Gravesend poet Patience Agbabi tells her own Canterbury tale
12:04 08 November 2012
‘My name is Mrs Alice Ebi Bafa, I come from Nigeria, I’m very fine, isn’t it,” says the speaker in Gravesend poet Patience Agbabi’s modern reworking of the Wife of Bath.
The Canterbury Tales were written by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century and some 500 years later Patience has tackled each of the 24 tales to give them a contemporary twist.
She had the idea in the pipeline for years but the chance to see it through only came after she was invited to be Canterbury poet laureate in 2010.
“I had rewritten one of the Canterbury tales 10 years previously – The Wife of Bafa. When I became poet laureate, one of the conditions was that I had to create work about Canterbury and I decided to do the whole collection. It was a bit of a daunting task,” she says.
Instead of Chaucer’s imagined pilgrimage from Southwark to Canterbury with the characters telling stories en route, Patience has set it up like a poetry slam with her characters travelling on a Routemaster bus from London to Canterbury.
The task ahead was varied.
There were the popular stories such as The Miller’s Tale (a drunkard’s yarn drenched in sexual puns) that have been reinterpreted many times before, and there were those barely touched by others such as the 40-pages of prose that is The Parson’s Tale.
It was the tales that others shied away from that gave Patience most poetic licence.
“The prose ones are not even stories, but these less popular tales were more interesting as I had more freedom. The Parson’s Tale is more like a manual than a text with a tale and characters and I had to create those from scratch,” she explains.
The result is an eclectic mix of tales that take on various voices, from rappers (“Seven Sins was my Crew, you can ask them, use ta be ‘The Pimp’ but now I’m ‘The Parson’”) to cabbies (“The wife’s giving me grief cos I just took a fare from Herne Bay to Broadstairs”).
She dramatises the characters’ sagas in heroic couplets, monologues, rap of other contemporary forms of speech – just as Chaucer did in his day.
“His prologue introduces the characters – some are squeaky clean and some are very dubious. I wanted to show that range,” she says.
Her ability to modify accents and dialects comes from spending her childhood moving around the country.
Patience was born in London in 1965 but at the age of 12 she moved to a small town in north Wales where she spent her teenage years.
Following a degree at Oxford University, she has travelled across the UK – something she feels is crucial to her creating the characters in the tales.
Now living in Gravesend with her partner and two young sons, she bent the route to Canterbury a little to accommodate a tale set in her hometown.
Unfinished Business is a reworking of The Tale of Melibee and is inspired by film noir – one of Patience’s great passions – including The Long Memory (1952), which was shot in Gravesend, and Memento, a film that works in reverse order.
When The Canterbury Copy is published next year, Patience wants to follow Chaucer’s style by making the storytelling part of a competition, but in a more contemporary way.
“In a poetry slam, the audience vote for their favourite poem. I want to perform the collection as a one-person show or with a group of others. When I perform them people can decide which they like best.”
Last week she stood in front of 700 17 and 18-year-olds and performed Chaucer’s Prologue, but as a “grime mix”.
The standing ovation she received indicates that Chaucer has come a long way from its medieval roots.