Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: “Love Poems” by Ian Parks

-Ian Parks

was born in 1959 in Mexborough and runs the Read to Write Project in Doncaster. He is the author of eight collections of poems, one of which was a Poetry Book Society Choice. He was the first poet-in-residence at Gladstone’s Library and Writing Fellow at De Montfort Leicester from 2012-2014. His versions of the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy were published by Calder Valley Poetry and shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award. He is the editor of Versions of the North: Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry and The Selected Poems of Harold Massingham. 

His new book can be bought here: http://www.fluxgallerypress.co.uk/

Here is a link to my previous interview with Ian:


The Interview

1. How did you decide on the order of the poems in the book?

The collection covers a period of thirty years from 1979 when I was twenty to 2009 when I was fifty. I wrote more love poems during that period but they didn’t find their way into this collection. Love Poems is a reprint and I did have the chance to include some love poems I’ve written over the intervening twelve years – but in the end I felt that the collection as it stands is complete and makes a kind of sense, in so far as any collection of poems makes logical sense. Apart from the first poem, Etched in Glass, and the final poem, A Last Love Poem the collection follows a roughly chronological order by date of writing rather than by initial publication. I didn’t think that the order was particularly important – as long as the poems demonstrated a sort of integrity – but people have approached me over the years in order to tell me that they can detect a ‘story’ running through the book. The revealing thing is that they all find a different ‘story’ – which goes to show that poetry is as subjective art and what is obvious to one person is obscure to another. I simply wanted them in an order where the sequence didn’t interfere with the theme which is, broadly speaking, an exploration of the nature of romantic love, and particularly of love which has been lost. 

1.1. Why lost love?

Good question. You get love poems that are celebratory and you get love poems that are elegiac. Writing celebratory love poems didn’t appeal to me. I felt very strongly that they didn’t open up the kind of possibilities I was looking for. Temperamentally speaking, I’m of a reflective disposition and the exploration of loss suited my poetic sensibility. I also wanted to push the limits of the love poem. Auden had showed that the love poem occurs in a context, a social and political one. That was something I wanted to pick up on and develop. when I started writing love poems they were unfashionable. Robert Graves, perhaps the greatest love poet of the twentieth century, was certainly out of fashion. His muse-ridden love poetry was very much at odds with what had happened in British Poetry in the 1970s. I didn’t want to be the South Yorkshire equivalent to the Liverpool Poets. Having said that, the poems of love and loss came unbidden and from somewhere deep inside. I don’t want to give the impression that I had an agenda or strategy. The poems were written to stand alone although the thematic core began to dictate the direction in which the poems were going. It’s true to say that they led me and not the other way around. 

2. How important is form to you in these poems?

The form is the life blood of the poem – it flows through it and gives it its energy. That’s as true now as when the Romantics were writing. The form and content, though, need to be inextricably linked; they need to be connected and meshed at a fundamental level. And so it follows that that the form of these poems is very important because the form influences the tone and the tone is something I was striving to get right. Angela Topping said these poems were ‘achingly tender while being devoid of sentimentality’ – and that’s certainly one of the things I was aiming for. Strictly speaking all the poems in this collection are free verse – that is, they don’t adhere to a pre-existing formal pattern. Having said, that they do reflect the natural iambic pulse of the speaking voice – and that is something I was consciously trying to achieve. The form these poems take evolved as I was writing them, during the process, giving me a sense of a beginning and, more often than not, an end. One of the things they have in common formally is that the last line almost always came first and the rest of the poem worked up to it. Most of the poems end on quite an emphatic rhyme (something I was also working towards consciously) although as many as ten or twelve lines intervene between the rhyming words. you can always tell when a poem has been contrived. 

3. How do you use the weather in your writing?

It isn’t so much how I use weather as how it uses me. Someone once said that the only time it doesn’t rain in my poems is when it’s snowing – and there’s some truth in that. I could, with some fairness, be accused of subscribing to what used to be called ‘the pathetic fallacy’ – that is the use of the outer weather to correspond to the inner weather. horror films invariably start on a dark and stormy night and even Shakespeare makes us of it in King Lear where Lear’s madness is represented by the storm. We mustn’t forget though that the storm is also a real storm, even though a corresponding storm is going on in the king’s head. Likewise, the rain and snow in my poems is really happening and not just there to emphasise a mood. So yes, it’s important and very perceptive of you to pick up on it. Rain for me equates with privacy and these poems ‘happen’ in private settings. When my first book came out a reviewer said that ‘Ian Parks is in danger of disappearing into one of his own misty landscapes’ – and there is some truth in that. It made me laugh at the time and it still makes me laugh now. 

4. What is the role of landscape in your love poems?

Landscape is central to my poems – and not just the ones in this collection. There’s an intimate connection between anything that happens and the place where it occurred. This is particularly true when it comes to my poems about history and politics. Revisiting places of (often painful) historical memory can often serve to ‘release’ them into a poem. A visit to Cable Street, for instance, or the site of the Peterloo Massacre, or the Towton Battlefield evokes the events that took place there and often the membrane between past and present thins and becomes transparent. Likewise with the love poem. I’m thinking here particularly about Hardy and the intimate relationship that existed for him between landscape and relationships. In Wessex Heights, for instance, he declares that there are specific places where he ‘dare not go’ because the recollection of a former love would be felt too acutely, too painfully. I think Hardy is a truly great poet – and I confess a debt to the sequence of great elegies he wrote about his wife and his attempt to conjure her back into his life by revisiting the places where they had been happy together. My At Boscastle addresses this debt directly. Looking back, I think the landscape my lovers inhabit is a northern one – the streets of post-industrial mining towns or the desolate stretches of the Yorkshire coast. 

