Interview: John Agard—“those who weren't given a voice, their story can be told”

The award-winning poet's one-man show reimagines Christopher Columbus

October 19, 2016
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The Royal Festival Hall’s Blue Room has gone dark. “Ladies and gentlemen!” a voice with an American accent announces. “It gives me great pleasure to introduce the admiral of the ocean sea, live and direct from the old world to the new, and the new world to the old; viceroy and governor in perpetuo; property developer by the grace of God for his exalted sponsors; Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile... God’s self-styled navigator and discoverer; please put your hands together and make some noise for Christopher Columbus!” To the sound of pre-recorded boos and cheers steps onto the stage, John Agard, one of Britain’s pre-eminent poets.

Dressed in a faded costume and a jaunty hat, Agard is performing his one-man show, “Roll Over Atlantic,” as part of the Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival. Eccentric, energetic and captivating, Agard suffuses scathing observations with wit, melancholy and mischief as he reimagines Columbus’s discovery of the new world from different points of view: the explorer himself, a native shaman, a chorus of indignant mosquitoes, and the Atlantic Ocean. Agard questions our preconceptions of the historical figure: was he an intrepid explorer who bravely transformed the course of history, or a lost man who wreaked havoc on the native populations of the lands he claimed for the Spanish crown?

Agard was born in Guyana in 1949 and arrived in Britain in the mid-1970s. He has won many awards and his work is a staple of the GCSE syllabus. Along with WH Auden and Philip Larkin, he is a recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry—only the second black writer to receive this honour. His most famous poetry explores identity and belonging, often with a burning sense of outrage, and sharp, satirical humour. Columbus also made an appearance in “Checking Out Me History,” published in his 2004 collection “Half-Caste and Other Poems.” Tellingly, the poem challenges the European version of events: “Dem tell me bout Columbus and 1492 / but what happen to de Caribs and de Arawaks too ...Dem tell me bout ole King Cole was a merry ole soul / but dem never tell me bout Mary Seacole.” Columbus appears again in the poem “Columbus discovers himself” as a “mapless mariner.”

Columbus first penetrated Agard’s consciousness when the poet was a schoolboy growing up in the West Indies, where he was a passionate cricket fan and an avid reader of Enid Blyton and PG Wodehouse. “I was educated at a Roman Catholic school,” Agard says. “It was a good education, but the first line in my history book was something like ‘West Indian history begins in 1492 with the arrival of Columbus,’ which when you’re 13, you might not question. But looking back, it’s a very arrogant sentence, as if history only begins with the arrival of a European.”

It is something he aims to rectify in his work. “You can’t turn back the wheel of history, but maybe you can change the direction of the wheel, in the sense that those who weren't given a voice, their story can be told,” he says. His latest performance was also inspired by something he saw in Lewes, Sussex, where he lives. “I bought that life belt from a flea market,” he says, pointing to the prop suspended from the ceiling. I bought it because I thought it would be amusing if Columbus took it on his voyage.”

Humour is central to Agard’s performance, whether it is a calypso song sung by mosquitoes or his playful language (“So with Spain for my sponsor and the Pope’s backing / I guess I’d better get on with my packing,” muses Columbus near the beginning of the performance) “Humour is a very powerful weapon that can awaken people’s minds,” Agard says. “If people feel you’re preaching at them, you can alienate them.”

Perhaps the most arresting voice throughout the performance is that of the Atlantic Ocean. It is Agard’s voice, yet it has been pre-recorded and digitally altered so that it sounds far deeper, and echoes around the room, forcing Columbus to reflect on his actions as he falls out of favour with Queen Isabella due to his tyranny, brutality and incompetence. “Some say I discovered / some say I enslaved / Bury my bones with my chains,” the explorer sighs.

The unforgiving Atlantic retorts: "I’ll leave you Columbus to your self-discovery. Discover in the wake of your enterprise, how my waters became a burial shroud for those whose roots were uprooted from their eyes.” The final lines of the show belong to the Atlantic: “I demand of my winds a minute’s silence for the unmourned,” leaving the audience cast into a moment’s reflection.

Despite the final, accusing lines, Agard insists he didn’t want to paint Columbus as a villain, and there are moments when he is a reflective, troubled figure:

What if I dropped anchor in my heart’s depth?

What weeds would my mind’s Sargasso reveal?

What transgression discover in my inner Indies?

“I wanted people to explore when a human being is driven by a vision, and that vision oversteps the boundaries into obsession and fanaticism,” Agard explains. “And I felt that resonated with certain current climates of extremism.”

Agard hopes his performance still resonates. While Columbus’s accidental discovery facilitated the free movement of people across the globe, today the post-Brexit world grapples with different challenges. “The one thing people have to be aware of is how language is corrupted,” Agard warns. “You end up with all those vile expressions like ‘limited collateral damage’ (a phrase Agard’s Columbus uses to airily dismiss the deaths of the indigenous people he encounters). “The so-called powers that be use language in a vile way, to cloud people’s minds, and then it is easy to resort back to a tribal ghetto. People say, ‘the outside world is threatening us,’ which is a pity, because they are amputating their own possibilities.”

Yet Agard is also a hopeful poet. “I think Bob Marley says it nicely: positive vibrations. That’s what we’ve got to hang on to,” he laughs. “Don’t presume, and don’t allow open heartedness to be poisoned.”