As you may remember, John Agard was poet-in-residence at the Museum last year, and wrote a couple of memorable posts on this blog about being inspired by London’s drinking water and Ignatius Sancho enjoying an Honest Sausage in Greenwich Park.
During his residency he also wrote a number of poems in response to objects in the new Atlantic Worlds gallery. Recordings of these poems have just been made available on the main museum website, so you can now enjoy John’s voice as well as his words.
Renee (Digital Resources Librarian)
It was a pleasure meeting up with COFA (the Caribbean Over Fifties Association) whose members originally come from all around the Caribbean. We went down memory lane with a look at Caribbean proverbs and their connection with various traditions such as the African, the British, the Amerindian, the East Indian and of course the Bible. Reggae music provides some strong examples of proverbs in the context of social commentary as in Bob Marley’s reference to small axe cutting down big tree and ‘every day carry bucket to de well, one day bucket bottom a drop out.’ With the influence of African syntax on the Creole use of English words, you end up with some rich parallels. So for ‘Once Bitten Twice Shy’ you get the Jamaican ‘One-time fool no fool but two-time fool a damn fool.’ Look forward to our next COFA meet-up.
Must mention Thursday’s reading for staff at the Regatta restaurant. Flora got the evening together with an avalanche of e-mails. Not as big a turn-out as she was hoping for. But the audience was lovely and with Mark’s splendid selection of vintage calypso and reggae and with Danny at the techno control belting out the sounds, the Regatta was transformed into a friendly shake-a-leg atmosphere. Thanks to all who helped to make it happen and we couldn’t ask for a more fitting and moving end to the occasion than a spontaneous rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ by Esther, our inimitable Guyana-born Gallery Assistant. Head of Department Sarah introduced the reading and the vibes were right to try a new poem inspired by the NMM experience. Let me tell you how I got the inspiration and many of you will recognise it. During a Black History month walk with the knowledgeable Steve Martin who shares his information generously on these walkabouts, we passed, on the way to the Observatory, a charmingly sited café called The Honest Sausage. I’m sure you all know it. So I thought to myself, you don’t see that everyday. There’s something in that!
What if that larger-than-life Black Victorian gentleman Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) were to stop and chill out at such a café? Born on a slaveship, he was given the name Sancho by three Greenwich sisters after the sidekick of Don Quixote. He read books lent him by the Duke of Montague, and as butler to the Montague household, he would no doubt be familiar with the feasting practices of skewering cooked swans, pheasants etc into their own feathers. After such extravagant practices, an honest sausage would be a welcome relief!!! As you know, Sancho was a man of the arts and an eloquent writer of letters. In fact, the Letters of Ignatius Sancho (published in 1782) proved a bestseller and are now part of university studies. But Sancho also liked his food as much as the theatre, so let’s have him stop a while at The Honest Sausage
The Letter-Writing Ghost Of Ignatius Sancho
Here I am in royal grounds of Greenwich
at a café called The Honest Sausage.
Ah, dear boy, how lovely to munch alfresco
And simply be Ignatius Sancho.
So with words for my honest ingredients
I shall not mince my stock of sentiments.
Indeed, how can you not trust my language
when my mouth is filled with an honest sausage?
Mrs Sancho, my treasured better half, would deem
an honest sausage worthy of esteem
and approve my resting my gout-ridden feet
here where Empire’s feasting on-the-hill elite
overlooked their remote middle passage
like pheasants skewered in their own plumage.
If history’s forked tongues are living doppelgangers
Then let us give thanks for honest bangers
Yet returning to the grounds of Montague
I see the old house like the good Duke gone
And roller skates have taken the place of swans.
And the black presence shades the red, white and blue.
O browsing the Duke’s library was my dukedom
as I Sancho am pleased to see my letters thumbed
While little Brits of motley complexion stride
to futures made rich when diasporas collide.
John Agard (Poet in Residence)
Some years ago, I was invited by curator Nigel Rigby to come up with a poetic spin as a counterpoint to Empire footage from old movies, Pathe newsreels etc. I enjoyed that quirky collaboration on what became a video/installation for the Trade and Empire Gallery, which is now making way for Atlantic Worlds.
