Telling Tales is Patience Agbabi’s fourth collection of poetry. In this collection, Agbabi draws on a mix of literary styles, genres and voices to redefine British literary traditions in a clever remix that foregrounds the layering of old and new in everyday life in the United Kingdom. Telling Tales thus suggests that British identity has never been stable, that it has always been a process of change. In these poems, the old and the new sometimes work in conflict and sometimes in harmony. This collection invites the reader to simultaneously embrace the past and reach out to the future by exploring an everyday British existence through different forms of language. Traditional poetic forms are infused with nontraditional language choices, bridging the gap between history and present day. Agbabi utilizes colloquial and texting language in intricate written forms like the sonnet corona and by doing so, she affirms the literary value of vernacular forms and dialects.
At its simplest, Telling Tales is Agbabi’s modern day retelling of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, a collection of tales that are told as a competition to pass the time while a company of people embark on the pilgrimage route between London and Canterbury. Agbabi gives us a poetry slam on a Routemaster bus, traveling the same, albeit modern, route between the two cities and reworks each story and storyteller into an edgy, fast-paced work that makes use of the many voices heard in United Kingdom today. She has adapted Chaucer’s General Prologue into a collection of author biographies and retells each original tale in the order in which they are presented in Chaucer’s original. However, while Canterbury Tales is the main allusion in Telling Tales, Agbabi draws on multiple literary and cultural sources as well as employs numerous poetic narrative forms to more deeply explore social and cultural challenges faced by the British people today. The collection of poems represents a group of varied, multi-cultural voices and drawing on these diverse forms and resources allows Agbabi to negotiate what role language plays in the construction of the British identity.
This annotation explores the many sources that Agbabi uses in her work. Some references are historical, some relate to the original Canterbury Tales, and many draw on contemporary and popular culture themes relevant in the United Kingdom today. It is my hope that this background knowledge will help illuminate some of the issues that are raised by the poems and allow the reader to tackle the themes and questions in the poems with more ease. Annotation often helps readers comprehend a work that is historical, helping to make sense of cultural references and language that belong to a given time, and providing interpretive directions through notes and gloss. Because Agbabi’s Telling Tales is integrative and multifaceted, an annotation of this collection works to reconcile the old and the new, much as the poetry itself does. Historical reference and present day issues are explored and clarified which will show how Telling Tales moves beyond the allusion to Chaucer to tackle current social and cultural issues.
One aspect of Agbabi’s work that I’ve come to appreciate through this annotation process is her ability to create characters with unique and varied voices. Agbabi’s story tellers represent different genders, accents, education and socio-economic backgrounds. The collection includes voices from London, Wales, and Kent. Some were born in the UK, some in former British colonies, others are immigrants from Africa. Some are economically stable and socially respectable, others represent the criminal underworld. We encounter clear protagonists, antagonists and some characters that are ambiguously neither. Not all share the same values or points of view, yet they all convene together between the covers of one cohesive and distinctly British collection. Agbabi understands that in order to capture the essence of a culturally diverse society, more than one voice needs representation. And Agbabi expertly weaves these character voices together, allowing history to intertwine with the present in a remix that revels in word play and double meaning.
Because Agbabi is adopting different character voices, her choices of language include various forms of British vernacular that would generally be termed “slang.” The annotations take the literary value of these vernacular forms seriously, as Agbabi does, by working to legitimize these newer forms of expression. Instead of using the term slang, I use the term colloquialism or vernacular to convey that these words are representative of the people and cultures that embrace the creativity of language to express themselves. The blending of established English and newer forms of communication is another example of the old and new at work simultaneously in Agbabi’s poems.
Lastly, I should mention that this project is purposefully unfinished. This annotation was originally conceived as an undergraduate senior thesis project, but it bloomed and grew into something more exciting and exploratory than I originally imagined. Unfortunately, one semester was not enough time to research and annotate every tale in this collection. However, even if I had been able to explore each tale, I would want to leave this project open-ended, as an invitation for other voices to join in and add to the discussion. As Agbabi and Chaucer have both taught me, one point of view is insufficient. Also, art is constantly evolving. As such, our conversation about art should also evolve and we should continue to investigate, to question, to connect and to talk. It is my deepest hope that this project will be a conversation starter and encourage the continued exchange of ideas.