On January 13, 2020, Trinidadian-British poet Roger Robinson won the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry for his poetry collection “A Portable Paradise.” The T.S. Eliot Prize honours “the best collection of new verse in English first published in the UK or the Republic of Ireland.”
The judges praised Robinson's work for “finding in the bitterness of everyday experience continuing evidence of ‘sweet, sweet life.’”
The book is divided into five sections, each of which ends with a poem exploring the theme of paradise, with topics ranging from London's tragic Grenfell Tower fire to the Windrush controversy. Issues of migration, racism, identity and inequity, are all presented in bold, raw, and honest ways.
Maybe it’s the sting of dissent, maybe it’s the hint of West Indian swagger that makes the reader curious to see where Robinson's poems go, but he has a rare ability to place himself in the midst of things and yield to that immersion, yet remain a truthful observer. Robinson's words are a balm to the bitterness of life — the collection compassionately recognises the humanity within us all, bound together by an almost reverent tone of dignity, even in powerlessness.
I got in touch with Robinson shortly after his win and chatted with via email about winning the prize, the collection itself, and why empathy is so important.
Janine Mendes-Franco (JMF): Congratulations! “A Portable Paradise” is a really important piece of work. Is the prize something you’d had your eye on, or did the win come as a happy surprise?
Roger Robinson (RR): I never have my eye on prizes, but I appreciate the prize. I’m always about getting the poems to people rather than trying to win a prize. I do like how the prize is getting me to a wider range of reader, though.
JMF: Interesting that Eliot himself was American-born but chose to live and work in England. You, on the other hand, were born in England and, having returned to Trinidad as a child, also chose to eventually settle in the UK. Have you thought about those parallels and why, for instance, Trinidad might be good for formation, but England might be better for creation?
RR: Hmmmm…interesting. I think Trinidad is also good for creation, but England is good for commerce and access to the international publishing industry.
JMF: The UK Guardian described you as a “British-Trinidadian dub poet.” Do you identify with that? How would you explain what “dub” poetry is to someone who’s never heard that genre of music or listened to a spoken word performance?
RR: I’ve made a few dub albums. I think other people have called me a dub poet; I've not necessarily referred to myself that way. Dub poetry to me is poetry influenced by reggae rhythms, with a working-class focus.
JMF: It’s not coincidental that music has played such an integral role. You have a band (King Midas Sound), you’ve done recordings and music videos, and while all poetry has rhythm, yours has a musicality that stays with the reader. How did you hone your craft into something this unique and feels so authentic?
RR: I don’t know. I think I write from the things that interest me in a moment and I’m truthful to my interests. I don’t think it was a planned thing. Honing craft came through enjoyment of the rigours of practice.
JMF: It’s a daring thing, to be a truth-teller when the truth is a difficult thing to come by. Some of your work is almost like an intersection of journalism and poetry. Is it important to you that your collections are read by those who see “truth” differently from you?
RR: I think that I write like I am, so I’m no more daring than my own emotional truths. It’s no more important to me for people who see truth differently to read it, even though I like the idea of people developing and practicing empathy. The practice of empathy by all different types of people would be more important to me.
JMF: Were there truths you believed about yourself in Trinidad (which I assume was your benchmark for paradise), that did not translate in the UK? If so, did poetry help bridge the gap? What make you start thinking about the idea that paradise might be portable?
RR: I started thinking that paradise might be portable because I wanted it to be — and because my grandmother went to England and brought most of her 11 children to England on the money she made sewing dresses. Her children were her paradise.
I think in England I got a sense of myself as an international artist, which I did not get in Trinidad.
JMF: Quite a few of your poems in this collection have an underpinning of faith in something greater — a more enduring paradise if you will. What did you want this to accomplish?
RR: I wanted people to understand the power of prayer in their time of trauma.
JMF: The “hero” of many of your poems is the underdog in general and the migrant specifically. How, if at all, does the outsider experience inform your writing?
RR: Hmmmm…I can’t tell; I’m too close to it to see. I’m sure it does. I mean, when I came to England I lived in tower blocks so I knew about living in one. I guess it made me see things in a different way.
JMF: I understand you might be coming to Trinidad for the 2020 Bocas Lit Fest. Are you interested in connecting with other Caribbean writers?
RR: Yeah, I am coming to Bocas and I'm definitely interested in meeting other writers. Trinidadian poets like Andre Bagoo, Shivanee Ramlochan and Muhammad Muwakil are gaining in world recognition, and I’d love to connect with Caribbean writers when I’m there.
JMF: Who have been your greatest influences?
JMF: Poetry in Trinidad and Tobago is not necessarily well consumed, though it weaves its way into everything from soca and rapso music to spoken word performances, all reminiscent of the call and response tradition of the kalinda [martial art]. In a sense, all this is Caribbean poetry. Why do you think poetry is a powerful medium?
