Poet Dzifa Benson looks at the life and works of a literary giant: Imtiaz Dharker, artist, film-maker and author of seven poetry collections.
Imtiaz Dharker, one of Britain’s most influential contemporary poets, believes ‘poetry tries to interpret the heartbeat of the world’. We can see this in her writing, which is compassionate, concise and infinitely curious about the way people live. Her poems explore freedom, gender, identity, grief, the power of language, geographical and cultural displacement and, especially, home and belonging. This last preoccupation comes through especially in her poems ‘Scaffolding’, ‘Shell’ and ‘Living Space’.
In ‘Living Space’, Dharker, who is also an artist and documentary filmmaker, turns her clear-eyed focus to the social inequality of the slums of Mumbai in India, which houses many of the people who migrate to Mumbai from all over India in the hope of a better life. ‘Living Space’ begins:
There are just not enough
straight lines. That
is the problem.
Nothing is flat
The poem’s jagged line lengths visually mimic the lopsided constructions of shelters in Mumbai’s slums and the declarative opening lines show the speaker’s amazement: ‘There are just not enough / straight lines.’ The speaker of the poem can hardly believe that someone has managed to squeeze a ‘living space’ into the chaos of the only place where they can afford to live. Dharker has chosen her vocabulary carefully too. Words like ‘miraculous’, ‘light’ and ‘faith’ make the poem sound almost religious, while the eggs (which someone has ‘dared to place … in a wire basket’) represent a fragile hope for a new life and something better. Elsewhere, Dharker calls Mumbai ‘a city of grandiose dreams and structures held together with cellotape and string. In the face of impending collapse, the eggs in the wire basket seemed impossibly optimistic.’
Questions about home and belonging spill over into Dharker’s own life. She describes herself as a ‘Scottish-Pakistani, Calvinist Muslim, adopted by India and married to Wales.’ This multifaceted personal and poetic heritage means that the poet rejects any attempt to put her in a predictable box defining what home can or should be:
I may never be able to define my home, but the question is, do I want to? Where is my home anyway? In Scotland under a particular group of trees? In the texture of a fabric? The feel of rain? In the end, you carry these things with you wherever you go. Home for me is here, but it’s also in the smell of the south of France. Cezanne and Van Gogh are my relatives. And when I went to Punjab, I felt I was genetically programmed to know that landscape of flat sugarcane fields. I’m sure I shall feel the same shock of recognition when I bite into an olive in Tuscany.
Dharker was born in Lahore, Pakistan and brought up in Glasgow; she eloped to India; later re-married to the late Poetry Live! founder, Welshman Simon Powell; and has settled in London. These are just a few of the ways the poet’s own life, which has been influenced by many diverse cultures, has defied expectations. Defying expectations also seems to be a strategy that she has deliberately employed in her poetry. In ‘Minority’, a poem whose title announces that it is about racial or cultural stereotypes, she complicates the idea of home. Here is the beginning of it:
I was born a foreigner.
I carried on from there
to become a foreigner everywhere
I went, even in the place
planted with my relatives,
six-foot tubers sprouting roots,
their fingers and faces pushing up
new shoots of maize and sugar cane.
This poem, which recalls other Dharker poems such as ‘Honour Killing’ and ‘The Right Word’, doesn’t just resist prejudice. It’s a declaration of intent, a kind of mission statement or manifesto. Dharker calls herself a ‘cultural mongrel’ – isn’t that the same as saying ‘I was born a foreigner. / I carried on from there / to become a foreigner everywhere’? Published nearly 20 years before former Prime Minister Theresa May’s 2016 speech at the Conservative Party Conference, it feels like Dharker is offering a direct riposte to the idea that to be a citizen of the world is to be a ‘citizen of nowhere’. In the final stanza, the poem holds up a mirror to the reader to show that beneath the superficialities of skin colour, all human beings are the same:
until, one day, you meet
the stranger sliding down your street,
realise you know the face
simplified to bone,
look into its outcast eyes
and recognise it as your own.
