Poets in Person


Poets in Person

Six short films, each celebrating a different contemporary poem, featuring performances and personal insights from the poets themselves.


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Transcript


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Poetry is a very dangerous place.

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Poetry is never a safe place.

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And it it's safe, then it's probably not what I'd be interested in.

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Poetry is on the edge of things.

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Poetry is pure subversion. It is a way of having a voice about things

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that you wouldn't dare to speak about otherwise.

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Outside the door, lurking in the shadows, is a terrorist.

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Is that the wrong description?

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Outside that door, taking shelter in the shadows, is a freedom fighter.

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The poem wasn't about terrorists. It was about the use of those words.

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I wanted to think about what words we put onto an image and how we define that image.

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Because just depending on the words you use, the right word or the wrong word,

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you can create suspicion or fear or enmity or all kinds of other feelings.

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I haven't got this right.

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Outside, waiting in the shadows, is a hostile militant.

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A lot of poems start in anger, but they have to become something colder and harder to really work.

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It may start in the heat of anger, but the anger has to become targeted

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or the poem can just be a political diatribe or a bit of propaganda

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or, you know, a rant on the page.

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There has to be that whole process of making it into something

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beyond the purely personal or the pure gush of emotion.

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Are words no more than waving, wavering flags?

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Outside your door, watchful in the shadows, is a guerrilla warrior.

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With all the bombardment of media and language around us,

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and language very often used crudely, in broad brush strokes,

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very often poetry has the nuance and the subtlety to bring back the kindness into language,

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the healing qualities, the nuances.

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Not just beauty for itself,

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but the tiny differences that bring a gentleness back into language and into daily life.

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God help me.

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Outside, defying every shadow, stands a martyr.

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I saw his face.

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No words can help me now.

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Just outside that door, lost in shadows, is a child who looks like mine.

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All of life, you put on personas and masks

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and different parts of what you are.

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So there's a definition I gave of myself, which is Scottish Pakistani Calvinist Muslim,

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adopted by India and by Wales as well.

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Really what I'm saying is none of us are just one thing. What makes a person?

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It may be the songs your grandmother sang you, it may be the food you ate,

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but every day is also your heritage and culture and you're making it fresh.

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So that's really what I want to suggest by saying, "I'm all these things, but you are, too."

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One word for you.

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Outside my door, his hand too steady, his eyes too hard,

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is a boy who looks like your son, too.

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I started that poem, knowing I was going to take the image and, fairly schematic,

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I thought, "I'll go through seven different versions of that image."

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At the end of the poem, when I come to the part where I open the door

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and say, "Come in and eat with us," the voice becomes completely different. It's not factual,

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it's not matter of fact. It's a host.

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And that happens quite often in a poem. The words and the rhythm and the idea itself

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takes on a life of its own. That's some of the best poems.

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I open the door.

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Come in, I say. Come in and eat with us.

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The child steps in

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and carefully, at my door, takes off his shoes.

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The first line in our history book,

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I seem to remember,

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was, "West Indian history begins

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"in 1492

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"with the arrival of Columbus."

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It's that very Eurocentric view.

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Nothing exists

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until the European has entered the arena.

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The retelling of history depends a lot on who is telling the story.

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Dem tell me Dem tell me What dem want to tell me

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Bandage up me eye with me own history

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Blind me to me own identity

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Dem tell me bout 1066 and all dat

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Dem tell me bout Dick Whittington and he cat

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But Toussaint L'Ouverture No, dem never tell me bout dat.

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I would like to think that the poem has a celebratory side.

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It's celebrating

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characters such as Toussaint L'Ouverture,

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Mary Seacole, the Amerindian past,

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but in a poem you're not writing a history book.

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You're not writing a piece of journalism, so no matter how well-intentioned you might be,

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or how crucial the facts might be,

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that wouldn't make a poem.

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So it came out in that way, like a counterpoint of two voices.

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So one voice is the nursery rhymes

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counterpointed by a celebration of historical characters.

