- Lyndon Douglas
Patience Agbabi is a poet, performer and workshop facilitator.
She was born in London in 1965 to Nigerian parents and spent her teenage years living in North Wales. She was educated at Oxford University and has appeared at numerous diverse venues in the UK and abroad.
R.A.W., her groundbreaking debut collection of poetry, was published in 1995 and won the 1997 Excelle Literary Award. Her poetry has been published in numerous journals and anthologies, including Bittersweet: Contemporary Black Women's Poetry and IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain. Transformatrix, a commentary on late twentieth-century Britain and a celebration of poetic form, was published in 2000. It received excellent reviews in publications including the Daily Telegraph, the Independent on Sunday and Poetry Review.
A poet who tours extensively, Patience Agbabi collaborated with Adeola Agbebiyi and Dorothea Smartt to create FO(U)R WOMEN, a polyvocal performance piece which premiered at the ICA in 1996. She was a member of Atomic Lip, poetry's first pop group, from 1995 to 1998 whose final tour, Quadrophonix, 1998, incorporated video with live performance. She has recently taken part in Modern Love, a UK tour featuring a number of spoken word poets exploring the themes of love and modern relationships. In March 2002, she toured Modern Love in Switzerland with poet and playwright Malika Booker.
Primarily a solo performer, Patience Agbabi has read repeatedly at key literature festivals in the UK including the Edinburgh Book Festival and Ledbury Poetry Festival, and music festivals including Glastonbury Festival and Soho Jazz Festival. She has also worked extensively for the British Council, delivering her work in a range of venues from university lecture theatres to a metro station, in countries including Namibia, 1999, the Czech Republic, 2000, Zimbabwe and Germany, 2001, and Switzerland, 2002.Her work has also appeared on television and radio. In 1998 her work was featured on Channel 4's Litpop series and she was commissioned by the BBC to write a poem for the Blue Peter National Children's Poetry Competition in 1999.
An experienced workshop facilitator, Patience Agbabi has completed a number of successful residencies. After being selected for the Poetry Places scheme run by the Poetry Society, she was in-house poet at The Poetry Café, 1999, and Flamin' Eight, a London-based tatoo and piercing studio, from 1999 to 2000. From January to June 2001, she was poet-in-residence at Oxford Brookes University, where she devised, taught and graded a Poetry Writing module for English Literature undergraduates, and delivered a wide range of workshops for trainee nurses and teaching staff in the School of Healthcare. In 2005, she was poet-in-Residence at Eton College, Windsor, where she taught a range of poetry writing/performance workshops, conducted Eton's first poetry slams for upper and lower school, and performed her poetry. This received huge press coverage, including articles in The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Evening Standard and The New York Times.In 2002, she obtained an MA in Creative Writing, the Arts and Education at the University of Sussex in Brighton. She has been Lecturer in Creative Writing at several universities: the University of Greenwich (2002-2003); the University of Wales, Cardiff (2002-2004); and the University of Kent at Canterbury (2004-2005).
Patience Agbabi lives in Gravesend, Kent. In 2004 she was named as one of the Poetry Society's 'Next Generation' poets. Her collection, Telling Tales, written during her time as Canterbury Poet Laureate, was published by Canongate in 2014 and was shortlisted for The Poetry Society’s Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry the same year. In 2017 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. The Infinite, published in 2020, is her first novel for children.
"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 4,000, 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 at 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, just as she 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 (including 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 50 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 15-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.
Dr Jules Smith, 2003
"I wrote R.A.W. to right the wrongs of the world but was always a poetical activist. Meaning and music, form and content were inextricably linked. In Transformatrix I was tapping into the deep subconscious, producing narrative poems, dramatic monologues in forms like the sonnet, the sestina. Now I'm obsessed with poetic form, the human form, the dynamics of performance. Body Language is my work-in-progress. I write because my ink must flow like blood. The written must be spoken. The chasm between page and stage must be healed."