RR: I think it’s powerful because it helps people to practice empathy. Also it allows people to observe someone practicing vulnerability. A lot of inhumanity will occur without empathy and vulnerability.
JMF: Any advice for regional poets?
RR: Keep writing no matter what anyone says; don’t stop writing.
JMF: What are you most proud of when it comes to this collection?
RR: That I didn’t leave anything back. I gave it all.
|Maria Alyokhina (l) and her partner Lucy Shtein. trying on their food courier disguises.|
She dressed up as a food courier to get around the Moscow police, who had her under house arrest, and left Russia. Maria Alyokhina, better known as Masha, picked up the phone somewhere in Iceland to talk to EL PAÍS via the encrypted network Telegram. Alyokhina, a member of the Pussy Riot collective, the punk band that has been defying Vladimir Putin’s government since 2011, was afraid that Russian authorities might track her down. “I was arrested three days after the war with Ukraine started. I was in a labor camp again. When I was released, my friends had either left Russia or were in jail. Everything here is always that complicated and stupid,” she said. “They took away my passport. I am here thanks to the solidarity of other artists who helped me escape from Russia. Pussy Riot exists because of that solidarity, with which we will build something stronger than weapons.”
For this 33-year-old native of Moscow, nothing has been the same since August 17, 2012, when Pussy Riot burst into the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow wearing colorful balaclavas to ask the Mother of God to rid the world of Putin. The punk performance turned into the most effective act of activism against the Russian government to date, it upset Putin and also, she says, the West, “which continued to sell arms to Russia, and buy gas from it, without asking what was happening to the human rights of Russians. Suddenly, with Ukraine, it’s like they’ve opened their eyes. And they are doing things. What’s most effective is the gas embargo, and the embargo on the properties of oligarchs. They should be tougher there,” she said.
Following that 2012 performance, she was sentenced to two years in prison for hooliganism, her longest jail term, and released in December 2013. Alyokhina describes her time in prison as a gulag in which she did forced labor “for 12 hours a day.” She would later be arrested on numerous occasions for her activism. In April, after protesting against the Kremlin’s offensive in Ukraine, a court replaced her house arrest with 21 days in a penal colony.
Alyokhina held by police on July 27, 2019, at a rally demanding that independent and opposition candidates be allowed to run for office.KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (AFP)
The call gets cut off. Does she think the line is tapped? “I don’t know and I don’t care. Putin doesn’t scare me. He’s a nobody. He’s just a guy who has held the presidency in Russia and built a totalitarian state pretending to be a new Stalin fighting the Nazis. He is not dangerous. The things he has at his disposal are dangerous. The atomic bombs, the missiles. But he himself is nobody. He has done nothing but ruin the country. In 22 years, he has built nothing. And the rest of the world knows it. And if you spend enough time in Russia and see how it works from the inside, you realize that there is nothing more stupid. That’s why you’re not afraid of him. Nobody is afraid of him anymore, it’s ridiculous,” she replied.
What is scary is what is happening in Ukraine, she said. That’s why Pussy Riot are risking going on tour.
Alyokhina spent over a week trying to cross into Belarus and then into Lithuania. Before her escape, she had been waiting to serve one of her countless sentences for her activism against the government. As she told The New York Times, border guards in Belarus held her for six hours on her first attempt to cross the border before sending her back to Russia. On the third attempt she made it, and once inside the country she was given a travel document that facilitated her arrival in a European Union country thanks to the mediation of the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson.
Their show, Riot Days, will allow fans to decide the price they pay for the tickets. The idea is to continue “opening eyes” to the world about what Putin, “that sick maniac,” is doing in Russia and Ukraine. “He is losing more than he thought he could ever lose. But because he is a maniac he is unpredictable. And that’s why this new Cold War is so dangerous. It’s much more serious and dangerous than the first one. Because Putin is crazy,” she said.
The show is a theatrical adaptation of Riot Days, the book in which Alyokhina denounced the mistreatment of women in Russian prisons. She said that feminism is making inroads all over the world except in Russia. “Russia is dystopian. It doesn’t even have a law against male violence. If I punch you in the street, I’m sure I’ll end up in jail. But if your husband hits you at home, he will be fined €50 and that’s it. And if you are raped, it will be your fault for dressing the way you did. Feminism, even as a word, is an enemy of the state in Russia. It is associated with the West, and with Evil,” she said.
Since arriving in Iceland, Alyokhina has kept up her activism, demonstrating in front of the Russian consulate in Reykjavik and using the network of artist solidarity to host other people who want to leave Russia. She described this experience as a stopover, and said her goal is to return to her country and continue fighting against President Putin through combative art.
