Imtiaz Dharker on the power of poetry

Imtiaz Dharker is a poet, artist and documentary filmmaker, whose collections include Postcards from God, The Terrorist at my Table and, most recently, a series of poems based on the archives of St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Vision caught up with her during her Education Day reading session at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature where she shared her thoughts on art and poetry

There is an incredible thing that happens at the readings for Poetry Live. Six poets on the syllabus read to huge audiences of 2,000 young people in vast theatres around the UK, often in concert halls where a rock group has performed the night before. The audience arrives noisy and boisterous, as you’d expect young people to be. It sounds like a huge roaring animal. But when the poets start reading there is pin-drop silence and you can feel the concentration in the hall. Why does this happen? It happens because suddenly the poem has come off the page into the voice and accent of a living, breathing person. When poetry is spoken aloud you hear the rhythm of it, the life of the poem, the beat of the heart and the pulse of the blood.

All of education is really about teaching young people to think for themselves. When it comes to poetry, it’s often enough just to let them know that poetry is not an inaccessible mystery but something that speaks about the world they live in. When my work is taught I am pleased that it can be used to open doors beyond my poems into a whole world of other poetry.

When poetry is spoken aloud you hear the rhythm of it, the life of the poem, the beat of the heart and the pulse of the blood

Imtiaz Dharker, Poet

I find more and more people, young and old, turning to poetry now, because in a chaotic world it is a still point, beyond cold facts and prose, to a place where we stop and really listen to each other’s voices.

The Education Day at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is a great thing because it offers direct contact between the poet and the student. I find great inspiration in hearing the voices and opinions of young people, and they are also able to ask questions and get answers right from the source. When I was growing up all the poets I studied were male (usually white) and dead. It’s good to change that perception. I’ve found that young people often go on to read more and write more themselves after these days.

The experience of Education Day is actually an education for us writers, because suddenly you see this whole auditorium full of enthusiastic young people and I always treat them as if they know more than I do because in this current world they are actually so savvy in a way that I never was at that age. They are more complex, they are dealing with a more complex world and they can take a lot of complexity. In the session I’ve just done you could see that in the way they were listening to the poems, taking it in and asking brilliant questions. It is actually humbling the kind of questions that they ask because you can see that they are getting it. You get the sense that they are three steps ahead. I find these young people absolutely inspiring. They’ve inspired me rather than the other way around.

Imtiaz Dharker
Dharker spoke at the literature festival in Dubai about demystifying poetry to connect it to the real worldImage: Darren Arthur

There is a huge effort in the Festival to bring in whole families, and it is always a joy to see the halls milling with young people. The attempt is to make connections possible and to make poetry accessible to them. Every contact of this kind brings them closer to opening a book. The programming of the Festival is often surprising and inventive because it mixes different kinds of writing. The audience may come for one writer but find many other unexpected ones.

Carol Ann Duffy once said: ‘If there were to be a World Laureate, then for me the role could only be filled by Imtiaz Dharker’. However, there are many poets I know who belong to the whole world and would fit the title, not least the UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy herself. But if such a position did exist and I held it, I would want to see poetry collaborations across borders and more work in translation. What I would really like to see is both live and published poetry becoming an open and generous space for different kinds of poetry and all kinds of different voices, from every country and every language.