Rhythm and roots

26th July 2013 at 01:00
Prizewinning poet John Agard talks to Helen Ward about his delight in words, the teacher who inspired him and why getting children to learn poetry by heart is `a very good thing'

John Agard is a poet who lets words bubble out of him. He speaks slowly and clearly, turning a straightforward interview into a rich, enjoyable, warm conversation.

"You will cut out all the superfluous stuff," he worries later. What superfluous stuff? The transgressions and meanderings, the anecdotes, evidence and examples? No chance.

But that is not the poet's way.

"There is a proverb," he says. "Any fool can write; it takes a genius to erase. If you write a poem today, you might think, `This is it', but look at it tomorrow, next week, a year from now. Is it still singing? Is it still saying something to you? And very often you might see that losing a line here and there, losing a word just pulls it together. On the day you wrote it, you can't seem to see it, and now it is there, staring you in the face."

Excuse me
Standing on one leg
I'm half-caste

Half-Caste was published in 2005. It has been studied by thousands of students in the UK for the AQA English literature GCSE, making it perhaps Agard's most famous poem. But it is just one work from one of the 47 books he has written. His first collection, Shoot Me With Flowers, was published in Guyana in 1974, and he has worked steadily ever since, moving to the UK in 1977 with his partner Grace Nichols, also an acclaimed poet.

In the 1980s, there was a surge of interest in new writing from Caribbean and black British poets; Agard and Nichols were part of it, with Agard winning the Casa de las Americas Prize in 1982. Since then, he has also received the Nestle Smarties Book Prize and the Paul Hamlyn Award for Poetry. Last year he was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, previous recipients of which include W.H. Auden, John Betjeman, Philip Larkin and Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott.

Defying definition

Agard wears his honours lightly. When he emerges from Holborn Tube station in central London, other passengers stream past him, unseeing. His long, black coat is open; he wears a green and white marbled shirt, grey trousers and a purple hat with a feather in it. Walking towards the pub - he likes to be interviewed over a pint of Guinness - he starts to roll a cigarette.

Agard's work is often noted for its humour and "puckish wit". He writes for children as well as adults, and is particularly renowned for his skill in performing poetry. He is described, sometimes, as a performance poet; at other times as a children's poet. He is both, but dismisses the descriptions: "Poet is enough."

" `Performance poet' creates certain expectations," he explains. "It divides, in an insidious way, people who they say have literary value and people you need to see performing."

He points out that Dante and Shakespeare could be said to be performance poets, but would never be described as such.

Similarly, he would not say he is a "children's poet" - the ease with which he is able to cross age boundaries has a long and distinguished history in poetry. For example, British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy often writes for children, without fear that this will diminish her reputation or restrict her ability to write for adults.

"People have an idea of a hierarchical thing," Agard says, "as if you graduate from writing picture books to those with more text. As if, when you grow up, you will want nothing to do with picture books.

"But I will browse second-hand shops for Ladybird Books (for children) - it is the quickest way to find out about a subject you don't know anything about."

As such, he can often be found in Camilla's, a second-hand shop in Eastbourne on the south coast of England, near his home in Lewes.

Me not no Oxford don
me a simple immigrant from Clapham Common
I didn't graduate
I immigrate
Listen Mr Oxford Don, 1985

Agard, 64, was born in June 1949. He grew up in Georgetown, Guyana (then British Guiana), where he attended a Jesuit school. But by 16 he was getting itchy feet - he found learning Shakespeare,Wordsworth and the prologue to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales a chore. "Guyana was a British colony, so all our A levels were exactly the same as Britain," he says.

He recalls one of the first poems he wrote, aged about 16, during a mock English exam. He hadn't really read any of the texts, so scribbled away on the back of his test paper. "Imprisoned in my classroom cell. " the poem began.

"My teacher said, `That isn't the way to pass the exam'," Agard recalls. "But he started a school magazine, in which that poem was included."

The following year, the syllabus had changed to a modern one. Students were expected to read short stories by D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and plays by John Osborne. So Agard stayed, happier with the new syllabus, and took English Alevel, along with French and Latin.

School turned out to be a good thing.

