Daljit Nagra on writing poetry

Daljit Nagra is an award-winning poet, Chair of the Royal Society of Literature, a professor in creative writing at Brunel University, and the poet-in-residence for BBC Radio 4.

His debut poetry collection Look We Have Coming to Dover! won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and was named poetry book of the year by The Guardian, The Independent, The Financial Times and The New Statesman. We sat down with him to find out more about his poetry and approach to writing.

What inspired you to become a poet?

What interested me in writing poetry was an obsession in playing with tone and words, and I found the short form of poetry to be ideally suited for such experiments. However, I never had any intentions of becoming a poet, it was just a hobby for me. Then one day I saw an advert in Time Out to get feedback on your poems from the novelist and poet Ruth Padel. She was full of praise for what I sent her and suggested I write more and get published.

Your poems often focus on the experience of Indians living in the UK; what draws you to explore this in your poetry?

I write about the ordinary Indian labourers who migrated here because their stories hadn’t been written about. In my debut collection, I wrote about the lives of the factory workers and shopkeepers because those were the lives of all my relatives. I’m constantly trying to find ways to dignify their lives, whilst exploring the troubling aspects of their engagement with their second and third generation and with the West.

What does your writing time look like? Do you have a specific ritual or routine for when you write?

I write when I can. I have a full time job, I present a radio programme, I’m Chair of the Royal Society of Literature and I am Lead Adviser for the Poetry by Heart competition. I’m always frustrated about my lack of writing time, but I feel I have to work in the arts to ensure diversity programmes are put in place and are effective; this is a burning passion of mine, and almost as important as writing poetry. I always have scraps of paper with notes in my rucksack or messages on my phone about ideas for lines of verse. Sometimes I find a whole new poem stashed away somewhere that I need to draft at some point.

How do you typically approach writing your poems? Do you start with a clear idea of how it will go, or is it more spontaneous?

I tend to form much of the poem in my head before committing it to paper. By this I mean, I have a sense of the rhythmic pace, the texture of the language and the tone I might adopt. Once I feel secure about these aspects, I’ll commit some lines to paper and see how it feels. Then if I’m still intrigued by the writing, I’ll find myself curious about editing it. If a poem doesn’t ‘call to me’, I assume it’s boring, and I abandon it. I’m working on a long poem at the moment, but it started in my head about 18 months ago, and I only started writing it a few weeks ago. I’m very excited by it.

What was the process like of publishing your first collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover? Were you surprised by the acclaim that it received?

Yes, surprised, shocked even, and confused for about half a year. I was a school teacher and suddenly my book was reviewed on TV, featured on the news and won a South Bank Show Award. The book sold well, and I was invited to give readings all over Britain, and a few places abroad. Some of my poems became set texts at GCSE and A-Level within a year of my book being published. I’d assumed my debut would get some attention in the poetry world because I felt it was fresh in several ways. But I didn’t expect it to reach an audience outside poetry. That book changed my life; I went part-time at school and eventually went freelance for a year before applying for a job as a creative writing professor at Brunel University London.

What advice would you give to aspiring poets?

Treat your poetry as a hobby; write freely and be yourself, don’t second guess the kind of poetry that will succeed. Be aware of the different styles and the latest projects in contemporary poetry across the Anglosphere. Don’t be easily satisfied, try to push yourself into taking risks and surprising yourself.

We commissioned research last year that showed that writing as a profession is becoming increasingly untenable for the vast majority. Do you have any thoughts on the current landscape for writers?

There are hardly any writers from working class backgrounds and this causes me great anguish. My roles outside of my writing are all geared to help make a change. I hope other writers and arts visionaries will fight to combat injustice. In general, yes, there is less space for literature in print media, radio and television so we must find ways to win writers greater attention.

Estimated breakdown of Daljit’s yearly income:

Find out more about Daljit, and his latest poetry collection, Indiom.

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