ARCHIVE: Formal Values – an interview with Ian Parks

Andrew interviewed Ian in 2004. ‘I have been friends with Ian for many years,’ says Andrew, ‘I do find it hard to interview friends and when I do I always go off script. What I remember of this interview is not the questions or the answers but the location. I interviewed Ian in a pub in Mexborough and a man was playing a fruit machine in the background, which can be heard on the original tape. The man in question halfway through a bet asked the barman for a spoon, which he started to jab into the fruit machine in a vain bid to get his money back. No one batted an eyelid. I have always wondered why he chose a spoon to attack a machine’.

Formal Values: an interview with Ian Parks. Interview by Andrew Oldham

Ian Parks is a unique poet with the skill and craft of Auden and the heart of Shelley. Parks has been published worldwide in such magazines as Agenda, The Observer, Oxford Poetry, New Welsh Review, Poetry (Chicago) and Cascando. His collections include, Gargoyles in Winter (Littlewood, 1985), A Climb Through Altered Landscapes (Blackwater 1998), The Angel of the North (Tarantula CD 2000). Parks has been described as “the finest love poet of his generation” (Chiron Review, USA) and is part of the collective of poets known as inc. I caught up with him on the eve of his new publication Shell Island (Waywiser Press) in a quiet pub in South Yorkshire where a young tattooed man was jamming a fork in a slot machine and old men were putting the world to right.

“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a poet. My first exposure to poetry came from hearing my father recite it. He’d learned reams of it by heart at school and would repeat it when he was getting ready to go out. At school I discovered poems I liked and copied them into an exercise book, making a personal anthology”.

The thought arises of how much these early books would be worth now.

“My first poems were mainly imitations of the Victorian poets I was reading at the time. Then I came to Ted Hughes…,” Parks attended the same school as Hughes, “…and Thom Gunn via the First World War poets and realised that poetry could be written in what Wordsworth referred to as ‘a language really used by men’. That was a liberating experience. One of the first poems I had published was in the Poetry Review”.

In 2002, the poetry world was hit hard when Waterstones decided to stop stocking literary magazines, cutting the voices of a generation of poets dead. Many magazines are now fighting for survival as are poets trying to reach out to audiences that don’t know they’re there.

“I don’t think any poet can work in isolation. I was running a workshop once and this bloke came in and I asked him which poets he read and he replied by saying he wasn’t interested in reading poetry, only in writing it. It’s a view you come across quite often and it never fails to surprise me with its arrogance and stupidity”.

Now shelves are stocked with poets long dead or modern poets who have been writing for forty years and have only just been discovered but who will replace them in another forty years with no outlets.

“From a purely common sense point of view it seems counter productive to ignore what’s been done so well in the past, or to refuse to learn from it”

Ian Parks voice drips with South Yorkshire vowels, drawn out across the backwater of disused colliery fields.

“As far as my voice is concerned, I’m not sure where the idiosyncrasies of a poet’s voice come from. I guess they lie very close to the rhythms of the poet’s own speaking voice and that, in turn, interacts with a subject. What we call a poet’s voice arises from the tensions implicit in this situation. I think you have to be true to that voice. I think there’s a danger, with the proliferation of free verse, for poetry to end up as nothing more then chopped up prose”.

Who are the next generation of living poets?

“The poets I admire who are writing today: Thom Gunn, David Constantine, T.F. Griffin, Pauline Stainer, all have recognisable voices. They all seem to have an ear for the difference between poetry and prose”.

Parks’ poetry is born of the twentieth century and the upheaval of social changes of the 70s and 80s. The fleeting nature of the changing relationships in the home and workplace transferred to the page as he redefined love poetry for a new generation while learning from the past.

“I think Auden occupies a central place in the poetry of the last century. You can’t get around him. He is the first poet to feel at home in the twentieth century. The main thing I learned from Auden was that you can write love poetry that also has other dimensions. Auden understood that every love relationship has a social context of some kind and was therefore able to extend considerations usually confined to the private realm into the public realm of politics. In “Lay Your Sleeping Head”, for instance, he uses the very intimate form of address to say something about the ‘fashionable madmen’ who were at large in Europe during the 1930’s”.

Ian Parks is born from this tradition, marrying political and social image to a modern world.

“We’re living at a time when freedom and democracy are at threat – but this time from within. Except that this time around the very language of freedom is being appropriated by the powers that be in order to persuade us that what they’re doing is right. One of the main functions of poetry today, as I see it, is to defend the language of the heart from such blatant misappropriation”.