The setting is the White House – or rather a set recreating the White House and inhabited by actors Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in the TV show House of Cards. The year is 2015. Maria Alyokhina, better known as Masha, has already been jailed and released more than once. And she has begun to write her book, a Vonnegutesque memoir called Riot Days. The memoir tells the story behind Pussy Riot, the feminist punk collective that made Alyokhina the kind of star that is invited to make a provocative cameo in a hit TV show. It also depicts the author’s day-to-day life in prison, with special emphasis on the freezing cold, systematic mistreatment and forced labor – problems that seem not to have changed since Dostoevsky’s time. And it also recounts Alyokhina’s lifetime of defying tyranny.
In the third House of Cards episode of the show’s third season, Masha and fellow Pussy Riot activist Nadya Tolokonnikova refuse to toast Viktor Petrov, the Vladimir Putin of the series, played by Lars Mikkelsen. The women’s appearance on the show reflected the fact that they are recognized as major players in history –although Masha is not so sure. “As a teenager,” Masha recounts in Riot Days, “I used to do graffiti on one of the school walls.” The wall was painted with historical motifs depicting a Russia she hadn’t seen and didn’t believe in. “I liked seeing how the graffiti was gaining ground and began to mix with those historical episodes, giving shape to another truth, ours,” she writes. Even then, the teenage Masha thought like an activist.
Born in Moscow in 1988, Maria Alyokhina grew up in 1990s Russia, and she remembers “people lining up everywhere, lining up for food, clothes, vouchers.” That, she says, has not changed. “They tell us that the country has changed, but I keep seeing the lines.” Masha was raised by her mother, a programmer, and did not meet her math teacher father until she was 21. She hated the Russian educational system and changed schools four times. “They taught you not to think. They wanted us to just follow the rules. Obviously, I didn’t like it at all,” she once said. A poet, actress and mother, Masha studied journalism and creative writing and was a Greenpeace activist. She has long been inspired by the performance artist and political provocateur Aleksander Brener.
Pussy Riot’s first action took place in the same spot where Brener stood before the Kremlin with a pair of boxing gloves – the image of him dressed as a boxer became iconic – and asked the Russian president at the time, Boris Yeltsin, to come out and fight. “There were eight of us, like the eight dissidents in 1968″ who protested against the occupation of Czechoslovakia, she recalls. But the image that spread across the world, forever changing the West’s conception that Russia had left its Soviet past behind, occurred in the Moscow Cathedral. The action landed the collective in jail for the first time: the collective sang a song asking the Mother of God to become a feminist and free Russia from Putin. Masha dressed in green and wore a yellow balaclava. Lara Alcázar, the founder of the Spanish branch of the feminist activist group Femen, says that the action was significant because it “clicks in the mind of those who see it.”
“The protest seeks to arouse an opinion, a series of questions. It has always been necessary, but right now there is an emergency. It shows you the other side – in this case, where the oppressors and the oppressed are,” says Alcázar. Today, Masha is hiding somewhere in Iceland, after having fled Russia with her partner Lucy Shtein, both disguised as food couriers. Her life is in danger. Alcázar also points out that women who dedicate themselves to activism break many boundaries. As with Femen’s demonstrations, Pussy Riot’s protests are especially powerful because they consist of direct action and provocation, she says.
Carol Paris, editor of the Spanish-language version of Read & Riot: A Pussy Riot Guide to Activism, says that the most interesting thing about the collective is how they transcend the idea of individuality. “They show us how we can become active free agents. We should all be Pussy Riot.” And yet, as writer and translator Monika Zgustova points out, we cannot forget that Masha and the rest of the Pussy Riot “are in real danger, danger of being killed with a bullet to the forehead or a sophisticated poison, as has already happened to so many people who made the Kremlin uncomfortable.” That danger “gives value, weight and seriousness to their message,” a message that, as Nadya Tolokonnikov writes, they express through “barbaric and primitive political cabaret.”
When I’m 37 years old, I won’t be
bald. I won’t
wear white robes with red
intestines in the pocket.
When I’m 37 years old,
my mother won’t die. I won’t
knock on the doors of my sons’ rooms with
stupid questions on a stupidly happy
When I’m 37 years old, I won’t
exercise at half past five
in the morning and whistle through my nose like
a maniac. I won’t
towel off in village
inns and offend pious
people after they barely survived
the war. I won’t
wear knickers. I won’t
bring up Haloze and everything they took
from us and say
When I’m 37 years old, I won’t
be on duty, but
free. I’ll let myself grow a long beard and long
nails, my white ships will sail all the world’s
seas. And if a woman
gives birth to my children, I’ll throw them through
the windowpane from the left corner
of the dining room and wonder
what will fall on the pavement first,
the glass or the gauze.
