John Agard: Forever the Saint's boy by John Mair
Stabroek News
January 20, 2002

Listen Mr. Oxford Don
Me not no Oxford don
me a simple immigrant
from Clapham Common
I didn't graduate
I immigrate

John Agard

Forty years ago, he was an altar boy at Saint Stanislaus' College in Georgetown, today he is the best known (and easily the busiest) black poet in Britain: Guyanese John Agard. Last autumn, the UK diaspora honoured him with an inaugural High Commission Award but this was just the latest in the long list of Agard's awards.

In 1989 he was awarded an Arts Council Bursary and in 1993 became the first Writer in Residence at London's South Bank Centre. In 1998 he was Poet in Residence for the BBC with the Windrush Project which chronicled the fiftieth anniversary of the coming of the first West Indian mass migration to Britain. He himself had joined the move to the UK in 1977 after growing up in Guyana. Those early days have stayed with him all of his life :

"My childhood in Guyana formed my consciousness. It is part of my mental landscape," he says today.

That upbringing in El Dorado has proved a rich mine for his work He uses its language, he uses its experiences. It forms the basis of so much of his writing. John Agard is a popular children's writer whose titles include Get Back Pimple, Laughter is an Egg, Grandfather's Old Bruk a down Car, I Din Do Nothing, and We Animals Would Like a Word with You, which won a Smarties Award (the top prize for childrens' books in the UK). A new collection of his poems for children, Points of View with Professor Peekaboo, was published in 2000.

But, as they say in Guyana, his navel string lies firmly planted in the soil of his motherland where he acquired his love of the language.

"I went to a Roman Catholic school and most of my teachers were priests. I was an altar boy and we had to say the Mass in Latin. I used to love draping myself in a sheet and pretending I was a priest. It was the Lord have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us. Call and response. It was the incantatory quality of language that I was responding to. Call and response."

It was not just the local Creole/vernacular version of the mother tongue of English which attracted him but also the purer version from the motherland too. Transmitted through the medium of a crackly radio set.

"Cricket was another thing. You would hear John Arlott, this voice coming out of the radio. I used to love the language 'There's a breeze blowing across the green carpet, and the batsmen take to the middle. The bowler running up to bowl, rubbing the ball upon his flannels, the batsmen cracks it majestically.' I realised I was responding to the language in the same way I responded to the Liturgy."

After graduating from 'Saints,' he had spells as a pupil teacher there, as a librarian and a journalist, before emigrating to the United Kingdom:

"I taught the very subjects which I did for my A levels: French, English and Latin. As a 'pupil teacher' you didn't have to be qualified... Then I worked as a sub editor and wrote features in the newspapers. But my interest was in poetry, and eventually I had two books of poetry published in Guyana and in 1977 I left."

He may now have lived in the United Kingdom for nearly a quarter of a century, visited over 2000 schools reading his poetry (for which he must be the busiest poet on the block), but all of his writing roots lead firmly back to Guyana:

"A poem like The Woodpecker reflects something of the rhythms of my Caribbean background. I try to get the voice of the woodpecker pecking... "

The Woodpecker
out of
tree trunk.
John Agard

John has also written plays. He lives with fellow Guyanese poet and writer Grace Nichols and their family in Sussex, south of London.