Behind the closed doors of the National Poetry Library, poet Anthony Anaxagorou scans the anthologies that line the shelves. “Oh, I’ve got a poem in that one, and that one too I think, yeah, and that’s my mate Dean on the cover of that one... and there’s Wayne.” He isn’t showing off. This is merely the enthusiasm of a man grateful for where his passion and dedication have taken him, and one who holds a genuine joy in the success of his peers.
Anaxagorou is the founder of Out-Spoken, a monthly live poetry night established in 2012, which has since evolved to encompass a publishing arm, national tours, year-long workshop programmes with some of the nation’s most loved poets, as well as an awards night. A project of this size requires the effort of several key members. There's pianist Karim Kamar, who joined Anaxagorou in 2013 as a photographer but now looks after programming music acts, as well as all things digital. The poet Joelle Taylor co-curates and hosts the night, Tom MacAndrew heads up production, and Sam ‘Junior’ Bromfield is the night’s resident DJ.
In May Out-Spoken begins a year-long residency at the Southbank Centre, continuing an impressive upward trajectory for a night which established itself in the tiny basement of a North London pub, and for a founder who only really embraced the poet within himself a decade ago.
“I came to poetry very late in my in my life if I compare myself to other poets,” Anaxagorou explains as we take a seat among shelves heavy with poetry collections and anthologies. “I didn't come from a bookish family. Books weren’t widely available around the house, whereas I remember going to friends' houses as a kid and seeing living rooms adorned with books. If we did read, fine, but we weren't encouraged to do so. I think I was writing things from around the age of seven – lyrics, bits of dialogue, stories and so forth, but nothing I registered as poetry. It didn't fit the archetype of what I thought poetry was, or who I believed was supposed to write it.”
In 2002, unbeknown to the then 18-year-old Anaxagorou, his mother entered his poem, Anthropos, into the Respect Slam (now Slambassadors), founded by the aforementioned Taylor, and run in conjunction with The Poetry Society. Anthropos won the competition, allowing a glimpse into how a life as a poet could potentially be. “Winning the slam definitely stirred my interests in a particular kind of poetry, but still, the stuff I was reading in books, the canonical poets, didn't really appeal to me back then. I was too young and reading alone with no real access points, or ways to think about the poetry. To me it was lofty, referential, overly cryptic and opaque. And you know, as a kid with low-self-esteem, thumbing through this kind of writing in your room and not being able to connect, it’s enough to put you off.”
“Slam was fun, but that’s all it was. I found it gladiatorial plus I didn't really like how it made me feel before and after. The anxiety of having to write a poem with the aim to win an audience. It reminded me of school and my experiences there weren’t great. Even now I don't write things to compete, or pander to a certain demographic. One night after a reading, I received quite a disparaging remark from an older and more established poet. It crushed me. I decided to leave poetry, to take a bit of a break. I remember thinking maybe I’m not built for this, so I stepped away.”
It would be a decade before he returned to poetry, nudged back towards it after being made redundant from a small tech firm. “I remember being on a Megabus headed to Leicester to see family and thinking, I've never felt this lost and hopeless in all my life. I'm 28 years old and I don't know what the hell I'm doing, or where I'm going. I've no real qualifications, no money, no experience in anything and I’m lonely. I ended up asking myself some pretty searching questions during that journey, the most crucial one being what is the one thing I've always wanted to do? The one thing I've still been thinking about all these years?
“I missed poetry terribly, but I was trying to resist it for fear of failing again. In my head I was still thinking like a poet, still pairing up lines, thinking what made certain phrases special. I tried to leave it behind, but it never left me. That’s a weird thing to be living with for ten years.” But though he undoubtedly had a desire and natural flare for poetry, how easy was it to return to something he had shelved for so long?
“Most poets will confess this whole endeavour will always be a labour of love. When I eventually did pick it up again I started by reading contemporary writers, which showed how much work I had to do. I had no formal training in creative writing, I was never part of a collective, I’d never attended a workshop and I've no real academic qualifications. This kind of reckoning either forces you to take up space, or imposter syndrome comes to shatter your spirt. Even to this day I’m fighting the latter. The journey for the most part has been impulsive, which I guess has its own virtues and drawbacks."
