About joy, sadness, mourning and celebration, Imtiaz Dharker’s fifth book of poetry Over the Moon (Bloodaxe Books, £12.99) was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work. On 20 Oct, the poet visits Manchester Art Gallery as part of Manchester Literature Festival, to which we’re proud media partner.
Tell us about your work with the New North and South Network and the events you are hosting in Manchester based on it.
This was an invitation from the Manchester Literature Festival and the lovely Manchester Art Gallery. In the autumn the gallery has six solo exhibitions by artists from South Asia, as part of the New North and South project. I was asked to come in and see what they would be doing, and then choose an exhibition I would like to respond to. But I just got so involved with all six that I decided to write a poem about each one. These artists are doing exciting new work and handling ambitious themes, so they all opened doors into poems. The six new poems I have written will go up around the exhibitions, and then I’ll read them at a special event at Manchester Art Gallery as part of the Manchester Literature Festival on 20 October. I love the idea of the poems taking on a life in the same space as the work that inspired them.
As a Pakistan-born Brit the themes of New North and South are familiar to you personally and your work but you were asked to respond to work by other artists in this case. How do you think that altered the outcome of the project compared to your previous work?
I lived in India most of my adult life, and my parents were Lahori, settled in Glasgow, so I recognise many of the things the artists are dealing with: questions of identity, community, changing cities, how we live, how we use or abuse our environment. I feel as if I know Hetain Patel’s Gujarati family and what they would eat after they had sat through The Jump, and I recognised the half-built, half-finished houses of Risham Syed’s Lahore paintings. At the same time, I didn’t want to make assumptions about what they were saying, or just echo what was already there in the art, so I decided to take the themes and make them my own. That freed me to give the poems a personal starting point and write in my own voice. My hope is that the poems somehow expand the space around the art.
You describe your upbringing as a Muslim Calvinist in faith. What did that mean for you?
I described myself as a Scottish Calvinist Muslim adopted by India and married into Wales, and I wasn’t really talking about faith! What I was really saying is don’t try to put easy labels on me or stick me in a box. I’m a cultural mongrel, influenced by all the places I have lived in, by what I see and hear and read, by the people I meet, the songs I hear and the streets I walk in. That’s true for millions of people, not just me.
Your own visual art can often be seen alongside your poetry. How entwined are the two for you?
When I start a line I never know if it is going to become a poem or a drawing. My drawings are pen and ink, and they happen at the same time as the poems, not illustrations of the poems but often working around the same themes. I feel especially close to the drawing style of Waqas Khan, one of the artists in this exhibition. My work is less meditative, but I feel as if I know the movement of his hand as he draws.
Your latest book Over the Moon was dedicated to your late husband, Simon Powell. Why is poetry something people turn to in times of great joy such as births and marriages and great sadness such as bereavement?
Poetry can say things that are difficult to say in everyday language. For a long time after Simon died, I couldn’t write because I was screaming inside. It was only when I began to write that I realised I was writing his life, not his death, and that they were love poems, not grief poems. Poetry is able to say things the heart comprehends before the mind has a chance to catch up.
Simon founded Poetry Live and worked throughout his life to deliver poetry in an accessible way to students. You regularly read at Poetry Live and your work is featured in the GCSE English syllabus. What is the key to engaging young people with poetry?
Simon’s whole idea was to take poetry off the page and let young people hear the voice and accent (and pauses and hesitations) of the poet. He wanted them to see that poetry is not incomprehensible words on a page, written by dead men, but a living, breathing thing. At Poetry Live, six poets go round the country and read to 2,000 young people at a time. They may not understand every word but they hear poets who are writing about the world they live in, everyday things. They do listen, and take it in, and respond with questions.
Poetry and art are contemplative and conceptual, but you also deal with concrete subjects in your documentary film-making. How easy do you find it to switch between the two approaches and what does film-making allow you to explore that your art and writing do not?
The films I make are for non-government organisations and usually have a very specific message, to do with health, shelter, education for children, so that is quite different from the freedom of making a drawing or poem, where even I don’t know where it will end up.
Are you comfortable with the title World Laureate, bestowed on you by Carol Ann Duffy?
The title could be given to a number of poets and I’m sure many would deserve it more. But I’m still delighted she thought that!