Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Return of Khan Singh Kumar

A few years ago there was a little controversy in the Rialto about a poem that had, if I remember correctly, appeared elsewhere, and a worry that the poet who'd written it wasn't real but a pseudonym. Khan Singh Kumar, a plausible enough name to us deaf English ears, but unpick it, and see what you've got is a common muslim, sikh and hindu name in one person. Daljit Nagra has been picking at our preconceptions for a while yet, and I was a little suspicious of the blanket positive reviews of his debut Faber collection "Look we have coming to Dover!" until I read the poem "Booking Khan Singh Kumar" and remembered that Rialto controversy. Nagra is acutely aware of the advantages and disadvantages of being a "punjabi" poet, even if his parents came to England in the 1950s, (about the same time my parents were meeting up in Walsall). Through hook and crook, he's negotiated the myriad requirements of an "ethnic poet", by being ethnic when he wants to be, and not when he doesn't. KSK it appears, was a bit of a performance poet, and makes occasional appearances in this collection. But Daljit can "do" punjab, like I can do Brummy, as a bit of a turn. It would be better if the collection was called "Contradiction, and?" rather than the faux Lawrence immigrant misphrasing of "Look we have coming to Dover!" Faber knows what its doing, of course, yet its a fascinating thing that several decades after "A House for Mr. Biswas", a non-white indian-origin poet has to fall back into idiom to get noticed. That he revels in these contradictions is a somewhat remarkable triumph, and though I'm sure Matthew Hollis at Faber is revelling in the good reviews and the "new voice", they're still pushing Daljit's ethnicity as something new, rather than - what they should be doing - is noting his sense of humour and his self-awareness. I'm as sucker as the next man for a new voice, and you can't argue with a poem called "Kabba Questions the Ontology of Representation, the catch 22 for "black" writers", with its disdain for "the HBC" of "'eaney, blake and clarke". Yet its the richness of experience elsewhere, and the self-awareness that makes this a joyful collection, not the political labels. I happen to think the award winning title poem is a bit of a misfire, full of the worst kind of assimilated English poetry, and the patois of the opener"Darling & Me" is disjointed, albeit entertaining; yet elsewhere its a refreshing collection. New voice? Yes, I think so, but not necessarily because his parents were born in India.

4 comments:

Ms Baroque said...

Absolutely. I liked the title poem though.

Ms Baroque said...

What I mean is, I liked it years ago and I have very much enjoyed the book. I've found the media circus disconcerting, and note that - as you say - commentators are saying< "A fresh new voice!" Amusing patois wordplay! far more than they are saying, "here's a guy who's read it all, is operating within the canon, and is hugely indebted to Muldoon."

I think it is amazing how Daljit is going along with it all, in his usual unassuming way, and I hope his next collection is more wide-ranging.

Bournemouth Runner said...

Yes, I'm enjoying the book, with or without media circus.

FON said...

i like it too - and i trust mr nagra more than faber as the pamphlet (of the same name) was, as noted, published a good while ago. Faber are capitalising and mr nagra is capitalising right back at 'em -