About Patience Agbabi
Patience Agbabi is a poet much celebrated for paying equal homage to literature and performance. Born in London to Nigerian parents and fostered in a white English family in North Wales, her work moves fluidly and nimbly between cultures, dialects, voices; between page and stage. After reading English at Pembroke College, Oxford, she completed an MA in Creative Writing at Sussex University. Prominent on the London spoken word circuit since the early nineties, she has toured extensively in the UK and abroad with the British Council. From 2002 to 2005 Agbabi lectured in Creative Writing at Greenwich, Cardiff and Kent Universities and for 20 years has facilitated writing workshops in comprehensive and public schools. In 2004 she was selected as one of the UK’s Next Generation Poets, and is currently a creative writing fellow at Oxford Brookes.
Her work is musical in every sense, attuned as much to the punning and political immediacy of the rhythms of rap and dub, as it is to traditional forms like the sonnet, sestina and Chaucer’s rime royale. A self-proclaimed ‘poetical activist’, Agbabi says she wrote her first largely autobiographical book, R.A.W., to right the wrongs of the world. Steeped in the plights of Thatcherite Britain, frenetic, furious and formally adventurous, the book won the 1997 Excelle literary award. Her second book, Transformatix, was centred more on acts of ventriloquism; Agbabi said she ‘wanted to see what happened if I let the characters speak for themselves rather than edit them’. It contained her first retelling of Chaucer, the Wife of Bath as the Nigerian ‘Mrs Alice Ebi Bafa’, who ‘went down a storm in performance’.
A review of her third collection, Bloodshot Monochrome in The List said Agbabi is ‘honest, darkly funny and endlessly creative, she takes the sonnet, chats it up, tattoos it, gives it some motherly advice and then sends it away again’. This poetic street-wisdom might be ‘bold [and] brassy’ (Independent) in tone, but it is dextrous and formally wrought. ‘Josephine Baker finds herself’ (selected here) sees a ‘twenty-something, short black wavy-bobbed diva’ become the ‘twenties chic’ club idol she worships, in a mirrored poem which inverts perspective with a stanza break, as the viewpoint is switched; the text rewriting itself with the same words.
Agbabi began working on Telling Tales during her time as Canterbury poet laureate in 2009. The book appeared in April 2014, and sees The Canterbury Tales transposed to twenty-first century Britain, in all its multicultural fervour and hubbub. Characters talk in dialect, via the song titles of soul records, with experimental typography, blank verse and from a dog’s point of view; their pilgrimage that of a London Routemaster bus. The book embodies Agbabi’s passion for ‘a sense of range, both in the forms and the actual tensions of the language, whether it’s slang, standard English, street language, or text language’.
Her longer featured poem, ‘The Doll’s House’, was commissioned by the Ilkey Literature Festival, and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2014. The poem is haunted by the fact that Harewood House in Yorkshire – a symbol of opulence, magnitude and splendour – was a demonstration of wealth amassed from the transatlantic slave trade, and seeks to carve out a fresh perspective to examine this distressing legacy. ‘The Doll’s House’ stands for both the set of deftly constructed stanzas – or rooms – made of rime royale, and the replica model of Harewood made by the house-chef’s daughter, Angelica, its detail described with all the meticulous ‘rich design’ of the saccharine ‘haute cuisine’. And as with Harewood’s legacy, the more we listen to Angelica recall how she would ‘gorge / on bubbling syrup, mouth its language; learned / the temperature at which burnt sugar burnt’, the more the taste turns bitter, it starts to ‘blacken your sweet tooth’.
Her readings for the Poetry Archive are as lively and exuberant as the stories they tell (or re-tell); each character monologue arrives punchy and emphatic from the start, full of verve but carefully paced. Each one is testament to her ars poetica, that ‘the written must be spoken. The chasm between page and stage must be healed’.
Patience Agbabi’s favourite poetry sayings:
‘…the music of poetry is not something which exists apart from the meaning’ – T S Eliot
‘For though my ryme be ragged / Tattered and jagged, / Rudely rayne-beaten, / Rusty and mothe-eaten, / Yf ye take well therwith / It hath in it some pyth.’ – John Skelton, ‘Collyn Clout’
‘I learnt from him, that Poetry, even that of the loftiest and, seemingly, that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes. In the truly great poets, he would say, there is a reason assignable, not only for every word, but for the position of every word.’ – Samual Taylor Coleridge
‘Poetry is the purest of the language arts. It’s the tightest cage, and if you can get it to sing in that cage it’s really really wonderful.’ – Rita Dove
‘…a blind doll with kaleidoscopic taste, / who boils, bakes, moulds, pipes, chisels, spins and blows / sugar, her art, the only tongue she knows.’ – Patience Agbabi, ‘The Doll’s House’
This recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 8th January 2014 at The Soundhouse and was produced by Anne Rosenfeld.
Poems by Patience Agbabi
Books by Patience Agbabi
Canongate , 2008
Canongate , 2000
Gecko Press , 1995
Excelle Literary Award
Chosen as a Next Generation Poet by the Poetry Book Society
Medway Culture and Design Award for Literature
Forward Prize for Best Single Poem (Shortlist) ('The Doll's House)