Daljit Nagra's poetry workshop:

Daljit Nagra

Monday May 14, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

Look We Have Coming to Dover! by Daljit Nagra

Daljit Nagra's debut full-length collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, was published by Faber earlier this year to widespread acclaim, although the title poem appeared several years ago and was awarded the Forward Poetry Prize for best single poem in 2004. His work has been also published in journals and his pamphlet, Oh My Rub!, was a Smith/Doorstep Books winner. He teaches English at the Jewish Free School in London.

Try your hand at his workshop on dramatic monologues

What fascinates me about the dramatic monologue is that, if done well, it can arrest a moment that explores the lives of several characters in a fairly short space of time. What excites me about the craft of writing a dramatic monologue is that it teaches you a great deal about your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and helps you develop new skills in the process of the writing, so that even if the poem doesn't work out you'll definitely have had a work out!

To achieve this dynamism, I am not proposing a monologue - where one speaker communicates with an implied listener - but a proper, full-on dramatic monologue, as first attempted by Robert Browning: a dramatic monologue where one person is speaking to another person about someone else. What the speaker says will reveal some flaw in their own character and/or that of the subject under discussion. So a dramatic monologue involves four different people - the speaker, the listener, the subject and the reader (who has to decide where their allegiance lies).

To write a dramatic monologue, I would like you to consider the following:

1. Think of a situation where your speaker (A) is talking to another person (B), at a certain place.
2. Speaker A wants to tell listener B something about person C, whom B may or may not know.
3. In talking about person C, speaker A should let slip their attitude to C that may expose a 'weakness' in A.
4. You could also involve the reaction of listener B through the comments of speaker A.

Further considerations:

a. Try to establish the setting within the opening lines. Only delay this information if it will add to the drama of the situation.
b. Make sure you have signalled clearly to the reader what the basic relationship between A and B is.
c. Plan carefully the order in which you want A to say the things that need to be said about C.
d. A dramatic monologue doesn't have to be about a 'bad' thing happening - it could be about a joyous event - although to create drama A will need to reveal something about themselves or about C that may be 'bad' ...
e. Do not allow the piece to become a monotone - you may find it drifting into a monologue, so A's interactions with B, or the differing attitudes that A takes towards C will help you maintain the liveliness of the speaker.
f. Verses allow you to build stages of the poem. Perhaps keep the first verse for setting, and for establishing speaker A's relationship with listener B, then the next few for the build up and the final one for what A wants to see happen or what C did that was so bad gets revealed.
g. Attempt different effects with your punctuation, and vary the sentence lengths as this will help to keep the voice active. Consider the effects of colons, brackets, questions, exclamations, ellipsis ...
h. In terms of the metre, it may be best to attempt a long line, perhaps five or more beats per line. If the line is too short, say a four-beat line, it may become a bit too song-like; if the line is too long - say seven or more beats, it may be difficult to sustain the necessary energy across the whole line, and your lines may begin to sag ...
i. Feel for all the characters. Love them, and they will reward you!
j. I sincerely hope this taxonomy doesn't get too annoying!

Finally, to get a sense of the form, read a few examples of dramatic monologues before you embark on your own. Try Porphyria's Lover or My Last Duchess by Robert Browning. Alternatively, here's one of my own attempts:

Bibi & the Street Car Wife!

O son, I widow each day by netted windows
playing back days when my daughter-in-law
hooting over hot sands with chapel-less feet
would basket her head on fields of live carrot,
the cowed by courtyard wall with peacock sari
and mousy head, she would mould me dung
buns in caramel sun to pass our village audition.

Her boogly eyes would catch my fast grip ripping
the shokri hairstyle of each carrot, potting
the pan for Indian skinning the slices, tossing under
her buns to drama the screen of fire, Don't watch it -
water the carrots for sauce! Directing our fresh
bride, so like Madhur Jaffrey on telly
she soak my applause on praise of stuffing husband.

Ever since we loosened out village acres
for this flighty mix-up country, like moody
actress she buy herself a Datsun, with legs
of KFC microphoning her mouth
she manicured waves men, or honking horn
to unbutton her hair she is dirty winking:
Come on friend, I like it letting you in!

What to make of wife who hawking late
From Terminal Two to bad blood me: We
no needing this car-park house you share,
in your name, clamping us to back-seat
of your cinema. In 'my' movie, old lady,
I meat you for boot of my Turkmenistani
departure! She propeller her fist
with drumstick, in landing light, then bite!

Beef-burgering her backside on our 5Ks
what do we care for the toilet of her big
bank balance? O son, as you wheel the taco
meter of your lorry for days then sofa to me
as now, who does she her black-box film
shoot with to blow 'our' soaring name?
O my only son, why will she not lie down
for us, to part herself, to drive out babies?

Email your entries, with 'Poetry workshop' in the title field, to books.editor@guardianunlimited.co.uk by midnight on Sunday May 20. The shortlisted poems, and Daljit's responses, will appear on the site soon afterwards.

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