NOT ‘The RAP Canterbury Tales’

I’ve had a great summer, thanks to the sun, the Kent and Sussex coasts and some great books. And what better way to get back into ‘work’ than appearing at some great literary festivals in August: The Word/Y Gair, Conwy, Greenbelt in Kettering and The Edinburgh International Book Festival.

I arrived the evening of Sunday 18, dropped off my suitcase and jumped into a cab to see Baba Brinkman’s ‘The RAP Canterbury Tales’. Canadian rapper, tree planter and academic, Baba Brinkman and I have been in online correspondence for five years. He was recommended by a colleague when I lectured at the University of Kent and I managed to track him down in a few seconds. I watched his videos and Youtube and was impressed by his rap translations of Chaucer’s most popular tales. For years I’ve managed to miss his UK shows – other literary clashes – but this August the timing was right. The show was awesome. It proves that live is always better than video and we had the added bonus of hearing Middle English remixed hip hop style. He performed the Pardoner’s, the Wife of Bath’s, the Merchant’s, the Nun’s Priest’s with a rich rendition of the opening of the General Prologue in original Middle English. He set the scene and it was atmospheric, humerous, and clever. The rhymes!!!

If you get the print version of The Rap Canterbury Tales (which came out in 2006) you get to read the introductory essay followed by ‘The Rhyme Renaissance’ rap. Those Youtube recordings and the essay+poem inspired me the most in the early days of Telling Tales. Seeing Baba perform in the flesh was the icing on the cake. But to rewind to the very beginning of my project, I decided that a) my retelling had to be poetry (in contrast to Peter Ackroyd’s prose retelling) and b) it had to be in a wide range of forms because the wonderfully talented Baba Brinkman had already done a RAP Canterbury Tales and I wasn’t going to replicate that.

Now you, gentle reader, who followed my blog posts in detail, will know that I grappled with a huge range of poetic forms and registers throughout this project. That every single poem is written in a different style to replicate the full range of characters appearing in the fictional biographies at the back of the book. But some critics, working to impossibly tight deadlines, have made the mistake of thinking that most of the poems are written in rap form. Maybe it’s because I is Black and have occasionally written raps. Maybe it’s because the set up is a poetry slam, making people mistakingly think that means rap. )Point of correction: poetry slams are live poetry competitions encouraging a wide range of styles. In fact, you rarely find a rapper in a slam, they’re more likely to perform in a rap battle. Slams lean more towards free verse these days.) So here’s a BIG CLUE to the range of forms I use spanning the whole spectrum from literary to performance:

From the grime to the clean cut iambic,
rime royale, rant or rap, get your slam kick.

Granted, there’s no free verse and lots and lots of rhyme, but out of 24 poems, there are two raps (one old skool, one new), two very different grime-inflected tracks, and 20 other poems in a HUGE range of timeless and contemporary poetic forms. Will stop now before I protest too much…


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