He has dedicated his latest book, Travel Light Travel Dark, published by Bloodaxe Books, to three people, including his sixth-form teacher Michael Gilkes, himself a published poet and playwright. Agard remembers being taught The Tempest by Gilkes, who revealed the roots of the character Caliban, whose name was related to the Carib people and the belief that they were cannibals. "He made The Tempest come alive for us," Agard says.

Gilkes, who says he was surprised and flattered by the dedication, recalls the episode. He had heard that one of his students had disappeared into the Guyana interior rather than endure the tedium of school, but Agard's potential was obvious to him by then.

"He had a compact, Anancy-like presence in the class, and ironic but accurate observations and sharp wit," Gilkes says.

The teacher had a word with the school's principal. Agard returned to become the brightest student in the class.

`Climate of orality'

For Agard, poetry has wide roots. It does not simply arise from studying poems but from a whole "climate of orality". He remembers chanting "Capital A, common a, Capital B, common b" alongside his classmates. He learned mnemonics such as "30 days hath September, April, June and November". Calypso music was on the radio and Catholic hymns were sung on Sundays at church, where Agard was an altar boy.

By the time he left school, he had a love of language and words. He was, for example, a fan of John Arlott, a cricket commentator widely admired for his poetic phrasing. He also remembers his O-level teacher Father Maxwell, known as "Maxie", who used to challenge students to search the dictionary for a word he didn't know. "Whippersnapper," Agard came up with one day. "Look in the mirror," came the reply.

"You are not aware of it consciously," Agard says, "but all those registers are feeding into you."

From 2014, a new curriculum is due to be introduced in England that will insist on children learning and reciting rhymes and poems by heart from the first year of primary school. Agard can recall flawlessly the poems he had to recite for elocution competitions: "I am not yet born; O hear me" (Prayer Before Birth, Louis MacNeice); "We are the hollow men" (T.S. Eliot).

"Getting children to learn poetry by heart is a very good thing," he says. "It isn't something that should seem so extraordinary, because young people remember quite intricate words from rap music. So children mustn't be made to feel pressure or that there is something wrong with them.

"But learning poetry has multiple benefits because you have the sound of language, because their heartbeat would be involved and their body rhythms would be responding to the language and it would benefit their memory, just the mere act of doing it. It's good."

Dynamic performer

After school, Agard worked for a year as a "pupil-teacher", educating younger students in the subjects that he had just learned. This was followed by stints at the public library and later the Sunday Chronicle newspaper, where he worked as a sub-editor and feature writer. He wrote poems throughout this time and was involved in a theatrical group.

In 1977, he and Nichols, author of I is a Long Memoried Woman, moved to Britain to pursue their work as writers. He worked for the Commonwealth Institute in London as a touring reader, visiting some 2,000 schools; he became writer-in-residence at the Southbank Centre in 1993, and poet-in- residence for the BBC in 1998 and at the National Maritime Museum in 2007- 08.

He is a fixture on GCSE Poetry Live!, an annual touring show in which poets including Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage read to about 75,000 young people each year. Several YouTube clips show Agard reading at Poetry Live! events. He has a strong, confident voice and gives dynamic performances, with pauses and sudden rises in volume. He gesticulates not just with his long, slim fingers but also with wide-open arms.

"I did my O levels and A levels in the Caribbean," he says to the audience. "We couldn't invite the poets - they were dead."

Beneath the videos, the comments pile up: "John Agard is such a legend"; "I was there! This guy is a genius"; "He's awesome, definitely beats the poetry I'm studying now."

Agard has recently been involved with the Caribbean Poetry Project, run by Professor Morag Styles at the University of Cambridge. The project aims to encourage engagement with and the teaching of Caribbean poetry in British and Caribbean schools. "He got a terrific homecoming in Guyana," Styles says. "He took part in a three-day workshop we were running with teachers and I was so impressed not just with his exhilarating performances but with the profound and thoughtful things he was saying. He is very genuine, sympathetic and a great believer in teachers and teaching.

"He's a wonderful person. He is an incredibly talented poet for children and adults. He can take things like racism and injustice and take an ironic and amusing look at it, to make the reader smile as well as face up to it. It is very, very clever."

