John Agard
Making Waves at the BBC

Poet, playwright, performer, anthologist, John Agard was born in Guyana and came to Britain in 1977. He worked for the Commonwealth Institute from 1978-1985 as a touring reader, during which time he visited some two thousand schools across the UK talking about his Caribbean experiences and giving talks, readings and workshops. John was the first Writer in Residence at the South Bank Centre, London in 1993 and was honoured with a Paul Hamlyn Award in 1997. His books include Man to Pan (Casa de las Americas Prize, 1982), Mangoes and Bullets, We Animals Would Like a Word With You, From the Devil's Pulpit, and he has edited several children's poetry anthologies.

John Agard's residency at the BBC was one of the pilot projects for the Poetry Society's Poetry Places scheme. It also formed an integral part of BBC Education's Windrush season (which marked the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the first 500 settlers from the Caribbean on the troopship, MV Empire Windrush, in May 1948). John was involved in the launch of the Windrush season and contributed a poetic summary of the season for the Windrush show-reel.

News of his residency provoked a great deal of national media activity including interviews on South Today, Newsnight, BBC Southern Counties Radio, BBC Radio Leeds, The Media Show, BBC Radio Scotland and GLR's The Robert Elms Show. Interviews and poems appeared in the Independent on Sunday, the Independent and the Times Educational Supplement.

In March, John performed a specially composed poem, 'Remember the Ship', at The Runnymede Conference on Citizenship and Identity, which was widely regarded as one of the highlights of the conference.

April continued with live readings, newspaper publications and poems on the web. For World Book Day on 23 April, he performed another specially composed poem, 'Books Make Good Pets', at the Globe Theatre, which featured on the World Book Day Website and was subsequently performed on Blue Peter and Newsround. Another poem, 'What has Ariel learnt from Caliban's books' was published in the BBC in-house newspaper, Ariel. He also filmed four Video Nation shorts, which were screened in May and picked by the Observer's Jay Rayner as a highlight of the evening's viewing schedule.

On 27 April, he took part in a Windrush evening, performing a selection of poems to the audience, which included Windrush passengers and a cross-section of BBC staff. In May, the Windrush season was launched on BBC2.

In June, John took part in a poetry reading at a recorded GLR debate at Lewisham theatre. He appeared on Blue Peter, reading his poem, 'Windrush Child', which he also read at a a reception later that month at the Foreign Office hosted by Robin Cook. This was followed by readings at Southwark Council Chamber, in Ealing, and a commemoration ceremony at Tilbury docks and Thurrock convention centre, where a plaque was unveiled, engraved with one of John's poems, as a lasting monument to HMS Windrush. John attended a reception at St. James' Palace, at which Prince Charles quoted from his poem in a speech (believed to be something of a royal first).

Towards the end of his six-month residency, John was one of the poets performing on the HMS President at the South Bank, and he was filmed for The Learning Zone Windrush programmes.

John spent a great amount of time building up relationships with BBC staff, particularly those in the Education Department, as well as hanging around in the bar and other places of staff social activity. His residency was a dazzling success in every area. The BBC were so pleased with his residency through the Poetry Places scheme that they employed him for a further six months at their own expense.

 

Note from John Agard:

 

And so it happened. I found myself housed in Learning Support as Poet in Residence with the primary brief of making poetic input into the Windrush Season. I welcomed the opportunity to be 'Bard at the Beeb'. Indeed, such a suggestion would not have caused ripples among pre-literate Celtic circles or among West African praise-singing griots or wherever poetry is part of the daily fabric of life

Understandably, the notion of poets in corporate places did arouse much media attention. People wondered - would haikus be popping out of the soil of Gardeners' Question Time? Would saucy odes be sprinkled over cookery programmes? Could we expect the weather forecast in rhyming couplets?

But poetry sensitises us to language and to human connectedness, so it should have a role to play in an organisation whose motto is 'And nation shall speak peace unto nation'. As the BBC enters and shapes the age of digital broadcasting, I feel there is a need to imaginatively embrace poetry into the wider fabric of programming as a way of engaging the soul of audiences.

Young Poets Network