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Crossing Borders: From Page to Stage and Back Again
When I was 12, my foster parents moved from Sussex in southeastern England to North Wales. They bought a guesthouse in Colwyn Bay, a medium-sized seaside resort half way along the coast. It was a serious culture shock at the time but in retrospect, I can see that it had a beneficial effect on my writing.
Firstly, we had a much larger house, so I had 'a room of one's own' with the privacy to write.
Secondly, I fell in love with 'Northern Soul' (rare '60s and early '70s African American dance music popular in the North of England and one of the most prominent youth cults of the '70s and early '80s). 'Northern' as it was affectionately known, managed to combine high and low art, superb technical skill from the voice of young working-class Black Americans who could move you both emotionally and physically. I've always tried to emulate the soul spirit in my writing.
Thirdly, Colwyn Bay was the perfect setting not only for soulies but every youth cult of that era. A town of 25,000 people, it was big enough for culture to emerge, small enough for everyone to know who was who. It was rich in tribes. There were mods, rockers, bikers, punks, new romantics and soulies. I managed to belong to the mod and soul scene which meant I would dress from head to toe in early '60s clothes and dance to both ska and northern soul. Looking back at the late '70s mod revival, I'm surprised no-one used the term post-mods. The original mods prided themselves on wearing the latest sharpest clothes: we prided ourselves on looking authentically '60s. We either wore the original clothes or reinterpretations of them. We were post-mods without a sense of irony. When I began to write seriously as a young adult, I learnt by copying a dead poet. The Colwyn Bay tribes provided the copy.
Finally, I was fortunate to have an excellent English teacher who introduced me to the works of Geoffrey Chaucer.
It was 1981. I was sweet 16 and ready to be seduced by Literature with a capital 'L'. As a writer. I had been seduced as a reader from an early age, borrowing books from the local library and graduating from the children's to adult's section. I read a wide range of literature with a small 'l', from best sellers to autobiographies and nonfiction. Very little poetry. Poetry was introduced in school when I was studying for my O'levels and I adored the iambic pentametre of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and the imagery of Ted Hughes' The Thought-Fox, Hawk Roosting and The Jaguar.
Then the lower sixth began with The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. I thrilled at the Middle English, the rhyming couplets, the characters, the irony. Our English teacher set our homework to write a character sketch in the style of Geoffrey Chaucer. I got my first and only A grade for the two years (he was a tough marker). Three thousand lines later, I'd produced my own General Prologue to the Colwyn Bay Tales (celebrating various characters from the above mentioned youth cults) and two tales. In the style of Geoffrey Chaucer: iambic pentametre, rhyming couplets, archaic inversions, irony, the lot.
The Canterbury Tales are very much about entertainment. The teller of the best tale is promised a free meal at the end of the pilgrimage and in this way, it resembles the modern poetry slam, where each contestant competes for a prize. I've always been aware of the profound effect this work had on my literary development: I've only recently acknowledged the influence it has had on my penchant for performance poetry. No wonder I describe my poetry as 'page meets stage'.
© Patience Agbabi
Read more: The Wife of Bafa - Poem
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