John Agard: ‘I feel an empathy with the bad characters’ – Interview
Raucous laughter emerges from the studio where the poet John Agard is being photographed. The photographer asks him to leave his coat on, and Agard cheerfully agrees, telling us in his deep Caribbean voice that it will “make him look like he just arrived from the tropics”. Dressed in a jaunty hat and jazzy shirt, casually rolling a cigarette as he talks, Agard is warm and thoughtful. I am told that his favourite place to write is in a pub with a pint of Guinness and I get the impression, as we speak, that he is pretty down to earth.
One of the most highly regarded poets in the UK, Agard has won many awards. Today his poetry will be recognised by the Queen, when he is awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. The award was first instituted in 1933 by King George V, and the recipient is chosen by a committee chaired by the Poet Laureate. Past winners include Stevie Smith, Ted Hughes, Norman MacCaig and Derek Walcott – a cross-section of poets that Agard describes as “good company”.
Though he is touched by the honour, for Agard a medal from the Queen means as much as, for example, the letter of congratulations he recently received from his old sixth-form teacher, or the support of friends in Lewes, Sussex where he now lives.
“I was browsing in a local bookshop,” he tells me, “and an elderly lady approached me and said: ‘I heard you got some award. It’s going to cost me to talk to you now.’” Agard laughs loudly.
“But you’re just grateful for the blessing of poems still coming,” he says. “You don’t live your life as a poet thinking, ‘what’s my next prize?’ It’s a different kind of mindset from say, athletics.”
It is for his two works – his children’s book Goldilocks on CCTV and his anthology Alternative Anthem – that he is receiving the award. Goldilocks on CCTV takes the fairytale characters and gives them a modern, subversive twist. There is a feisty damsel in distress, a Cinderella who wants a motorbike and a host of “bad” characters, like the ugly sisters, the wolf and the beast, who tell their side of the story.
“I was conscious that our perception of fairytales is coloured by the cosmetic, Walt Disney version”, Agard explains. “Through poetry you make people reflect and you name and un-name things, such as the absurdity of an expression, like the poem Half-Caste. Through humour and satire you get children to think about quite relevant and serious things.”
Half-Caste is a poem particularly well-known by young people, as it featured on the GCSE syllabus for many years. The poem cleverly challenges the reader to consider the term “half-caste” and its associations with inferiority: “Consequently when I dream / I dream half-a-dream / an when moon begin to glow / I half-caste human being / cast half-a-shadow”.
The theme of identity is a powerful presence in Agard’s poetry. In one poem from Goldilocks on CCTV Agard empathises with Rumpelstiltskin, “this strange Goblin-like fellow” because the queen reveals his secret name.
This story made an impression on Agard as a child, because as he explains, historically, slaves in the Caribbean had their names replaced by those of their slave masters. The uncovering of secret names in many cultures is also a severe trauma. “In many cultures, your name is linked to your soul and spirit. I think that’s why I was drawn to Rumpelstiltskin”, he says. The anguish is evident in the poem: “For they have spilt / the beans of me / unlit / the spark of me / unsung / the lark of me.”
I put it to Agard that there is a tendency in his poems to delve beneath the conventional view. Whether it is his collection From the Devil’s Pulpit, where Agard writes humorously, often sympathetically, from the devil’s viewpoint, his poems about identity such as Half-Caste and Palm Tree King or assuming the voice of fairytale villains.
“I feel an empathy with the bad characters”, he says with a smile. “I think that’s part of the excitement of writing, how you can give a voice to certain characters, or people that are usually voiceless.”
Agard grew up in Georgetown, in what was then British Guiana. He recalls reading fairytales, Enid Blyton and The Hardy Boys as a child, before discovering the humour of PG Wodehouse, and the liberating influence of the Mersey Sound poets: Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten. He fondly recalls his time spent as an altar boy, his Roman Catholic upbringing evident in his poems.
Another key influence that affected his love of words was BBC cricket commentary. “In the same way that a young teenager today may dream about becoming a rapper, I used to love pretending to be a cricket commentator, like John Arlott. That’s when it all came together,” he laughs. I ask him whether he ever dreamed of going on Test Match Special: “Well as a Caribbean boy you fancy yourself as more than a commentator, you fancy yourself as the batsman or the bowler!”
Agard moved to Britain in 1977, with his wife, the poet Grace Nichols, to pursue their dream of becoming writers. He describes feeling the pull of the mother country as a result of a childhood spent studying Chaucer and Shakespeare. It was a strong connection he says, “despite the conflicts and brutalities of the past”. He has spent more time living in Britain than his native homeland, yet he is still heavily influenced by his upbringing in Guyana. As a result, he says continents fill his head space and inspire his creativity.
I ask him if he has had to contend with racial prejudice in Britain. “Well let’s put it this way, I’ve never been arrested by the police, or experienced any physical confrontations, as such”, he says. “But any black person living in England would be deceiving themselves if they said they’d never experienced even just subtle racism – a changing in the tone of someone’s voice, for instance. The sooner we can face the fact that Western education is entrenched with preconceived notions of other societies, the better. It’s healthy and liberating to question those perceptions.”
Has British society made progress in its attitudes, I ask? “Yes, but there’s still a long way to go.” Agard replies. “I don’t think we realise that there is a great possibility here for a genuine enrichment of diversity, despite whatever conflicts exist.
“It’s an auspicious time, particularly for Caribbean poetry in this country, and teachers are embracing different voices, so we now hear Indian and Pakistani poets speak. That would never happen in France or Spain. You’ve only got to consider the football situation in Eastern Europe. So we have a lot to do. But then again, that’s the fascinating thing about Britain.”
THE HOSANNA OF SMALL MERCIES
Blink of green to greet the day.
What more can one ask of a leaf?
Blessing of a bird’s octaves.
What more can one ask of a beak?
Breath of morning’s first coffee.
What more can one ask of a bean?
Embrace of musk from old books.
What more can one ask of a shelf?
The hosanna of small mercies.
The salutation of self to self.
John Agard, taken from his forthcoming collection Travel Light Travel Dark (Bloodaxe Books, June 2013)