"It's taken a long time to get my writing to where it is now, a lot of work. Long hours of reading and thinking, discussing and redrafting. With my new book After the Formalities set for release in September, I’ve felt like I’ve been playing catch-up. I’d write for around eight hours a day, go home and read for another two before my brain seized up. I’ve got great poets around me who read over my work, and I read theirs. We talk, suggest and critique each other. This is what I felt I was missing all those years ago, and what would have definitely benefited me had I done something at university level.
“Back then I didn’t understand the nature of the page, nor did I really have any desire to pursue it beyond a superficial level, which is why I think I was drawn to spoken word. Interpretive analysis requires a kind of permission, and if you don't feel your interpretive skills are that great, you start to feel locked out by the poem. I felt I didn't have the tools and the literary skills to navigate page poetry, whereas with spoken word so much is predicated around orature, conversation, political rhetoric and hip-hop. And they're all characteristics I felt culturally more associated with.”
With nothing to lose Anaxagorou threw himself into poetry, self-publishing several pamphlets and small collections between 2009 and 2013. But though more comfortable with spoken word, actually performing on stage was still very much in his past. That was until the MOBO Award-winning rapper, and now esteemed author and social critic, Akala, asked him to join on his 2010 Doublethink tour.
“It gave me a lot of confidence to be asked, but I hadn't stood in front of an audience for ten years. We did our first show in Hatfield. Akala’s fanbase was smaller then, but there were still around 70 people in the venue waiting to see him perform. But nobody had signed up to hear a poet. What would they make of me? I wasn’t a rapper. I misjudged the audience and read this rather long poem called Let This Be The Call. They slow clapped and I came off the stage feeling exactly the way I did a decade ago. In the green room I was venting to Akala saying, ‘Kings, I can't do this man, this really isn't my thing’. He responded with ‘look, it’s fine bro, it’s day one and you’re new to this whole thing, it’ll get better, trust me, you got this’.
“The sound engineer, Lavar jumped in and said ‘you just need to be yourself out there’. I was like, ‘I think that's the problem, I'm doing a bit too much of that.’ He said ‘No, you’re stiff and nervous and trying too hard to be liked. People pick up on that stuff. Look, If you were at home, what would you be doing?’ I said ‘I'd have a green tea and some music on’, he was like ‘cool, tomorrow when we hit Liverpool take a green tea up there with you’.
“The next night I went up with a green tea. I felt comfortable. I stepped to the mic with a smile saying, ‘what’s going on you lot?’ Everyone wooped and cheered, which helped settle my nerves. As a performer the audience will only be as uncomfortable as you make them. Once I learned to relax, everyone seemed far more accommodating. I learned a lot about performing on stage, about holding an audience, and writing poems that sound good in the air.”
Knowing how to hold an audience has become invaluable to Anaxagorou in recent years. Not just on stage, but also in his work delivering poetry workshops to community groups, students, school-children, even prisoners, here in the UK and around the world.
“Part of what I try and do is reintroduce poetry. When kids see someone like me, a working-class Cypriot from North London, come into their school under the auspices of a ‘poet’ it gets them thinking and talking. I want them to use poetry as a tool to think about the world, translate the parts which live beyond language, and most importantly, to own their experiences.
“When you give students that autonomy to try and create art out of the events that shape their lives it becomes an adventure. I mean, that’s all poets are doing, writing into these happenings in some way. I don't have any real teaching qualifications, but I've developed workshop skills over the years. At times it’s been joyous, at other points it’s heart-breaking to see how much potential young people have, and how the circumstances they’re born into can affect that.”
Given I recall my own school poetry lessons as extending little further than repeated readings from incredibly dry textbooks, and what felt like a never ending script of Seamus Heaney, it’s easy to sense the appeal for students to have a person with Anaxagorou’s enthusiasm enter their classroom. Is it something he wished he’d had when he was at school?
“Absolutely, as a kid I felt indifferent to poetry. I remember being very aloof in those lessons. Close reading was arduous. I was bored, dispassionate and restless, while at the same time being intellectually curious without the means to satisfy.
“But you know, the curriculum’s changed, it’s become a lot more exciting. We’ve got poets like John Agard and Grace Nichols, Imtiaz Dharker, Simon Armitage and Benjamin Zephaniah – none of these poets were in any of my textbooks. It’s far more holistic now, reflecting modern-day society, which is what I think art should be, not some exclusionary snippet of a particular individual’s corner.”
