‘I assumed my poetry was obscure and difficult and would have a tiny audience.’
I live in Harrow, N-W London with my wife, Katherine, and our two daughters Maia and Hannah. I am Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University, Chair of the Royal Society of Literature, Council of Society of Authors, national advisor to Poetry By Heart, and a PBS New Generation Poet. My four poetry collections, all with Faber & Faber, have won the Forward Prize for Best Individual Poem and Best First Book, the South Bank Show Decibel Award and the Cholmondeley Award, and been shortlisted for the Costa Prize and twice for the TS Eliot Prize. The inaugural Poet-in-Residence for Radio 4 & 4 Extra, I present the weekly Poetry Extra.
My parents are Sikh Punjabis who came to Britain from India in the late 1950s. My elder brother, Daljinder, and I were born and grew up in Yiewsley, near Heathrow Airport. We moved to Sheffield when my parents bought a shop in Gleadless Valley in 1982.
My writing day
‘In six hours I played the Jam’s Sound Affects album six times’
On why I write on the go, the importance of rock music to the creative process and why I like nothing more than ‘a few tiffs’ with a poem.
No desk, or office as such, I tend to write my poems on the hoof. They are often written in a rush while on the underground along the stretch of Metroland from King’s Cross to Uxbridge, in the bedroom at night or while in a cafe. I prefer this write-wherever-whenever approach because it connects me to my first joys of writing verse when I would write purely to communicate with something innate in me and without any vanity for praise and recognition. I would hate my writing to feel like a day job, something that can only be “properly” done at a desk.
My writing life
It wasn’t until the age of 19 that I first picked up a book of poems. It was William Blake’s simple yet complex Songs of Innocence and Experience which awoke me to the power of poetry. It inspired me to study for A levels, including English Literature, at evening classes. In 1988 I moved to London to study for a BA and MA in English at Royal Holloway. Whilst there, I showed a poem of mine to one of my lecturers, Professor Martin Dodsworth, who was extremely positive. However I lacked the confidence to continue writing and didn’t start again until I was 30.
When I began writing again I was boosted by a one-to-one session which I decided to book with the poet Ruth Padel. She advised me to develop my sense of technique by attending workshops and to read contemporary poetry. In addition, she explained how the publication process worked. A few months later, I booked another one-to-one feedback session via The Poetry Society with the poet Angela Dove. She encouraged me to develop my writing style and then to send my improved poems to poetry magazines. I became a regular visitor to the Poetry Library at the South Bank’s Festival Hall. Inspired by my two tutorials I started sending out poems to small magazines under a pseudonym, Khan Singh Kumar. I assumed that I wouldn’t be published so I just enjoyed writing under a highly improbable name. When I started being published in magazines I realised I needed to take my work more seriously, so I started to publish under my own name.
About 18 months after first getting published in some magazines, I booked a one-to-one feedback session with Pascale Petit who helped me develop my editing skills. Her honest feedback helped me tighten up my lines, and to remove phrases and images that were precious to me but not right for the poem. As editor of Poetry London, Pascale was also the first big publisher to publish a poem of mine (an early version of Digging). I gave my first ever reading as guest reader for the launch of that edition of the magazine and remember being nervous about this reading every day for the two months prior to it.
I wanted to continue receiving feedback on my work as it improved, so I booked a feedback session with Moniza Alvi, who taught me to constantly redraft and cut back the excessive detail. Moniza was significant to me as she was the only poet of ‘Asian’ origin that I’d heard of in contemporary poetry; reading her poems in Poetry Review’s New Generation Poets showed me that it was possible for someone to write about ‘Asians’ and be successful in poetry. In this period, Roddy Lumsden was important in teaching me how to say what I really wanted to say in my poems. He helped me get rid of the vague statements that sounded good but were probably undermining the overall design of the poem. I also attended some workshop sessions run by John Stammers whose sessions helped me develop an awareness of how to affect the audience. I then attended a really useful Arvon residential course taught by Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay. They set many writing exercises that helped me deepen my awareness about the importance of sensual information. They helped me to access my emotions so the poems were not buried under the craftsmanship.
I assumed my poetry was obscure and difficult and would have a tiny audience. So I sent my manuscript to a small publisher, Redbeck Press, in 2001. The editor, David Tipton, wrote me a lovely letter which effectively stated that I should try a bigger publisher. The letter was so positive that I held off trying publishers and instead worked hard on improving my poems. I decided to join Pascale’s monthly tutorial group and these sessions helped me to develop many of the poems in my first collection.
A major breakthrough for me came about in 2002 when arts directors, Geraldine Collinge at Apples and Snakes and Ruth Borthwick at the South Bank Centre, supported me by arranging tutorials for me and by booking me for key poetry events. They also arranged for me to be mentored by the poet and novelist, Stephen Knight who mentored me from 2002 up to the completion of my first collection. He made me focus on my craft and helped me develop as a critic of my own work. Much of my success is due to his constructive criticism and his generosity of time; his encouragement led me to submit a manuscript for the Smith/Doorstop Books Pamphlet Competition which I won, resulting in the publication of my pamphlet Oh My Rub! Stephen later strongly encouraged me to send a manuscript to Faber and Faber. I submitted Look we have coming to Dover! in 2004 and it was accepted by Faber and Faber in 2005 and published in 2007.