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Dem tell me bout de man who discover de balloon

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and de cow jump over de moon.

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Dem tell me de dish ran away with de spoon

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but dem never tell me bout Nanny de maroon.

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When I think of Nanny, I'm thinking that you're casting a spell.

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So I think from those words you get the feeling,

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"How can I deliver this?"

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This is a woman who used the traditions of her African ancestry

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so that becomes a kind of a spell

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against an oppressive regime at the time.

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Nanny see-far woman

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of mountain dream

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fire-woman struggle

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hopeful stream

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to freedom river.

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You can write a poem in Creole, but it might be a very reactionary poem.

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It might be very sexist.

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So it doesn't mean that writing a poem in Creole automatically means you're right on.

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But you're using all of your registers of speech, your linguistic heritage,

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and it gives a pride simultaneously in language,

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but also in history.

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Dem tell me bout Lord Nelson and Waterloo

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but dem never tell me bout Shaka the great Zulu

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Dem tell me bout Columbus and 1492

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but what happen to de Caribs and de Arawaks too...

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Let's say I'm playing with words,

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the way you might play with musical notes.

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So a text becomes like a musical score.

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And sometimes the voice of delivery doesn't show itself

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until after the poem is written.

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Dem tell me bout Florence Nightingale and she lamp

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and how Robin Hood used to camp

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Dem tell me bout ole King Cole was a merry ole soul

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but dem never tell me bout Mary Seacole.

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The poet, hopefully, keeps us in touch

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with the vulnerable core of language that makes you what you are.

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It keeps you in touch

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with the heartfelt and vulnerable,

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fragile, complex, contradictory nature of the human beast.

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Dem tell me Dem tell me wha dem want to tell me

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But now I checking out me own history

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I carving out me identity.

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I grew up in a small country village along the Atlantic coast in Guyana.

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To me it still remains a very magical place in my consciousness

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and I think, in a way, my creativity is linked somehow to where I grew up,

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that small country village of my childhood.

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You were water to me

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Deep and bold and fathoming

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You were moon's eye to me

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Pull and grained and mantling...

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I wrote it some time after my mum had died. I was just reflecting on her one day

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and what she meant to me because I loved her very much.

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I wanted to capture, you know, something about her qualities.

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You were sunrise to me

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Rise and warm and streaming...

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This was the only photograph I have of my mother and father.

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It's at my elder sister's wedding.

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My mum is at the very back here.

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I come from a big family. There were seven of us. She had seven children, six girls and one brother.

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We all are extremely close as a family, doing things together.

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Because my mother had so many of us,

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we were allowed a lot of freedom. We were allowed to go fishing and we'd be off on our own for ages.

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And she told us stories at night and fairy tales.

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I'm sure that, you know, is very much part of my consciousness.

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My mum was really a lovely person. She was very kind of...

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..very warm and open.

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Our house was always full of people visiting. She loved cooking.

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That's why some of the images in the poem related to cooking.

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I've also spoken of the flame tree. It's a beautiful tree, lining the avenues of Guyana,

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and it has red flowers. It's very beautiful to look at.

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You were the fish's red gill to me

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The flame tree's spread to me

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The crab's leg The fried plantain smell

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Replenishing, replenishing

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Go to your wide futures, you said.

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In my late teens I wanted to become a novelist,

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but after coming to England, I don't know if it was the emotional separation,

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being away from your culture and all that you know, to England, which is so different,

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maybe that separation drove me more into poetry.

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The Creole language that we use, the everyday language of the people,

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which has been influenced by Africa,

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and all the other races in the Caribbean have influenced the Creole way of speaking.

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And then we have so-called standard English,

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which isn't standard really because English is a complex and beautiful language.

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So having both to draw on is very exciting for me as a poet.

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You trust in your instincts all the way through the poems.

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It's like a little adventure for you because you don't quite know where it will take you,

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how it will turn out or end up.

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You look back at some of the poems you have written and see them as your children, in a way.

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They form their own lives and futures and, whatever happens,

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you just let them go and let people interpret them. After a time, you know, you can't hold on to them.

