‘Poetry travels without a passport’: An interview with Imtiaz Dharker

Interview by Marian Olney

We recently got the chance to interview the award-winning poet, artist and film-maker Imtiaz Dharker and to ask her about her poetry, her art, and how her background has influenced her as a writer. 


1. Many students who study English Literature for GCSE will be familiar with your poem, ‘Tissue’, which is included in the AQA Anthology Conflict cluster. We wonder if you could tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the poem and about its core message?

Tissue is a difficult poem because when I began writing it I really didn’t know where it was heading. Even the form of the poem is a kind of exploration, feeling its way through language and ideas. I was wondering if there was any way to avoid conflict that comes from the political or religious differences, the things people fight over.

It started because one day I was looking at my father’s books and, on the tissue page at the back of the Qur’an, I found he had written my name and date of birth in his fine handwriting. I hadn’t spoken to him for years because we had fought and I left home, but it made me think about the things that really matter like birth, death and family; what causes conflict and what can resolve it; how the scraps of paper we ignore or throw away tell the real story of our lives; how something as fragile as tissue, or human skin, is thrown away in wars even though it is more precious than any temple, mosque, church or monument.

The images in the poem began to appear quite naturally. The cause of conflict –political, national and religious certainties – took the form of solid unmoving structures: stone, brick and block. This was set against images of fragile tissue that is like human skin. Then there are images of light shining through, literally breaking through barriers and borderlines. Somewhere in my mind I also had Shelley’s poem 'Ozymandias' and its great image of a ‘colossal wreck’ toppled in the desert.

Having said all this, what matters is for students to go on their own exploration. Their ideas and interpretation are more important than anything I can tell them.


2. You were born in Lahore (now in Pakistan) and then moved to Scotland, before working for many years in India. How have these countries influenced you as a writer?

My parents were from Lahore and I was Glaswegian. Outside the house was no-man’s land and school was a safe haven. Then I eloped to India and it was like hanging on to the edge of a cliff by my fingernails. But I think all that was good for me as a writer because fear can sharpen the senses. There were different territories to navigate, but I began to see it as a strength. I had access to art and sounds and voices from everywhere and I think they all make their way into the poems. I’m not unusual in this. All of us are crossing borderlines of one kind or another. It’s like being a trapeze artist, swinging between languages and cultures, between what you know and what you half-understand. I think that’s not a bad place for a writer to be, hung out on the edge, taking risks.


3. As well as an acclaimed poet, you are an artist and filmmaker. We’d love to know how your poetry, drawing and film-making relate to one another and is there a particular medium you prefer?

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. 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 a poem where I don’t know how it will end up. The film work does seep into the poems in the images I use. I think in images as much as words.


Photo credit: Ayesha Dharker


4. Every year you take part in Poetry Live events, reading your poems aloud to students. Could you explain the importance of reading poetry out loud and what students gain from hearing poets reading their own work?

The whole idea of Poetry Live is to take poetry off the page and let young people hear the voice and accent (and pauses and hesitations) of the poet. This way they 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 25,000 young people a year, in venues that hold 2,000. 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.

When we stop and listen to each other’s voices, we make a still space in the world, and that is a space for poetry. It is needed now more than ever. Poetry travels without a passport. It is able to eavesdrop on the world. It says things the heart knows before the world catches up.


5. Is there any advice that you would give to students who want to write their own poetry? Is there a good way to start?


Make up your own mind what you like.

Then forget it and try not to copy it.

There are things that only you can say and no-one else has your voice.

Listen carefully to how people use language. Very often even normal words and conversations are poetry, because poetry is about being alive in this world. Then think about the form of your poem, edit, cut away everything you don’t need.

Listen for the silences and the things people are not saying.

Take nothing for granted.

Listen for the human voice that cuts across borderlines, because the language of being human is the only one that really counts.


Imtiaz Dharker is a poet, artist and video film maker. Awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, 2014, her six collections include Over the Moon and poems from her latest, Luck Is the Hook, featured widely on radio and television, as well as the London Underground, Glasgow billboards and Mumbai buses.