A poet brought to Britain by love and the Northumberland publisher Bloodaxe Books is to be awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, one of literature’s highest honours.
Imtiaz Dharker, whose work is known to thousands of GCSE students, will become the fourth Bloodaxe-published poet to receive the medal, which is awarded for excellence in poetry and was instituted in 1933.
She follows John Agard in 2012, Fleur Adcock in 2006 and RS Thomas, who received the honour in 1964 before he joined Bloodaxe.
But surely none of these can match the personal story of Imtiaz Dharker whose latest poetry collection, Over the Moon, became her fifth to be published by Bloodaxe earlier this year.
Bloodaxe founder Neil Astley explained how her work was discovered by the West in the early 1990s.
“In the days when the British Council was really wonderful and sent writers around the world, a couple of writers we published were in India where they came across Imtiaz and her work.
“When they came back they let me have copies of her work, saying they thought she was a wonderful poet. We did publish her first collection, which had been published in India, combining it with her second, Postcards from God, which came out in 1997.
“I published two or three more of her books and she got onto the GCSE syllabus which meant she was invited to take part in Poetry Live! which organises readings for thousands of GCSE students at city halls around the country.”
Newcastle City Hall is on the Poetry Live! tour list and Imtiaz Dharker will be reading there on February 4, as she has done several times before.
Coming to London to take part in Poetry Live! for the first time, she fell in love with its founder, Simon Powell, and they were married, meaning the poet who had wowed readers in India relocated to Britain.
In fact, as Neil Astley explained, this was hardly alien territory. She had been born in Pakistan but moved with her family to Glasgow when she was a small child and grew up there.
“Then she eloped with a Hindu and went to India, whereupon her family disowned her.”
That first marriage didn’t last and, sadly, neither did her second. Simon Powell, a man revered in poetry and education circles, was diagnosed with cancer and died in 2009.
Neil Astley said it was “great news” that Imtiaz Dharker had won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. “It’s the first time a non-white woman has won it.
“Over the Moon is a celebration of her late husband’s life and work and it’s about her grief.
“The life I have described feeds Imtiaz Dharker’s poetry. She writes about exile and childhood and displacement and home but her poetry is also very attuned to what is going on in Pakistan.
“The last two poems in the latest collection relate to Malala (Yousafzai, the girl who was shot by the Taliban and won the Nobel Peace Prize) and Lee Rigby (the soldier murdered by extremists on the streets of London).
“They are political poems but they’re not agitprop.”
Neil said that in India Imtiaz had established herself as a documentary film-maker as well as a poet.
Hearing the news of her success from Buckingham Palace, Imtiaz Dharker said: “I still can’t quite believe it.
“My first thought was that I wish my father were alive to hear this. In the last few weeks before he died, at almost 100 years old, he didn’t always remember his children but did speak of the Queen with great admiration.
“The fact that this is her medal for poets, an award from her, feels very personal to me.
“It also feels like a connection to a whole line of poets who have been my heroes, all the way from Auden to UA Fanthorpe to John Agard.
“It reminds me how Britain has opened its heart to many kinds of poetry and somehow recognised and made space for the unexpected voice.
“Quite apart from all of this, the medal itself is a thing of beauty, one of (Edmund) Dulac’s loveliest designs, and I’m wondering if I could get away with wearing it as a piece of jewellery.”
Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, said of Imtiaz Dharker: “Hers is a unique perspective and an essential voice in the diversity of English language poetry.
“It is a moral force – a force for good and a force for change – that refuses to see the world as anything less personal than an extended village of near neighbours sharing in common struggles for how best to live.”
Bloodaxe Books was founded in Newcastle in 1978 and is now one of Britain’s most renowned poetry publishers.
Earlier this year it relocated from Tarset, in north Northumberland, to Hexham, to avoid a repeat of recent winters when the remote offices became cut off.