Profile: John Agard, Exploring the Richness and Difficulties of Diversity

I started to consider buying a house the other day. I’ve been completely priced out of the market in this country but I wasn’t looking in this country. For the first time in my life I was seriously considering emigrating. Not for better house prices or mortgage rates or anything quite so mercenary but because I was starting to see divisions growing at a scale and a temperament I have never witnessed before. I’m not about to jump ship but I will admit to walking up and down the deck to nervously check on the lifeboats.

It was in this frame of mind that I set about writing a profile on the 2012 winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, John Agard in readiness for the upcoming tour of his new show ‘Roll Over Atlantic’. I couldn’t help but think of his politically-charged poetry, his anti-establishment work, and his railing against the divisions he has both seen and experienced. His humorous but pointed challenge to the reader in ‘Half-Caste’ forces a reflection on the absurdity of the term: “when I dream / I dream half-a-dream / an when moon begin to glow / I half-caste human being / cast half-a-shadow” and his ‘Alternative Anthem’, for which he often asks his audience to stand, examines (and possibly discovers) the true core of what it means to be British in its opening lines:

Put the kettle on

Put the kettle on

It is the British answer

to Armageddon.

A celebrated performance poet as well as a playwright and children’s author, John Agard grew up in Georgetown, in what was then British Guiana (now Guyana) working as a teacher and journalist before moving to England in 1977 with his wife, Grace. He has cited Enid Blyton, Roger McGough and BBC cricket commentary amongst his various influences but it was his use of the rhythms and dialect of the Caribbean in his poetry collection Man to Pan which began to get him noticed, securing him the Casa de las Américas Prize in 1982.

His other awards include the Paul Hamlyn Award, a Cholmondeley Award; his book We Brits was shortlisted for the Decibel Writer of the Year Award and he has won the Guyana Prize twice. In 1989, he became the first Writer-in-Residence at London’s South Bank Centre and has subsequently been poet-in-residence at the BBC and the National Maritime Museum. It was while working in the latter that he found himself “wondering how could the Atlantic, so tainted by the slave trade, find redemption, “to make a libation of itself”” and these thoughts have become recurring themes in his work.

“play is the genesis of creativity”

Throughout his career John Agard has spent a large amount of time travelling around schools promoting poetry and Caribbean culture. As well as his poems ‘Flag’ and ‘Checking Out Me History’ becoming part of the GCSE syllabus, Agard’s work for children and young adults includes The Young Inferno, a spin on Dante's Inferno, and Goldilocks on CCTV, a collection inspired by Fairy Tales. He explains that although he can’t speak for the arts in general he does “get the impression that teachers often find themselves curriculum-bound and dominated by exam pressure.” He feels that “play is the genesis of creativity” but that “there's less time for teachers to explore the mind-opening spaces of the spontaneous imagination.”

The themes of nationalism and patriotism explored in ‘Flag’ are piercingly relevant in a post-EU Referendum UK. Whether it be people changing their Twitter icons and Facebook profile pictures to the European flag in protest of Brexit or beginning excited discussions on the look of the new (or return of the old) British passport, the symbolism of nationhood is taking on fresh potency and Agard’s words sing out to us:

“What's that unfurling from a pole?

It's just a piece of cloth

that makes the guts of men grow bold.”

Our country, our pride, our flag: the words remind us of the rousing potential of a national symbol. But it’s the twisting in the final lines that show Agard predicted the dangers which often lurk beneath the raising of the flag, the rising swell of the national anthem, or the puffed-up chest of the pseudo patriot:

“How can I possess such a cloth?

Just ask for a flag my friend.

Then blind your conscience to the end.”

It’s this sardonic edge which runs through so much of his work and in 2013 Agard’s darkly humorous play ‘Puff’, described as a “satirical imagining of the tobacco-fuelled flirtations of Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh”, was produced by Crosspath Theatre. ‘Puff’ highlighted the Elizabethan court’s obsession with tobacco from the New World and through this prism Agard was able to explore the spectrum of racism, identity, and immigration.

humour and the beating of the steel drum have always been at the very core of Agard’s work

In this new one man show, ‘Roll Over Atlantic’, John Agard returns to these themes and topics. This time, taking centre stage to tackle the story of Columbus and his voyage across the ocean.

In explaining his subject matter, Agard says that “Columbus was an opportunist” and in stumbling upon the Americas, the explorer ‘kick-started’ globalisation which “had a catastrophic impact upon the indigenous peoples, the Tainos (often called Arawak) and the Caribs whose name lives on in the Caribbean.” The impact of Columbus’ journey has been far reaching and long-lasting. The shockwaves are still being felt and the story “is relevant in the context of globalisation, ecological concerns and migration from former colonies plundered by European powers. Also, Columbus was driven by a fanaticism that resonates with the dangers of contemporary extremism.”

Speaking about how his own sense of belonging had been affected by the political events of 2016 he says: “Unfortunately, a wide section of the society is in danger of looking at the world through a narrow lens. In the current climate there's an air of tribal singularity which can descend into monolithic arrogance and distrust.”

As reports of hate crimes are on the rise and people fear the creation of new immigrant ‘lists’, Brexit seems as if it has turned over the green and pleasant land to reveal the worms of xenophobia squirming in the topsoil. While across the Atlantic, there’s talk of building the most divisive of all symbols: a wall. 

These are deeply troubling developments and looking at his career so far there is no doubt that Agard will not be shying away from these issues in his “satirical re-visiting of the so-called Old World and New World.” However, humour and the beating of the steel drum have always been at the very core of Agard’s work: “Along the way, Columbus meets some very politically-conscious mosquitoes who address him in calypso! You could say there's a bit of a cabaret feel to the ethos of the show.”

John Agard has a career which spans four decades, he challenges preconceptions, pulls humour out from dark themes, and explores the richness and difficulties of diversity. At a time when there is a rise in tribal singularity he feels it is “All the more reason to celebrate plurality and keep our mindsets not too set.”

 Roll Over Atlantic is currently touring.

More about the author

About the author

As well as contributing to Disclaimer, Holly has published several comic short stories with Black Coffey, and has been known to write and perform stand-up comedy at festivals and charity gigs. Her first play for the radio is in production with Frequency Theatre, and she is currently working on a full-length play for the stage.

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