Interview with featured poet: Steve Parker
What did you think poetry was when you first started writing it?
Poetry was partly a way to impress my girlfriend when I was 18 or 19. I’d only dabbled before that. Then she came back with Prufrock and The Waste Land, and blew my mind. She was doing an English and Philosophy degree, and I lived in a squat full of drug dealers. I’d never heard of all these poetry people before. She knew about everyone from Eliot to John Dryden and way beyond. I knew nothing. It was all news to me. I just wanted to understand, and she was way ahead of me. I tried very hard to catch up because I felt like an idiot. I had to do the same with Philosophy, because she kept coming at me with stuff I’d never heard of. So I struggled to deal with all these wild things like Kant’s synthetic a priori (we had a fun time with that one). Eventually, we sort of ended up doing her course together, but I didn’t get any certificates from it. So, what was poetry? It was an event in my life when I was made to realise that some people had somehow got their acts together to such an extent that they could express themselves through things other than Rock and Roll and drugs. It was quite a moment actually. The truth was out there, somewhere, and I was still a buffoon. I didn’t feel that great, all of a sudden. But I had a huge urge to learn about it. I became slavish, and I wanted to be T.S. Eliot. I walked around cities in England with an overcoat, watching the starlings and trying to feel depressed enough. It didn’t work because I was still taking far too many drugs, and still felt far too happy, and was only play-acting.
You seem to be having more fun lately. Have you had a change of attitude, or is it just your poems giving me this impression?
I do apologise for that. I try my best to be consistently morose and peevish, but I have unjustifiable lapses occasionally. I’ve even caught myself grinning like an imbecile once or twice. I know it’s despicably unpoetic of me. Actually, contrary to the rumours, I like having fun. Plus poetry is a way to play with language, not just a vehicle for oozing angst. It’s not very important, this poetry stuff, though it’s easy for us to fool ourselves that it’s some sort of world-changing mission we’re all on. It’s very easy to wallow in misery through poetry too. I like writing that has humour in it, especially if it’s a little off the wall or outrageous. And you can write about very dark stuff without losing your sense of humour, and I reckon the reader is more likely to get with your game if they don’t feel you are trying to shove their face into some awful experience, or else to lecture them about just how bad they should feel about something. Hmm, that didn’t turn out to be much of an apology at all, did it…
Yes, but are you having more fun than a year or so ago? Your poems are.
Okay, you made me go back and look at what I was writing a year or so ago. There was some fun being had in those poems, but I do see what you mean. Some of them have the feel of someone being very serious and poety about stuff. There’s a sort of confluence of reasons for that. Partly I hadn’t yet got my head around just relaxing with it and letting the poetry write itself. I thought I had, but I hadn’t. (I’ll no doubt write or think those last two sentences again in a year or two.)
Apart from that, there are all sorts of issues of emphasis. I was writing stuff that I felt was ‘experimental’ (always a good way to produce bleak and self-conscious poetry), and I wasn’t writing entirely for myself. I’m far less hooked into either poetry forums or any collaborative things than I was around that time a year ago. So I feel a lot more free about it all, and I just write whatever I want without much agenda. It was also quite a mixed up period emotionally back then. A lot of things ended and a lot of things started around that time, and I floundered in all that for a while. I got a little lost in there somewhere. Obviously that stuff comes through.
I think of you as a Hamlet character, or I think of you as the Hamlet character that I see in myself. You know the fellow I mean, the one who flirts with madness, the one who thinks instead of acts, rethinks instead of reacts… do you see the connection? Or is there some other character (or tropical drink) that you better relate to?
I don’t think I can get into which characters I relate to, or this could take a long time. I relate to all sorts of characters because imagination and empathy are very much ruling factors in my life. I can empathise with other people to the point where I become almost convinced I am them. I’m not exaggerating. I have to keep a lid on this stuff to be able to function properly. Otherwise I can find myself living through someone else’s pain to the point where it feels almost totally real. I get this just watching the news or reading about people. So that’s quite intense. Plus I seem to be quite a number of different people anyway, and not all of them would relate to Hamlet or whoever. My intention is to allow all of them air space; it doesn’t always happen, but I can’t relate to just being one person or being able to relate centrally to one character. So you’re right to an extent about excessive thinking (if thinking is the right word), but, maybe paradoxically, I also very much throw myself into situations and activities without much thought at all for the consequences. I like having adventures.
Tropical drinks… I imagine the drink most widely consumed in the tropics is water. I relate quite strongly to water, especially seawater. Having said that, I’m quite partial to mango juice, preferably served somewhere where mangoes grow.
