Anthony Anaxagorou

United Kingdom

Anthony Anaxagorou is a British-born Cypriot poet, fiction writer, essayist, publisher and poetry educator. His poetry has been published in POETRY, The Poetry Review, Poetry London, New Statesman, Granta, and elsewhere. His work has also appeared on BBC Newsnight, BBC Radio 4, ITV, Vice UK, Channel 4 and Sky Arts. 

His second collection After the Formalities published with Penned in the Margins is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was shortlisted for the 2019 T.S Eliot Prize. It was also a Telegraph and Guardian poetry book of the year. 

In 2019 he was made an honorary fellow of the University of Roehampton. Anthony is artistic director of Out-Spoken, a monthly poetry and music night held at London’s Southbank Centre, and publisher of Out-Spoken Press.


"The Hermetica’s spine blunt with forgetting/ twists race into a white noose", observes Anthony Anaxagorou, the British-born Cypriot poet, fiction writer, essayist, publisher and poetry educator. This powerful metaphor denouncing the violence of reductive thinking appears in the opening to 'Following on from Kant' in Anaxagorou’s most recent collection, After the Formalities (Penned in the Margins, 2019). While the Hermetica reference harks back to the ancient philosophical texts attributed to the Egyptian god Thoth, the legendary scribe who was believed to be the inventor of writing, the unapologetic rooting of his poems within topical affairs is a knife-sharp reminder that restrictive attitudes towards race and their harmful consequences, as attached to the hostile image of “a white noose", very much live on. This ranges from the moment an Uber driver is racially abused on the day of the Brexit referendum (“go home”, two men shout in ‘Uber’, “laughing up a storm front then speeding off”), to passivity in the face of the refugee crisis (where “children peppered oceans / like ends of warm bread” in ‘Departure Lounge Twenty Seventeen’), to Theresa May triggering Article 50 and across the waters to Donald Trump.

In the same way that the strength of this “white noose” depends upon the synchronicity of its separate threads, so too does the influence of history upon the present depend upon the synchronicity of its loudest voices. The extended title poem ‘After the Formalities’ traces the origins of race science and its various strands of noose-like classification from 1481, when the word ‘race’ first appeared in Jacques de Bréze’s poem ‘The Hunt’, used to distinguish between different groups of dogs, to 1606 when it was added to the dictionary by French diplomat Jean Nicot, at which point, the term was officially knighted with the dubious honour of denoting distinctions between different groups of people. The collection’s historical scaffolding is rigorous and thorough, sourcing also from the contentious shade of eugenicist Charles Davenport’s beliefs, who, repulsed by certain poverty and behaviour, claimed that criminality could be biologically inherited, as well as Charles Darwin’s theory that the white races were evolutionarily more advanced than the black races, hence his racial hierarchy. J.F. Blumenbach and François Bernier on racial classification using phenotypic characteristics (an individual's observable physical traits) feature too.

What is interesting is how this historical framework is presented on the page: segregated from poetic reflection through typographical distinction, the layout creates a haunting call and response between the poet in the present and these past attitudes. The segregation is not only through mindset and time, but also through space, quite literally, giving the signposting of the “noose” as “white” significance in more ways than one. Neal Alexander writes that the physical event of literary texts can “produce ‘cognitive maps’, providing readers with persuasive but ideologically charged representations of space through which they are encouraged to orient their relations with the wider social worlds in which they move”. This poem and by turns the collection as whole can therefore be read as a cognitive map to confronting such assumptions; considering the impact of colonial language, how it is tamed to suit people’s purposes but does not always suit people’s purposes equally; a theme that resurfaces directly through self-referential thematics:

In those days I was required to fill out forms

with multiple boxes. Some I left blank. My father

would notice my omission. Filling in the white

option with his black biro. I crossed it out. 

Telling him I’m going with ‘other’. My mother 

wearing the same sad skin as before said we are not 

white. The look he gave her was. Snatching the form 

from me. The same X dominating so much white. 

Let me tell you. Nobody in their right mind need

make themselves such an obvious target. He affirmed

This playful contempt towards the speaker’s experience of the bureaucratic farce of box-ticking not only speaks to a divided nation, embodying certain anxieties surrounding the growth of the immigrant-descended population, but also demonstrates through the spectacle of erasure the political charge of writing into the historically white narrative of the page itself; slipping into its “white noose”. The poet has elaborated on this experience for a recent interview on Poetry & Class for Liverpool University's Centre for New & International Writing. “I reached racial puberty at around eleven, having been made aware of my ‘otherness’, my Cypriotness along with my proximity to whiteness by school friends, teachers and the experiences I encountered on the streets with police and such. The issue was I had no real language to understand what it all meant”.

While Anaxagorou routinely recognises language as a restrictive tool “for closure”, as in ‘Unpronounceable Circle’, where he points out the near “impossible / to master” pronunciation of his surname — alongside the extended reflection on the “white noose” effect of racial thinking, and the inadequacy of the medium to tend to all that remains unsaid — these fervently meditative poems are also buoyant and hopeful, celebrating language as a vital tool “for closeness”. They reach out and advocate for compassion and community at a time we need it most, “needing the answer to be more than echo” (‘Talking to Myself in Halves’) if only more people would tune in and respond.

 

By Ledbury Poetry Critic, Jade Cuttle