I was fortunate enough to meet Raymond Antrobus and watch his poetry performed live. He is an unassuming and handsome British-Jamaican man, and a genius activist for the d/Deaf community. During the performance he enlisted the help of a British Sign Language interpreter in performing select pieces from his published collection The Perseverance. Watching the performance was a visceral experience punctuated by movement and my own inadequacies. In a world, a hearing world, specifically a lecture theatre in which lecturers speak and students hurriedly jot down what they hear, I don’t imagine it’s easy to turn that into a world that excludes (in part) those who can hear. And yet, Antrobus does this successfully and with pizzazz.
He’s angry, naturally. One of the poems he talks about in this collection is a curious poem of filled up silences: he takes one of Ted Hughes’ poems titled ‘Deaf School’, and censors the entire poem in protest of Hughes’ depiction of deaf children as simple and limited. Instead, watching his performance live and in reading his collection, as a hearing person you end up feeling limited. The gaps in my understanding of BSL used in the performance, the ignorance with which I navigate Antrobus’ poems in his collection – guided by metaphors that flip the hearing world on its end and simple illustrations of BSL signs — these all come together to form the juggernaut that is Antrobus’ message: this is not a hearing world anymore.
One of the most interesting propositions Antrobus makes with his poetry is that d/Deafness is a philosophy, a mode of being, and it’s not an identity based on limitations and loss but an identity that gives and gives, and is filled with a beauty hearing people can’t even begin to imagine. His poetry collection offers hearing people an insight into this experience while at the same time exposing our limitations and our loss.
My favourite poem from the collection is ‘Dear Hearing World’ which is a concentrated example of Antrobus’ activism: the derision and humiliation that d/Deaf people face at the hands of hearing people, and the erasure of d/Deaf voices in day-to-day life. You see, in Britain we have two official languages: the English language and British Sign Language, yet only one of them is mandatory learning. The superiority from which hearing people listen to d/Deaf people – d/Deaf people who must navigate the hearing world while we just sit here, that frustration permeates Antrobus’ entire work. And so, when he signed my copy of The Perseverance, I learnt to be grateful for my eyes and my ears and also to resist the hearing world they help maintain to the exclusion of the d/Deaf community.