‘Every poem is a conversation’

An interview with Daljit Nagra by Meghan Sullivan


Many of you might know Daljit Nagra as the talented poet behind the collection Look we have coming to Dover!, which contains the GCSE set poem ‘Singh Song!’.

We were lucky enough to get the chance to ask Daljit a few questions about writing and reading poetry, his own influences and diversity in the arts.

1. One of the things GCSE students tell us they often struggle with is the form of poetry – and why someone might choose it rather than prose to explore an idea or story. We wonder if you could explain why poetry is the ‘right’ form for ‘Singh Song!’? Perhaps the clue is in the title!

I have to work hard to pick the right material that best suits poetry. If I had included more information about the wife, the speaker’s parents, the speaker’s background and so on, I would have needed to turn the material into a play or a short story. With a poem you often work on the principle of ‘less is more’, so that each image implies more than what it says, for example, the wife is described in terms of her clothes, and to me these represent the way she is happy being both Indian and British.

I’m interested in the Music Hall tradition, a British tradition of song and dance that’s cheeky and, at times, quite saucy. I wanted to update this rough and ready style by introducing to it characters from an Indian background.

2. Students can hear you reading extracts of ‘Singh Song!’ in a BBC Teach video, set with a corner shop background. We loved this and the different voice you used when reading 'In a White Town' on-stage. How important is reading your work aloud? Is it something you enjoy?

Any poem that doesn’t want to be read aloud is not a poem! Every poem is a conversation, a voice talking to someone who then takes on board what’s being said to make it their own. Every poem is a human voice talking to another human. When I write new poems, I have to then work out the best way to read them so they make the poem clear and perhaps also give an interpretation. For example, I could read some verses of 'Singh Song!' in quite an angry voice to convey the speaker’s frustration or I could read the voice of the customers in a joyous way to indicate they know why he’s such a bad shopkeeper (because he puts love for his wife over love for money).

3. Can you tell us about your own influences in terms of writers (poets or otherwise) when you first started writing?

My first sources of influence were rock bands. I enjoyed the lyrics of The Jam, The Clash, Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks and, best of all, Bob Dylan. I enjoyed their political lyrics about social injustice, and the angry tone in which these were written, and I loved their startling imagery.

When I came across William Blake’s poems in a bookshop, my life was changed, and changed forever. I went to quite a tough school and I don’t recall reading poetry; we didn’t study for the main qualifications to get us onto A Level courses. So I discovered William Blake when I was aged 19, in a bookshop in Sheffield. I realised how compact, memorable and mood-filled poetry could be. I loved how words on a page spoke as loud as a three-minute song. I could hear that ink on the page being turned to guitars and drums of a rock band with every line of a poem I read. After Blake, I discovered Shakespeare, Milton, the Romantic poets and T. S. Eliot. My life has felt so rich since that moment I found Blake!

4. What advice would you give to students who are reading poems – yours or other people’s – for the first time? Is there a particularly effective way to approach them?

Always never analyse a poem for the first few readings of the poem. You wouldn’t analyse your favourite songs as part of your first hearings of those songs because it would probably kill them. Just enjoy the sound, the rhythm and most of all, enter the world of the poem; put your feet in the space the poet has created, use your senses to come alive in that world. Then, if you must, get your surgical equipment out and start to open the body of the poem. Analysis is fun, I do it to poems every now and then and really enjoy watching the skills of the poet who probably drafted the poem countless times before publishing it. I tend to edit a poem, on and off, for at least a year before publishing it, partly because that’s where all the fun of writing is, in the editing and trying out different techniques; in this way, poets are still young kids in the playground mucking around. I hope you write poems, and if you do, keep it alive for as long as possible through the editing process.

5. There have been a lot of conversations recently about the lack of people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds in the arts. What encouragement can you give to students from diverse backgrounds considering a career as a writer? – or in the arts in general?

You need to have the confidence to see your own particular little world at home, and of your community as being as important as the stories of kings and queens. If you can present your own community with play, with honesty, then the reader will respect that and will enjoy a world that enriches them. I love to read poems and novels by authors whose community I know little about, partly so I can step outside of myself and become a different person while reading that story. I then return to myself slightly changed and very refreshed. I have been successful by boldly writing only about a certain type of Indian: Sikhs who live in Britain. I didn’t think anyone would want to read these poems about Sikhs, I just wrote them for fun. If I can be successful, so can you!

Daljit Nagra teaches poetry at Brunel University London and is Poet in Residence for Radio 4 and 4 Extra.