Playing with medieval things: Patience Agbabi

In a series of posts, the organisers of ‘Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations’ explore some of the pieces of work, modern and medieval, that have inspired these workshops. telling-tales-agbabi

see my jaw dropping neat Anglo-Saxon, I got ink in my veins more than Caxton and it flows hand to mouth, here’s a mouthfeast, verbal feats from the streets of the South-East…

Telling Tales Prologue (Grime Mix), Patience Agbabi, 2014.

Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales has been called ‘versions’, ‘adaptations’, ‘updates’, and a ‘remix’: ‘restyling’ and giving Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a ‘thrilling new life'[1]. During our ‘Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations’ workshops, we’ll be asking our participants to think about what they might call their own work made as a result of an encounter with the medieval. Which term do you prefer? And where does ‘translation’ come in?

Every single poem in Agbabi’s collection is written or spoken in a different style. I have been lucky enough to see Agbabi performing on a couple of occasions, and of course snapped up the book, and I’ve found myself falling in love with some characters and their voices, turned off by others. I like to pretend that the book was actually written by a group, that each character is a real person speaking through the pages. Watching her perform, I almost convincing myself that Agbabi becomes her medieval-modern creations as she slips into different roles as she recites. On releasing the Tales, Agbabi noted how

some critics, working to impossibly tight deadlines, have made the mistake of thinking that most of the poems are written in rap form. Maybe it’s because I is Black and have occasionally written raps. Maybe it’s because the set up is a poetry slam, making people mistakenly think that means rap…[2]

She also pointed out, the RAP Canterbury Tales are another project by another poet entirely! As Agbabi notes, summarising Telling Tales as the ‘rap Canterbury Tales’ ignores so much of what makes it exciting and important poetically, and also socially and politically. Agbabi’s tales weave themselves into the historically white, historically male canon of English Literature, showing how ideas about love, guilt, betrayal, romance, greed, change or crystalise, transcend or become rooted in, places, times, and peoples. ‘Traditional’ forms (rime royale) are forced to work with new words, whilst newer forms (grime) voice ideas from the medieval past. Agbabi herself has said that ‘Chaucer’s original is brilliant. It’s probably the best work of English literature, in my opinion’, but these tales – and associated performances – remake what ‘the best poetry’ can be, what ‘English literature’ (according to much of people’s experience of the subject) can do.

Since the publication of Telling Tales, Agbabi has been involved in another project that reshapes what belongs to English Literature, to England. Refugee Tales, a series of events and a collection of stories, also takes its departure from Chaucer, that safe bastion of Englishness, to give voice to the marginalised, to those who have not been welcomed into this green and pleasant land. It’s another of my favorite ‘new medieval’ things.[3] I’m finding myself wanting to copy out so many more quotes from Agbabi’s blog to talk more about her poetry… so please do go and have a nose around on it yourself if you’ve never come across it before. She was so generous with her blogging in the creation of Telling Tales, it’s a fantastic insight into the creative process!

I’ll just finish with one more quote from her to introduce the video below, and to explain why, in our workshops in October, we’ll be reading aloud as much as possible: ‘like Chaucer’s original, Telling Tales was primarily a book written to be read, but also to be listened to and viewed live'[4].


[1] See publisher Canongate’s listing http://www.canongate.tv/telling-tales-paperback.html

[2] https://patienceagbabi.wordpress.com

[3] http://refugeetales.org/about-refugee-tales/

[4] https://patienceagbabi.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/ted-hughes-shortlist-herkne-and-rede/

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