And now, here I am as poet-in-residence, thanks to an initiative of Indie Choudhury. I’ll be housed two days a week for three months in the Learning and Interpretation Department and my point of contact is Flora Gordon. So far I have been doing readings and meeting staff from various departments, wandering around and losing my way in the process but getting a feel of the NMM’s wide range of activities; also meeting visual artists and nosing around the library’s intriguing resources.
Who knows what might inspire a poem? Often a little insignificant-seeming thing. The Muse might not descend in the rankified uniform of Captain Cornwallis! Like the other day, I noticed in the London Maritime section, this little quaint remark on the city’s hybrid history by the reverend Sydney Smith (1771-1845):
“He who drinks a tumbler of London water has literally in his stomach more animated beings than there are men and women and children on the face of the earth.”
Take that Volvic! So now you know the secret of global awareness and diversity – A tumbler of London water. How about the Commission for Racial Equality getting together with the Thames Water Authority and planning a National Tumbler of London Water Day?
And since a poem is grounded in a voice, how about the poem being put in the mouth of a rather eccentric(?) King who would gladly surrender his Kingdom for a tumbler of London water?
So here’s a London-Maritime inspired poem I’d like to share with you.
WHAT AILS THE KING
He who drinks a tumbler of London water has literally in his stomach more animated beings than there are men and women and children on the face of the earth
Reverend Sydney Smith
A tumbler of London water
A tumbler of London water
And make that sparkling hybrid
A King can’t have enough of this polytonic fluid
I want to feel as Druid as oak
As Roman as that Libyan Severus
As pagan-powered as up-in-arms Boadicea
As lettered as that black Victorian Sancho
Water from the well of hidden histories
As angel-infested as Blake’s Soho
As Sabbath-lit as a Jewish window
As spice-warm as a Huguenot-haunted curry house
I want to salaam as shalom
As dragon-driven as Chinatown
Where old grey Thames meets the Yellow River
And the little bardic people of the Irish Sea
O my kingdom my sceptered kingdom
for a tumbler of London water
Let animated beings invade my being
Let a King imbibe the globe in one swallow
How else can I do my Polish mazurka
between the strains of Handel and Bob Marley?
John Agard (Poet-in-residence)
John has recently commenced a three month residency as poet-in-residence at the National Maritime Museum.
During this time John will explore the collection, predominantly manuscripts and archives in relation to the transatlantic slave trade within the context of his own body of work and practice. John is interested in investigating language through poetry that arrives out of cultural marginalisation and displacement as forms of expression and empowerment:
‘It was in language that the slave was perhaps most successfully imprisoned by his master, and it was in the [mis] use of it, the he perhaps most effectively rebelled.’ (Kamau Braithwaite)
A key aim of the residency is to consider different modes of interpreting personal responses and interpretations either as representations of individual identity or collective history through the poet’s engagement with the museum and different participant groups in a variety of ways. In this way, the poet’s own oral traditions engage with and respond to the museum’s collections, illustrating how different cultures collect, archive and construct history.
John Agard (born June 21, 1949) is a playwright, poet, and children’s writer from Guyana, who moved to England in 1977. He worked for the Commonwealth Institute from 1978 to 1985, travelling throughout the United Kingdom as a touring reader promoting Caribbean culture to over 2000 schools.
He became the first Writer in Residence at the South Bank Centre in London and Poet in Residence at the BBC in London. He has won a total of five awards for his works, including the Paul Hamlyn Award for Poetry in 1997 and the Cholmondeley Award in 2004. Since 2005 his poetry has been featured as part of the AQA GCSE English syllabus.
John Agard lives in south-east England. His latest poetry collection, We Brits (2006), was short listed for the 2007 British Book Awards Decibel Writer of the Year award.
‘His poems are direct and arresting, playful, full of startling imagery, and are hilarious, passionate and erotic as often as they are political – often managing to be all these things at once‘ – Maura Dooley.