Six short films, each celebrating a different contemporary poem, featuring performances and personal insights from the poets themselves.
Browse content similar to Poets in Person. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
Poetry is a very dangerous place.
Poetry is never a safe place.
And it it's safe, then it's probably not what I'd be interested in.
Poetry is on the edge of things.
Poetry is pure subversion. It is a way of having a voice about things
that you wouldn't dare to speak about otherwise.
Outside the door, lurking in the shadows, is a terrorist.
Is that the wrong description?
Outside that door, taking shelter in the shadows, is a freedom fighter.
The poem wasn't about terrorists. It was about the use of those words.
I wanted to think about what words we put onto an image and how we define that image.
Because just depending on the words you use, the right word or the wrong word,
you can create suspicion or fear or enmity or all kinds of other feelings.
I haven't got this right.
Outside, waiting in the shadows, is a hostile militant.
A lot of poems start in anger, but they have to become something colder and harder to really work.
It may start in the heat of anger, but the anger has to become targeted
or the poem can just be a political diatribe or a bit of propaganda
or, you know, a rant on the page.
There has to be that whole process of making it into something
beyond the purely personal or the pure gush of emotion.
Are words no more than waving, wavering flags?
Outside your door, watchful in the shadows, is a guerrilla warrior.
With all the bombardment of media and language around us,
and language very often used crudely, in broad brush strokes,
very often poetry has the nuance and the subtlety to bring back the kindness into language,
the healing qualities, the nuances.
Not just beauty for itself,
but the tiny differences that bring a gentleness back into language and into daily life.
God help me.
Outside, defying every shadow, stands a martyr.
I saw his face.
No words can help me now.
Just outside that door, lost in shadows, is a child who looks like mine.
All of life, you put on personas and masks
and different parts of what you are.
So there's a definition I gave of myself, which is Scottish Pakistani Calvinist Muslim,
adopted by India and by Wales as well.
Really what I'm saying is none of us are just one thing. What makes a person?
It may be the songs your grandmother sang you, it may be the food you ate,
but every day is also your heritage and culture and you're making it fresh.
So that's really what I want to suggest by saying, "I'm all these things, but you are, too."
One word for you.
Outside my door, his hand too steady, his eyes too hard,
is a boy who looks like your son, too.
I started that poem, knowing I was going to take the image and, fairly schematic,
I thought, "I'll go through seven different versions of that image."
At the end of the poem, when I come to the part where I open the door
and say, "Come in and eat with us," the voice becomes completely different. It's not factual,
it's not matter of fact. It's a host.
And that happens quite often in a poem. The words and the rhythm and the idea itself
takes on a life of its own. That's some of the best poems.
I open the door.
Come in, I say. Come in and eat with us.
The child steps in
and carefully, at my door, takes off his shoes.
The first line in our history book,
I seem to remember,
was, "West Indian history begins
"with the arrival of Columbus."
It's that very Eurocentric view.
until the European has entered the arena.
The retelling of history depends a lot on who is telling the story.
Dem tell me Dem tell me What dem want to tell me
Bandage up me eye with me own history
Blind me to me own identity
Dem tell me bout 1066 and all dat
Dem tell me bout Dick Whittington and he cat
But Toussaint L'Ouverture No, dem never tell me bout dat.
I would like to think that the poem has a celebratory side.
characters such as Toussaint L'Ouverture,
Mary Seacole, the Amerindian past,
but in a poem you're not writing a history book.
You're not writing a piece of journalism, so no matter how well-intentioned you might be,
or how crucial the facts might be,
that wouldn't make a poem.
So it came out in that way, like a counterpoint of two voices.
So one voice is the nursery rhymes
counterpointed by a celebration of historical characters.
Dem tell me bout de man who discover de balloon
and de cow jump over de moon.
Dem tell me de dish ran away with de spoon
but dem never tell me bout Nanny de maroon.
When I think of Nanny, I'm thinking that you're casting a spell.
So I think from those words you get the feeling,
"How can I deliver this?"
This is a woman who used the traditions of her African ancestry
so that becomes a kind of a spell
against an oppressive regime at the time.
Nanny see-far woman
of mountain dream
to freedom river.
You can write a poem in Creole, but it might be a very reactionary poem.
It might be very sexist.
So it doesn't mean that writing a poem in Creole automatically means you're right on.
But you're using all of your registers of speech, your linguistic heritage,
and it gives a pride simultaneously in language,
but also in history.
Dem tell me bout Lord Nelson and Waterloo
but dem never tell me bout Shaka the great Zulu
Dem tell me bout Columbus and 1492
but what happen to de Caribs and de Arawaks too...
Let's say I'm playing with words,
the way you might play with musical notes.
So a text becomes like a musical score.
And sometimes the voice of delivery doesn't show itself
until after the poem is written.
Dem tell me bout Florence Nightingale and she lamp
and how Robin Hood used to camp
Dem tell me bout ole King Cole was a merry ole soul
but dem never tell me bout Mary Seacole.