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They're meant to be shared.

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In Britain, there seems to be a stereotype that all Indians are shopkeepers or doctors or lawyers.

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For me, my parents were shopkeepers and I wanted to write Singh Song

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to celebrate that rather than be embarrassed. You can either pretend that's not really happening

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and write about Indians being astronauts or whatever, or actually go via the stereotype.

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I just want to capture a very ordinary situation.

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I run just one ov my daddy's shops

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from 9 o'clock to 9 o'clock

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and he vunt me not to hav a break

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but ven nobody in, I do di lock -

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cos up di stairs is my newly bride

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vee share in chapatti vee share in di chutney

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after vee hav made luv like vee rowing through Putney...

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When I think of first-generation Indians that came to Britain,

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people like my family, my parents got vouchers to come over for free to work here

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in the 24-hour factories and Underground. It's not a job you imagine doing to 65

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and retiring. You probably wouldn't survive.

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So the aspiration, the ambition for a lot of my parents' generation was to become independent

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and the best way was to buy your own shop.

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di shoppers always point and cry: Hey Singh, ver yoo bin?

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Yor lemons are limes yor bananas are plantain,

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dis dirty little floor need a little bit of mop

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in di worst Indian shop on di whole Indian road.

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My writing about an Indian who's a shopkeeper in an Indian accent

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could imply that I'm making fun of my character, but hopefully people can see through that

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and see through their own prejudices.

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Above my head high heel tap di ground

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as my vife on di web is playing wid di mouse...

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The issue for me was it's always racialised, the Indian accent, it's always made fun of on telly.

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To me there's nothing wrong with the Indian voice.

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I'm quite excited by the idea of making the reader have to read the poem in the Indian accent

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and have to deal with it. And, hopefully, the reader feels there's nothing wrong with the accent.

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It's another type of English. Hopefully they enjoy putting their mouth through those words

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and feel they're experiencing a slightly different type of music to when they normally read a poem.

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my bride she effing at my mum

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in all di colours of Punjabi

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den stumble like a drunk making fun at my daddy

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my bride tiny eyes ov a gun and di tummy ov a teddy

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my bride she hav a red crew cut and she wear a Tartan sari...

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I think when I was writing this poem I was trying to offer an affectionate portrayal of the characters,

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in that I liked Mr Singh, I liked what he was about.

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I liked that he didn't care about his shop and put love before business.

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Shall we run back to Daddy?

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Also I was very aware that you don't get happy love poems in English poetry.

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They're quite moody or grim because someone's died.

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And you suddenly realise, like Thomas Hardy, that you're in love with that person.

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So I decided to write a love poem in the end, but in a shop context.

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vee cum down whispering stairs and sit on my silver stool,

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from behind di chocolate bars

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vee stare past di half-price window signs

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at di beaches of di UK in di brightey moon -

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from di stool each night she say,

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How much do yoo charge for dat moon baby?

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from di stool each night I say,

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Is half di cost ov yoo baby,

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from di stool each night she say,

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How much does dat come to baby?

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from di stool each night I say,

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Is priceless baby -

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A ghazal was a form I became interested in partly because it's Persian

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and I'm from Iran, and it's a way of sort of trying to understand a bit more

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about the literature, the poetry of Iran particularly.

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If I am the grass and you the breeze, blow through me

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If I am the rose and you the bird, then woo me...

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A ghazal is from sort of 12th century onwards.

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It's really like a little song lyric.

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It's very much associated with Sufi poets,

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so it's a form of mystical love poetry.

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If I am the rhyme and you the refrain don't hang on my lips

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Come and I'll come too when you cue me...

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I think inasmuch as the sonnet was also...it's a little song, a sonetto,

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and it's the same in the east. It's the ghazal.

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If mine is the venomous tongue, the serpent's tail

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charmer, use your charm, weave a spell and subdue me...

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In the ghazal, you can use tones, I suppose,

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that in contemporary, well, British poetry anyway, one would be shy of.

