Raymond Antrobus uses spoken word poetry to portray a diverse experience of sound
Raymond Antrobus was born deaf. When he came to poetry, much of his work was built on the history and foundations of poetry slams and spoken word performances.
"I really felt a lineage of poets in music, poets in voice, poets in performance," Antrobus says.
The author of two poetry collections – The Perseverance and All The Names Given – Antrobus has now released an album of spoken word poems called The First Time I Wore Hearing Aids. It was produced by Grammy-award-winning music producer Ian Brennan.
Brennan had read Antrobus' poems before, but it was just a few months ago – in June this year – that he heard the poet perform on stage. "It was such a beautiful night," he says.
Realizing that he and Antrobus were both going to be at a festival in London the following month, he wrote to the poet to collaborate. And Antrobus was excited by that.
"I came to poetry through so many poets who also record their work," Antrobus says. The poet played some of Brennan's past work to his then 10-month-old son, who responded well to it. "I wanted to be part of that enterprise with this album and with my poetry."
Antrobus' poems often reflect the experience of a person who hears sound in many different ways. Brennan – whose own sister was born with Down Syndrome and is deaf in her left ear – was interested in those dimensions.
"[Music] was always one of the things that she was the most connected to, and certainly more sensitive to than others who had full hearing," Brennan says of his sister. "I don't sound the same to you as I would to another person and I don't sound the same to Raymond as I would another individual or vice versa."
In July, when Brennan and Antrobus met to record the album of his spoken word poems, they recorded enough to fill up two records.
"Most of what's there is Raymond," Brennan says. "So even the sonic elements you're hearing are Raymond, it's his voice."
Of the 16 tracks that made the album, some – like the track "Closer Captions" – recreate sound as experienced by those in the non-hearing world.
"We were at a festival and it meant that I had limited charge on my hearing aids," Antrobus says. "And there were points where between takes, I had to take off my earpiece and kind of just sit in this – not quite silence, but a kind of quieter, muffled kind of sound."
The artists recorded most tracks in one take. That meant Brennan sometimes played music in the background. Speaking of the track "Captions & a dream for John T Williams of Nuu-Chah-Nulth tribe," the producer recalls a special moment from the festival. He'd met a musical group the day before the artists recorded the album.
"[The group's] instrument builders built me a Ndzendze. It's a very rare instrument – a two-sided guitar. So it's eight strings, four strings on each side," Brennan says. "I could kind of play it intuitively because it's a string instrument."
Here's an excerpt from the poem:
He fell facing away from the police officer,
four bullet holes on the left side of his body,
hands holding a block of cedar wood
and a three-inch blade he used to carve
canoes and faces into totem poles.
(announcing it is not over)
The police officer said:
I yelled at him to drop the knife.
(sound of something left out)
It took five seconds to shoot.
"The poem is about a deaf individual being killed by the police who was a carver, who lived by the water and carved canoes," Brennan says. "And I'm playing this instrument that has been handmade and carved by somebody who carves canoes."
Antrobus, who is Jamaican-British, often captures the experience of police violence in his work.
"The borders of identity are so heavily protected and policed and patrolled," Antrobus says of these poems. "And look how dangerous it is for certain people when we cross those borders. You quite literally could end up with a gun in your face, a bullet in the back."
He also often writes of how that experience can be especially traumatic for deaf individuals, who without trained interpreters, have high chances of being misinterpreted by law enforcement.
"That's why so many of the elements on the record are Raymond's voice, but Raymond's voice changing – maybe being double-tracked or triple-tracked," Brennan says.
Other sonic elements on the album include sound recorded underwater, such as on the track "Miami Airport Immigration."
"When we think about how much of the earth is covered with water, it's maybe the majority of the sound environment on the planet," Brennan says. "Yet it's something largely unfamiliar to many people."
To that, Antrobus adds that the human body is made up mostly of water, which then creates an atmosphere where we question exactly what we are made of. "Where do we belong? What is truly being questioned? What are the true reasons for this confinement of identity, of language, of experience, of ideas?"
The artists hope that bringing listeners to these questions with the album will show them that the experience of sound – like most experiences – is not binary.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.