Chaucer has inspired a myriad of retellings, remixes, mashups, and other literary responses, and one of the most recent -- and most sophisticated -- homages is Patience Agbabi's Telling Tales (2014). Agbabi's poetry collection reimagines Chaucer's pilgrims in twenty-first century England and retells all his tales, via the diverse idioms of contemporary Brits and in equally diverse poetic styles. In my Fall 2014 Chaucer course, Agbabi's collection took center stage, and we considered how Agbabi responds to Chaucer's canonical status just as Chaucer himself had responsed to the literary authority of Virgil, Ovid, and Petrarch.
Three hearty students decided that, in lieu of a final paper, they were going to make a video of one of Agbabi's poems, "Sharps an Flats." This rap-inspired poem is her rendition of "The Prioress's Tale" told, this time, in the voice of the now-dead boy and set (the students decided) in the London projects. And, keeping of the spirit of the course, the students wanted to remix Agbabi's remix -- not just by matching Sydney Miles's beats to Ime Atakpa's stellar performance of the poem, but by "Athensifizing" the storyline (thanks in large part to Claire Morgan's contributions). Locals will recognize iconic places in the video, and you'll undoubtedly hear some UGA-specific lyrical changes.
This is a beautiful rendition of Agbabi's poem, both aurally and visually - these students have some serious talent - that's starting to realize the possibilities of transforming Agbabi and Chaucer both. The move from a young boy to a college student as the victim allows the video to address town-gown tensions -- issues that are racialized in Athens more than in many college towns -- while the portrayal of white-on-black violence could speak to contemporary racial problems from Michael Brown on down the line. The video doesn't quite yet accomplish these things, but it points the way. Most vitally for those of us who teach Chaucer, the Agbabi poem and student video together suggest ways of moving our discussions of the Prioress's Tale beyond issues of antisemitism (important as that is) to even broader questions of violence and the freedom of expression. I'm writing this on the day the French authorities took out the extremists who killed the Charlie Hebdo journalists, and the potential of the Chaucer-Agbabi-video trio to speak to these issues is especially potent today.
The students (and myself) have been highly flattered by Agbabi's generous response to their performance and re-envisioning of her work -- you can read her reactions to the video on her blog.
Directed, filmed, and edited by Sydney Miles
Props and costuming by Claire Morgan
Screenplay by Ime Atakpa, Sydney Miles, and Claire Morgan
"J" : Ime Atakpa
Mother-figure : Claire Morgan
Assailants : Jordan Strunk and Edgar Lopez