Described by Chiron Review as ‘the finest love poet of his generation’, Ian Parks was born in 1959 in Mexborough, South Yorkshire. His first collection of poems, Gargoyles in Winter was published in 1986. Other collections include A Climb Through Altered Landscapes (1998), Shell Island ( 2006), The Cage (2008), Love Poems 1979-2009 (2009) The Landing Stage ( 2010) and The Exile’s House (2012). His translations of poems by Constantine Cavafy, The Cavafy Variations, is a Poetry Book Society Choice for 2013.
Ian was a 2012 writer in residence at Gladstone’s Library and is currently the RLF Writing Fellow at De Montfort University, Leicester. His anthology “Versions of the North: Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry” is published by Five Leaves.
Hello Ian. Knowing that you are originally from a Yorkshire mining village, I wondered when you feel your life as a poet began. I also wonder if there was any conflict between the societal norms and aspirations of your upbringing and your early interest in poetry.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a poet. The biographical note at the back of Peter Knaggs’ The Hull Connection anthology describes me, bizarrely, as a helicopter pilot – and once, when the poems dried up for a long period I flirted briefly with the idea of becoming an ice-cream salesman – but poetry has always been my calling. I didn’t really think of myself as a poet though until people started to refer to me as such, around the time of the publication of my fist collection, Gargoyles in Winter, in 1986.
Growing up in Mexborough had a profound effect on me. There was a clear division between the industrial and the pastoral in the form of a ferry that took you across the river, away from the pits and into the open country that surrounded the town. There were other, more profound divisions too. All the males in Mexborough were expected to follow their fathers down the pit. Even though I was socialised into the presiding attitudes of working class culture – and mining culture in particular – I knew that wanting to be a poet would bring me into conflict with that. Even though my father was violently opposed to me following such a path he was, paradoxically, partially responsible for it. There weren’t many books in our house; but my father had learned reams of poetry by rote and school and used to recite it aloud around the house. It was my first exposure to poetry. I’ve since come to realise that like many working class people, my father loved poetry, but felt it couldn’t be written by or for working people. I was born in the front room of the house where I’ve returned to live and only recently discovered that it used to be used as the registry office for the town and that queues of widows lined the street outside to register the deaths of their men folk down the mines. That had a profound effect on me which I tried to articulate in Registry of Births and Deaths. The poet Rory Waterman is preparing a paper on my poetry and its roots so perhaps I should leave it to him to say more.
Thanks Ian. I think I’m right in saying that you’ve been a published poet all your adult life. Could you say a little about your motivation to write? Do you think this has altered in any way since you first were published?
My first poem was published in Poetry Review when I was twenty so yes, you could say that I’ve been a published poet for that long. My motivation to write has always been to communicate. I’m not one of those poets who, stranded on a desert island with no hope of rescue, would carry on writing poetry. When a young poet starts out writing they tend to have – for obvious reasons – no clear idea of their audience. They might have an ideal audience in mind but not an actual one. The more a poet is published and the more feedback they get in the way of individuals reading their work, reviews, of the attention of critics and academics. I think this sense of an audience shapes a poet, perhaps in ways they’re not immediately aware of. Although, in some respects, that idea of an ideal audience which I started out with has never left me, it’s been qualified by the response of a real audience who are often (especially at poetry readings) quite vocal about their opinions of my work! I’ve never been a career poet: that is, I’ve never tried to follow the prescribed path laid down for those who want to be successful in the poetry world – whatever that is. Rather, I’ve followed my instincts, my heart, and my inner ear, allowing poetry to lead me. And it’s led me to some interesting places…
Over the years you have worked in many educational environments. I wonder if the interactions you’ve had with students helps keep your poetry fresh and exciting, as well as providing an outlet for your mentoring skills and an opportunity to pass on what you have learned of your craft.
Interesting question. And I’m aware that my answer might appear controversial with the current proliferation of creative writing courses at all levels. To put it simply I feel very strongly that poetry, like all art forms, is a gift, it can be enhanced by guidance and expertise, certain technical aspects can be taught. But the spirit of it can’t be replicated. For instance, you can write me a technically perfect sonnet but that doesn’t make it a poem.
What a good creative writing course can do is provide the aspirant poet with an audience of like-minded individuals, the experience of the tutors, and some guidance as to what pitfalls to avoid and what to read. But it can’t make you into a poet. To do that, the person has to bring some of it with them. I also believe that most poets will go on to succeed whether or not they do a degree in it. If my work is kept fresh and exciting – and it’s good of you to say that it is – then it’s through contact with other poets irrespective of whether they’re connected to a university or not. Poets need each other. Everything I’ve learned I’ve learned from other poets either from reading them or knowing them personally. And I learn from younger poets too. There are three exceptional young poets I’m mentoring informally and I learn more from them than they realise.
Could you mention a few favourite poets and perhaps talk about why you admire them?
The list keeps growing and changing. I would always say Thomas Hardy. Hardy has received the recognition due to him as a novelist but only recently is his gift as a poet being fully recognised. I think he’s a great poet. His range might be narrow but his technical skills are remarkable and he is amazingly consistent. Over a thousand poems he remains engaging, piercing, and accessible. He addresses the human condition without exaggeration or embellishment. Another quiet voice, and one I’m drawn to deeply, is Edward Thomas. Again, Thomas has suffered by being regarded as primarily a nature poet but he’s much, much more than that, highlighting as he does certain psychological states and finding the perfect image for them. Robert Graves taught me how to write love poems. Dorothy Parker shows how light verse can be piercingly effective. W. H. Auden manages to write dazzling political poems that are not tethered to the period – the 1930’s – in which they were produced. Thom Gunn shows what can be done with metre, syllabic, and free verse. Recently I’m reading Division Street, the first full collection by the remarkable Helen Mort and thinking that the future of poetry is in safe and capable hands.
