UK POETRY LIVE
  Raw performance, Patience Agbabi
 

'Give me a stage and I'll cut form on it / give me a page and I'll perform on it. / Give me a word / any word', concludes Patience Agbabi's manifesto poem, 'The Word'. She is one of the most dynamic black British performance poets to have emerged in recent years, and perhaps the most radical. She has been on the London club circuit since about 1995, doing at least a hundred events per year; she appears at Poetry Society events, Gay Pride rallies, in Glastonbury's cabaret tent before an audience of four thousand, at jazz festivals and nightclubs. The poly-vocal experimental piece 'FO(U)R WOMEN' was performed with partners at the I.C.A. in London during 1996. As a solo performer she has delivered her hard-hitting, relatively explicit poems many times on radio and television, at the Edinburgh Festival, college lecture theatres, even at French metro stations. They are now available on the whole range of modern media, websites, videos, and on CDs such as 'Poetry in Performance'. Her residencies have also been unusually various: The Poetry Café, at Oxford Brookes University where she ran creative writing workshops for health staff, and even 'The Flamin' Eight', a tattoo and piercing parlour in London.   

 

She is, however, an unconventional performance poet: a formalist, often adapting traditional forms such as sonnets and sestinas to her own gender-bending sexual politics. As Kwame Dawes has noted, Agbabi 'likes to tinker and toy with language, with metre and with sound'. This concern with form makes her work different from contemporaries such as Jackie Kay and Zena Edwards or Lemn Sissay. Like them, she may have been inspired by the 'dub' poetry heard in Britain from the 1970-80s onwards, by Kwesi Johnson and Zephanaiah, addressing issues of race, or social comment; and by the melodic song-like poems of Jean Binta Breeze. But influence by other poets cannot fully explain her work's dynamism. Agbabi straddles boundaries, collaborating with others in creating it, just as she also takes techniques from other art forms; most obviously the wordplay, rhythms and rhyming effects of 'rap' music. (For three years from 1995 she was a member of Atomic Lip, a group of female rappers whose act incorporated video with live performance). R.A.W. (1995), her first publication, was essentially a rap poem. Rap, as a pop music form, originated with young black American men; Agbabi and others have helped feminise it.

 

When Transformatrix appeared in 2000, it was hailed for its flamboyant formal variety, as well as being 'a telling commentary on the realities of modern Britain'. In truth her work seems more personal than political, with a distinctively shifting sense of cultural identity - across race, gender and especially sexuality. Her best poems create a tension between their urgent contemporary concerns and 'dangerous' subject matter (that includes S&M practices) and the formal poetics. Many of the poems are, Kwame Dawes further pointed out, 'tensely contained in form and the masking of personae'. There are also poems in prose, a 'concrete' poem (ingeniously taking off on sculptor Carl Andre's notorious bricks), and a 'List Poem' comprising fifty rhyming questions. There are interpolations of pop song lyrics; her verbal acrobatics can include words taken from computer-speak or soap operas.  She calls herself 'bi-cultural', telling us 'I was raised on Watch with Mother / The Rime of the Ancient Mariner / and Fight the Power'.


These are the dramatic monologues of 'High-Flying Femmes', 'Devils in Red Dresses', 'Seven Sisters' and 'Mothers of Inversion'.  'The Joyrider' is a young girl, 'Mad Maxine on amphetamine', imprisoned 'in the damp womb of the Women's Wing', but still defiant: 'I ram raid man-made rules, / accelerate into the sunset.'  There's a good deal of teenage angst, as when a schoolgirl is jealous about a boy 'getting off with that butters Charmaine' ('Buffalos and Silver Stillettos'), and the interior alienation of drug-taking is captured in 'That Four Four Trip' and 'Ajax'. 'The Wife of Bafa' re-tells Chaucer's tale with a Nigerian woman who has had five husbands: 'I cast a spell with my gap-toothed smile / and my bottom power'. 'Bitch' is far more edgy humour, its rhyming quatrains spoken by a man whose wife confesses to an unusual affair, while on a Jerry Springer-type TV chat show: 'They bring him in on a lead. / The crowd scream. / He's tugging at the leash, she's stroking his head / and she's kissing him'.

 

There are indeed a few relatively explicit sexual poems, though details are usually metaphoric, as in '69 BPM': 'connecting with her / as she hits that top note twice in one bar'. The oddly comical scenario of 'Hans' is a 'big, black and butch' lesbian falling for a petite manicurist. But sexual metaphor is brought effectively into play in the brilliant closing title poem, a tightly controlled sonnet in which fetish sex and the act of writing come together. By its title poem, 'Transformatrix' turns the Muse into a lesbian dominatrix: 'A pen poised over a blank page, I wait / for madam's orders, her strict consonants / …. She trusses up / words, lines, as a corset disciplines flesh'.

 

'Give me a stage and I'll cut form on it / give me a page and I'll perform on it. / Give me a word / any word', concludes Patience Agbabi's manifesto poem, 'The Word'. She is one of the most dynamic black British performance poets to have emerged in recent years, and perhaps the most radical. She has been on the London club circuit since about 1995, doing at least a hundred events per year; she appears at Poetry Society events, Gay Pride rallies, in Glastonbury's cabaret tent before an audience of four thousand, at jazz festivals and nightclubs. The poly-vocal experimental piece 'FO(U)R WOMEN' was performed with partners at the I.C.A. in London during 1996. As a solo performer she has delivered her hard-hitting, relatively explicit poems many times on radio and television, at the Edinburgh Festival, college lecture theatres, even at French metro stations. They are now available on the whole range of modern media, websites, videos, and on CDs such as 'Poetry in Performance'. Her residencies have also been unusually various: The Poetry Café, at Oxford Brookes University where she ran creative writing workshops for health staff, and even 'The Flamin' Eight', a tattoo and piercing parlour in London.   

