Poetry. Who needs it?

Dominic Cavendish watches Fred D'Aguiar take up artistic residence in a London council estate
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The Independent Culture
Descending Kidbrooke Park Road in Greenwich is like sampling everything a south London estate agent's portfolio can throw at you in one go. Imposing four-storey Victorian houses at the top of the hill, modest semis halfway down, then an outbreak of bungalows before the road levels off and deposits you on the fringes of a sprawling, concrete-grey council housing estate. As writer-in-residence at the current Greenwich Festival, poet and novelist Fred D'Aguiar could have gone anywhere to share his craft. He chose the Ferrier estate.

"Get me people who don't want to be there - make it an uphill struggle," D'Aguiar instructed the organisers. "I want to be asked 'Who do you think you are?' " Judging by the small turnout at the first meeting of his three- month stint last week at New Horizons, a run-down community centre at the end of a vandalised parade of shops, an uphill struggle is what he'll get. Eight people showed. It's early days, according to D'Aguiar. He's looking to weave individual stories into a video-poem about the estate, something along the lines of his acclaimed BBC2 montage Sweet Thames. But it takes a while to get a feel for the place.

He already has a shrewd idea, though. It's, well, quite rough. "It's a typical housing estate, applauded when it was built in 1969, now snowballing in on itself, lacking coordination and run by disconsolate youths who ride motorbikes up and down the walkways," he says. "There's unemployment, a lot of drugs, a feeling of neglect, fear..."

When he speaks, D'Aguiar is both highly analytical and passionately lyrical, a mix that betrays his recent foray into American academia (a round of prestigious residencies), and his own background. He was born in Guyana and raised on the Pepys estate in Deptford, a few miles down the road, where he had first-hand experience of racial abuse. His brother still lives there. He, however, managed to escape. Writing saved him, he says.

Evidence of the estate life he left behind can be glimpsed in his work: directly in poems like "Inner City", from his last collection British Subjects, about the brutalisation of estate kids; obliquely through the fenced-in narratives of The Longest Memory, which is set on an 18th-century Virginian slave plantation and won him the Whitbread First Novel Award this year.

Now 35, he wants to put something back, but how he can produce art from the stories he hears is unclear. "Is there room for lyricism? There has to be, they have to hug each other at night. I'm looking to see where the idealism is, what they dream about as well as recording all the hardship and tension."

He is encouraged by the diversity of attitudes and backgrounds shown last week: women from Somalia and Jamaica together with life-long locals. Tanzanian Tasneem Muhammad, 28, remembers "jumping up and down with joy" when she came to Ferrier from a B&B at the age of 10: "It's not as bad as people make out."

Charlie Young, 17 years a resident and an ex-offender turned anti-crime teacher believes "the whole estate ought to be demolished". D'Aguiar is particularly keen to involve 77-year old Fred Mellish, a former Desert Rat who was handcuffed outside his flat in an abortive early-morning raid for guns by police in February.

"I suppose there's an underlying agenda here," he concedes. "To arrive at a definition of contemporary England using the estate as a metaphor, both for the decay wrought by 15 years of Conservative government and the country's colonial inheritance - subjects who have another geography." At the moment he has no answer to the problem of how to involve young people. "Poetry has its limits," he grins. "We might just have to film them on their motorbikes saying 'Get out of the way'."

n Fred D'Aguiar talks to Blake Morrison, 15 June, as part of the Greenwich Fest (0181-317 8687)