Anthony Anaxagorou. © Photo by Alessandro Furchino Capria
The European Writers’ Festival, taking place at the British Library on Saturday 20 and Sunday 21 May 2023, sees many of Europe’s greatest storytellers gather together for one remarkable weekend. In this blog post, we have the opportunity to speak with one of them: the 2023 RSL Ondaatje Prize winner, acclaimed poet, writer, publisher and educator Anthony Anaxagorou. The multifaceted creator talks to us about his poetic journey, the inspiration he finds in the uncertainties of his Cypriot identity and the exploration, through his work, of conflicting forces that define nations today.
What motivated you to start writing poetry and how would you describe your poetic journey so far?
I was very much drawn to language from an early age. Being bilingual, speaking both English and Cypriot Greek at home, meant that I developed a sense of how malleable language was; what words and phrases could mean if you shifted their context and how everything was aiming for some kind of communicable outlet, including the language of poetry. My gateway into writing was through music and stories. Hearing words being said before reading them was a big part of my education. I wasn’t a high achiever at school; my exam grades were low, but I always felt I was nurturing a private relationship with language through it all. My journey so far has been led by pushing what I believe poetry to be, both as a spiritual instrument and a technical one.
How influential is other poetry, old and new, on your own work? Do you have any favourite poets and/or poems?
I read poetry all year long. I don’t really follow any pattern or trend and find myself gravitating to where I feel language is being stretched and put under sufficient pressure. I get sent lots of books from UK publishers to read, which I love, but I think the real delight is in going to a second-hand bookstore to discover something rare – a first edition of a classic collection or one which has notes scribbled all down the margins. I get a kick from books which people have taken into their lives, ones which feel like they’ve been in conversation with their reader. Beaten up, dogeared, with a private message from the past to the present. Those are the real joys.
I read mainly for surprise, to get to the end of a poem and think ‘wow, how did they do that?’, and how I can apply those bits I notice to my own practice. Poems are very much asking for our attention to detail, poets are often obsessed with material, and I love considering how material objects relate to the spiritual realm. My mind is noisy and chaotic, I want poems to slow down my thoughts, I want them to invoke a sense of uncertainty through strangeness and mystery. Poems which lean into puzzle and riddle, or the cinematic, the absurd and the philosophical. I keep close to me poems I think about for their ingenuity, poems for their heart and spirt, poems for their unusualness and poems for their poetry. Everything we read influences our work, even the stuff we might not like, or think is necessary for us. It’s all logged somewhere for the taking.
How catalytic was your Cypriot background and identity in your poetry?
I often try to write about things I don’t understand. I spend the majority of my days teaching and working with students on their poetry, so I find myself speaking in certainties and absolutes a lot. When it comes to my own work I like the idea of not knowing and for me the Cypriot identity is fecund ground for exploring uncertainty. The questions surrounding what it means to be Cypriot coupled with the diasporic experience have always fascinated me, as well as pained me. My work over the last 6 years at least has been invested in tackling some of those discomforts and confusions.
Anthony receiving the 2023 Ondaatje Prize for his latest poetic collection Heritage Aesthetics. Source: Twitter
How does it feel to be the most recent winner of the prestigious RSL Ondaatje Prize for your latest poetic collection Heritage Aesthetics?
It’s an incredible feeling to feel a book has been seen and recognised in this way. Especially a book that straddles both Cyprus and life in the UK. Cyprus, despite its proximity to Britain and British tourism is still very much overlooked when it comes to postcolonial discourse, and how the corollary of empire still impacts so many of the ways Cypriots see themselves. I hope that maybe through winning a prize like the Ondaatje, the book and the conversations it’s engaged with will find a way into more people’s lives.
Heritage Aesthetics published with Granta Poetry in 2022, won the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2023 and was shortlisted for the Anglo-Hellenic League’s Runciman Award. It was listed as one of New Statesman’s top books of 2022. Awaiting shelfmark.
Heritage Aesthetics communicates a self-aware and intensely honest British Cypriot self, while interrogating patriarchy, xenophobia and national divides. Guide us through this complex work.
There are lots of overlapping elements to the way we think about each other and ourselves in relation to our countries of origin and our birth nations. The main argument I’m putting forward in the book is how two things which aren’t supposed to coexist can, albeit tumultuously and with discord. The book orbits the idea of a family (a nation is a family as is an immediate family) and from within that nucleus we inherit certain modes of behaviour, traumas, anxieties etc that the book wants to somehow engage with. I don’t believe the job of the poem is to offer resolve anymore than a painting or piece of music should or even can. I’m into creating atmospheres – something perhaps more amorphous and open for readers to inhabit. These subjects, when approach morally, have little scope because we know them to signify right and wrong. Readers know white supremacy has been the cause of millions of deaths around the world and still today, we see whiteness permeating institutions at a structural level, which impacts so many people of colour in white countries. If we know all this -my assumption is the reader and I are politically aligned- then where else can I take these dilemmas? How can these nuggets of text serve to spur thinking on? That really is what I’m doing with Heritage Aesthetics.
After the Formalities published with Penned in the Margins in 2019, 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. YKL.2021.a.974
How does Heritage Aesthetics compare to your breakthrough collection After the Formalities?
I think After the Formalities casts its net more broadly in terms of subjects, the lens felt broader and perhaps less focused on past, present and future, whereas Heritage Aesthetics is drilling down into the specifics of place, family, trauma, violence and the psychological bearings of those elements. After the Formalities was also more autobiographical and less concerned with intertextual motifs between past and present. Heritage Aesthetics feels more engaged with theory and riffs off and around 20th century theorists – Fanon, Barthes, Said, CLR James etc, while taking on colonial writing in both fiction and reportage from the 19th and 20th century too. The idea was I wanted to draw parallels between two islands, to show how the Cypriots were once considered by their oppressors, which isn’t the same history as Greece or Turkey. I wanted a book which felt like it was pivoting between two dangerous worlds. Britain and Cyprus, two divided states, be that existentially or physically.
Anthony performing on stage. © Photo by Joe Hart
Not only an out-spoken writer, but also the Out-Spoken Press publisher, the Out-Spoken artistic director and a poetry educator for over a decade. Talk to us about these projects.
Most of the things I’ve set up over the years have emerged out of frustration. The projects you’ve listed came out of noticing what seemed to me to be lacking. Poets from certain backgrounds weren’t being shown or given the same opportunities as their white and middle-class counterparts. Things have shifted significantly since then and the landscape seems far more interested in accommodating as many different voices as possible, which is great. For me it’s very much about continuing the conversation and I think art is an incredibly democratic way of complicating what is often reduced and minimalised in cultural discussions.
What are you currently working on and what initiatives do you have in mind for the future?
At the moment I’m not really working on anything I’m consciously aware of, which is to say I’m probably working on whatever the next thing is. I try not to plan things too far in advance. I always like the idea of meeting myself where I’m at in my life and working from there. The future is a big place and I’m the kind of person who can quickly feel overwhelmed if I try to outline too much. I manage my life through bitesize, digestible chunks.
What can we expect from you at the British Library’s European Writers’ Festival?
I’m looking forward to reading from my new book, to discussing what being European or non-European means, as I think Cyprus is both. I’m also keen to hear what other writers have to say on the subject of Europe, its vast array of cultures, traditions, foods and politics.
Lydia Georgiadou, Curator, Modern Greek Collections