Patience Agbabi is one Britain’s most prominent spoken word poets and a tireless ambassador for spoken word poetry. She is also the author of three poetry collections. Her work uses the rhythms and sounds of “rap, jive and disco” (Daily Telegraph) to explore the variegations of modern culture, as well as giving voice to those who might be otherwise unheard. More unusually in the spoken word scene, she draws just as heavily on the forms, structures and canon of traditional English poetry. Writing as a black, female poet, born to Nigerian parents and educated at Oxford, identifying as a bi-cultural and bisexual radical feminist, her poetry is saturated with gender, sexual, racial, cultural, and linguistic identity issues.
Patience Agbabi was born in London in 1965 to Nigerian parents. After spending her teenage years in North Wales, she read English at Pembroke College, Oxford, and did her MA in Creative Writing at Sussex University.
She began performing her work in London, and from 1995-1998 was a member of the performance group Atomic Lip – described as “poetry's first pop group”. Their final tour, Quadrophonix, merged live and video performance.
Agbabi’s first collection, R.A.W., was published in 1995 by Gecko Press. Adventurous on the page – with forms including split columns, typographical effects, lists, and a concrete poem in the shape of a bottle – the poems take on Thatcherism, sexual politics, life in the city, and racial politics, with the exuberance of a bomb. In a foreword to the book, Merle Collins wrote:
The poem ‘RAPunzel’ typifies this exuberance, as well as Agbabi’s penchant for word play, and her use of various cultural sources for her work – in this case, the fairy tale:
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 . . .
‘RAPunzel’ deals with the investment of black women’s self-identity in their hair, a theme that Dorothea Smartt also makes extensive use of in her work. In 1996, Agbabi collaborated with Adeola Agbebiyi and Dorothea Smartt on FO(U)R WOMEN, a performance piece that was performed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Agbabi’s second collection, Transformatrix, was published by Canongate in 2000. This book has a more polished feel, and the title poem (“I’m slim as a silver stiletto, lit/ by a fat, waxing moon and a séance . . .”) is a sonnet. The formal inventiveness continues in this collection but feels more controlled. ‘1996’ stacks four columns of words capitalised in brick shapes, above three lines of feminist “poetry that rhymes orange with bronze and ginger”.
Throughout her work, one of Agbabi’s main concerns is language itself: how it works, who owns which words, how can forms and traditions be made to intersect or mesh. The more formal diction is indirectly referred to in a poem about adolescence, ‘Excoriation’, where “Miss strips/ my vowels, clips my consonants until/ my voice breaks in Queen’s English”.
‘The Wife of Bafa’ draws on Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ to create a monologue in the voice of a femme fatale fabric seller, “Mrs Alice Ebi Bafa”. Agbabi has written interestingly for the British Council about the writing of this poem, in an essay that touches on her concerns about national identity, gender issues, language, technical aspects, the importance of performance in the life of the poem, and the influence of the source text:
My next birthday I'll be . . . twenty-nine.
The ellipses are new and help emphasize the fact that she's lying, that she has to think before she speaks. This pause became more and more prominent live and thus the version on this website is closer to the spirit of the piece. Chaucer's original character was 39 and so is mine. Later on, the line, “I beat him till he begged for his ancestors.”
alliterates ‘beat’ and ‘begged’, adding force to the punchline (and provides an echo with the common Nigerian phrase, “Please, I beg you”, in the last line). The original was ‘screamed’.
It prefigures the work she produced during a year as Canterbury Laureate, in 2009/2010, when a grant from the Arts Council enabled her to write Telling Tales, a version of The Canterbury Tales, which will be published by Canongate in 2014. Selected monologues can be heard at The Poetry Station.
Bloodshot Monochrome, Agbabi’s third collection, came out in 2008 and features a section of monologues, as well as a section called ‘Problem Pages’ in which an imaginary agony aunt (or advice columnist) responds to various poets of the English canon. Claire Sawers, reviewing the book on The List, wrote: “Honest, darkly funny and endlessly creative, she takes the sonnet, chats it up, tattoos it, gives it some motherly advice then sends it away again.”
In 2004, Agbabi was nominated one of the UK’s Next Generation Poets. She has performed worldwide on British Council-sponsored projects and independent engagements, and is on the Council of Management for The Arvon Foundation.
In 2012 she was one of four poets-in-residence for Ilkley Literature Festival. Her focus on Harewood House on the outskirts of Leeds inspired the poem The Doll’s House. Initially published in Poetry Review, it has now been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem 2014.
R.A.W. (Gecko Press, Wellington, 1995, reprinted 1997, 1999)
Transformatrix (Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 2000, reprinted annually until 2008)
Bloodshot Monochrome (Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 2008, reprinted 2009)
Telling Tales (Canongate Books, Edinburgh, forthcoming April 2014)
Carol Ann Duffy, ed., Jubilee Lines (Faber & Faber, London, 2012)
Sasha Dugdale, ed., Best British Poetry 2012 (Salt, Cromer, 2012)
Helen Ivory, ed., In Their Own Words (Salt, Cromer, 2012)
Rob Pope, ed., Studying English Language and Literature: An Introduction and Companion (Routledge, Oxford, 2012)
Tom Chivers, Adventures in Form (Penned in the Margins, London, 2012)
Agbabi’s author page at Canongate
Agbabi’s page at the British Council
Interview with Agbabi at I Don’t Call Myself a Poet
Agbabi analyses The Wife of Bafa
Agbabi performing selected monologues from Telling Tales at The Poetry Station
Claire Sawers reviews Bloodshot Monochrome for The List
Agbabi discusses her adaptation of The Canterbury Tales with The Gravesend Reporter