 

She is, however, an unconventional performance poet: a formalist, often adapting traditional forms such as sonnets and sestinas to her own gender-bending sexual politics. As Kwame Dawes has noted, Agbabi 'likes to tinker and toy with language, with metre and with sound'. This concern with form makes her work different from contemporaries such as Jackie Kay and Zena Edwards or Lemn Sissay. Like them, she may have been inspired by the 'dub' poetry heard in Britain from the 1970-80s onwards, by Kwesi Johnson and Zephanaiah, addressing issues of race, or social comment; and by the melodic song-like poems of Jean Binta Breeze. But influence by other poets cannot fully explain her work's dynamism. Agbabi straddles boundaries, collaborating with others in creating it, just as she also takes techniques from other art forms; most obviously the wordplay, rhythms and rhyming effects of 'rap' music. (For three years from 1995 she was a member of Atomic Lip, a group of female rappers whose act incorporated video with live performance). R.A.W. (1995), her first publication, was essentially a rap poem. Rap, as a pop music form, originated with young black American men; Agbabi and others have helped feminise it.

 

When Transformatrix appeared in 2000, it was hailed for its flamboyant formal variety, as well as being 'a telling commentary on the realities of modern Britain'. In truth her work seems more personal than political, with a distinctively shifting sense of cultural identity - across race, gender and especially sexuality. Her best poems create a tension between their urgent contemporary concerns and 'dangerous' subject matter (that includes S&M practices) and the formal poetics. Many of the poems are, Kwame Dawes further pointed out, 'tensely contained in form and the masking of personae'. There are also poems in prose, a 'concrete' poem (ingeniously taking off on sculptor Carl Andre's notorious bricks), and a 'List Poem' comprising fifty rhyming questions. There are interpolations of pop song lyrics; her verbal acrobatics can include words taken from computer-speak or soap operas.  She calls herself 'bi-cultural', telling us 'I was raised on Watch with Mother / The Rime of the Ancient Mariner / and Fight the Power'.


These are the dramatic monologues of 'High-Flying Femmes', 'Devils in Red Dresses', 'Seven Sisters' and 'Mothers of Inversion'.  'The Joyrider' is a young girl, 'Mad Maxine on amphetamine', imprisoned 'in the damp womb of the Women's Wing', but still defiant: 'I ram raid man-made rules, / accelerate into the sunset.'  There's a good deal of teenage angst, as when a schoolgirl is jealous about a boy 'getting off with that butters Charmaine' ('Buffalos and Silver Stillettos'), and the interior alienation of drug-taking is captured in 'That Four Four Trip' and 'Ajax'. 'The Wife of Bafa' re-tells Chaucer's tale with a Nigerian woman who has had five husbands: 'I cast a spell with my gap-toothed smile / and my bottom power'. 'Bitch' is far more edgy humour, its rhyming quatrains spoken by a man whose wife confesses to an unusual affair, while on a Jerry Springer-type TV chat show: 'They bring him in on a lead. / The crowd scream. / He's tugging at the leash, she's stroking his head / and she's kissing him'.

 

There are indeed a few relatively explicit sexual poems, though details are usually metaphoric, as in '69 BPM': 'connecting with her / as she hits that top note twice in one bar'. The oddly comical scenario of 'Hans' is a 'big, black and butch' lesbian falling for a petite manicurist. But sexual metaphor is brought effectively into play in the brilliant closing title poem, a tightly controlled sonnet in which fetish sex and the act of writing come together. By its title poem, 'Transformatrix' turns the Muse into a lesbian dominatrix: 'A pen poised over a blank page, I wait / for madam's orders, her strict consonants / …. She trusses up / words, lines, as a corset disciplines flesh'.

 

'The Tiger' is spoken by a woman whose life revolves around tattoos, ending up with 'Cruella de Ville, who stitched hot dark / ink into my taut flesh as time / flowed free into a corset of glass'. And during Agbabi's fifteen-day residency at 'The Flamin' Eight', her objective was to create poems suitable to be tattooed, including a twenty-six syllable acrostic poem, 'published' on the upper arm of a friend of hers. Agbabi herself went under the needle, as she related in Poetry Review (Spring 2000): 'In two hours time, my entire back was transformed except for a blank space in the small of it, just enough room for a haiku'. 'In Invisible Ink', one of the poems that emerged out of the residency, makes clear the erotic dimension of the tattoo: 'Imagine the tip of my tongue's a full / Needle and your back's my canvas…. / Vibrating its delicate, intimate Braille'. As Agbabi has observed, 'there's something irrevocable about making a literal statement on the body'. Tatooing thus takes its place as part of her mission to create a kind of 'poetry of the body', linked to poetic form, and the dynamics of performance. Significantly, her current work-in-progress is called Body Language. As her appearances at music festivals indicate, Agababi has not only brought poetry and rap closer together, but in her multi-media activities - and formal poetic excellence -

 

 Dr Jules Smith

 
  Today, there have been 153540 visitors (331266 hits) on this page!  
 
=> Do you also want a homepage for free? Then click here! <=