A while ago an English teacher friend of mine took his class to the GCSE Poetry Live! event. They were moderately well behaved during the morning, he reports, but after lunch the teenage audience were becoming restless, starting to fidget and whisper. Then John Agard bounded on to the stage, and “just blew everyone away”.
Celebrated for his charismatic delivery, Agard is in huge demand as a performance poet. But sitting in a gloomy London pub sipping on a pint of Guinness, he is talking about his new book. Goldilocks on CCTV is an illustrated collection of poems with their roots in the world of traditional fairytales, but brought bang up to date with a witty, subversive slant.
“I wasn’t so much interested in retelling narrative plot, because you really can’t improve on those,” says Agard, in his lilting Anglo-Caribbean accent. “It was a case of finding a [new] way in [to each poem].”
In many of the poems – there are 29 in all – the traditional villain of the fairytale is given a voice. In ‘Did You Say Two Ugly Sisters?’, Cinderella’s much-maligned siblings strike back: “Drop-dead-gorgeous don’t apply to us/Do we look bothered? Do we look fussed?” Here, Agard playfully examines society’s obsession with image, with how women look, something he feels is especially relevant to young teenagers at whom the book is aimed (11+).
During his childhood in Guyana, Agard read illustrated books of classic English fairytales – he can still recall some of the more vivid plates – but the idea that fairytales are just for young children is not one he subscribes to. In the “hormonal turmoil” of adolescence, Agard sees “a physical transformation happening… and transforming is so key to fairytales. It’s a very fertile area that teenagers can explore, and by no means feel they’ve outgrown.”
Teenage preoccupations loom large in the poems. In ‘The Golden Goose Talent Show’, a Simon Cowell-type figure urges his avian protégé to start producing golden credit cards, not golden eggs. In ‘A Giant and a Mobile Phone’, the big man’s adversary is not Jack, but the “twiddly, fiddly digits” on his phone.
All the poems are playful and entertaining, but, as with the original fairytales, there are deeper and darker connotations. In ‘What’s in a Name?’, Rumplestiltskin’s name is revealed, and leaked to the press: “Damn whoever told/my name my name/to the paparazzi/for they have split/the beans of me/unlit/the spark of me/unsung/the lark of me/unstrung/the bow of me/tolled/the very bell of me/indeed tweaked/the inner nose of me.” Agard is also reflecting on the importance of a person’s secret name in many African and Caribbean cultures, and “how hurtful it is for that name to be known”.
Goldilocks on CCTV follows The Young Inferno, which Agard describes as “teenage version” of Dante’s Inferno. Very well reviewed, it won the CPLE Poetry Award 2009. Both books were collaborations with the illustrator Satoshi Kitamura, with whom Agard has a long working relationship stretching back to the Smarties Book Prize-winning We Animals Would Like a Word with You (1996).
“If I feel that a book is underway and I’ve got a potential collection, I’ll just send him a copy [of the poems] and we’ll eventually meet – over a pint of Guinness,” he laughs. “I just feel that I’m in good hands, and that he knows where my head is at. I know that he’ll bring a surprising sort of slant.”
When not writing poems, Agard’s busy performing them: “Poetry lives in the breath,” he says, and of performing live: “It’s almost like going back to that collective thing, around the fire.”
And how about bringing poetry to a wider audience? He notes, wryly, that book programmes on television focus “more often than not” on novels, “because the presenter can hang on to plot, to what happens next.” There is, he thinks, “a very tentative and sceptical approach towards poetry, as if poetry cannot maintain an audience’s attention. I think it’s degrading the intelligence of the audience, and diminishing the power of poetry.”
But he’s not necessarily calling for dedicated poetry programming; as the BBC’s poet-in-residence, he read a poem on Newsnight, “a surprise item” that went down a storm. “We have a compartmentalisation mentality, as if poetry is something for ‘special’ but I feel if poetry was incorporated into the wider context of things…”
Goldilocks on CCTV by John Agard is out now from Frances Lincoln Children's Books.