Arts: BBC's first poet in residence takes verse to all corners

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The Independent Online
The BBC has its first poet in residence. David Lister, Arts News Editor, meets the extrovert and highly politicised versifier who has landed the job and who wants poetry spread throughout the corporation and its programmes.

A poet can versify in gardening and cookery programmes. There can be "a poem from the pulpit" in Songs of Praise. John Agard, the BBC's first poet in residence, intends to put himself about.

Agard, 49, has already had published best-selling anthologies aimed at adults and children, and one collection for teenagers, Get Back Pimple.

Yesterday, he was seconded by the Poetry Society to the BBC as poet in residence. The Poetry Society has won pounds 450,000 of lottery money for residencies and placements, and already has poets in Kew Gardens and Marks and Spencer.

Bearded with a pony tail, gesticulating expansively, going through a range of Caribbean dialects and fixing the audience with intense stares followed by whimsical darting glances, Agard is a performance poet extraordinaire, as he showed in a Poetry Society reading yesterday.

He was one of 30 applicants for the BBC post, advertised as for Afro- Caribbeans only. This is because the main focus of the six-month residency costing pounds 10,000, will be the "Windrush" season of programmes to mark the 50th anniversary of the first 500 settlers from the Caribbean on the troopship MV Empire Windrush in May 1948.

Chris Meade, director of the Poetry Society, said: "We're confident this residency will inspire John and the people he'll be working with. He'll be taking poetry to the heart of the BBC."

Steve Pollock, head of BBC Education, added: "As well as everything else I would expect him to sit in the canteen and help those people who feel less than enthusiastic and dedicated to get their creative juices going. He will be a catalyst for creativity."

Agard will, it was confirmed, have input into programming ideas and yesterday he was already arguing for poetry spots in cookery, gardening and Songs of Praise.

The poet said: "There will be the occasional workshop for BBC staff. But I don't see what I'm doing as therapy.

"Poetry is often presented in the media as something very precious. But there's no reason why, if there's a programme on gardening or cooking you can't have a poem on gardening or cooking. Poetry can be presented in a much more vibrant way. A poem from the pulpit in Songs of Praise, for example. People say they don't read poetry but they seek out their favourite poems for weddings and funerals. So much of our lives are marked out with linear maps. Poetry gives another map."

Talking of the Caribbean connection and areas for poetic exploration, Agard, who came to Britain in 1977 from Guyana, said: "It's very important that the light has been iconised and the dark demonised ... The Caribbean diaspora has been a cause of cultural enrichment. This has got to be got across to the people of Britain."