Ian Parks’ work breaks the stereotype of what most of think love poetry is.

“Even though people talk about me as a love poet I’d say the main theme running through everything is time. The apparent interest in history is really an interest in time and how it affects us at both a personal and collective level. At their deepest level, all the poems are about this. I think a very fine membrane exists between the present and what we call the past. Hardy understood this; he knew that a thin tissue separates us from what’s gone before. To be on the verge of being overwhelmed by the pressure exerted by the past on the present moment is there in my poem ‘Towton’; about a particularly bloody battle during the Wars of the Roses. It’s really an attempt to articulate the obsession with time and the fact that it has no linear properties as such. I was over in the USA on a Travelling Fellowship and came to the conclusion that the American Civil War is very much a living issue for the descendants of those who fought in it. You can visit any one of those battle sights and feel the tangible presence of the past. I wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to mention Robert Graves. A little out of fashion now, Graves was probably the greatest love poet of the last century. I admire his unswerving dedication to poetry – and to his belief – encapsulated in ‘The White Goddess’ – that poetry is essentially a miraculous activity, the processes of which we can neither understand nor quantify”.

Poets are often seen as private people with public love lives. The work often reflects this but the argument still rages: when should the private become part of the public realm?

“There comes a time when the poem ceases to be the exclusive property of the poet and takes on a life of its own. I get people coming up to me at poetry readings describing a certain poem of mine, which I don’t recognise. When they tell me the title I know the poem they’re referring to, but their experience of it has been so unique, they’ve brought so much of themselves to it, that I have difficulty relating their description to the poem I wrote. There is, after all, no ‘correct’ reading of a poem. We’re not talking about maths where two and two will always make four. We’re in a highly subjective area where the poet’s intentions – such as they are – become secondary to the experience of the reader”.

Modern Literature has now spiralled away in packaging, making money and the cult of celebrity with poetry being wheeled out for Valentine’s Day, Christmas and the ubiquitous National Poetry Day. Are we seeing the death throes of poetry? Is Seamus Heaney right in his assumption that the likes of Eminem are the new face of verse and where does that leave love?

“The difference now is that we have a different set of ethics to the ones that existed when, say, Tennyson wrote his love poems. Then people were expected to marry for life and love poems tended to limit themselves to either praising the attributes of the loved one or dealing with the painful process of loss. People now expect to have several relationships in a lifetime and this effects how they think and feel about love. The love poet has to be in tune with this change. If the cultural atmosphere presents a less naive, more analytic approach to love then the love poet ought to reflect that. I guess I’m interested in transitory states; how one thing becomes another thing. Poetry seems to me to have the flexibility I require to explore all this. Love poetry provides us with a powerful continuum. It connects us by a very strong thread to the poetry of the past while, at the same time, acting as a sort of spirit level for our deepest feelings”.

Editors often have nightmares about working with poets, as they are often seen as temperamental. The poetry market in the UK is an incredibly small one and many of the big publishing houses no longer touch poetry for financial reasons. What are the processes you went through to select work for your new collected love poems?

“My first love poem was published in 1983 when I was twenty-four and the most recent earlier this year. Twenty years seemed like a nice round number. In a way, the selection process was complete before the collection was put together, in that I only sent out poems that I felt happy with at the time. So, in a sense, I’d made my mind up about them already. The problem wasn’t so much in selection as in deciding what, strictly speaking, constituted what should be in Shell Island – and how the collection should be organised. A couple of poems didn’t make it because they weren’t good enough; a couple more because they seemed to repeat what was done better in other pieces. You don’t want to keep writing the same poem forever. The temptation to do that is quite strong. Shell Island breaks from this”.

As we’ve talked about history, what one poem do you give up to it, which one do you think will stand the test of time?

“I’d have to opt for ‘The Mirrored Room’. It’s about the experience of visiting a tea-room in York and finding a wall of mirrors etched with the names of airmen from World War Two, and the names of their girlfriends, and knowing that they probably went off to die. Seeing those names imposed over your own features somehow provides an objective correlative for what I was saying earlier about the pressure of the past on the present”.

And with that the evening turns cold, the rain rattles against the glass panes, the young man jams a spoon in with the fork lodged in the slot machine, the old men order another round, and Ian Parks watches this, marking the moment he selected the one poem to stand up and take on history.

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