarely encounter literatures that document what the British thought of Cypriots when they arrived on the island in 1878.
The symbiosis between poet and reader that sees them become an active participant in completing the poem is what continues to astound me. How poetry manages to necessitate a space to bind a distant writer and reader to ideas they will never fully clasp is what keeps me returning to it.
PM: At what point in your writing of this collection did you begin to read older primary sources about British Cyprus?
AA: I’m constantly reading other books alongside poetry collections. I found myself wondering why I rarely encounter literatures that document what the British thought of Cypriots when they arrived on the island in 1878, as it seemed to be much common with other colonies. Why weren’t these texts as widely available as others? I wrote these questions down, how did the British perceive us? Who were we to them? Who are we to us now? and went from there.
The job of the found poem, or the intertextual piece, is not necessarily to educate readers, although it’s great if that happens, but to enrich the composition through different textures and sounds. To show the connectedness of things. For me, being able to poeticize orientalist writing is a way of reducing its acerbic nature and reclaiming it from the racist intention it was written to serve. I want to document what a moment in history was, and what it now feels like to live with the residue.
I was interested in trying to incorporate various texts into the work—lyric, philosophy, travel writing, and science all working to enhance the layers of the poems—disciplines which live outside of poetry’s field. That really is what I enjoy doing, thinking it all through, then finding a way to express the relationship between people, feelings, and time periods, inviting readers in to connect whatever unresolved threads they find.
PM: What is it like for you to write poems that include your son?
AA: We go into parenthood with the template we inherit from our parents or guardians, hence why writing a book on heritage appealed to me. My son is obviously a composite in these poems, a dimensional symbol intended to outline the tripartite much of my work tries to expand on: the father, the son, and grandson.
I was also keen to explore parallels between the structural dynamics of the British imperial project, one which considered itself paternalistic, with that of the family unit. The nation is merely an extended patchwork of families laden with fractures, hierarchies, ignominies, and feuds. Perhaps the family as we know it is merely a microcosm of this, consisting of the same elements and characteristics.
Could you have the family without the nation or are the two interdependent? Is family life a reflection of nationhood? This also serves to outline the ways diasporic communities involuntarily inherit colonial power structures to replicate them at a domestic level.
PM: Would you be willing to expand on this concept in relation to your own family?
AA: Growing up, the power dynamics were very well cemented through gender roles and behavioral patterns. When I began to discover how the British would treat Cypriot men in the 50s, I noticed similar patterns of cruelty and control which I was exposed to at home. I began to think about the ways my father, like his father, had inherited and internalized those machinations to subconsciously reproduce them.
Imperialism and patriarchy are analogues in many ways, so I think the role of my son in this collection was to try and subvert what those expressions might look like in the diaspora.
That’s not to deny my father agency and lay the blame solely at the feet of the British, but I do think there’s something to be said about men who model themselves on previously colonized subjects, and how they absorb certain behaviors. My father was born in Cyprus in the early 50s but moved to England when he was a boy to be raised in North London by a single mother who had inadvertently inherited the self-regard of the colonizer.
When the British arrived in Cyprus in 1878, they had no real idea who we were, so part of their reason for leasing the island from the Ottomans was essentially to try and cultivate an identity that would lift Cypriots out of the racially ambiguous gray area they previously occupied. It’s no wonder Cypriots are now a people obsessed with race. The prevailing question when you visit the island, no matter your race or ethnicity, is ‘where are you from?’ which is the corollary of two thousand years of sporadic migration and colonization caused by the island’s geography.
Imperialism and patriarchy are analogues in many ways, so I think the role of my son in this collection was to try and subvert what those expressions might look like in the diaspora. How men can be violent but also tender. How they can protect and destroy. My son, who is of mixed heritage, is of Cypriot, Egyptian, Guianese, Madeiran, and English lineages, proving yet again that these muddy taxonomies we’ve invented only add to our inner turmoil when it comes to understanding who we are in the world.
PM: I wonder what you’re thinking now about the relationship between poetry and anxiety, epigenetics, and trauma—how does poetry figure into these experiences for you?
AA: Really what poetry allows for is abstraction in a predominantly immutable and material world. If I’m not permitted to recast or reimagine the multidimensional and flawed working-class Cypriot body through a myriad of moods, sensations, and outlooks, then the dominant group will co-opt it for me.
As we discussed earlier, if I as a diasporic British Cypriot find a way to abstract myself from myself through the series of speakers I invent, then I’m able to break into new and uncharted terrain with all the sides of my being. In this way, I feel I’m not only disrupting the perceived order of things by defying expectation of how white people or non-Cypriots or even Cypriots might expect to see me.
I’m outlining causality too, which is an attempt to rehumanize the self, to shift culpability and rebalance agency. In short, I break away from myself to reach a condition (be that spiritual or ontological) so as to make a new possibility, which in turn generates new thought and new futures.
PM: It seems you are intentional about this when writing, knowing that a more capacious poem might emerge from it.
AA: I’m fascinated by the psychology of poems. I believe the best poems work as psychological units. How a speaker behaves inside a situation or a condition to expose something about the poet’s biopsychospiritual makeup. Often you hear poets talk about catharsis in relation to trauma or poems which center trauma. I prefer the word predicament or obsession as all obsessions reveal the avoidance of something more complex and painful.
When you excavate a wound, you need to decide what to put in its place once you’ve exposed it. Is the aim to bring attention to our sufferings, or to try and inspire empathy in others, or maybe the re-exposed wound wants to say we survived—that proclamation being enough. Or maybe it’s none of those things, and it’s just art for art’s sake. For Heritage Aesthetics the wounds or predicaments or obsession were my personal questions, the things which kept me up at night or dominated my thinking.
All things are related, so part of the book’s project was to try and populate the poems with a display of material from across several disciplines in the hope that these speakers, these units of psychological drama, can be seen in their totality as legitimate citizens of the world, while straddling the complications of a dual heritage.