5. Who introduced you to Hardy’s poetry?

I suppose i introduced myself. I remember going to see the Julie Christie and Alan Bates film version of Far from the Madding Crowd when I was about ten and it making a deep impression on me: the sensitivity to the landscape, the inevitability of the way things turn out in human relationships, and the indifference of the universe toward the individual. As a result of this I read every novel by him that I could lay my hands on, even the obscure ones such as A Pair of Blue Eyes and The Well Beloved. So, by the time i was fifteen I was familiar with Hardy the novelist. And then I discovered his poetry and found that the distinctive themes explored in his novels were there in his poems too, in a more intense and distilled way.  What attracted me to him was his tone, invariably elegiac, and his formal variety. He left around thousand poems to us and all of them are formally immaculate, and he very rarely repeats a form. it’s as if each experience he writes about needs to be expressed in a different form. The formal variety expresses itself in a musicality which is as sophisticated as it is piercing. He remains an abiding influence – so much so that Bob Horne and I are planning a reading tour based on Hardy’s poems. We hope to bring out some of the formal variety I’ve just mentioned together with an exploration of his range. It’s true to say that Hardy ploughs a narrow furrow. The important thing is that he ploughs it thoroughly. 

6. What is it about the “elegiac” that appeals to you so much?

It’s  temperamental really. From a writing point of view something in the past is, in a sense, watertight, although elements of it keep leaking into the present. I’ve mentioned Hardy’s love poems to Emma, but almost as piercing are Douglas Dunn’s elegies to his dead wife. I say ‘to’ in both these instances as the poems are, in both Hardy and Dunn, addressed directly to the lost person. This gives the reader – or this reader at any rate – the feeling that you’re looking over the poet’s shoulder or somehow overheating a private conversation. The personal address – ‘you’ – is very important in my love poems, creating a sense of immediacy and intimacy from the beginning. My Selected Poems is due out soon from Calder Valley. I hope, that seen in a wider context, the love poems will appear somewhat less obsessive than they do collected together and in close proximity to each other. 

7. “Windows” are a running throughout the collection. Why are they mentioned so often?

It’s no coincidence that one of my favourite poems is Windows by Constantine Cavafy, where he draws attention to their dual nature – and it’s this duality that fascinates me: they offer a (limited) view of the outside world (rain, snow, misty northern landscapes) while, at the same time acting as a barrier between the viewer and the view. They are a construct, a man-made thing, that allows us an insight into our surroundings while allowing us to maintain a distance. In that, they are very much like the poem itself. a tried and tested workshop technique is to encourage the participants to imagine they’re looking through a window and write what they see. I’m not sure about that. Auden turned his writing desk away from his window, turned his back on it, and looked at the blank wall in order to eliminate distractions. I think he was probably right. And just to emphasise the same point I made with regard to the weather in my poems: the rain and snow is real rain and snow and the (often high) windows are real windows. 

8. Congratulations on your forthcoming “Selected Poems“. Privacy and sealed experiences are very important to you. Poems themselves can be seen to embody these aspects. How is this what attracted you to poetry?

In a general way, yes. I’m also a political poet and no relationship exists in a vacuum – there’s always a wider, socio-political context to it. Overnight, in the Love Poems, is a brief and oblique narrative about two lovers being separated by circumstances beyond their control – in this case the ‘overnight’ building of the Berlin Wall, or something very much like it. The poem is a private moment between the poem itself and the reader and all ‘sealed’ experiences are full of the sorts of nuances and flickerings that poetry should be alert to. In Sky Edge, for instance, the speaker wakes up in ‘an unfamiliar bed’ and is aware that the hillside opposite is’ where the Chartists met’. The private is never far away from the public, something that I tired to convey in these poems. 

9. Why is using the first person perspective always used in these poems?

Generally speaking, the poems are autobiographical and it was important to me that they retained all the authenticity that comes from being true to the circumstances that gave rise to them. I did think about distancing myself by using ‘he’ rather than ‘I’ but my experiments with that generally ground to a halt after the first couple of drafts. I really did need to invest myself in the love poems in a way in which I might have avoided in other poems. I’ve written a further twenty or so love poems since I put this selection together and, looking back, I see that they’re all in first person too. You’ll find them scattered in individual collections. whether I bring them all together under one cover is something I’m not sure about. In theory I could go on writing first person Ian Parks love lyrics until the day I die – but I’ve learned how to do that and I feel very strongly that in order to write well you have to challenge yourself well too. And that means keeping alert to change.

10. How important is the white space on the page to you when writing poems?

The white page is the equivalent to the artist’s blank canvass. It presents you with the same problem every times and invites you to solve it in different ways. I still draft out my poems literally on a white page and only type them up when they reach the stage where I need a degree of clarity in order to see what’s needed to finish them. The shape a poem makes on the page is very important. When I start to read a collection of poems, I’m often drawn initially to the ones that make a shape that attracts me. The secret on the part of the poet is to ensure that the shape is inextricably linked to the content. 

11. Once the reader has finished, The Love Poems, what do wish them to leave with?

Difficult one.  I hope the Love Poems aren’t closed systems that speak only to me and out of my own experience; I hope they reach across the distance between public and private experience; and I hope that the reader returns to them. They aren’t an attempt to understand the nature of romantic love or to explore it in all its dimensions. They are moments of insight, kisses in the dark.

It’s been a real pleasure to do this interview with you Paul. Thank you for the questions, and for all the good you do for poetry. 


Other online interviews with Ian:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.