Artist of the Week - Patience Agbabi

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I was delighted to be invited onto this project. I was already into Loathly Ladies, twice translating Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale into the voice of a contemporary Nigerian businesswoman. It was the Modern Fairies side of the project that whetted my appetite. On our Oxford weekend, I was haunted, emotionally and physically, by stories of child changelings, human children substituted with fairies.

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I found an article suggesting children thought to be changelings in the past were probably disabled in some way, quite likely autistic. It set me thinking how we make things up to make things palatable. And how interesting it would be to write a contemporary changeling story addressing disability.

A website talked about The Changeling book by Victor LaValle, leading me to another valuable article outlining the harsh ways people dealt with so-called changelings.

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I wanted to focus on a baby, and thereby a mother’s shifting perception of her own child. That’s the uncanny bit that gets me, a being that looks the same but is subtly different and that’s why people think it’s been exchanged. Or even better, are unsure. The uncertainty makes it more powerful.

I chose a poetic form to replicate the content: the specular. There are two halves to a specular, the second exactly repeating the first in reverse order. You’re allowed to alter punctuation. I reread Doppelgänger, the spooky palindrome poem by James Lindon and tried to emphasise Freud’s notion of The Uncanny, something familiar appearing unfamiliar. I spent an inordinate length of time on the opening line. The opening line has to resonate differently as the closing line and I think this does it.

In Oxford there was much talk of spells. The specular, though a visual form, has to be read aloud for the full magic to work.

By draft 3, it was time to show people what I’d been up to, though the poem still felt like a work-in-progress. I was excited to see, or rather hear, how Ben would collaborate. He composed music that mirrored the words, working forwards in the first half, backwards in the second. I wasn’t able to attend the Sheffield gathering. Ben and Barney played live and Marry did a stellar job of the vocals. Her singing added a whole new dimension to my original concept.

Double

Something’s happened to my son.
He’s not the same child
I breastfed. He was healthy.
I haven’t slept in three nights
watching over his cot for signs of a change
when his eyes click open like a china doll.
He can’t remember how to be Samuel.
He looks at me as if
I’m not his mother.
His eyes are grey-green.
They say babies’ eyes change colour
in the middle of the night.
He used to call me
Mama.
Now he only makes noises
I don’t understand.

I don’t understand.
Now he only makes noises…
ma…ma.
He used to call me
in the middle of the night.
They say babies’ eyes change colour—
his eyes are grey. Green.
I’m not his mother.
He looks at me as if
he can’t remember how to be Samuel
when his eyes click open. Like a china doll
watching over his cot for signs of a change,
I haven’t slept in three nights.
I breastfed. He was healthy.
He’s not the same child.
Something’s happened to my son.

Doubleexperiment Marry Ben And Barney

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