The British-Indian poet is a man of many voices. Click Play Video for an exclusive video podcast reading
Since winning the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Individual Poem in 2004, Daljit Nagra has been celebrated as one of Britain's most engaging poetic voices. His debut collection Look We Have Coming to Dover! was published by Faber & Faber in 2007, resulting in almost unanimous praise. 'This is visceral, life-affirming poetry,' said the Guardian.
Not everybody, though, was as quick to show support. 'He's a bold boy,' I remember my father saying. He had just read 'Darling & Me!' and 'Singh Song!', poems which when read either aloud or on the page sound strange; a hybrid mix of phonetic Indian English that challenges the ear.
'Di barman's bell done dinging,' reads 'Darling & Me!', 'so I phone di dimply-mississ / Putting some gas on cookah / Bonus pay I bringing!'
Relief comes, for one fan in attendance at Nagra's Black Box reading, when he hears the poems performed. 'I'm so pleased I came,' he remarked. 'Before now, I've felt oddly... well, almost strangely racist, when reading your work.'
This small challenge is an aspect that Nagra is aware of. 'At some point my agenda almost became to write that kind of poetry,' he says, comfortably, 'but to really put it in people's faces and make the reader deal with it. If that's what you want, that's what you'll get!'
Born in 1966, Nagra is a second-generation Indian and his poems draw upon the experiences and encounters that occur not only when cultures clash, but generations. He says he hasn't encountered any negative criticism for ebulliently appropriating and recreating such voices.
'I speak Panjabi fluently,' he explains, 'yet I I don't understand the nuances or the etymology of the words. In Look We Have Coming to Dover! I wasn't so much interested in translating as capturing the spirit of the communication. Also, it's a great license to play with language, almost foregrounding language above accurate characterisation or verisimilitude.'
Tonight's reading is Nagra's second in Belfast, but attendance is down on account of there being another high-profile poetry reading at Queen's University celebrating Michael Longley and Ciaran Carson.
The enthusiastic gaggle who do attend are rewarded with readings of three new poems; 'This Be the Pukka Verse', 'From the Faber Book of Minor Regina Poems', and 'Ken', all earmarked for inclusion in Nagra's second collection, expected in 2011.
Nagra's work, though, goes far beyond mere jocular minstrelsy. Not all the pieces are written in the tones of non-native English speakers. In 'Booking Khan Singh Kumar' the narrator wonders, as an Indian, how best to exploit the western literary market, running through a range of voices. 'Parade's End' features phonetic Yorkshireman's speech, while 'Digging' and 'Yobbos!' bring an Irish strand into the mix.
'Speaking to people like Sinead Morrissey and Ciaran Carson,' Nagra says, 'you can begin to understand the notions of Britishness and Irishness, and the mixing of the two.' Irish poetry has, he says, been much more of an influence on his own work than Indian writing.
'There's the sprightliness and muscularity of Heaney's work, and I guess the mischievousness of Muldoon. Also Mahon, that elegant voice which is quite colloquial, is incredibly interesting.'
Nagra decides, as he's in Belfast, to read 'Yobbos!', a piece with a reference to Paul Muldoon. 'You guys must find him really easy because you're from here,' he says by way of introduction. 'I can't understand a word he's saying but I think he's amazing.'
The character, an Indian, is sozzled on the train, dutifully reading Muldoon when he's berated by yobs. He wants to erupt, but doesn't.
'Well mate,' he thinks, 'this Paki's more British than that indecipherable, impossibly untranslatable sod of a Paddy.'
'I quite like that you can take some abuse,' says Nagra, smiling.