Gladfest interview: Ian Parks

Gladfest interview: Ian Parks

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Ian Parks was one of the first Writers in Residence at Gladstone's Library in 2012. His collections of poems include Shell Island, The Landing Stage, Love Poems 1979-2009 and The Exile's House. He is the editor of Versions of the North: Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry and was Writing Fellow at De Montfort University, Leicester from 2012 - 2014.

Ian returns to Gladstone's Library during our Gladfest literary festival 2nd - 4th September to run a poetry-writing workshop and talk about his new book, If Possible: Fifty Cavafy Poems.

Before the festival, we spoke to Ian to find out more..

At what point in your life did you start writing poetry?

I've always wanted to be a poet. I can't remember a time when I wanted to be anything else. When I read poems in school anthologies I immediately identified with them. There were no poetry books in our house so I used to choose my favourite ones from the anthologies and copy them out into notebooks, creating my own library of favourite poems. When I was in my early teens I started imitating the poets I enjoyed and eventually found my own voice was coming to the surface. My first collection, Gargoyles in Winter, was published when I was 24 and I've never looked back. I've never considered myself to be a career poet. I've always considered it as a calling. 

To what extent has your home life and upbringing informed or affected your writing?

I was born into a mining community in Mexborough, South Yorkshire and that has had a profound effect on my life and writing. Every male member of my family for as far back as anyone could remember had been a miner so I was the first not to follow them down the pit. The Miners' Strike of the mid-1980's changed that community beyond recognition – it also politicised me although I couldn't bring myself to write about the experience of the strike until quite recently. 

You have continued to produce and to publish for a number of years. How easy is it to keep up that momentum?

I don't think writing is ever easy. I'm often asked at poetry readings to offer advice to young writers and the best I can offer is that they learn to expect rejection. Poetry has always swum against the tide and to be a true poet often means that you'll be responding to a calling that is radically at odds with what the world believes or wants from you. I don't believe in writer's block. I think there may well be long periods when nothing is produced, when pen isn't physically put to paper as it were, but that doesn't mean you're not writing. Poetry goes on in the head all the time – and most poets would say that the actual writing of the poem is something that happens at the end of a long process of assimilation. I don't think of myself as writing books. I tend to lurch from one poem to another and only when I have a pile of them do I realise that perhaps there is a collection there somewhere. For me the individual poem is everything, the lifeblood and the air I breathe. 

You’re coming to Gladstone’s Library for Gladfest though you spent time here as one of our very first Writers in Residence in 2012. As you know, there are always interesting people to meet and conversations to be had at the Library. What are you hoping to take from Gladstone’s Library this time around?

It was a pleasure and a privilege to be one of the first batch of Writers in Residence at the Library and the experience has stayed with me since then. It provided me with the opportunity to spend a month without distractions to concentrate on my own writing but, more importantly, to concentrate on the writing of others. Apart from readings, talks, and workshops, I was able to meet people on an individual basis which gave me an invaluable insight into how and why they wrote. That's one of the reasons why I'm so looking forward to returning to the Library. I always find it an incredibly enriching experience. It provides a unique environment in which individuals can grow and develop.

You’ll be running two events here over the festival, the first being a poetry-writing workshop based on the passing of time. Can you expand a little on this – what are you hoping attendees will bring to the class?

Pen and paper! Also an open mind. I enjoy running poetry workshops because they encourage people to look at the writing process in a different way. The workshop will be quite structured and I'm hoping that participants will go away with a poem. We'll be looking at the importance of the passing of time to poetry – and to our lives.

Who would benefit from the workshop?

The workshop is open to everyone with an interest in writing poetry and is suitable for beginners and those who have more experience.

Your talk will focus on C.P. Cavafy and versions of his poems which you have written. What piqued your interest in Cavafy, why him?

I think Cavafy is one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century and I wanted to make his poems available to a wider audience. I'll be talking about the poet's life and the background to the poems but concentrating mainly on the writing itself. Cavafy didn't seem interested in fame or publication, circulating handwritten copies of his poems among a small circle of friends. It was only after his death that he finally received the recognition he deserved. Some of his poems deal with the classical past; others with his own personal life. Although he was Greek by birth he lived for most of his life in Alexandria and considered himself to be a poet in exile. Before he died he drew a circle on a piece of paper and put a full-stop in the middle of it – a typically enigmatic end to a life lived in private. I think he's an extraordinary poet. There are good, clear translations of the poetry available but I felt that none of them captured the 'unique tone of voice' which W. H. Auden identified as being integral to the poetry of this fascinating writer. My versions of 50 of his poems are due from Arc publications under the title of If Possible: Fifty Cavafy Poems. The poems come alive when read aloud and I'll be introducing a varied selection. I hope those who are new to Cavafy's poetry will come along. Part of the challenge is to retain the tone of the original while avoiding a slavish word for word translation. 

Have you looked at the rest of the lineup – is there anybody you’re particularly looking forward to seeing?

It is an extraordinary line-up this year and I'm spoilt for choice. However, I'm particularly looking forward to the talk on Wilfred Owen by Guy Cuthbertson. It's particularly timely as we're living through the centenary of the Great War and Owen is probably the finest poet that war produced. I often wonder what direction English poetry would have taken had he survived that war and not been killed at such a tragically young age. People instinctively reach out for poetry in times of deep emotional distress. Poetry lives for us. 

Ian Parks is at Gladfest 2016, 2nd – 4th September. For more information on his events, please click here