Hunt for next poet laureate still on as Imtiaz Dharker says no to job

Pakistani-born British poet declines ‘huge honour’ as speculation switches to remaining contenders to succeed Carol Ann Duffy

The acclaimed poet Imtiaz Dharker has turned down the poet laureateship, the highest honour in British poetry, citing a need to focus on her writing – and despite reports that she was set to be named as the next holder of the position.

“I had to weigh the privacy I need to write poems against the demands of a public role. The poems won,” Dharker, who was born in Pakistan and grew up in Glasgow, said. “It was a huge honour to be considered for the role of poet laureate and I have been overwhelmed by the messages of support and encouragement from all over the world.”

Although it was reported by the Sunday Times last week that Dharker was due to be announced as laureate this month, the Guardian understands that no formal offer has been made to or accepted by any candidate for the laureateship, and that the selection process is still under way, with Dharker giving way to other contenders on Friday.

The laureateship is not known for bringing the muse of poetry to its incumbents. Andrew Motion, who was laureate from 1999 to 2009, called the role “very, very damaging to my work”, saying while still in post: “I dried up completely about five years ago and can’t write anything except to commission.” The public-facing position grants an annual stipend of £5,750 – used by the current laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, to fund a new poetry prize – and, traditionally, a “butt of sack”, equivalent to roughly 600 bottles of sherry.

Last November, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport convened a panel of experts to make recommendations about who should succeed Duffy after her 10-year tenure as laureate ends. But with Duffy having now completed her final project as laureate – a collection by various poets responding to the collapse in the insect population – and with the 10th anniversary of her laureateship having passed on 1 May, the DCMS has been silent about who will take up her laurels, a delay that is being blamed on the government’s preoccupation with other issues.

A DCMS spokeswoman said on Friday: “The recommendations of an independent panel have been considered in the usual way. An appointment has not yet been confirmed.”

The expert panel’s shortlist of potential successors was believed to include Dharker, who is widely studied for GCSE and A-level and who reads to more than 25,000 students each year through the Poetry Live! schools programme. Other contenders are rumoured include Daljit Nagra, Simon Armitage, Lemn Sissay, Alice Oswald and Jackie Kay – although Kay, who is Scottish makar, has effectively said she is not an option for the role. She told the Guardian last November: “I don’t think the powers that be would want to combine the two.”

Wendy Cope and Benjamin Zephaniah have both emphatically ruled themselves out. Cope said: “If it’s a competition, it is one that many poets have no interest in winning.” Zephaniah said: “I have absolutely no interest in this job. I won’t work for them. They oppress me, they upset me, and they are not worthy.”

Armitage has been more positive, writing in the Guardian that “the laureateship should be the highest office in poetry and that the laureate should be the guardian of those ideals”. Nagra said on Friday he had not yet been approached.

Oswald, a highly respected name, has potentially signalled a lack of interest in the laureateship by throwing her hat into the ring for the UK’s second most prestigious poetry position: the Oxford professor of poetry. Currently held by Armitage, the role is voted on by Oxford graduates. Potential candidates must propose themselves, and then gather together 50 supporting nominations by 9 May to stand in the election.

Alice Oswald, who has put herself forward as a contender for the Oxford professor of poetry role.
Out of the running? Alice Oswald, who has put herself forward as a contender for the Oxford professor of poetry role. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

Oswald is up against the Australian poet John Leonard and the Canadian-British poet Todd Swift. She would be Oxford’s first female professor of poetry. Although Ruth Padel was elected to the position in 2009, she resigned nine days later after claims that she had tipped off journalists about allegations of sexual harassment made against her rival for the post, Derek Walcott.

Oxford English faculty board chair professor Ros Ballaster said the professor of poetry position was “an unusual but important one”. “Each new professor brings their own wisdom, interests and viewpoint to the lectures they deliver, but they always offer a platform for wider conversations about the place of poetry in society and culture,” said Ballaster. “We hope not only to appoint an outstanding individual to represent poetry in the heart of learning, but also to stimulate lively debate and new encounters with a diverse range of voices.”

Ballaster hailed Oxford’s “transparent, open and simple” election process – which stands in direct contrast to the appointment of the laureate. A public announcement about the position has been promised by “early May” – or as soon as Theresa May’s office finds time to sign off on it. One observer told the Guardian: “I don’t think the poet laureate is very high up her list of concerns at the moment.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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