It came as little surprise when Agard was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry last year for two books, Goldilocks on CCTV (2011) and Alternative Anthem: Selected Poems (2009). The title poem of Alternative Anthem begins:

Put the kettle on
Put the kettle on
It is the British answer
to Armageddon

The poem echoes the nursery rhyme Polly Put the Kettle On, as well as evoking the British national anthem in the lines "Long live the kettlethat rules over us". And it is funny.

Agard's rhythms may spring from the Caribbean but, as is evident, he is also very British, going so far as to publish a collection called We Brits (2006). Describing him as a Caribbean-British poet does not seem adequate. This is a big thing for him.

"Don't just think of poets in (national) isolation," he advises, when asked how teachers can help students to "get" poetry. "Think of that cultural vibe you get from a society. I find Eastern European poetry very inspiring - poets like Miroslav Holub, the Czech poet. Because of the nature of the totalitarian regime, they found subtle and parabolical ways of writing about subjects like freedom and exile. And also Ted Hughes for that visceral Anglo-Saxon charge within the English language.

"In American poets you get that sense of jazz coming in: the long lines, the syncopated rhythm. Then I always say: look at the oral dimension. Look at the Inuit chant for building a canoe, the Gaelic blessing for building a house or going on a journey. Keep going back to your orality, your folk songs, your hymns, take in all these registers of language, expose yourself to registers of song."

He sees his involvement in Poetry Live! as another way of introducing young people to alternatives to the cliches of black culture; his agreement for his work to be on the curriculum can be seen in the same light. After all, many writers and poets do not want students to think of their creations as hard work that has to be endured.

Agard recognises that this is a risk.

"[But] say people like Imtiaz (Dharker), Grace (Nichols) and myself decided we didn't want our work on the syllabus. What would happen? Young people in this country, black and white, already perceive black achievers in terms of sport - boxers, athletes - or singers, rappers. There is a danger, if we chose not to be on the curriculum as Caribbean and African poets, that all the students will be left with is Keats and Byron.

"As young people, they are getting feedback into what is possible and it is very important for them to feel that words are deserving of a sense of awe and delight, not just sport."

Perhaps he is thinking of his younger self, the Guyanese teenager who thought school was boring until an exciting, diverse - and more relevant - curriculum came along to inspire him.

Quoted poems appear in Alternative Anthem: Selected Poems by John Agard, published by Bloodaxe Books, 2009

A life in words

Born: 21 June 1949, Guyana

Career: Languages teacher; library worker; sub-editor and features writer for Guyana's Sunday Chronicle; poet

Family: In 1977, Agard moved to the UK with his partner Grace Nichols. They have three daughters: Lesley, Yansan and Kalera


1982: Casa de las Americas Prize

1995: Nestle Smarties Book Prize

1997: Paul Hamlyn Award for Poetry

2004: Cholmondeley Award

2012: Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry

Selected works

1974: Shoot Me With Flowers

1982: Man to Pan

1985: Mangoes and Bullets

1996: We Animals Would Like a Word With You

2005: Half-Caste and Other Poems

2006: We Brits

2008: The Young Inferno

2009: Alternative Anthem: Selected Poems

2011: Goldilocks on CCTV

`He sees life as an enigma'

"Guyanese and Caribbeans in general are, of course, delighted that John Agard's work has received such an accolade (the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry), and their educational systems are beginning to see the need to welcome the osmosis of his poetry in their schools.

"John sees life as an enigma to be lived and enjoyed with all of one's faculties. His poetry takes simple as well as complex ideas and images and turns them, almost magically, and with gentle humour, into their opposites, composites and surrogates with alarming ease. It's a strategy that encourages and insists on tolerance. There are many ways of looking at the same enigma. The poetry also celebrates the fecund world of nature, and sensual imagery is therefore integral to its effect.

"So it seemed only natural that, when he received the Queen's award, the medal was accidentally presented upside down with the sexy, nude figure of `Wisdom' uppermost. No one can verify this, but it's reported that the Queen, laughing, said `I'm on the other side'. If the report is true, it was a doubly golden moment illustrating both Agard's remarkable `Anancy' spirit and a beloved monarch's warmth and lively sense of humour."

Michael Gilkes is a poet and playwright. He was John Agard's sixth-form teacher

Watch a webchat

John Agard visited TES last month to take part in a webchat with our readers.

To watch the highlights, visit www.tesconnect.comagard


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