Daljit Nagra

London, United Kingdom

Daljit Nagra comes from a Punjabi background. He was born and raised in London then Sheffield. He has won several prestigious prizes for his poetry. In 2004, he won the Forward Prize for Best Individual Poem with Look We Have Coming to Dover! This was also the title of his first collection which was published by Faber & Faber in 2007. This won the South Bank Show Decibel Award, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and was nominated for The Costa Prize, The Guardian First Book Prize, the Aldeburgh Prize and the Glen Dimplex Award. His second collection, Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man  Eating Tiger-Toy Machine!!! was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. His current book, Ramayana, is shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. In 2014 he won the Royal Society of Authors Travelling Scholarship Award.

Daljit’s poems have been published in New Yorker, Atlantic Review, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Poetry Review, Poetry London, Poetry International, Rialto and The North.


Daljit Nagra’s debut Look We Have Coming to Dover was greeted with a huge amount of excitement. It is easy to understand why – firstly, the poems are full of energy and leap off the page. I have heard Daljit Nagra speak about how he creates the voices of the vivid characters in his poems and he said that he wanted his characters to speak as if they are talking very loud in a room full of people. The second reason why Daljit Nagra’s debut received such a rapturous reception is because his poems breathed fresh life and energy into language. This is partly due to his heritage - his Sikh Punjabi parents came to Britain from India in the late 1950s and he grew up in Yiewsley near Heathrow and then in Sheffield. So his language is full of words and phrases that he might perhaps call ‘Punglish’ as in the line ‘Should I read for you straight or Gunga Din this gig’, plus weaving in Punjabi words. Daljit Nagra is particularly alive to the fact that some of what we call English is poached and borrowed from other dialects, countries and cultures. But really his linguistic virtuosity is as much to do with the way he uses the sound of words, the richness of the vocabulary, the contrast and surprising but brilliant combinations: ‘clack applause’ for what I imagine is a kind of half hearted polite clapping, ‘Seagull and shoal life/ vexing their blarnies’, Ken who ‘waffs on a peppermint tea’ and

 

                          ‘rapidly

     rattles the daily John Bull

       yarns of his doolally pilot

         years’

 (from Ken)

 

Daljit Nagra’s second collection, Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! won the coveted T.S. Eliot Prize and delighted readers. “Even the title is a pick-me-up: animated, garrulous, entertaining and breaking an unwritten rule (since when were three exclamation marks welcomed in poetry?)” (Kate Kellaway, The Guardian).

 

The tensions of dual heritage and between first and second generation immigrants are a key theme in Daljit Nagra’s poems. In a White Town is uses the voice of a teenager who feels Indian at home and Westernised once outside the front door. At the same time being embarrassed about your mum as a teenager is a universal theme that many will relate to:
 

I would have felt more at home had she hidden

that illiterate body, bumping noisily into women

at the market, bulging into its drama’d gossip,

 

The ‘illiterate body’ seems to hold the double meaning of a person who cannot speak or read the language of this new country that is now home and also that sense of a body that does not understand the English reserve, bumping noisily into people at the market, invading space with drama and gossip. Towards the end of the poem this once vigorous woman hobbles towards the speaker for a kiss. The final line brings out a sadness, the sense of gaining perspective through maturity and wanting to ask for forgiveness for the shame we felt or feel towards our families, our histories and our heritage.

 

The complexity of identity is also explored in Sajid Naqvi. An elegy for a friend who dies, that also speaks of how ‘Saj’s’ Western self is wiped away in the funeral and burial: hymns from the Koran instead of songs by The Smiths, his grungy look replaced with white cotton garments. And yet again, as a reader I identify with the universal theme of the poem - how parents try to shape us into something they can recognise and feel proud of, how a funeral might seem to erase the individual through the ritual. While Daljit Nagra’s poems, it has been said, state a case for poetry to be read simply for fun (in a climate where poetry is often seen as obscure or difficult this is a positive). It is nonetheless true that the poems contain anger, loneliness, grief, violence and racism. They are also strong in how they confront the dark history of the British Empire and its legacies. They are a call to all of us to keep open to difference, to strangeness. Look We Have Coming to Dover’s portrait of immigrants coming to England, working on the black and banking on the miracle of sun to ‘passport us to life’. These poems are pertinent in the light of the current refugee crisis because they use the miracle of language to remind us how much we can gain by ‘poling sparks across pylon and pylon’, how much we benefit by assimilating people from other countries.  

 

Daljit Nagra’s poems contain conversations with English poets and poetry, such as Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. Yet there is also unease - perhaps as much related to working class roots as to Asian-ness:

 

Am I a noble scruff who hopes a proud
academy might canonise
his poems for their faith in canonical allusions?

(from A Black History of the English Speaking Peoples).

 

The only counter-point is perhaps ‘gung-ho fury!’ There are many voices and shifting perspectives in Daljit Nagra’s poems, and they are sometimes poised on that knife-edge between humour and anger. Daljit Nagra smashes pomposity, conceit, self-satisfaction through galvanising and invigorating verse. Poetry that feels true and real and seemingly effortless, at the same time as it is tightly wrought, finely tuned, supremely accomplished, generous and affectionate.

 

Joy, effervescence, sheer passion: these are all words used to describe Daljit’s Nagra’s writings. Furthermore, as stated in The Observer ‘The poet's reading, like his words, is energetic and as alive as quicksilver’.