Wisteria rip the tarp off the monkey’s chest
with large wheels and great force. The camp gazes
into the valley. Bends. Gray birds thunder
at the hypothesis of cells. I have no idea when the valley
was submerged. Maybe three hundred thousand
seventy two years ago. I saw
a postman. He was swimming out of the house. His
bag was rolling in yellow water. Smoke
came from the chimneys. I didn’t understand how
smoke lives underwater. How the postman breathes.
How daisies and clover retain their
color. How the seasons don’t
collapse beneath the poster. Where the postman changes
his clothes. Why he doesn’t sleep in a trunk. Why he has
shorter legs than the other postman, his
colleague. A pine needle fell on the surface
of the lake. It’s already traveling. Already soaking
in the water and rushing toward the postman’s head.
Tomaž Šalamun (1941-2014) published more than 55 books of poetry in Slovenia. Translated into over 25 languages, his poetry received numerous awards, including the Jenko Prize, the Prešeren Prize, the European Prize for Poetry, and the Mladost Prize. In the 1990s, he served for several years as the Cultural Attaché for the Slovenian Embassy in New York, and later held visiting professorships at various universities in the U.S.
Brian Henry is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently Permanent State (Threadsuns, 2020). He has translated Tomaž Šalamun’s Woods and Chalices (Harcourt, 2008), Aleš Debeljak’s Smugglers (BOA Editions, 2015), and five books by Aleš Šteger. His work has received numerous honors, including two NEA fellowships, the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, a Howard Foundation fellowship, and the Best Translated Book Award. He is editing and translating a comprehensive volume of Selected Poems by Tomaž Šalamun for Milkweed Editions.
I was reading Paul Celan.
I was spilling coffee on the pages of Paul Celan
which had been in possession of at least four of my friends
and maybe I wasn’t reading exactly but resting my faded eyes
on a chestnut-haired woman approaching the back wall
and it became clearer then that it was her
in the flesh for the first time in ages
after many fluid months of separation
kept me light as an arrow in my own skin.
She was unknotting the brittle laces of her Clark’s desert boots
under the crucifixion taped to her wall in Brooklyn.
Airplanes bruised the apartment with their squally departures,
morning noon and night made warm by white Christmas lights
tangled in the large, clear window overlooking the L train.
I thought, as she painted her toenails on the sink,
preparing for the movie we had planned for weeks to see together:
I want to spring on you like a verb,
like a wartime cat snatching a rare mouse from the floor.
She read on the floor in a little cave of phone light
while I slept. She wouldn’t describe those nights
to me the next day. I wanted to fuck
in the mornings. She’d say, but I haven’t slept.
I told the diner waitress that she was home a little sick.
“Sick because of a baby?” she asked.
The parks were empty at night
except for violence. There was a cat who survived
ten winters. I felt brutal toward the neighbors who fed it.
It was bright and hot as Rome
when I went out to buy the pill at dawn.
Rilke said a lover who shows you the wilderness of eternity
still stands in your way.
I watched her smoke outside the coffee shop.
She put her headphones in and breathed out her nose,
in her button-up dress and Birkenstocks, sleeves tight down to her forearms.
She looked up the Avenue at the Empire State Building,
sun flashing off its glass. I thought about all the feelings I have had
about her in my life. The tremendous volume of
feelings, more for her than for almost anyone
on earth, so that daydreams are like composites
of those feelings, even when they refer
to distant fields or dark houses.
It reminds me of the woman who feels birds
portioning the sky inside her.
When she arrives home after spending an afternoon
with friends, she makes herself sick
imagining cockfights and feathers, birds eating each other,
a plate of something unprepared left by an open window.
I’m thinking of Jason Molina.
I’m thinking of friends I barely know.
Four lumpy white walls, no heat yet. A huge storm
wafted across the Atlantic towards a spiral swell.
Water and deadly wind. The thick olive-green curtains
hung on the pummeled window. Over the hearty Bolognese,
we watched videos of men digging for IEDs
dissolved in suddenly bright explosions. I spooned sauce
into my mouth, subsumed with a body that tries to hide
on a flat nightfall of dirt. I was something you would find
in the grass on a fled suburban block.
I saw her, as if with my left temple
and I drank the warm beer faster than the other four,
who knew what I did. She was smiling, not drinking.
Music was more than anyone in the room.
Michael Juliani is a poet, editor, and writer from Pasadena, California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in outlets such as Sixth Finch, Tammy, CutBank, Prelude, Pigeon Pages, NECK, Washington Square Review, the Los Angeles Times and BOMB. He has an MFA in poetry from Columbia University, and he lives in Brooklyn, New York.