Dharker, who says she writes between the hours of 11pm and 4am because that time ‘has all kinds of possibilities and I can fill that space with all kinds of unexpected things’, has written and performed her poetry in many unusual contexts. For example, as part of Poetry Parnassus, a once-in-a-lifetime event at Southbank Centre in 2012, Dharker represented Pakistan as one of 204 poets representing each competing nation of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Poetry Parnassus was the largest gathering of international poets in world history and Dharker’s poems were part of the 100,000 poems, in the form of bookmarks, dropped from a helicopter on the waiting crowd. Dharker is also an artist, and has said that her process of working on a poem often involves making drawings in pen and ink on handmade paper. While she has used many of these drawings in her books, she has also said that they are not necessarily direct illustrations of the poems themselves but are drawn to express different manifestations of the same themes. This way of visually exploring the world extends to Dharker’s work as a filmmaker – Dharker has scripted and directed more than a hundred documentary films in India covering education, shelter and reproductive health for women and children.
It is this rich tapestry of influences, experiences and deep interest in what makes us human that makes Imtiaz Dharker one of Britain’s most inspirational contemporary poets. Her wit and clarity enable her to write about weighty subjects without overwhelming the reader. Here she is writing about grief in ‘The Trick’. It begins like this:
In a wasted time, it’s only when I sleep
that all my senses come awake. In the wake
of you, let day not break. Let me keep
the scent, the weight, the bright of you, take…
Dharker wrote this poem in memory of her late husband Simon Powell when she was invited to respond to one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Despite the difficult subject, we can find hope in her choice of words. Look at all the opposites: bright, night, glow, shade, darkness, shadows, light. The poem is literally teetering between the light of hope and the darkness of despair from line to line. In the last two lines, those two opposing emotions even occupy the same space: ‘that even your shade makes darkest absence bright, / that shadows live wherever there is light.’ Her grief and love come through with this brilliant formal technique. It recalls what Dharker has said elsewhere: ‘poetry has to live on the dangerous edges of things.’
Imtiaz Dharker is one of the most brilliant wordsmiths writing today. Dharker has published seven self-illustrated books of poetry and won many high profile poetry prizes, including the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Her poems are studied as part of the GCSE and A Level English syllabus and she reads at Poetry Live! events all over the country to more than 25,000 students a year. Dharker’s deeply affecting poetry led the former poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy to say: ‘Whether she writes of exile, childhood, politics or grief, her clear-eyed attention brings each subject dazzlingly into focus. She makes it look easy, this clarity and economy, but it is her deft phrasing, wit and grace that create this immediacy. Reading her, one feels that were there to be a World Laureate, Imtiaz Dharker would be the only candidate.’
Dzifa Benson is a multi-disciplinary artist whose work intersects science, art, the body and ritual which she explores through poetry, theatre-making, performance, essays and journalism. She has performed her work nationally and internationally in many contexts such as: artist-in-residence at the Courtauld Institute of Art; producer of a poetry in performance event responding to David Hockney’s work in Tate Britain; producer and host of a literature and music experience in the Dissenters Gallery of Kensal Green Cemetery; core artist in BBC Africa Beyond’s cross-arts project, Translations. Dzifa’s work has been published and presented in Poetry Review, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Telegraph, Royal Opera House, the Bush Theatre and the House of Commons. She is a widely published poet whose most recent publication is in Staying Human, the latest in Bloodaxe Book’s celebrated series of anthologies. Dzifa is currently abridger on the National Youth Theatre’s upcoming production of Othello, is writing a commissioned play called Black Mozart, White Chevalier and is developing a transmedia project called The Spit of Me, an artistic, social and biological investigation into the story that DNA can tell us about identity, time, migration and culture. Dzifa has an MA in Text & Performance from RADA and Birkbeck, University of London and is a Ledbury Poetry Critic.