Poet Roger Robinson embraces his call

The British writer will take part in ‘Portable Paradise’ at Urban Arts Space on Friday, April 5, reading alongside Columbus poets Cynthia Amoah and Ajanaé Dawkins.
Roger Robinson
Roger RobinsonCourtesy the poet

Early in the Covid pandemic, British poet Roger Robinson set off on a road trip alongside photographer and writer Johny Pitts, the two intending to document the various dimensions of Black Britain that exist outside of the country’s urban centers.

“Everybody knows what’s going on in Brixton … and all of these central places, but not many people talk to Black people on the coasts,” Robinson said via Zoom in late March. “And as [the trip] unfolded, we began to ask little things like, wow, what does it mean to have a Black body against nature and not in the context of National Geographic tribalism? … What does it mean to see Black skin in marine light?”

Robinson said these travels took place at a tenuous point in time, the ground made unstable not only by the coronavirus but also by the early ramifications of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union (aka “Brexit”) and the larger global social justice movement given rise by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. But the resulting collection, Home Is Not a Place, which features Robinson’s poetry alongside photographs by Pitts, was equally influenced by the trip’s quieter moments, and in particular the hours of conversation and music listening that unfolded between the two Black men as Pitts piloted their rented red Mini Cooper through the countryside.

“Johny and I in the car together, that was the bigger narrative, because Johny’s the kind of guy where you get in the car and he’s like, ‘Yeah, who’s your top five MCs?’ And you name them, and you have this massive debate, and then he’s talking about [German philosopher Martin] Heidegger and you’re like, ‘Whoa, whoa. What?’ And then you’re talking about high art, high philosophy, high sociology for hours,” said Robinson, who will take part in “Portable Paradise” at Urban Arts Space on Friday, April 5, reading alongside Columbus poets Cynthia Amoah and Ajanaé Dawkins. “And I don’t drive, so Johny drove the entire time. And there’s this Black man rule where if you drive, you’re in control of the music. And Johny’s quite a bit younger than me, but he’s obsessed with music from the ’90s. … And he’s playing songs I remember from [going to] weddings.  ... So, you’re traveling down the coast and you’re looking at the sea and remembering slow dancing at weddings. … And you’d get this juxtaposition of a white cliff and Keith Sweat, and you start to have these sorts of surreal, liminal moments.”

These more observational asides helped to shape the poetry Robinson penned in the immediate aftermath of the trip for Home Is Not a Place. But they’ve also had a lingering impact on the writer, who recently finished a rough draft of his first novel in which the surrounding environment became a character in itself. “And that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t taken that trip,” he said.

Language has always been second nature to Robinson, who recalled how in middle school he would compose his classmates’ arguments for debate class, leading to a scenario in which he would essentially be pitched in repeated dispute with himself. And yet, Robinson said starting work on his first novel initially felt “alien” to him after having spent the bulk of his life ensconced in poetic verse, which requires a degree of precision, in comparison. “I naturally want to go to epiphany and compact things as soon as possible,” he said. “But, no, with a novel you have to draw things out.”

Robinson said he was compelled to poetry from an early age due in part to this portability, comparing the craft with the construction of an intricate wind-up box. But he also identified with the deep sense of empathy he observed in the form, and which has found a natural home in his own verse. “The best work of poets I read, in particular, translates something for you to be able to face it and control it,” he said. “Poetry is an empathic process.”

This idea resonates throughout Robison’s deep catalog, whether he is confronting the harms enacted on Black bodies by police (“Beware,” from A Portable Paradise, rooted in the 2017 death of Rashan Charles) or wrestling with the premature birth of his son, whose survival he attributes almost solely to the actions undertaken by a Jamaican nurse named, appropriately, Grace

Robinson has long found comfort and identity in words, sharing how as a teenager he would congregate in Trinidad with his uncles and their friends – a free-thinking crew he described as “anti-everything: anti-colonial, anti-imperial, anti-America,” and which consisted of musicians, artists, writers and other likeminded creatives. 

“It wouldn’t be unheard of for them to go spend a weekend drinking and smoking with Fidel Castro. And I grew up among them, and because I had an interest in words, they were happy to have me there,” he said. “Robert De Niro says about acting that you can train to be an actor all that you want, but if you don’t have that little seed in you that you can recognize, and that comes naturally to you and the way you walk and the way you move and everything you do, if you don’t have that seed, no amount of training will make you into a good actor. I think it’s the same with a poet. You can learn a lot about craft, but you still have to have that little thing. You still have to have this sense where words play this weird thing for you, where for a long time they’ve been a part of your identity in this particular way.”

As he’s gotten older, though, Robinson said his work has taken an increasingly outward focus – an evolution he expressed as a desire to have his poetry be about “more than me and my big head.” It’s also, in a way, an extension of the mission-driven spirit Robinson has always embraced as a part of his work, and which he traced to the influence of his religious mother, who long believed her son would follow in her footsteps and become a pastor.

“It was her call, and I told her, ‘I don’t think that’s my call,’” Robinson said. “There was always a sense she was grooming me for something, though for a long time I didn’t know what it was. … But there were things in her call that I have, and which I’ve managed to translate into something else.”

Related Stories

No stories found.
Matter News