BORN and raised in North London to Cypriot parents, Anthony Anaxagorou is a poet and spoken word artist who won the London Mayor’s Poetry Slam in 2002. He has since published nine volumes of poetry and has appeared on the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV. He is founder of Out-Spoken Press, a company that aims to increase diversity in publishing. Before he gives reading as part of poetry night Trope, Anthony told EDWIN GILSON about overcoming his sense of inferiority and the bitterness of the literary world.

The theme of the Trope event is change – how have you interpreted this?

A lot of the poetry I write looks at change in all its forms. Any kind of change is a gradual process. One of the functions of art is to inspire that process.

Your poem If I Told You challenges commonly held historical beliefs. Is your take on change as much to do with the past as it is with social progress now?

History is an interesting concept because it purports to be factual, and the idea of a fact is quite problematic. It was Napoleon who said: “what is history but a fabled agreed upon?” If I Told You wasn’t trying to preach or persuade, it was trying to suggest alternatives.

The video for the poem has been viewed over 115,000 times on YouTube. Did you ever think it would reach that many people?

On Facebook it got four million views in a week. It went super viral. You never expect things of that magnitude to happen and I don’t think as a writer you should be writing with clicks and viral popularity in mind. That’s counter-productive to what art is. Part of the excitement is not knowing how a poem is going to end up. I never want to write the same poem twice.

Doesn’t that mean you become overly self-critical at times?

The criticality is essential to keeping yourself in check. I do a lot of workshops with younger poets and there is an impulse to think the first thing that falls out of your head is poetry. Part of the craft of poetry is knowing when a poem begins, and that might not be until the fifth draft.

You said you wrote your debut book A Diffi cult Place To Be A Human out of boredom and frustration. Were those feelings helpful to the writing?

Boredom can be a good catalyst – it rouses those feelings of frustration with the world. Frustration, when it’s channelled right, can be a very powerful thing.

What made you focus on writing at that point, in 2007, rather than any other time in your life?

I got made redundant and couldn’t find another job. The job I was doing was so menial it wasn’t even on the jobseeker’s remit. I was cutting up ring tones for a new media company. It was a very banal task. I remember sitting on a coach and asking myself, “when do you not notice time?” I always thought that in all the jobs I’d ever had I’d been very conscious of time. Writing is the only thing that makes me forget that. That thought alone excited me. I said to myself I would have a go at trying to be a poet.

You founded Out-Spoken Press because of the problems writers of colour have had appealing to mainstream publishing houses, right?

Yes – myself included. The sensibilities that were being expressed in poetry felt very far removed from where I was coming from. I read a lot of naturalistic poetry about the woods and stuff – I was from North London. As I started to become more engaged in the industry, though, I saw more and more writers of colour that felt the same as me. Part of the mandate of Out-Spoken Press was to try and encourage marginalised groups to engage in poetry a lot more.

Were you at all put off the idea of being a poet by the inequalities you just mentioned?

None of my family were literate and it was quite an overwhelming idea to me, but it always begins with you sitting down with a notepad. I always felt like a pariah but accepting that was quite empowering. It was like saying, “**** you, I don’t have to edit myself to fit into your requirement of what constitutes publishable poetry”.

You set up Out-Spoken over five years ago. In that time, do you feel the situation regarding diversity in publishing has improved at all?

Yes, definitely. There has been a very notable conscious shift to try and be more inclusive. But then some things still show you that these mechanisms are still not fully in place. The Rebecca Watts piece [the poet railed against female writers like Hollie McNish and Kate Tem pest in an online article called The Cult Of The Noble Amateur] goes to show that the traditional gate-keepers of the art form have a problem with progression. They are going to try and do what they can to regress people’s thinking and push it back to a homogenous mode of practice.

Do you feel Watts’ comments came out of a fear of change, then?

There was obviously a bitterness that underlined a lot of her comments. There is this feeling that some conceptual poets spend months and months composing a piece of writing, and then someone comes along and types a few words on Instagram and their popularity soars. But the discussion is around participation. You can’t expect a 20 year-old from South East London to engage in existential poetry around a coat button.

You took part in a debate for The Oxford Union where you argued that Shakespeare was more relevant than Kanye West. How did this come about?

I haven’t got a clue why they decided upon that as a topic – I just got invited and asked to pick a side. At first I thought it was a bit gimmicky, but then I thought there was something more serious that could be unpacked about relevance.

Somebody can be flavour of the month without being relevant in 50 or 60 years’ time. If we see what Shakespeare has contributed to the English language, I would say he is more relevant than Kanye West. But I was arguing that it wasn’t a binary debate – it’s more about what relevance means.

Trope, The Basement, Brighton, Friday, February 16, 7.30pm. For tickets and more information visit