Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Daljit Nagra
By Yong Shu Hoong
In Daljit Nagra's latest collection of poetry, British Museum (2017), it seems that, alongside treasures and artefacts amassed during the British Empire's heydays, Great Britain is itself being put up on display – from the Britain that the poet has grown up with, to the nation currently in the shadow of Brexit gloom.
A review in The Guardian describes the book as "a questing, questioning third volume" that addresses "social themes of increasing significance." This notion that British Museum is full of question marks is also observed by another reviewer (in The Manchester Review), who contrasts it with Nagra's earlier exclamations-filled collections, Look We Have Coming to Dover! (2007) and Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger-Toy Machine!!! (2012).
Nagra's parents are Sikh Punjabis from India, who in the late 1950s moved to England where he was born in 1966. He was twice shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize – for Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White-Man Eating Tiger-Toy Machine!!! and his retelling of the Ramayana (2013). He has won the Forward Prize for Best Individual Poem and Best First Book, the South Bank Show Decibel Award and the Cholmondeley Award.
Nagra currently lives in Harrow, a suburban town in Greater London, with his wife and two daughters. A poet-in-residence for Radio 4 and 4 Extra, he teaches poetry at Brunel University London.
1. What are you reading right now?
I am re-reading Paul Farley's new poetry collection The Mizzy, which is moving and beautiful in its consideration of our planet under stress. He has a light touch, and his formal dexterity is a pleasurable engagement with the substance of his rich ideas.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
I'd be Shabine from Derek Walcott's great long poem, 'The Schooner Flight'. I love how he's on the sea and emboldened, "I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me, / and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation." I like the pun on "nobody" which is, of course, the name Odysseus gives himself when asked by the Cyclops.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
That I write earnest poems. I believe my work is often tonally complex and could be read as taking various positions because of the slipperiness of language. I look for slippery words as part of the formal fabric of my poems.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
Bernardine Evaristo who supports Black Asian and Minority Ethnic authors and whose own work is free and individual, and Seamus Heaney for his attitude to the English language in the way he revives it and challenges its range of diction.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I assume we need a period of maturation; we can't be churning out all the time. If I haven't written for a while, I'll read several collections of poetry and, hey presto, my poetry brain is back in its rhythmic sway.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
An attempt to find own voice through subject matters, attitudes adopted and use of language that's so exciting it takes the lid off sound and rhythm!
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
Being overly influenced by one writer and not being able to see they are overshadowed by that stronger presence. Perhaps it's best to be strongly influenced by several writers at the same time. To do this properly, I think you have to love contemporary writers just as much as historic ones, so the rich fusion of old time and the new can be felt freshly in the work.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
"I learn by going where I have to go" is by Theodore Roethke from his poem 'The Waking'. The backward forwardness of its paradoxical nature is wonderful. I think of each poem I write as a journey I had to make and didn't know I needed to make until I'd made it. True also for the things we do in life, that we look positively at them, and learn from them.
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…
prize my day job as an academic as much as being a poet. I enjoy teaching, marking and watching my students develop as much as I enjoy watching my poems develop.
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
Tragedy because that's where all my emotions are being driven by the train of thought at their most exhilarating speed.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
Favourite: "graft" because of its many meanings – I think of migrants in the UK grafting to graft their own lives into greater shape while also grafting for the nation so it grafts itself better. I think of writing poetry as a graft more than a craft. Worst: "translucent", overused by poets, I'm tired of it.
12. Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three words: east, myth, sink.
No east, no west when of global myths we think?
Go chase the answer, if you must, it's running down the sink.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
A black Bic pen, I love the ordinariness of it, and its lively nib. It's a basic tool for the basics of writing.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
Any moment that I'm free, which is infrequent. I'm happy to write at any time of the day or evening, with or without noise.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
I wouldn't like a supper, but I'd read the work of Emily Dickinson to prepare me for the consequences, Rabindranath Tagore for his rapture, and John Milton for his verse of the greatest music the English language has produced.
16. As a poet, how do you navigate between the notion that poetry is useless, and the use of poetry as a voice of reason, and even a weapon, to overcome the ills of our world at present?
I love W.H. Auden's paradox, that each poem being written should feel as though it's the most important thing in the world while knowing it may mean little or nothing to others. We have to carry on believing in the significance of our craft or, as Czeslaw Milosz says, nothingness wins.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 19 No. 1 Jan 2020
Here lies one who put service above vanity. Though I look forward to being cremated!