Daljit Nagra Makes His Mark – Camden New Journal
Daljit Nagra is king of the exclamation mark! There are dozens of them electrifying the pages of his new poetry collection, Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White Man Eating Tiger Toy Machine!!!. A handful come coupled with question marks, as if in second-thought or double-take, others are italicised for added oomph. “I think of the exclamation almost as a punchbag or a dumb-bell”, Nagra tells me when we meet at the offices of Faber and Faber – the home of Eliot, Auden, Larkin, Hughes, and now his publisher too.
The figure of the tiger savaging a sepoy is perfect for Nagra’s pouncing poetry – in turn seductive and assaulting – and in this sly self-portrait he prises from its jaws ideas about the legacy of empire, but also about will, bravado, opportunism and parodic style. The seriously funny image of the poet clawing at his mirror, “overcome by the camps of history!”, sets the tone for the collection, a hot-blooded, coolly wrought affair in which indignation is balanced with a knowing playfulness: “You’re awfully scary once in your stripes!”
Such self-mockery, of course, could be self-defeating. But Nagra’s hybridity (he’s English born of Punjabi parents) means, I’d guess, that he’s always bound to see the other side, even of himself. One of the triumphs of this book is that it sustains such doubleness and complexity while raising a smile or packing a wallop. As the punchbag imagery suggests, the debate Nagra is rehearsing about his part in “Empire’s quid pro quo” isn’t academic. Like Yossarian in Catch 22 he refuses to regard himself as a cog in the machine and takes history personally, so the struggle is keenly felt: “To some degree it always feels out of control in my head” he admits. Once on the page, however, this volatile material is quite deliberately plotted: Nagra’s lines, as he says in his dedication, are “tamed”, his lovers and fighters all stage-managed.
There are some quiet moments (a pair of tender sonnets updating Shakespeare; a dissolving stanza musing on origins), but in the main the poems are rowdy or highly expressive – an aesthetic response to the equanimity of the English canon. Sitting in Faber’s offices, surrounded by glass cases full of handwritten manuscripts, Nagra observes, “Canon is quite a physical, scary word, isn’t it? And I don’t believe that can really apply anymore, there are so many different constituencies.” Which doesn’t mean the greats can be ignored; you have to work your way through them, trusting – as he says at the Bloomsbury Festival a few days later – “one’s personality is strong enough to make something of me, from them”. He particularly admires Eliot’s “spiritually-directed voice, that high rhetoric” which seems close to his own play with rhetorical surfaces; while Larkin’s interest in domestic arrangements strikes a chord (“growing up as an Indian in Britain you’re dealing with marriage as a major issue”) and his “plain-speaking, ordinary subject matter” is inspiring.
Plain and direct English – beloved of teachers and journalists – is for some, though, not readily available: “It’s fine if you’re a clear, cogent speaker, if you’ve learned the rules and studied well. But straightforward English in the Larkin or Orwellian sense is not easy for everyone. Especially for some of my speakers, it’s very hard, so I want to explain all that.” It’s another trick he pulls off: masking, ‘lying’ and browning up to prevent himself from being pinned down or written off, yet producing poetry that is spiritedly partisan. We’re left in no doubt that he sides not with the kings whose heads are “cluttered with golden age bumph”, but the “turncoat” class betrayers and the “groundlings”.
His father was a factory worker and shopkeeper, and Nagra has a nice line in workers’ romance (‘Confessions of a Coolie Woman, Part 1’; ‘Raju T’Wonder Dog’). At home there were no books, and his schoolmates, a bunch of “exceptionally bright kids who were always playing around with words” but who, like Nagra, left after CSEs, were aware that their way of talking was never heard on the telly, never mind getting a look in from the poets. It was the desire to capture these voices that spurred him to writing.
Their expressions still enliven his performance (“She’s that fit!”), but it’s the way he infiltrates English with Indian accents and cadence that makes Nagra’s language so pleasurable and subversive: “When I think of English, OED words, the sort that Eliot and Larkin used, I’m always looking for a point of spring off from them, for an Indianness or Indian music in them.” This is also what arms his writing. For instance, ‘This Be the Pukka Verse’ is chock-a-block with Indianised words, its stanzas bulging with empire’s “shafted…goodies”. Such fullness rebukes Larkin’s English tightness, as if to say, Well, where did all that shafting get you, you miserable old bugger!
Above all, though, it’s Shakespeare who runs through Tippoo, and in a final pièce de résistance, ‘A Black History of the English-Speaking Peoples’ (indebted to Auden’s ‘Spain’), Nagra considers the Bard’s part in empire-making, the canon’s “bleached yarns”, and the extent to which faith in this literary inheritance implicates or travesties him. His voice, he knows, is inevitably “phoney” in this pale company, but authenticity isn’t what he’s working towards. Rather he hopes that “through puppetry and hypocrisy” what rings true is his “gung-ho fury”. I, for one, say, long may he “reign Bolshie!”.
Daljit Nagra has been shortlisted for the 2011 T. S. Eliot prize. The winner will be announced on 16 January 2012. This article appeared in the West End Extra, in Camden New Journal as ‘Awful Scary in Your Stripes’, and in the Islington Tribune on 27.10.2011.