Patience Agbabi is a poet known for her formal dexterity and live readings. Her fourth collection is Telling Tales (Canongate, 2014), supported by a Canterbury Laureateship and Grant for the Arts to write a contemporary Canterbury Tales. It was shortlisted for the 2014 Ted Hughes Award and Wales Book of the Year 2015. Her collaborative poem ‘The Refugee’s Tale’ appeared in The Refugee Tales (Comma Press, 2016) when she participated in a reverse pilgrimage walk from Canterbury to London to raise awareness around asylum seekers’ issues.
A Brief History of Seven Killings
I first met this book at a public reading in Trinidad by a man called Marlon James. He wasn’t The Marlon James but he did a fine job of chapter one. Kingston ghetto patois, the voice of Bam Bam, Copenhagan City gang member. That voice got under my skin. This ambitious masterpiece is a retelling of the assassination attempt of Bob Marley in Jamaica, 1976, told by a huge cast of characters over two decades. To get it, you must hear each voice aloud in your head, as if it were coming from your own imagination. Reading it is a physical act.
The Pier Falls
This imaginative collection of short stories examines death from all angles, all genres. Yet it’s one of the most uplifting books I’ve read. Why? At the heart of tragedy, there are acts of love, compassion. The title story details the disaster in exquisite slow motion. Haddon’s poetic eye finds beauty in forensic detail; each story a work of a fierce emotional intelligence; and so often the narrative hinges on the perfect turn of phrase. His protagonists shift effortlessly between time zones. He captures the 70s so vividly you can taste Smash, the lumpy, powdery bits that never dissolved.
Come Let Us Sing Anyway
This collection is a sensory feast. Each story should be savoured like a specially prepared, off-menu meal. The language is luscious, mellifluous, with a political bass. There are several unique Black female protagonists and men who shake off our narrative expectations as vigorously as James Brown discarded his cloak live at the Apollo. The longer stories are charged with delicious tension; the microfiction surreal and imagistic. Kingston noir, magical realism, queer erotica: it has it all. I have three firm favourites but it will be interesting to see which ones you prefer. And why.
What the Water Gave Me
Petit is an artist who paints with words. So, each poem in this collection is a version of a painting by the late, great Frida Kahlo. Startling images rule supreme. Somehow, Petit fuses her own personal history with the tortured life of Kahlo so there’s a multi-layered emotional intensity at work. This is artistic biography in verse, accessible and profound. You don’t need to know the original paintings to appreciate each poem but you might be tempted to google them. And to visit Petit’s other collections to appreciate the entire mythology she has created from the dysfunctional relationships with her parents.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Each time you read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, you’ll discover something new. Or it might be your first time. I urge you to read the Dover Publications edition with 42 illustrations by Gustave Doré. Then you can enjoy the poem itself, the marginal notes and the exquisite illustrations. Experience the full spectrum of reading: the words on the page; the onomatopoeic stanzas out loud; the margins giving their added perspective on the text; and the illustrations opening up whole new interpretations. It’s a fully immersive experience that will generate lots of discussion. And of course, the poem tells a story that will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Coleridge defined poetry as ‘the best words in the best order’. I don’t think poetry comes much better than this.