What a wonderful thing to say! I’m sure Helen will be very pleased.
Do you feel any obligation to produce political poems? I think most poets would consider it a difficult thing to do successfully. Do you feel there are any specific elements which lead to a successful political poem?
I do feel obliged to write political poetry, yes. And I agree that it’s a difficult thing to do. As I said in an interview with Jody Porter for The Morning Star ‘I was radicalised from birth’ so there’s never been any lack of motivation. A young writer, approaching the black American Civil War abolitionist Frederick Douglas on his death-bed, asked him what he should do with his life. Douglas reply to ‘agitate, agitate, agitate’ has always struck a chord with me and I’ve been active on the radical left all my life, particularly during the Great Miner’s Strike of 1984-85. Having said that, I resisted the idea of writing my own political poetry for a long time, partly because of the difficulties attendant on it and partly because I was pretty involved in writing love poetry. I knew that Auden had shown the way, writing poetry out of the political environment of the time and raising public awareness of the rise of fascism in Europe; and I knew he’d done that without being too specific and in such a way that the poems, though rooted in the period, were politically timeless. What changed everything for me was discovering Chartist poetry for the first time. The Chartists were the first mass radical working class movement, active in the middle years of the nineteenth century. I was surprised, as most people are, to discover how important poetry was to them as individuals and to the movement as a whole… and I hope my forthcoming anthology The Voice of the People: Chartist Poetry 1838-48 will make those poems more accessible. I almost felt it as a duty then to try and give voice to political issues. For personal, painful reasons I’d resisted writing about the miner’s strike but suddenly the floodgates opened and I was able to revisit that period in poetry, and still am. There’s a difference between poetry and polemics but poetry is, as communication, political in its very nature.
Ted Hughes spent the formative years in Mexborough although this fact seems to be missing from the popular biographies. I’ve heard you quote Hughes as saying ‘Mexborough made me’. What do you think Hughes meant when he said this?
Hughes isn’t the only poet to come from Mexborough. Harold Massingham who died last year was of the same generation although his work has been overshadowed by that of Hughes. It’s strange that the formative years of a major poet, the years in which he wrote his first poems, should be so effectively airbrushed from the official biography. Thankfully, the poet Steve Ely, is currently working on a book about those missing years and the connection between Ted Hughes and Mexborough. I think this will be a very important study for lots of reasons. When Ted wrote to his sister saying ‘Mexborough made me’ I think he was referring to the environment and particularly the encouragement of his teacher John Fisher who quickly recognised Hughes’ talent and provided the young poet with a role model, a figure he could emulate. The countryside around Mexborough became an escape route for Hughes from the mining town, a place where he could let his imagination work. I’m pleased we’ve just got around to unveiling a plaque to Hughes in Mexborough; more pleased by the ground-breaking work being done by Steve Ely. Hughes isn’t my favourite poet, and in some ways I’ve had to find ways of getting around him in order to write myself. But knowing he’d lived in Mexborough and written out of the same landscape and world view was very inspiring to me as I was growing up and trying to find my own feet as a poet.
Casting your eye back over the poetry scene of scenes do you believe this to be, as some have suggested ‘a good time to be a poet’? What advice, if any, would you give to a younger poet?
It’s always a good time to be a poet. We hear, at the same time, of a poetry boom and a poetry bust but really these are just ways in which the media negotiates and reports on something they don’t, fundamentally, understand. When the Poetry Society was threatened with closure because of the reduction in Arts council Funding I heard lots of people in poetry circles saying ‘what will happen to poetry now?’ as if the poetry Society and poetry were the same thing, as if they were intimately connected. Don’t get me wrong. The Poetry Society does a good job in raising the awareness of poetry but it shouldn’t be confused with the poetry ‘community’ at large. Poetry is bigger than any organisation that seeks to contain or represent it. It is from and of the people. I often get asked by young poets to give them advice and they’re often disappointed by it. I would suggest that they learn to expect rejection. Not to learn to deal with it but learn to expect it. The world, by and large, is not a conducive place in which a poet can be and operate. And especially so in a time of rising capitalism and the appropriation of poetic language by the marketplace. So be ready for a struggle. The best of the younger poets have no illusions. Rebecca Bird, a singularly exciting new talent, is producing poetry of integrity and quality in her early twenties without the slightest regard for fashion or approbation from the ‘right’ places. A talent to watch. So yes, a good time for poetry but not for the reasons you might think. Thanks for the perceptive questions, Roy. They had me chewing my pencil…
It’s been an absolute pleasure listening to your answers Ian. Thank you very much.
A previously unpublished poem by Ian Parks.
Registry of Births and Deaths
They queued for hours outside my door
to register the deaths of men –
of husbands, fathers, brothers, sons
who died in some disaster underground:
crushed when seams collapsed, encasing them
or choked inhaling poisonous fumes.
My front room used to be the office where
those girls and women in grey shawls
offered small comfort, held back tears,
a drop of ink and scraping pen
reducing flesh and blood to dates and names.
Of infants also, born to coal and dust;
the deaths of them, the deep successive tides.
At night I blink back darkness in my bed,
lie sleepless listening to the timeless air.
The town itself is riddled and subsides,
the barefoot shuffling of their tread
a tremor running through the downstairs rooms.