As Carol Ann Duffy’s 10-year tenure as the Poet Laureate of Britain ended in April 2019, it was tipped that Imtiaz Dharker would take up the position. Dharker, however, in a statement to The Guardian, said that she did not accept the honour so that she could continue focusing on her work rather than turn to a more public role.
Born in Pakistan in 1954, Dharker describes herself as someone who “grew up a Muslim Calvinist in a Lahori household in Glasgow and was adopted by India and married into Wales”. Of Dharker’s poetry, the former laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who also happens to be the first female and the first openly queer poet to hold the position, has said: “Reading her, one feels that were there to be a World Laureate, Imtiaz Dharker would be the only candidate.”
Recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2014, as well as a host of other poetry honours including one of the 2011 Cholmondeley awards and a Royal Society of Literature fellowship, Dharker has published seven books of poetry – Purdah (1989), Postcards from God (1997), I Speak for the Devil (2001), The Terrorist at My Table (2006), Leaving Fingerprints (2009), Over the Moon (2014) and Luck is a Hook (2018). A narrative arc of displacement, migration, exile, searching for a safety to celebration of movement, accepting absences, and filling in blank spaces comes through when we read her books chronologically.
What is it called, living in Glasgow,— 'In Wales, wanting to be Italian'
dying to be French, dying to shrug and pout
and make yourself understood
without saying a word?
Language and anxiety
Like words we look for to pinpoint our specific and sometimes impossible desires, Dharker’s poetry is filled with questions hinged on language and its legibility, and in turn, her love for words, the despair she feels when she can’t find the right one. She writes of misplaced addresses, incomprehensible road signs, of postcards that demand to be stamped and sent, of moments when dishwashers seem to be “suddenly speaking Swedish” and glorious polyphonic days when even the songbirds are “chirping in accents, / Valleys / Geordie, Bhojpuri”.
But, of course, not every place nor everyone is as empathic and accepting of plurality as the narrator of Dharker’s poems. In a moment of technological dissonance and the peculiar modern anxiety that comes right after sending off an urgent text message, Dharker writes:
The city I am in has lost
its volume control.
Every person in the place
is tuned to maximum.
Can you see the text?
Just to ask if you are safe
A phone shrills, a clock explodes.
In the next room, a TV switches on,
everywhere, the sound of sirens, drills,
car screech, horns blares
Why have you stopped singing?
In her 2014 collection, Over the Moon, much of which is about and addressed to the poet’s late husband Simon Rhys Powell, public sites of information and communication often overlap with private moments of grief and longing, of feeling alone in a world that suddenly feels xenophobic. Yet, the poet recovers, revels in life and memory, in music, even as she accepts that some spaces are meant to be left unoccupied:
My steps are echoing through
empty rooms. This is not true.
The rooms are not empty
If I am walking through
them in search of you. The cycle begins
with one and ends with one,
dha dhin dhin dha, dha dhin dhin dha,— ('Spin')
but the space between the beats is clean
and does not expect to be filled in.
Dharker carries on, carrying a picture of her beloved on her phone’s screen-saver while travelling forward to the next London underground station, amongst strangers “alive and rare”, or declaring a most delicate hiraeth for wanting to take her beloved to the shut-down Naz Café in Old Bombay.
Often, especially in her later work, the second-person in Dharker’s poems occupy more space than the first. As does place: specific tables, specific platforms, specific landmarks. In the poem “Bombil, Bumla, Bummalo”, she remembers how her late husband and Arun Kolatkar had once talked about the “art of frying and eating the Bombay Duck”:
The poet smacked his lips, you ate his words
as if they were Welsh, both of you savoured
the name itself, the taste on your tongues
of Bombil, Bummalo, Bombay Duck.
Two strange fish swimming in the mirrors of the café
like long-lost friends, bosom-buddies
brought together by a stroke
The poetry of other worlds
Dharker often turns to the tactile cultural markers of being a foreigner – of the otherness of cuisine and of pronunciation in her poetry. Sometimes this occurs while sharing a “warm naan” at a Lahori restaurant in Wembley and thinking about dhabas in Amritsar, or while observing her Ammi negotiate meals in Urdu and swear in Punjabi. All in all, the narrator is acutely aware of her perceived identity and happy admit to it: “...they’ll cluck their tongues / and say, / ‘She must be / from another country.’ In her poem titled “Minority”, she says:
I don’t fit,
like a clumsily-translated poem;
like food cooked in milk of coconut
where you expected ghee or cream,
the unexpected aftertaste
of cardamom or neem.
