The award-winning poet's modern take on the Canterbury Tales to come complete with ladettes, rappers and self-help gurus
This April, when the "shoures soote" immortalised by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century see off the "droghte" of March once more, the award-winning poet and performer Patience Agbabi is set to release a "21-century remix" of the medieval poet's most famous work, The Canterbury Tales.
Agbabi's Telling Tales retells each of Chaucer's pilgrims' stories, with the author dreaming up new takes on the characters, from a ladette Miller to a hoodie Canon's Yeoman, rapping Parson and self-help guru Pardoner. Out in April, from publisher Canongate, it is already drawing rapturous praise from the likes of Simon Armitage, Andrew Motion and George Szirtes, who called the book "brilliant" and "virtuosic", adding that if it was not in the running for a major prize this year "it will be proof the world has grown very dull indeed".
Helen Cooper, professor of medieval and renaissance poetry at Cambridge University, said that "Chaucer would have been proud of what he has inspired" .
"Tabard Inn to Canterb'ry Cathedral, / Poet pilgrims competing for free picks, / Chaucer Tales, track by track, it's the remix / From below-the-belt base to the topnotch," writes Agbabi.
"I won't stop all the clocks with a stopwatch / when the tales overrun, run offensive, / or run clean out of steam, they're authentic / and we're keeping it real, reminisce this: / Chaucer Tales were an unfinished business."
Agbabi, whose debut poetry collection R.A.W. won her the 1997 Excelle Literary Award, is known for both her written poetry and her performance work. "Give me a stage and I'll cut form on it / give me a page and I'll perform on it," she writes, in her poem The Word. Her second poetry collection, Transformatrix, saw her create a Nigerian Wife of Bath who "went down a storm in performance", she said, and when she was made Canterbury festival's laureate in 2010 she "saw this as a sign to do more tales".
She was, initially, a little intimidated to take on Chaucer. "I had no problem with the Middle English. I love Middle English. I'm no expert but I like the fact that it's so near and yet so far from contemporary English," she said. "Taking on the grandfather of English literature was the issue. The first six months were hell. I was too reverent, scared to put a foot out of line. But then a year into the project I got a second wind and let creativity take over. Whenever I got stuck I reread the original text and imagined Chaucer winking at me, saying, go girl."
Agbabi's editor at Canongate, Francis Bickmore, said the author's background as a performance poet as well as a "page" poet meant she was "ideally placed to write work that, like the Canterbury tales, works as well read aloud as it does on the read to oneself".
"It's easy to forget that the Canterbury Tales were some of the most wild, rude, funny, heartbreaking stories of human behaviour and misbehaviour ever written," said Bickmore. "Patience catapults the characters into modern multicultural Britain, with joyous effect. Formally daring but also bang up-to-date, we're hoping Telling Tales will make big waves this year and rekindle an interest in Chaucer generally ... With Lavinia Greenlaw's retelling of Troilus and Criseyde this year for Faber, it seems like there's something in the air."
Greenlaw's A Double Sorrow is a fresh telling of the tragic romance of the Trojan hero Troilus and his lover Criseyde. It is out in February, taking its title from the first line of Chaucer's poem.