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I think it gives you permission to sort of break all those kind of

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no-nos, where you mustn't be sentimental or over the top.

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If I am the laurel leaf in your crown you are the arms around my bark,

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arms that never knew me.

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The thing about form is it's...

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For me the main thing is it gives you something to write about.

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People sometimes think it's the opposite, that you have something to say

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and then you find the form to put it in, but quite often you start off with nothing to say,

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you can't think what to write about or anything, and if you have a form

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it will lead you to the content.

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So, in general, that's what excites me about it.

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If each couplet was like a spoke in a wheel,

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going like that rather than linear, as it appears on the page -

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I think in my mind it's really a radial, circular form -

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then in the middle of the hub of that wheel will be the refrain word.

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It's like the hook in song lyrics. It's the bit that everybody knows, that everyone joins in at that point.

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So here we've got "blow through me" and then "woo me",

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so everyone knows that the couplets are going to end like "oo me".

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So you continue with that "oo me" thing, but with the last couplet,

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this is the place for the personal voice to come in. In this one I have "twice the me I am",

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ie meaning, you know... So it can be a play on your name,

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if you're a bit coy!

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In a way, the ghazal is a way of my honouring my heritage.

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Maybe it is a way of connecting not only with Iran

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or an idea of Iran, the culture of Iran, but with the very positive aspects because, in Iran,

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poetry is the highest of all the arts

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and hugely known and loved by everyone, even by illiterate people

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who can quote great chunks of it by heart.

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If I rise in the east as you die in the west,

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die for my sake, my love, every night renew me.

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If, when it ends, we are just good friends,

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be my Friend, muse, brother and guide, Shamsuddin to my Rumi.

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Be heaven and earth to me and I'll be twice the me I am,

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if only half the world you are to me.

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What's that fluttering in a breeze?

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It's just a piece of cloth

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that brings a nation to its knees.

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When you think about Flag, that very simple,

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but yet iconic thing that every country has,

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it's associated with nationhood.

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It's associated with jubilation,

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you might think of the Olympics,

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but there is another dimension

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when imperialistic attitudes

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and blinded,

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shall we say, power becomes attached to that flag.

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So there are various resonances pertaining to a flag

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and I think the poem is just a little journey

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of questions.

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It gets you to rethink

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what you take for granted.

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What's that unfurling from a pole?

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It's just a piece of cloth

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that makes the guts of men grow bold.

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Is humanity waving the flag

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or is the flag waving humanity?

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In other words, are we at a point where you become controlled

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by your own ideology?

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These are questions that the poem is asking without necessarily stating exactly how to think.

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I wanted to explore that old, traditional

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sense of riddling.

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And through riddling

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you're rethinking the obvious.

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What's that rising over a tent?

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It's just a piece of cloth

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that dares the coward to relent.

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You have so many endless ideas that might come floating into your head at any given time

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so keeping that chaos of ideas

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within a structured vessel,

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sort of a measured sort of beat,

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there's no room for endless waffling in a poem.

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And it's an offering

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of your most intense personhood.

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The dreaming part of you, the subconscious part of you.

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So, in a way, the poem is a revelation to you as well.

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What's that flying across a field?

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It's just a piece of cloth

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that will outlive the blood you bleed.

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How can I possess such a cloth?

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Just ask for a flag, my friend.

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Then blind your conscience to the end.

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Different things can inspire you.

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It can be something as straightforward as a photograph.

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You might be on a train and you glimpse a funny headline.

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It can be anything that begins to nibble at you.

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I think poets have not only got their ears open,

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they've got their eyes open to words around them.

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And if you get the right words in the right order, something magical could happen.

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And I think those who go on to be poets have got that lasting love affair with language.

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Subtitles by Subtext for Red Bee Media Ltd - 2011

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Email [email protected]

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Six short films, each celebrating a different contemporary poem, featuring performances and personal insights from the poets themselves: John Agard, Imtiaz Dharker, Mimi Khalvati, Daljit Nagra and Grace Nichols.


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