As well as a more vibrant curriculum, today’s young poets also have social media offering a gateway into the world of poetry. In 2011, Anaxagorou’s own career took an upward curve when his poem If I Told You found a captive audience on YouTube then three years later his poem This Is Not A Poem went viral on Facebook garnering four million views in a week and over 50,000 shares.
But in recognising how these channels open up poetry, Anaxagorou is also keen for them to be treated in line with more traditional poetry platforms.
“We can forget just how vast and multivalent Britain is. Our sensibilities differ, our beliefs and political views clash, as do our ideas around class and culture. We have to appreciate that Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have democratised poetry, which is a positive thing, and sure it’s a gateway, but we still need to think critically about these platforms, and perhaps that's where the discourse wanes slightly. Critical thinking is needed, without it what could develop? Also, it helps establish a unique understanding for each style, without conflation and hiercharchy, which is what leads to all the infighting.
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as a singular art. By that I mean it doesn’t need to be for everyone – like, why is it in every other area we acknowledge and respect variety and difference, but then art somehow has to be this all-encompassing thing, which can accommodate everyone, along with their experiences, politics, privileges and shortcomings? An artist is well within their right to say they make art with a particular person in mind, but that shouldn’t stop us from wanting to engage with the work. There’s a difference in saying this poem speaks to a certain thing, which some people from this group might be able to relate to more, as oppose to saying this poem isn’t intended for that group or that person at all. The latter is the issue. Ultimately this comes back down to access points, how well made the poem is, references, aesthetics and vernacular. The best Instapoets achieve what they set out to do. I think we can all learn something from that kind of commercial intelligence.”
Buoyed by his success via YouTube and self-publishing, Anaxagorou’s career as a poet really took off; performing three or four times a week, or debating on panels with politicians, activists and academics alike. Though he enjoyed the buzz, he soon began to feel the nights at which he was performing were in need of something more, something to break the old formula.
“By 2012 I was gigging nearly every night. There were plenty of open mic nights around. As anyone will tell you, sometimes these things can get quite difficult to sit through, especially if you have 25 open mic performers on before your set at 10.30pm. By that time the audience is either knackered or they've gone home. So I began to think about ways to stop that from happening. Not something exclusive per se, but something which didn’t need an open mic to secure an audience, where people could come and listen to poets reading with nothing to disrupt that experience.
“Open mic nights have their purpose and, like I said, there are still enough of them that we weren't taking anything away from the poetry eco-system. I grew excited by the idea of a showcase full of top writers and musicians. An eclectic distillation of some of the best in contemporary British poetry. The idea for Out-Spoken was nothing more than that, a night which brings together a variation of styles. So page, performance, dramatic monologue, and live music can coexist and be equally appreciated by an attentive audience.”
Concept settled on, and a space at Camden Forge secured, all Anaxagorou needed was a line-up. “At the start I asked my friends if they fancied coming and reading some poems for a bit of cash. I had a little circle of poets who I was moving with, so finding people wasn’t an issue. I booked a rapper called Brotherman, and another guy called Nate, plus The King's Will. Raymond Antrobus and Nia Barge came and read as did the now retired Ruby Kid, who I went on to run the night with until 2014.”
The first Out-Spoken took place in March 2012 and not only was it a sell-out show, it was so well received that what had initially been planned as a bimonthly showcase, became a monthly staple of the London poetry calendar. “I was completely taken back by how many people turned up. We had queues all the way up the stairs. I remember a young Jacob Banks coming through and dazzling the audience, Eliza Shaddad and the rapper Ty. It was nuts to see how religiously people turned up every month, and soon the same people were bringing more friends and family along. As for poets, we had an audience that were loyal and generous. After each night poets would be selling pamphlets from their rucksacks, signing books, and posing for selfies.”
So what does he put this success of Out-Spoken down to? “The combination of having a brilliant team to work with, Arts Council funding, and the quality of poetry in Britain. We’re in the midst of a renaissance – poets who traditionally came from places previously ignored by the establishment are now touring the world, winning awards, being invited to speak on national television and so on. It’s a beautiful thing to witness and be part of. Publishers are broadening their visions and audiences are bolder and more curious than ever.”
Out-Spoken isn’t the only London spoken word night gathering momentum, May also sees Bang Said The Gun deliver a sold-out night at Southbank Centre. Are the fortunes of these two nights, perhaps symptomatic of a growing appreciation for spoken word?
