Across time and geography, and regardless of gender, culture and language, one thing unites us: love. But love isn’t just hearts and flowers. It’s messy, hopeless, furious – even ridiculous. It’s lifelong and fleeting, forbidden and free, passionate and half-hearted. So, how did acclaimed British poet, artist and filmmaker Imtiaz Dharker go about selecting the 150 poems in Folio’s new anthology, Love Poems?
Taking on the project
‘I didn’t so much agree to take on the project as grab it with both hands, gladly,’ says Dharker. ‘I was at a stage in my life when all I really wanted to write were love poems. And that meant I was reading them non-stop: longing poems, desperation poems, life poems. Because that’s what love poems are. And Folio books are such a joy: they are beautifully produced works of art themselves, a joy to have and hold and keep, and fall in love with. And the illustrations that Mikki Lee has produced for this edition are absolutely beautiful.’
A life of its own
Her anthology would not be neatly ordered by theme, era or style. Rather, it would take on a life of its own, mingling ideas, voices and images and following them wherever they led her. ‘I wanted to look at poems from all over the world,’ she says. ‘Whether they were from Ancient Greece, China or the Caribbean, I wanted them to speak to each other across continents and across history. I wanted to set up the most unlikely unions and see what sparked when they came together.’
And so, to work. Dharker began by diving into her vast library of poems, books spilling off shelves and creeping across the floor in great piles. She searched the internet. She printed out her favourites and arranged them. ‘There was nothing static, chronological or linear in the patterns they made. They sprawled off the table to rearrange themselves in great spirals on the floor around me.’
Old and new voices
Fresh voices are a part of this wandering journey of poems: Dharker wants the reader to turn a corner and come upon something entirely new. ‘The old, expected voices are wonderful,’ says Dharker, ‘and you will find those. But I also wanted new and exciting voices that readers may not have encountered in an anthology before. I’m in awe of people writing today: their wonderful points of view, their way of expressing themselves.’
The voices of women, in particular, have not always been heard in anthologies, she points out – yet they bring a very particular dimension to love. ‘There are so many poems where women see the absurdity of love. It’s not some great big thing on a pedestal. It’s funny, it’s ridiculous.’ She cites Bitcherel by Eleanor Brown, a delicious takedown of a former boyfriend’s new lover: ‘It's not that I think she is vapid and silly/it's not that her voice makes me wince/but – chilli con carne without any chilli/is only a plateful of mince...’ These are poems, she points out, that take an ironic and knowing approach to love.
Can you pick a favourite?
It’s impossible to pick a personal favourite, Dharker says. ‘Every page I read, I think, ‘This is the one I love the most.’ Then I turn the page and think, ‘No, it’s that one’. So, if you’re looking for a Valentine’s Day poem, you could open up any page in the book. OK, perhaps not the angry ones! But that’s the joy of just letting the order go in circles. You fall into them. And, of course, each poem speaks differently to each of us, depending on what stage of life you are at.’
Love poems are life poems
Love poetry will always be with us, says Dharker, because love poetry is life poetry. ‘It is about living passionately, with desperation, knowing that it’s impossible – but you still do it. It’s everything that it means to be human. Wherever and whoever a poem is from, there is that recognition: a truth is being told and felt, and that it can be shared.’