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Poet Patience Agbabi re-tells The Canterbury Tales

  • Date: 17 May 2010
  • Artform: Literature
  • Area: South East
Patience Agbabi, Serenade 2, 2010 Patience Agbabi, Serenade 2, 2010, Photo: Lyndon Douglas

This year's Canterbury poet laureate is planning to give Chaucer's most famous work The Canterbury Tales a modern reworking, setting her pastiche collection on a Routemaster bus from London to Canterbury.

Patience Agbabi, a self-confessed lover of Chaucer's work, plans to create 29 characters based on different stops along the route in London, north west Kent, Medway and east Kent. Patience will dramatise the characters' sagas in heroic couplets, monologues, rap or other modern forms of speech, much as Chaucer did in his day. While in the 14th century tale, Chaucer's pilgrims competed for the best tale; Agbabi's perform a poetry slam.

An accomplished performance poet, author and university lecturer, Agbabi received a £9000 Grants for the arts award to carry out the two-year project, provisionally called Roving Mic.

'When I was made Canterbury Laureate for 2009-10, the first thing I thought was I must rewrite the Canterbury Tales,' Agbabi explains. 'My next thought was, how on earth am I going to do it?

'The Arts Council grant is a godsend. Not only does it enable me to dramatically cut down on outside work to concentrate on the task, it's also a huge confidence booster. It's like being commissioned to write what you've always wanted to write.'

To date, Agbabi has written The Knight's Tale, which is set in Elephant and Castle shopping centre, and the first tale The Gospel Truth, which is based on The Parsons Tale. Like Chaucer's version, the tale tackles the seven deadly sins, in the form of a character called Rap, The Son, otherwise known as The Parson:

I learnt my skills on the street not the classroom. African ancestry, spitting in my hands free, born and bred and battling in Canterbury. I've got an ology in the trilogy: allegory, tautology, and etymology. Fired by KRS-One and the Bible: in the hip-hop academy, an Old Skool disciple.

This isn't the first time British-born Nigerian Agbabi has taken on Chaucer. She refashioned The Wife of Bath into a sassy Nigerian businesswoman in The Wife of Bafa, and she once called on Chaucer as a poetic muse for the Southbank Centre's 2000 Presiding Spirits event.

Agbabi is keeping a blog to document the Roving Mic project, writing about her process and publishing sections of the tales. Future plans for the finished collection will include publication. She aims to finish by the end of 2011.

'I like deadlines as much as I like poetic form,' says Agbabi. 'The deadline gives me parameters, gives me an incentive and enables me to plan the project.

'On one level it's terrifiying, but a certain level of stress is a good thing. It's not the how am I going to pay the bills? stress. It's the what a great opportunity, I must deliver something special stress. Stress I can live with.'

To get a full flavour of Agbabi's inspiration for the collection, check out this scene-setting introduction. You can also read and listen to some of the tales, such as The Gospel Truth, on the blog.

Prologue

Inspired by Nevill Coghill's verse translation;
the Beeb's hip multicultural adaptation;
by Ackroyd's prose 'retelling; Baba Brinkman's
dynamic rap; and by the Chaucer Man
performing them in Middle English, fired   
by rhythm, rhyme; but most of all inspired
by Chaucer's creativity and wit,
the way he marries Literary with lit,
heroic couplet, use of epigram,                  
creating the first storytelling slam,
his range of voice, his characters that fly               
clean off the page, his famous irony;
I, Canterbury Laureate, intend
to write a book of poetry, a blend
of high art and pop culture. I'll adapt
a range of forms from monologue to rap,
sestina to blank verse. I'll take by storm
stage - performance, page - poetic form.
For Bloodshot Monochrome and Transformatrix
display my skills, both formal and creative:
I resurrect dead poets through the ages
and solve their problems in my 'Problem Pages';
from Paul Muldoon, George Szirtes, Ciaran Carson,
I learnt to play with form; from Carol Ann
Duffy and Jackie Kay, the monologue.   
Poetic form is truly back in vogue.
At Oxford, 'Chaucer' was my Special Paper        
whilst in my youth, I used my craft to ape a
General Prologue, all in rhyming couplets
with mods and rockers, soulies, new romantics...
This celebration of the literary
will introduce The Tales, and poetry,
to audiences who are new to both,
and thrill aficionados. By my troth,
of English verse, Geoff Chaucer is the Father.
Here's one I wrote before: 'The Wife of Bafa'*...

(* Transformatrix, Canongate, 2000, pp28-29)

Patience Agbabi is a poet, performer and lecturer. Her three poetry collections include R.A.W. (Gecko Press, 1995), Transformatrix (Canongate, 2000), and Bloodshot Monochrome (Canongate, 2008). She has worked worldwide for the British Council, held numerous poetry residencies and is currently a Fellow in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University.

The Canterbury Festival 2010 takes place 16-30 October 2010.