Pádraig Belton   21 February 2018


The words of diaspora poets are reaching a wider audience thanks to the work of dedicated translators. Picture: Steve Johnson / Flickr

… babbling our lingoes, flecked by the chalk of Britannia!

“Look We Have Coming to Dover”, Daljit Nagra (2007) 

Poetry in the western tradition begins with conflict and voyages across the waves in the Iliad and Odyssey.  

Homer's poems, thought to have been composed sometime around the 8th century BCE — like Wilfred Owen's poems, written 100 years ago, across a sea, during the first world war — record events, invite responses and create meaning, if not for the events' participants, then for their descendants.

And today the poetry halls of London hum with voices and accents from the subcontinent, Africa, and Afghanistan, carving into metre more recent journeys.

UK poet Daljit Nagra grew up near London's Heathrow airport with parents from India.


Daljit Nagra's poetry speaks of his parents' experiences as migrants. Picture: Simon James

He became BBC Radio 4's first poet in residence in September 2015, a post he also has held at Eton College and Keats's House in Rome.

His poetry, though, is about the experience of people like his parents, Indians coming to the UK.  And its language is often the English spoken by native speakers of Punjabi, a tongue split between two countries in 1947 at Partition.

"I think the very motion of writing a line after another line, after another, that succession of lines, are themselves a feeling of a journey — so poetry seems to work well with journeys themselves," says Nagra.

He often writes on the hoof, he says, travelling home on London's Metropolitan Line or in cafes.

Other times he works at home, he says, sometimes in his bedroom at night, normally to music, or while drinking copious quantities of instant coffee at his breakfast table after walking his daughters to school.

 But poetry he compares to an "espresso shot of thought".

Playing lively rock albums while writing, he says, gets his heart racing, and he listens to the same album for weeks while working on a particular poem. 

The 1980 album Sound Affects, by Paul Weller's band The Jam, was a recent choice.

Recently, he translated a poem by 35-year old Somaliland poet Xasan Daahir Ismaaciil, who is also known as Weedhsame.


Somali poet Xasan Daahir Ismaaciil, also known as Weedhsame. Photo : Poetry Translation Centre

The Poetry Translation Centre in London has recently published that poem, called "Galiilyo", or Catastrophe, along with Nagra's translation of it.

"I felt an affinity, in the parallels between my work and Weedhsame's — I was intrigued to see how he would construct migrant identity and nation state identity.  I've been doing that in my latest book: writing nation state poems," he says.

When the boat was overturned...

Did the fish in anguish

not weep tears of festering anger? 

Galiilyo (Catastrophe), Xasan Daahir Weedhsame,

trans. Daljit Nagra and Martin Orwin (2017) 

Weedhsame was a protege of the late great Gaarriye, father of Somali poetry. Born in Hargeisa, at the age of six he fled Somaliland with his family to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, though he later returned.

He is an intensely political poet, popular among the young in Somalia and Somaliland.

"'Catastrophe'", says Erica Jarnes, the Poetry Translation Centre's managing director, "is a howl of anguish about the migration of the Somali people, and offers a provocation to western Europe, as well as a message of hope to all who have fled their homes to seek a better life across the sea."

Says Nagra: "I've written about migration from the other end, in a sense — people who've successfully arrived in the west, whereas Weedhsame is talking about people who want to reach the west.

"My constructions are of the much more privileged position of the migrants of the 50s and 60s," he adds.  

For people in the west, he says, Weedhsame's poem is "a corrective complicating of the picture. We have certain stereotypes of Africans coming into Britain.  It offers us an insight into the thinking at the source."

There is a second side to the poem, too, says Nagra: a plea for those who leave to stay involved with the country they've left.

"If these people leave, what will be left behind, who will stay behind and fight for their country?  He lives back in Somalia now: he's in a sense done that journey and returned, and feels he's seen both sides," he says.

One technical challenge in translating the poem from Somali came from its use of assonance

"The poem is in a certain vowel sound in each line, like writing in a certain key," he explains.  

To have done that in English though would have conjured up Anglo-Saxon verse, and "would have enshrined it into an English value system: it would probably lose that emotional power the poem has, and would sound overly clever, self-conscious," he says. 

The true-hearted can settle —no matter which land.

A flower wants to bloom, wherever its garden....

Whichever the forest, a peacock needs must dance.

“The True-Hearted”, Basir Sultan Kazmi (2000)

Originally composed in Urdu; author's 2003 translation.

Not far away from Nagra's London home, another community creates its own spoken poetry about resettlement, longing for loved ones at home, and surviving conflict.

“Being away from home is a popular theme in Pashto oral poetry,” says Dawood Azami, who has been BBC World Service bureau chief in Kabul and works as an editor at the World Service in London.

“When 150 years ago, Afghans went to Australia to build railway lines, both the person who is away from home and the family that's left behind have poems about the separation,” he says.

In Britain as well as at home, Afghan poets gather at poetry evenings called mushairas

Azami describes a mushaira in London: “Most of them I would say are in west London. They eat dinner first and then read the poetry over tea after dinner, and most of these poems are newly written.”

The purpose of the sessions is to share new work, and “find out who's doing what, what new experiments there are in the poetry,” he adds.

The evenings are also, he says, “just to have a feeling of home in another country, in the middle of an alien culture”.

Mushairas are interactive, with audiences calling out their appreciation for particularly well-made couplets, or asking the poet to repeat them. 

“We learn our traditions, our manners, and our religion through poetry,” says Zohra Saed, an Afghan-American poet in Brooklyn.

Diasporas like those in Brooklyn, in London's neighbourhood of Harrow, and to an extent other UK cities such as Birmingham, carried on as hubs for Afghan culture, even as Afghanistan itself fell into war, says Diva Patang Wardak, who was born in Afghanistan and lived largely abroad, and now works as a diplomat in the Afghan embassy in London.

Afghan weddings have meant a resurgence in work for singers.  And Afghan weddings are a site of performed poetry too.

“People spend thousands and thousands of pounds on weddings, and music - musicians would prefer to go to Afghanistan nowadays than being in Europe,” says Wardak.

Poetry coming out of mushairas in the west was more likely eventually to be published in print. In Afghanistan itself, the spoken poetic traditions play a key role in the process of healing, including in refugee camps.

But in both places, “the call to preserve, to record, to reconstruct is a very strong inclination in Afghan artists and writers. Memory is precious for Afghans,” says Saed.

That’s a sentiment both Weedhsame and Nagra would agree holds equally true for Punjabis and Somalis resettling far from home, too.