This interview is from the latest issue of YM:Poetry the Poetry Society’s youth e-zine.
What do you want to do with your life? Where do you want to go? Being a poet, artist and award-winning documentary film-maker all rolled into one has got to sound appealing. Meet Imtiaz Dharker, whom you might recognise as a contributor to the AQA GCSE English Anthology. I had the opportunity to interview her for YM:BODY, finding out how she got to be so multi-talented, and gleaning a bit of advice for aspiring writers. I started by asking about her childhood:
What did you want to be when you were younger?
I always wanted to be a dancer. I even studied ballet and took classes in it; I was inspired by Margot Fonteyn. I thought I was very good, but actually, I was too chubby to be a dancer. Then I thought I could be a singer and in my mind, I had a beautiful singing voice – but I went for an audition for a musical and they laughed at me.
Ouch. And how did you get interested in poetry?
I think children experiment with language all the time, and that gets beaten out of you as you grow up. I was excited about words like ‘fire engine’ and ‘playground’ – the idea of the words, the beat, and the sound. For me, poetry is an adventure with words. The first poem I ever really loved was for this reason – it was ‘The Windhover’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Did you ever write poetry when you were a teenager?
I started writing poetry from the age of ten, but I didn’t realise that it was poetry. When I was eleven, a teacher saw one of my poems, typed it up and put it in the school magazine – then someone called it a poem. Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage have similar stories – they showed their poems to a teacher and I think in Simon Armitage’s case, he was annoyed because the teacher didn’t realise it was a poem.
What was your first poem about?
My first poem was about going up in space and although the speaker was looking back at the beautiful earth, he felt homesick. He knew it was a giant step for mankind, but he still wanted his own fireside.
From the sound of it, I bet a lot of people might wish that that had been their first poem. Who was your favourite poet as a child? And do you have a favourite nowadays?
As a child, I wasn’t exposed to much poetry. Of course, I knew Keats and others but there was no connection in my life. Gerard Manley Hopkins, as I said, was the first one to really connect with me. Now, I can’t choose a favourite poet or poem. It changes every day – anything that knocks me out. It could be new poets like John Agard or Caroline Bird; Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Prayer’ is one – anything that’s fresh and alive. In Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ – although I don’t usually like very structured forms – she uses the villanelle form (repeating the first and third lines) to convey loss so well. At first, she talks about losing ordinary things like house keys, but then as the poem progresses, she gets to the deeper meaning of losing a person.
How do you feel about your work being included in the AQA GCSE English Anthology?
It’s a double-edged sword. People who study my poems for exams may overanalyse them, and end up hating them. But on the other hand, of course I’m pleased and privileged to be included in the anthology. Even if students don’t like the poems in there, it opens the door to poetry and it’s an honour to be a part of that.
Since you’re not just a poet, but also an artist and a documentary film-maker, can you play any instruments?
No. I’m not clever with my hands. I think that the voice is the purest kind of music. In India, they sing poems out as an oral recitation, while English poets have a cooler delivery. I would love to sing my poems, but I daren’t.
You seem to be interested in the sound of poems. Do you think particularly about rhythm and rhyme when you’re writing?
My poems lead to their own rhythm. Sometimes there is internal rhyme or I might repeat or focus on the sound of words, like ‘echo’ or ‘spring’.
What do you think is the difference between writing prose and poetry?
Poetry is concentrated. Some prose is, too, but poetry needs levels; it is compacted, with layers of meaning. And I think that even in poems that don’t necessarily have rhythm, poetry has a sort of rhythmic quality to it.
Do you think you’ll ever write a novel?
No – I would be spreading myself too thin. I’m doing enough with my art and films. I prefer to concentrate on poetry: there is purity in that. I don’t believe the novel is a bigger form.
So why do you write poetry?
I have no choice.
When you’ve written a poem, how do you edit it to arrive at the final version?
The most important thing is to know when to stop. Leave it alone and come back to it. Sometimes you think it’s marvellous at four in the morning, but when you come back to it, it’s rubbish. Then you cut out the frills. If you’re too pleased with something as a decoration, cut it. Cut out the show and frills.
How did you organise your poetry collections?
I think my collections are quite different to other collections because in each of them, my mind went round a theme, and so I wrote my poems through that theme. I began to think in a particular direction and see connections with the outside world and the theme.
All of your collections have been published by Bloodaxe in the UK. Would you say that it’s better to be published by a bigger or a smaller publisher?
All of my poems are published twice, by Penguin in India and Bloodaxe here. I’m lucky enough to have a big company that loves poetry and believes in me: it’s the individuals at Bloodaxe that are wonderful, because each of them believes in poetry. You need to find a publisher that believes in you – editors who live and breathe poetry. When you read something you like, check the front of the collection for the publisher, and look at what else they have published. If you see a pattern, make a manuscript and send it off – and don’t forget to include a self-addressed envelope! Sending poems to magazines is a good way to start.
Finally, both you and Glyn Maxwell are judges for the 2011 Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. What are you looking for in the winning poems?
Excitement. Something fresh. Something that doesn’t sound like anyone else’s voice but the poet’s own voice, and takes my breath away.
Born in Pakistan, brought up in Glasgow, and currently living between London and Mumbai, Imtiaz Dharker is a critically acclaimed poet who has illustrated all five of her poetry collections. She has also won numerous awards for her documentaries, including the Silver Lotus, and her poems have been included in the AQA GCSE English Anthology. This year Imtiaz is judging the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award.
Helen Bowell is a 16-year-old who was commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2010, enjoys correcting her friends’ spelling and/or grammar, and hopes never to grow up.