Review: Roger Robinson @ Bristol Poetry Institute's Annual Reading

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By Flora Pick, Deputy digital editor

Bristol Poetry Institute’s annual reading was a night for reflection, mourning and great art made transfixing by readings from acclaimed poet Roger Robinson.

These past few years have been monumental for Roger Robinson, having won the prestigious T.S. Elliot prize for his 2019 collection of poetry, A Portable Paradise. The evening began with readings from this critically acclaimed work. Robinson explains how, although it began as a philosophically driven enquiry into just what “paradise” means, A Portable Paradise became inescapably infused with the political upheaval and racial tensions that marred its time of writing.

Bristol Poetry Institute works with the university to serve both the school and the city. This reading from Robinson marks yet another notable addition to an impressive line-up of poets that have featured in their annual reading, having, in previous years, included Claudia Rankine and Simon Armitage.

Introductions gave the sense of appreciation that the event was able to be held in person, following its moving to Zoom last year for COVID reasons. The setting of the Great Hall made the evening feel particularly grand, the diverse crowd warmly lit and intimate in contrast to the bitingly cold outside. When the bells began to strike seven Robinson mentioned a tolling in his poem, in an overwhelming moment of poetry meeting place.  

Robinson began by reading poems written in response to the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017. The devastating event that killed 72 affected primarily poor people of colour, a fact that hangs heavy over Robinson’s poems, as does the revelation of the cladding issues which caused so much unnecessary death. Robinson’s poems refuse a simple answer: his narrative voices sway from one person to another and when read in succession culminate in an overwhelming awareness of loss. These focussed narratives of individuals and singular moments are elevated by Robinson to speak to structural problems of systemic issues of race that remain in Britain's underbelly.

His reading of the titular poem offered a spark of hope, that “paradise” was not all-lost, suggesting that it can indeed be something portable and hidden, something to keep in your pocket for when you need to look at it and be revived.

And if life puts you under pressure / trace its ridges in your pocket, / smell its piney scent on your handkerchief, / hum its anthem under your breath.

Robinson’s performance style belies his time spent as a dub poet, his recitation rhythmic and verging on musical. It was particularly entrancing when he turned to read his new works, heavy and urgent with prose that becomes pulsing and overwhelming. As it neared the end of the evening audience members were treated to a sung performance of a reimagined, subversive sea shanty about Zong, the killing of 130 enslaved Africans who were thrown overboard for insurance money, in response to M. NourbeSe Philip’s work on the massacre.

The evening ended with a brief Q&A workshop, in which Robinson dispensed his wisdom to the audience, among which there appeared to be several fellow poets seeking his advice. The poet comically answered questions on the topic of poetic aspirations, succeeding through spite and the importance of simply going for it — taking the risk and submitting your work to a journal.

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As the crowd milled out of Wills Memorial Building, we all seemed better for having heard Robinson’s poetry, which manages to expertly balance the hardships and unfairness of this life with the vitality of hope and the recognition of what is beautiful.

Roger Robinson’s book A Portable Paradise is published by Peepal Tree Press and is available for purchase from their website.

Featured: Flora Pick


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