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Insider Interviews: Ian Parks

Described by Chiron as 'the finest love poet of his generation', award winning poet Ian Parks has published eight collections, performed many writing residencies and taught aspiring poets at five British universities, including Oxford. Throughout his extensive writing and teaching career, Parks has always been, and continues to be, a champion of budding writers; gently encouraging, inspiring and nurturing new and emerging talents. Parks currently runs the Read to Write Project in Mexborough, Doncaster.

Although ostensibly a love poet, Parks' Northern roots permeate. His latest collection, Citizens, which was a January pick in our Recommended Reads for 2022, mines this seam ever more deeply, exploring the tension between poetry and politics.

Q. Do you think that poetry is a lonely art?

It can be. A certain degree of solitude is necessary, I think, for all creative activities. Poets will always find themselves isolated, especially when they are living in a society that doesn't appreciate what they're trying to do. Poetry comes from somewhere deep inside. It goes a long way back, and in order to access those wellsprings of emotion poets need to spend time alone. The paradox of poetry is that it is a private art pursued for public ends. You might write in solitude but you end up addressing a public audience.

Q. Is good poetry always autobiographical?

Not necessarily. While a poet's life experiences are important, their imagination is important too. I can think of dozens of great poems that are based on the imagination rather than direct life experience. It's been fashionable in creative writing courses to encourage students to 'write what you know'. I've always encouraged my students to 'write what you don't know'. That way the writing of the poem becomes an exploration, a journey of some sort, that surprises the poet as much as the reader.

Q. We loved your latest collection, ‘Citizens’. ‘Allotment’ is particularly poignant, with the irony of allotments, usually seen as full of life and new beginnings, being the receptacle for strong feelings of loss in the ex-miners. Was this irony deliberate?

I'm pleased that you liked Citizens. It was something of a departure for me. Up to then I was known mainly for my love poems which were, by and large, autobiographical. In that collection I was deliberately trying to extend my range by writing about particular moments in the history of radicalism, the Chartists Movement in particular, and to re-inhabit those moments through the poetic imagination. You're right in identifying 'Allotments' as central to that collection. My father was a miner and tended an allotment for decades. Something fundamental changed in the mining communities after the Strike. It wasn't just the employment that was lost, it was the whole social fabric that supported and was supported by it. So yes, the irony is deliberate. I wanted to portray the allotments accurately and let the details stand alone. It's important, I think, not to overstate but to trust the poem to do its work as a free-standing thing.

Q. How important are place and roots in poetry?

It's very important in mine. I recently did an interview with Tuesday Goacher for Wild Court and she based the whole of it on that question. By departing from the community in which I was born (I was earmarked for the pit) I distanced myself from it. Education changes us, even if we resist the changes. I've always felt motivated by the need to somehow address or 'speak for' the community I'm from. A poem like 'The Wheel' in The Exile's House comes closest, I hope, to doing that.

Q. ‘Allotment’ and ‘Snooker’ are hugely evocative: the details are particularly well-drawn. Are these poems written from memory or imagination, and which of the two would you say is more important when writing about a place?

Both of those poems, including the details you mention, are both strictly autobiographical. In both I wanted to try to articulate what it was like to grow up in the mining communities around Mexborough. The transition from snooker to pool seemed to suggest a change in culture too. Pool, after all, was an American invention, a faster, more exciting variant on the gentleman's game which was snooker. And yes, the women would sit at the bar and show off their legs. The mini-skirt was in fashion then. That poem is to do with continuity and change; a generational rite of passage. A place is invested with all sorts of associations and memory plays subtle tricks with the poet's mind.

Q. Do you prefer your poems to stay on the page, or be read out loud?

Every poem I write for the page is written so it can be read out loud too. I think sound is as important as sense when it comes to experiencing a poem. I've been reading a lot of Edward Thomas recently. His poems work well on the page but come alive, in all their subtlety, when read aloud. The poem should be more than the expression of an idea or the description of an emotion; it should recreate the emotion in the reader. I don't write poems just for the page any more than I write poems just to be performed. The two are linked for me.

Q. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given about writing poetry?

I can offer two if that's permissible. I was given them quite early on by two excellent poets who have died since - but they've always stayed with me and, by and large, set me in good stead. The first came from Donald Davie who said you should treat the writing of a poem in the same way as you treat the tending of a plant: 'Let it grow and grow and then cut it back'. By which I understood that he meant you should generate as much content as possible and then get rid of anything that might be unnecessary, anything that might be standing in the way of the developing poem. The second came from Milner Place who suggested that you should always read your work back to yourself, even as you were drafting it. 'If it bores you', Milner said, 'it will bore everyone else'.

Q. Do you have any tips for finding your writer’s voice?

A difficult one. a lot is written about finding one's voice as a writer. I think your voice lies inside you. It is something that can be tapped into but first we have to hear it, and to hear it we have to learn to listen. It is very close, I often find, to the rhythms of our own speaking voice. The difficulty is matching those inherent rhythms with the subject matter we choose to write about. Choose what you write about with care and articulate it as honestly as you can and to your best ability. Never, ever try to impress anyone. Don't concern yourself with the prizes and awards that other people might win. It's not a competition. Only you can say what it is you say and jealousy is a destructive emotion. Stay true to your calling. Your own voice will emerge like a koi carp surfacing in a weedy pond.

Q. Any parting words of wisdom for aspiring writers?

Expect rejection.

The Writing Voices team would like to extend their thanks to Mr Parks for his time, consideration and generosity. We we also delighted to publish an original new poem by Mr Parks: Mermaid's Hair.


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Image credit: With thanks to Mr Parks. Video used with the kind permission of Gladstone Library.


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