A Conversation with Ian Parks

         Today, I'm talking with Ian Parks, a most likeable chap, who I met when he took over from me as Royal Literary Fellow at De Montfort University.


Sue Price: The impulse to write something, for me, is always connected to a story. There's always a 'What would happen if - ?' The story might extend itself to include beautiful descriptions, musings on the meaning of life, and so on - but it always begins with a story, and the story is always the backbone.
           So poetry mystifies me a bit. Most of the poetry I like - that makes my hair stand up - doesn't tell a story at all. (Though I'm very fond of The Scholar Gypsy, by Mathew Arnold, which does.) I can't understand where you start with a poem. Can you tell me? Where does the first impulse come from?


          Ian Parks: The poem begins as a feeling and not an idea. For me at any rate.

          Certain words might circulate around an experience or an emotion. Sometimes that's as far as it gets, but if the individual words spark associations, and if those associations generate more language then we're looking at a first draft.  Unless you're a narrative poet - in which case you're more likely to be led by similar considerations as a fiction writer.
          For me, notions of what the poem might be 'about' don't start to arise until most of it is written. In that sense, the poet can only see the picture as it emerges. Every poem follows a different trajectory. Keats famously said that poetry should come as natural as leaves to a tree - and then drafted and re-drafted tirelessly until he made his work look as if it involved no work at all. I don't think that was merely to 'get it right'; rather, I guess he was feeling his way intuitively into what the poem might mean, what sort of shape it might make on the page and in the mind.
          The metaphor I hold in my mind is one of something coming to the surface: you perceive it to be there but only gradually grasp its dimensions and its implications. It's difficult to trace the poem back to its origins which are often subsumed in a pre-language state'; that is, the poem begins in the heart and relocates to the head. Finally it ends up on the page where it takes on a strange, unpredicatable life of its own. When I look back on poems I wrote twenty years ago I can't remember where they came from.


        Sue Price: I sort of know what you mean. That is, I’m familiar with a finished work having meanings that I, as the writer, never knew were there. When I wrote ‘Ghost Drum’ I was only conscious of ‘making up’ the kind of scary fairy-story I’d always liked myself, with a wintry Russian setting, and witches, shape-shifting bears and ghosts. When I finished it and read it, I saw all kinds of meanings in it – the imprisoned hero, in his dome room at the top of a tower, locked inside for life – was that a metaphor for the way we’re each imprisoned in our own skulls? And the magic in the story was the magic of creativity – of words and music.

          I’d followed the images, the pretty metaphors, and found words for them without stopping to think what they might mean.


          Is that something like what you mean when you say that the meaning of a poem is something that doesn’t arise until it’s written?

          Ian: That's it, yes... I was leading a poetry writing workshop the other day and we were taking a close look at Thomas Kinsella's worksheets for his poem, Mirror in February. It's obvious that he put a lot of hard work into developing that poem, trying to follow its lead rather than imposing his own ideas onto it.

          Apart from the fact that they were amazed at how many drafts Kinsella had gone through (there are twelve) most of the people there were heartened to see that arriving at a finished poem can often be a struggle; a struggle that goes on 'behind the scenes' as only the final version is released.


          The other striking thing about those worksheets is that the germ of the finished poem is in the first draft - if you can call a few scribblings on the page a draft! The process that goes on between first draft and finished poem represents the poet's attempt to articulate to others what has been there from the beginning. After all, a poem isn't an idea but, as I say in one of my poems a 'thing made out of words'. I think, too, that sound is very important here. A poem on the page is only half a poem, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas. And something of the impulse to write comes out of the tension that arises between what the poem might 'mean' in semantic terms and what it might 'mean' when it's voiced; the emotional sound of the poem.

          So: lots going on at all sorts of levels. Returning to your initial question, Sue... My feeling is that poems come out of nowhere -- or appear to do -- and that it takes effort and, sometimes, experience to haul them up into the light of day.


Ian has kindly said that I can reproduce one of his poems here.


Beach Hut

It’s thirty years since I undid the lock
to spend a rented summer under glass –
a space no bigger than my bedroom now,
the skylight slanting, sunlight through the planks.

Blue meant a day for swimming in the sea;
grey for reading till the weather cleared.
One room where everything I needed was to hand:
bare floorboards, faded rug, sand in my hair

and in my jeans. It was a year of rioting,
of running battles through the city streets,
of looted shop-fronts, shattered glass,
cars overturned and burning in the road.

The rumour of it didn’t reach me there.
I spread my sheets, slept on the floor,
hung a rusted oil-lamp from the beam,
convinced the answer could be found

in solitude and in the distant sound
of waves as they came rippling to the shore.
The place was a ramshackle wreck
held up by a lick of yellow paint.

At night a big ship loomed against the sky
and from its bright and polished deck
someone I imagined lit a foreign cigarette
and smoked it slowly, leaning on the rail.

Just once I saw a torchlight flashing back.
But mostly it was dunes, resilient grass,
the dog-eared books I read then threw away –
the narratives I didn’t want to share.

The days grew shorter. Cold set in.
The beach huts emptied. I grew bored.
Rain drove in every morning from the sea.
I packed my rucksack, caught a train,

sped inland through a landscape changed
to find the world not waiting anymore;
back to the city with its new façade
and the headlines I’d ignored.


Here's a link where you can find out more about Ian's poetry.

And here you can find his book, Shell Island, on Amazon.