The poet, hopefully, keeps us in touch
with the vulnerable core of language that makes you what you are.
It keeps you in touch
with the heartfelt and vulnerable,
fragile, complex, contradictory nature of the human beast.
Dem tell me Dem tell me wha dem want to tell me
But now I checking out me own history
I carving out me identity.
I grew up in a small country village along the Atlantic coast in Guyana.
To me it still remains a very magical place in my consciousness
and I think, in a way, my creativity is linked somehow to where I grew up,
that small country village of my childhood.
You were water to me
Deep and bold and fathoming
You were moon's eye to me
Pull and grained and mantling...
I wrote it some time after my mum had died. I was just reflecting on her one day
and what she meant to me because I loved her very much.
I wanted to capture, you know, something about her qualities.
You were sunrise to me
Rise and warm and streaming...
This was the only photograph I have of my mother and father.
It's at my elder sister's wedding.
My mum is at the very back here.
I come from a big family. There were seven of us. She had seven children, six girls and one brother.
We all are extremely close as a family, doing things together.
Because my mother had so many of us,
we were allowed a lot of freedom. We were allowed to go fishing and we'd be off on our own for ages.
And she told us stories at night and fairy tales.
I'm sure that, you know, is very much part of my consciousness.
My mum was really a lovely person. She was very kind of...
..very warm and open.
Our house was always full of people visiting. She loved cooking.
That's why some of the images in the poem related to cooking.
I've also spoken of the flame tree. It's a beautiful tree, lining the avenues of Guyana,
and it has red flowers. It's very beautiful to look at.
You were the fish's red gill to me
The flame tree's spread to me
The crab's leg The fried plantain smell
Go to your wide futures, you said.
In my late teens I wanted to become a novelist,
but after coming to England, I don't know if it was the emotional separation,
being away from your culture and all that you know, to England, which is so different,
maybe that separation drove me more into poetry.
The Creole language that we use, the everyday language of the people,
which has been influenced by Africa,
and all the other races in the Caribbean have influenced the Creole way of speaking.
And then we have so-called standard English,
which isn't standard really because English is a complex and beautiful language.
So having both to draw on is very exciting for me as a poet.
You trust in your instincts all the way through the poems.
It's like a little adventure for you because you don't quite know where it will take you,
how it will turn out or end up.
You look back at some of the poems you have written and see them as your children, in a way.
They form their own lives and futures and, whatever happens,
you just let them go and let people interpret them. After a time, you know, you can't hold on to them.
They're meant to be shared.
In Britain, there seems to be a stereotype that all Indians are shopkeepers or doctors or lawyers.
For me, my parents were shopkeepers and I wanted to write Singh Song
to celebrate that rather than be embarrassed. You can either pretend that's not really happening
and write about Indians being astronauts or whatever, or actually go via the stereotype.
I just want to capture a very ordinary situation.
I run just one ov my daddy's shops
from 9 o'clock to 9 o'clock
and he vunt me not to hav a break
but ven nobody in, I do di lock -
cos up di stairs is my newly bride
vee share in chapatti vee share in di chutney
after vee hav made luv like vee rowing through Putney...
When I think of first-generation Indians that came to Britain,
people like my family, my parents got vouchers to come over for free to work here
in the 24-hour factories and Underground. It's not a job you imagine doing to 65
and retiring. You probably wouldn't survive.
So the aspiration, the ambition for a lot of my parents' generation was to become independent
and the best way was to buy your own shop.
di shoppers always point and cry: Hey Singh, ver yoo bin?
Yor lemons are limes yor bananas are plantain,
dis dirty little floor need a little bit of mop
in di worst Indian shop on di whole Indian road.
My writing about an Indian who's a shopkeeper in an Indian accent
could imply that I'm making fun of my character, but hopefully people can see through that
and see through their own prejudices.
Above my head high heel tap di ground
as my vife on di web is playing wid di mouse...
The issue for me was it's always racialised, the Indian accent, it's always made fun of on telly.
To me there's nothing wrong with the Indian voice.
I'm quite excited by the idea of making the reader have to read the poem in the Indian accent
and have to deal with it. And, hopefully, the reader feels there's nothing wrong with the accent.
It's another type of English. Hopefully they enjoy putting their mouth through those words
and feel they're experiencing a slightly different type of music to when they normally read a poem.
my bride she effing at my mum
in all di colours of Punjabi
den stumble like a drunk making fun at my daddy
my bride tiny eyes ov a gun and di tummy ov a teddy
my bride she hav a red crew cut and she wear a Tartan sari...
I think when I was writing this poem I was trying to offer an affectionate portrayal of the characters,
in that I liked Mr Singh, I liked what he was about.
I liked that he didn't care about his shop and put love before business.
Shall we run back to Daddy?
Also I was very aware that you don't get happy love poems in English poetry.
