Raymond Antrobus was born deaf. When it came to poetry, much of his work was built on the history and foundations of poetry slams and spoken word performance.
“I really felt a lineage of poets in music, poets in voice, poets in performance,” says Antrobus.
Author of two collections of poetry – The Perseverance and All given names – Antrobus has just released a spoken word album titled The first time I wore hearing aids. It was produced by Grammy-winning music producer Ian Brennan.
Brennan had read poems by Antrobus before, but it wasn’t until a few months ago – in June this year – that he heard the poet perform on stage. “It was such a beautiful night,” he said.
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 about that.
“I came to poetry thanks to so many poets who also record their work,” says Antrobus. The poet played some of Brennan’s past works to his then 10-month-old son, who responded well. “I wanted to be part of this company with this album and with my poetry.”
Antrobus’ poems often reflect a person’s experience of hearing sound in different ways. Brennan – whose own sister was born with Down syndrome and is deaf in her left ear – became interested in these dimensions.
“[Music] was always one of the things she was most connected to, and certainly more sensitive than others who had full hearing,” Brennan says of her sister. I don’t have the same sound for Raymond as for another individual or vice versa.”
In July, when Brennan and Antrobus met to record his spoken word album, they recorded enough to fill two discs.
“Most of what’s out there is Raymond,” Brennan said. “So even the sound elements you hear are Raymond, it’s his voice.”
Of the 16 tracks that make up the album, some – like the track “Closer Captions” – recreate sound as it is experienced by the hearing impaired.
“We were at a festival and that meant I had a limited load on my hearing aids,” says Antrobus. “And there were times when between takes I had to take off my earpiece and sort of sit down – not quite silence, but kind of a quieter, muffled sound.”
Marilena Umuhoza Delli/Ian Brennan
The artists recorded most of the tracks in one take. This meant that 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 had met a musical group the day before the recording of the album by the artists.
“[The group’s] luthiers 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 is an excerpt from the poem:
He fell in front of the policeman,
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 whittle
canoes and faces in totem poles.
(announcing that it’s not over)
The policeman 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 killed by the police who was a sculptor, who lived by the water and carved canoes,” Brennan says. “And I play this instrument that was handmade and carved by someone who carves canoes.”
Antrobus, who is Jamaican-British, often captures the experience of police brutality in his work.
“The boundaries of identity are so heavily guarded, guarded and patrolled,” Antrobus says of these poems. “And look how dangerous it is for some people when we cross those borders. You could literally end up with a gun in your face, a bullet in your back.”
He also often writes about how this experience can be particularly traumatic for deaf people, who, without trained interpreters, stand a high chance of being misinterpreted by law enforcement.
“That’s why so many elements of the record are Raymond’s voice, but Raymond’s voice changes — maybe double-track or triple-track,” Brennan explains.
Marilena Umuhoza Delli/Ian Brennan
Other sound elements on the album include sounds recorded underwater, such as on the track “Miami Airport Immigration”.
“When you think about the amount of land covered in water, that’s perhaps the majority of the soundscape on the planet,” Brennan says. “Yet this is something largely unknown to many people.”
To this, Antrobus adds that the human body is made up mostly of water, which then creates an atmosphere where we wonder exactly what we are made of. “Where do we belong? What is really being questioned? What are the real 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.