In primary school, they called her the ‘poetry girl’. From the age of eight, Birmingham, UK-based Iona Mandal began winning prestigious awards for her poetry at regional and national literature festivals and competitions. Now, at age 16, the talented teenager has recently been announced as the 16th Young Poet Laureate by the Birmingham City Council.
The class 12 student will hold the title for two years, and will produce new poems and work to promote poetry across the city as part of a scheme run by the Library of Birmingham.
“I believe it is high time we take poetry to the people, particularly to Birmingham’s younger population and dissolve the myth that poetry is elitist. Poetry is for everyone, it needs to be everywhere – rich and marginalised pockets, with easy access in libraries, hospitals, museums, and booths to pick poems from,” says Iona, who is a commended Foyle Young Poet (2020) and contributes to UK’s Young Poets Network.
Iona’s poems have been published in children’s books and anthologies, and have been read out at festivals and venues such as the House of Lords, BBC Radio Leicester, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Shakespeare’s Globe London, and Natural History Museum, London.
Besides her many awards, she was handpicked in 2021 by UK’s Poetry Society for the fully sponsored Arvon writing residential at the Hurst, Shropshire where she was mentored by reputed British poets Keith Jarrett and Jacqueline Saphra.
A long-time member of the Mensa High IQ society, she also translates poetry from Urdu and her mother tongue Bengali to English. We asked the feted young poet about her influences and inspirations.
What has been your parents’ role in encouraging your poetry and writing?
My parents are both passionate about literature and encouraged me into reading from an early age. My mum would encourage me to write on some random topic almost every day, which I particularly seemed to enjoy, and which worked wonders with my imagination and vocabulary and of course triggered my love for books.
My parents are exceptionally supportive of my poetic pursuits and relentless in their words of encouragement and emotional consolation when battling rejections; a true but harsh reality of being a young poet! They are both undeniably proactive in helping me ground myself and improve my resilience in times of struggle.
What does poetry mean to you and what does it represent for your generation?
Unlike other forms of creative writing, I feel that poetry requires a certain concentration and finesse: achieving the perfect equilibrium between subtlety and allowing room for interpretation, yet also retaining your poetic voice is undoubtedly difficult.
Due to poetry being historically associated with elitism, as well as the portrayal of it as highbrow and inaccessible, this has brought on a lack of appreciation for the art form within my generation.
Whether this is reflected in the resounding groans of the class when starting the GCSE Poetry Anthology, or the scattered applause you may hear following a poetry reading, it is evident that poetry is not nearly as approachable as it needs to be, and I hope to do my part in changing that.
What are your views on written poetry versus spoken poetry?
Written poetry is far more conventional and poets who are inclined towards page poetry are far more likely to be published and therefore, accepted within the literary circle. Performance poets, on the other hand, have not always been regarded as they are today, with many of them internalising the notion that they are somehow not ‘real’ poets.
In my eyes, both are equally formidable, bringing something new to the art form and making it the diverse space which it needs to be. Although I consider myself a page poet, I have dabbled in spoken word before and love to perform my work in front of audiences.
Who are your literary inspirations and role models?
I am a diehard admirer of Sylvia Plath. Her Collected Poems has been a huge inspiration. Plath’s poems often exploring her inner mind, coupled with unabashed honesty, have inspired many to speak on mental health, which is so important, particularly, in the times we live in. Plath’s only novel The Bell Jar is very close to my heart.
I have also taken a huge liking to Indian poet Kamala Das, a pioneer for confessional poetry in India, which has only recently gained traction in places other than the West. Her poems such as A Hot Noon in Malabar and The Sunshine Cat are personal favourites.
As one with roots in West Bengal, India, I am an avid fan of Rabindranath Tagore, India’s first Nobel laureate. I have also been hugely influenced by the poetry of Sunil Gangopadhyay and Nirendranath Chakraborty, whose works I also happened to translate for the Stephen Spender Poetry Translation Prize.
What are your other hobbies besides writing poetry?
I enjoy writing short stories in Bengali, a few have been published in online children’s magazines. I also try to use my poetry skills to help others, such as raising funds for YoungMinds (a mental health charity) and Barnardo’s, both working for children and young people. In October 2019, I wrote 100 haikus to raise funds for St. Mary’s Hospice, Birmingham. My poem Nonchalance was part of a collection sold online during the coronavirus outbreak in 2020 to raise funds for the NHS.
Besides writing as a hobby, I also volunteer for a community arts organisation, enjoy indoor rock climbing, play the clarinet, enjoying baking (my white-chocolate lychee cake is to die for!) and spend time with my two pet budgerigars, Peri and Winkle.
What makes you most excited about becoming Young Poet Laureate for your city and about your work ahead?
This is a dream come true. I look forward to writing good poetry commissions for the city and in sharing my work among the young residents of Birmingham, to inspire them in believing in themselves and in the power of words.
Poetry is an outlet for exposing my feelings using minimal words. As an art form it requires passion, persistence, innovation and luck. Despite being all around us, poetry is often perceived as incomprehensible and elitist.
However, I believe poetry can appeal, connect and inspire all through its traditional styles and alternative forms. Poetry workshops and performances in schools, libraries, care homes and special events can boost teamwork, vocabulary, rhyming, break stereotypes and boost positivity into productive endeavours.
I hope to occupy spaces of creative discussion to popularise poetry and enhance the exposure of Birmingham, its creative diversity and talent, which I believe is not as favoured as London, despite being equally capable.
I particularly wish to share the rich repertoire of South Asian poetry in Birmingham, which houses a huge Asian community. I wish to involve myself in more translation work upholding the richness of Bengali and Urdu poetry.
Poetry often makes political statements and has been the tool of many a revolution in history. Do you have any political inclinations or goals?
Though I am not hugely involved in politics (apart from taking the subject in A Level) I am a firm believer that politics is immensely personal and those who disagree are incredibly oblivious to how political decisions can impact so many daily.
Trying to separate politics from people is foolish, and it is time we stop treating it like a far-flung, detached entity.
Though I have not integrated any conscious political messages within my poetry before or overtly revealed any of my beliefs, it could be something I experiment with in the future. I consider myself to be a complete socialist. Much of my poetry is about people and places and I hope to write more about how the two interact.
PEACHESBy Iona Mandal
You always reminded me of peaches.
I remember, how you opened your mouth
to devour one
Your lips awakening sleeping cities,
where cannibals wrote poetry
about pomegranate necklaces
and crows waited on rooftops
for dusk to dawn upon them.
Your rusty metal wind chimes in the garden,
where we used to eat peaches on deck chairs
still remind me,
of our bones clashing together in a fight
about some petty thing,
to take blood pressure pills.
When you had cancer,
I bought you those double cotton pillows
with money from your niece’s old piggy bank
to prop you up high,
so I could keep refilling the bowl
we bought before marriage
You even coined a phrase,
I say every day to myself
to cheer me up.
Instead of “I’m over the moon!”
you said, “I’m over the peaches!”
And I cried when you said that.
Because, I thought,
I thought, you meant
you liked apricots more.
Iona can be reached on Iona’s Poems | Facebook