They're quite moody or grim because someone's died.
And you suddenly realise, like Thomas Hardy, that you're in love with that person.
So I decided to write a love poem in the end, but in a shop context.
vee cum down whispering stairs and sit on my silver stool,
from behind di chocolate bars
vee stare past di half-price window signs
at di beaches of di UK in di brightey moon -
from di stool each night she say,
How much do yoo charge for dat moon baby?
from di stool each night I say,
Is half di cost ov yoo baby,
from di stool each night she say,
How much does dat come to baby?
from di stool each night I say,
Is priceless baby -
A ghazal was a form I became interested in partly because it's Persian
and I'm from Iran, and it's a way of sort of trying to understand a bit more
about the literature, the poetry of Iran particularly.
If I am the grass and you the breeze, blow through me
If I am the rose and you the bird, then woo me...
A ghazal is from sort of 12th century onwards.
It's really like a little song lyric.
It's very much associated with Sufi poets,
so it's a form of mystical love poetry.
If I am the rhyme and you the refrain don't hang on my lips
Come and I'll come too when you cue me...
I think inasmuch as the sonnet was also...it's a little song, a sonetto,
and it's the same in the east. It's the ghazal.
If mine is the venomous tongue, the serpent's tail
charmer, use your charm, weave a spell and subdue me...
In the ghazal, you can use tones, I suppose,
that in contemporary, well, British poetry anyway, one would be shy of.
I think it gives you permission to sort of break all those kind of
no-nos, where you mustn't be sentimental or over the top.
If I am the laurel leaf in your crown you are the arms around my bark,
arms that never knew me.
The thing about form is it's...
For me the main thing is it gives you something to write about.
People sometimes think it's the opposite, that you have something to say
and then you find the form to put it in, but quite often you start off with nothing to say,
you can't think what to write about or anything, and if you have a form
it will lead you to the content.
So, in general, that's what excites me about it.
If each couplet was like a spoke in a wheel,
going like that rather than linear, as it appears on the page -
I think in my mind it's really a radial, circular form -
then in the middle of the hub of that wheel will be the refrain word.
It's like the hook in song lyrics. It's the bit that everybody knows, that everyone joins in at that point.
So here we've got "blow through me" and then "woo me",
so everyone knows that the couplets are going to end like "oo me".
So you continue with that "oo me" thing, but with the last couplet,
this is the place for the personal voice to come in. In this one I have "twice the me I am",
ie meaning, you know... So it can be a play on your name,
if you're a bit coy!
In a way, the ghazal is a way of my honouring my heritage.
Maybe it is a way of connecting not only with Iran
or an idea of Iran, the culture of Iran, but with the very positive aspects because, in Iran,
poetry is the highest of all the arts
and hugely known and loved by everyone, even by illiterate people
who can quote great chunks of it by heart.
If I rise in the east as you die in the west,
die for my sake, my love, every night renew me.
If, when it ends, we are just good friends,
be my Friend, muse, brother and guide, Shamsuddin to my Rumi.
Be heaven and earth to me and I'll be twice the me I am,
if only half the world you are to me.
What's that fluttering in a breeze?
It's just a piece of cloth
that brings a nation to its knees.
When you think about Flag, that very simple,
but yet iconic thing that every country has,
it's associated with nationhood.
It's associated with jubilation,
you might think of the Olympics,
but there is another dimension
when imperialistic attitudes
shall we say, power becomes attached to that flag.
So there are various resonances pertaining to a flag
and I think the poem is just a little journey
It gets you to rethink
what you take for granted.
What's that unfurling from a pole?
It's just a piece of cloth
that makes the guts of men grow bold.
Is humanity waving the flag
or is the flag waving humanity?
In other words, are we at a point where you become controlled
by your own ideology?
These are questions that the poem is asking without necessarily stating exactly how to think.
I wanted to explore that old, traditional
sense of riddling.
And through riddling
you're rethinking the obvious.
What's that rising over a tent?
It's just a piece of cloth
that dares the coward to relent.
You have so many endless ideas that might come floating into your head at any given time
so keeping that chaos of ideas
within a structured vessel,
sort of a measured sort of beat,
there's no room for endless waffling in a poem.
And it's an offering
of your most intense personhood.
The dreaming part of you, the subconscious part of you.
So, in a way, the poem is a revelation to you as well.
What's that flying across a field?
It's just a piece of cloth
that will outlive the blood you bleed.
How can I possess such a cloth?
Just ask for a flag, my friend.
Then blind your conscience to the end.
Different things can inspire you.
It can be something as straightforward as a photograph.
You might be on a train and you glimpse a funny headline.
It can be anything that begins to nibble at you.
I think poets have not only got their ears open,
they've got their eyes open to words around them.
And if you get the right words in the right order, something magical could happen.
And I think those who go on to be poets have got that lasting love affair with language.
Subtitles by Subtext for Red Bee Media Ltd - 2011
Email [email protected]
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.