“It's weird with spoken word poetry as it never quite arrives and never quite leaves. It's always been here. Orature has always been an integral part of every civilisation – from the Druids to the Griots of West Africa. Every so often a journalist might rehash an article on how spoken word is the new rock ‘n’ roll, or something equally glib, but that’s not really the case. People like to believe in the idea of something new, news editors like it even more, but really the oral tradition is the oldest form of verbal communication. When audiences come to hear poems being read aloud, they are in fact sitting in front of antiquity.”
Out-Spoken has gained a reputation for drawing big names to its stage; Inua Ellams and Simon Armitage shared a bill in 2017. TS Eliot Prize winner, Hannah Sullivan, appears at one of their Southbank Centre nights. But whilst headline names may keep getting bigger, Anaxagorou and his Out-Spoken team have never wavered from their original commitment; offering a platform to poets who stem from humble beginnings and have struggled for visibility.
“We just want things to be fair. As much as poetry wants to be ecumenical – and compared to so many other artforms it is – it still has a fair bit of work to do before we can fly the big inclusive flag. As a community of writers, publishers, editors, curators, reviewers, promoters and critics, we’ve certainly come a long way, even in the last decade, but I’d be averse to getting overly comfortable.
“Different people write about different things. The aim of what we try and do is give light and space to these worlds. I sat in back rows of poetry nights for years listening to the same poet read the same poem and thought, life isn’t this two dimensional, where are all the other voices, the myriad stories? The more homogenous poetry is, the more we lose as readers, as writers, as humans.”
In 2015 came the launch of the now annual Out-Spoken Poetry Prize. A prize which recognises work in page, performance and film with a cash prize going to an overall winner from across any one of those categories.
“Again, it was really about trying to legitimise the various styles of poetry. We also wanted to appeal to individuals rather than publishers, so the majority of people who submit are those who, from what we’re told, are reluctant to submit to prizes. Our research tells us people trust their writing in spaces where they can see themselves or their sensibilities reflected. Judging panels help to consecrate that trust too. On average we get around 700 submissions a year, which for such a young prize is pretty encouraging.
“We've had some incredibly talented people come through the awards – Momtaza Mehri, Fran Lock, and just recently, our youngest winner, 17-year-old Mukahang Limbu. This kind of validation really does help give poets the confidence they need to keep writing, and to help kickstart what will undoubtedly prove to be a fruitful career.”
Throughout the years Anaxagorou’s broad vision has matured and crystallised. Coming from such a peripheral place himself it makes sense that he and his team want to assist new voices in finding their way into the poetry world, and the establishment of Out-Spoken Press was the next step in that mission. “For me poetry involves three things: writing, reading and publishing. The aim with Out-Spoken was to create a space where poets could do all three of those vital things. To develop their craft for an affordable price, under the tutelage of the country’s most interesting writers; to have their work appreciated by an eager and generous audience, and to potentially have their work published. That’s what we have to offer, and yes publishing is hard work, but at the end of the process you see this beautiful book which a poet has invested years of their life in. The exuberance is palpable. That kind of satisfaction isn’t easily landed on. It's a beautiful thing to witness, and I hope to be part of that journey for as long as I'm around.”
So now to the immediate future, and Out-Spoken’s upcoming Southbank Centre residency. What exactly does such a partnership mean to him? “For me there's really nowhere else to go. Having our show at Southbank Centre feels like reaching the summit. With such a prestigious cultural hub investing and supporting in your vision, your ideas, your work and team, it’s acutely affirming.”
As with any Out-Spoken event, the line-up for their residency shows boast a rich collection of venerated poets. Is there anyone he’s particularly looking forward to hearing?
“Oh for sure, I mean, everyone! But if I had to whittle it down I’d say I'm excited to hear Rebecca Tamás read, Fiona Benson, Ilya Kaminsky, and Morgan Parker. I'm a big fan of all their writing and I’m yet to hear them read. Some nights I find myself sitting in my living room thinking all this started on a Megabus ride up to Leicester in 2009. I’ll never rid myself of that feeling - the hopelessness I felt throughout my school life and my twenties. When I need anchoring I think back to the jobs I’ve had, the people I’ve been. Without wanting to sound mawkish, if it ended tomorrow I’d be happy with how it all turned out.”
Out-Spoken’s Southbank Centre residency began in May 2019, and continues into the autumn and winter with live nights of performance and workshops from poets such as Inua Ellams.
Interview by Glen Wilson