When her third collection I Speak for the Devil came out in 2011, in an interview with the poet Arundhathi Subramaniam, Dharker said, “I may be never able to define my home, but the question is, do I want to?” Responding to questions about dealing with the pressure to be or perform as South Asian for a largely white audience, she said, “I don’t have to use Indian mythology in my poetry to prove my credentials as a South Asian poet.” She added that she is against glossing her poetry, which draws from a vast range of subjects and an expanding register of languages, saying, “I don’t see why I need to explain myself.”
This is an admirably strong statement to make, especially given the history of poetry publishing in the UK. British poetry, for the longest time, has been avoiding the conversation about race and racial politics. For decades, what was considered great poetry was very much white, middle class and male. And even as BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) poets have won and have been shortlisted for several Foreword Prizes and TS Eliot Prizes, and their books are more visible in the past ten years or so, as Sandeep Parmar put it in her explosive essay on race and British poetry, “I worry increased visibility of BAME poets is superficial and, when the dust settles, British poetry will return to a largely monochromatic, monolingual expression of sameness.”
While writers should not be pigeonholed by their ethnicities, it is true that new generation British South Asian poets like Zaffar Kunial, Mona Arshi and Edward Doegar are now names that are part of mainstream conversations about British poetry. This wasn’t always the case. It is only perhaps in the past decade and thanks to mentorship projects like Bernardine Evaristo’s The Complete Works, support programmes for critics of colour, and the efforts of writers of colour like Daljit Nagra, Malika Booker, Sandeep Parmar, Sarah Howe, Preti Taneja, Rishi Dastidar, and Nikesh Shukla (to name just a few) who have taken up roles as teachers, editors, judges, opened literary agencies and started annual prizes like the Jhalak Prize that South Asian voices (alongside other minority voices) are being amplified in poetry publishing and performing circles.
So, when it comes to South Asian voices in British poetry, one cannot ignore the groundwork done by Imtiaz Dharker, and her contemporaries Sujata Bhatt and Moniza Alvi, who have been writing about searching for mother tongues in foreign spaces for decades. Dharker also shaped Indian English poetry publishing in Bombay in the 1970s when she was poetry editor of the magazine Debonair, and where she famously published Jeet Thayil for the first time.
If one glances at the list of previous British Poet Laureates, it’s easy to see that it has been a highly canonical one (as canonical and frustratingly monolithic as the English Literature syllabi that school students in India are still stuck with) including John Dryden, William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, Ted Hughes, and Andrew Motion. Whoever the next laureate is, they should have a voice that signals the flux that British society is and how the English language is ever-changing. To mark the end of her laureateship, Carol Ann Duffy commissioned poets to write about the disappearing insect population. Dharker chose to write about fruit flies:
“Through the rest of the day I revisit the site.
No sign of return. The next morning no-one
is there, the jar untouched, my table bare
in the desolate kitchen. I try to work but keep
coming back to stand like an expectant host
waiting to welcome the guest I miss.”
Whether she writes from the point of view of the guest and the host, speaks for god or the devil, considers if “terrorist”, “guerrilla warrior”, “hostile militant” or “freedom fighter” is the “right word” to describe the stranger outside the door, or whether she is writing about the notebooks of Siegfried Sassoon or about garden gnomes seemingly watching The Game of Thrones, Dharker’s poetry takes in the whole world, invites in everything with a door wide open.
About her drawings, the stark black and white lines of which are often compared to the lines of her poetry, Dharker had said that as an artist, she always feels an “excitement about the unadulterated line in drawing”. And now, as she beautifully puts it: “The poems won” – when asked about her decision to not accept the role of the laureate. We can imagine the poet at her desk, perhaps next to a window wide open, working away at new lines, unadulterated lines.