“I write because my ink must flow like blood. The written must be spoken.”
Poetry can all too often be seen as a mundane practice. Today, many of us can still harbour outdated preconceptions about poetry: that it serves no purpose, that it is inaccessible, that it is unexciting and unengaging for an audience, or that it’s just full of sad musings from dead white guys and Sylvia Plath (no offense, Sylvia). Though there now are scores of poets, poetry organisations and festivals successfully ousting those preconceptions, and there is one poet in particular: The outstandingly original, ridiculously rhythmic and performance-obsessed Patience Agbabi that is the breaking boundaries between poetry and modern life, as well as the boundaries between the page, the stage and even the skin.
Born in 1965 to Nigerian parents and fostered by a white British family living in Wales, Patience Agbabi’s unique upbringing was one that would serve her continually in her future creative life, gifting her with the ability to cross borders between cultures and language that adds a rare perspective to her poetry: “There were several advantages to my so-called unusual upbringing, including the ability to move between cultures and a strong interest in borders and boundaries. I’ve long been fascinated with the point at which one thing transforms or translates into another and this has informed my writing in both form and content.”
After completing her studies in English at Oxford, Agbabi’s professional life was to be very interesting indeed. She is the author of three collections of poetry and winner of a myriad of prestigious awards, as well as writer-in-residence at Eton (how her poems featuring BDSM and hard drugs go down with the public school boys is something I’m personally very curious about). But, to really crown her as the true rockstar of poetry, Agbabi is also the Artist-in-Residence at Flamin’ Eight tattoo parlour in London, where many of her poems have been tattooed onto the bodies of clients. She is also a founding member of the rap/pop-poetry group Atomic Lip. Reading and hearing her poetry, it’s not hard to see the poet’s affinity for rap. Her style is extremely musical, and the poet has said in the past that she is more focused on how the words sound, what the rhythm of her poetry is like rather than how it looks on the page. This is often the case for poets with a penchant for spoken-word and Agbabi describes her poetry as ‘page to stage’, and says that performance is a part of her editing process: “On retyping the poem I became aware of subtle changes that had taken place by subjecting the poem to a live audience. Inevitably, there is slight improvisation that often accentuates a point using a linguistic device.”
Though all this clearly distinguishes Agbabi as a modern poet, one of her most important influences is that of romantic poetry, with the likes of Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales inspiring many of her works: “It was 1981. I was sweet 16 and ready to be seduced by Literature with a capital ‘L’… I thrilled at the Middle English, the rhyming couplets, the characters, the irony. Our English teacher set our homework to write a character sketch in the style of Geoffrey Chaucer… Three thousand lines later, I’d produced my own General Prologue to the Colwyn Bay Tales [Agbabi’s hometown] celebrating various characters from youth cults – mods, rockers, punks, soulies -and two tales in the style of Geoffrey Chaucer: iambic pentameter, rhyming couplets, archaic inversions, irony, the lot.”
Agbabi is known for bending the rules of poetry, taking traditional poetic forms such as sonnets, and breaking tradition by changing rhyming schemes and patterns. As a poet, Agbabi is constantly subverting our expectations as an audience to creative new, innovative styles of poetry. This can be seen particularly well in her poem RAPunzel, from her R.A.W. collection:
Not once but
twice upon a time coz you ain’t heard my speak
this ain’t no fairy tale this is reality
live in a tower block call it hell
but it never get me down my name is RAPunzel . . .
Undoubtedly, Patience Agbabi is one of the modern poetry’s most exciting and innovative artists. Her writing is scalpel-like in its precision, and her intertwining of formal and colloquial language as well as street and text-speak makes her poetry a linguistic feast for any reader. If you’d like to read more of Patience Agbabi’s poetry, some recommendations include: The London Eye, Transformatrix, The Wife of Bafa, The Doll’s House and her collection Telling Tales, which was written during her time as Canterbury Poet Laureate, and was shortlisted for The Poetry Society’s Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry the same year.