Have you ever written formal verse?
Not really as a poetic vehicle in the sense that I generally write. But I’ve written all the main forms to see how they felt and to learn a little about them. And I write some formal stuff as exercises on a poetry forum. I even wrote a strombotto toscano recently (I had to go and look that up to remember what it was called!). I occasionally include quite structured sections of formal verse in otherwise freeform poems, but it’s not generally my favourite mode of expression. I write a lot of haiku and a lot of cinquains, but if you mean strictly things like terza rima or villanelles, then I haven’t written very many of them, and the world may well be a happier place if that continues. I did get a sonnet published when I was about seventeen. It was crap, and it even ‘borrowed’ a line from a Wordsworth sonnet.
Can we publish your strombotto toscano with the interview?
If you want. I don’t suppose I’d be too bothered about it (though I certainly wouldn’t choose to publish it myself), but it was a response to a poem by someone else on an exercise thread, and doesn’t make much sense outside of that. It’s hardly very representative of what I generally do. I can send you some recipes too, if you like. Or maybe knitting patterns.
ok, forget it, you tuscan strumpet. I just thought it would be nice as a little attachment to the interview. Now I have to think of your next question.
Okay, I’ll try to answer your next question in strombotto toscano.
In this article, http://bostonreview.net/BR34.3/burt.php, Stephen Burt posits a New Thing and, by implication, an Old Thing (11 years old). What, in your experience of poetry, is the New Thing, if there is one, and what is the Old Thing?
Okay, hmm, this one has had me thinking. I’m kind of all over the place with it. For one thing, that article you linked to concerns US poetry, and I’m English, although I admit quite a lot of my inspiration has come from US poets. But it still raises the problem of whether I just view this question as about The New American Stuff, or the New WORLD Stuff, or whatever else. It’s difficult to credibly present an argument that something is The New Shit (that’s a quote from Marilyn Manson to display my classical US influences) because there are so many poets out there doing all their various things that it’s always easy to corral a group of them and claim they are the latest wave. How big does it have to be to be the New Thing? I still think that some of the British poets who variously make up the ‘Cambridge School’ (despite the fact that no one admits to membership of this school) have some claim to being the New Thing. I’m not sure they’ve yet been answered fully around the English-speaking world. Jeremy Prynne took thirty years to get ‘recognised properly’ (huge overstatement), for instance, and he’s the most famous of them.
My response to the article was that I liked some of the poetry in it, and I was never totally into the complete opacity deal anyway, or the self-focused/self-unfocused minutiae of LangPo. If this is the/a New Thing, then I’m quite glad there’s an element of terseness and didacticism and an acceptance of the lyrical in it (with all the earthy connection that that implies), while also some elements taken from LangPo and, in the loosest sense, the previous Avant Garde. But as the article says (I think), a lot of it references people like Robert Creeley or Ed Dorn, so it’s kind of like the Old Old Thing (from before the Old New Thing) reincarnated as the New Thing. You can read Beat influences in there in plenty too.
I think in the UK there’s been a lot more resistance to New Things. Even the Cambridge people pretty much had to look to the US to get themselves started with something that wasn’t Eliot or Larkin or Auden, and then they struggled to get readers or to get anthologised in the ‘official’ anthologies (in fact, as far as I know, none of them have been yet). There’s a lot of poetry stuff going on here at the moment because we’ve just had a new Poet Laureate installed. The first ever female, Scottish, lesbian Poet Laureate, which is a step forward. But the poetry documentaries we’re getting are all really about pre-Modernist stuff. The establishment is trying to sell poetry to the people, but it’s selling them very old poetry styles. I’m not at all sure how anyone outside of the typical middle class coterie of poetry enthusiasts is supposed to relate to any of this. But then there also all those people writing very good modern formal poetry. Do they have a claim to the New Thing?
I don’t know how to answer this question without being partisan and uncredible. I guess I don’t believe that the New Thing is in any real way a universal truth, but is only a narrow coopting of some poets by some critics who like their stuff.
Okay, David Appelbaum is the New Thing. And anyone that writes like him. I like his stuff this month anyway. Okay, I changed my mind, William Fairbrother is the New Thing. But then Jeremy Prynne is always the New Thing. But now Carol Ann Duffy is our New Thing…
Sorry for the long answer. I could rattle about this all night as it opens up so many damn possibilities. Another factor here is that I can think of many more poets that I don’t think are the New Thing, but I don’t really want to start besmirching anyone. I could mention a lot of people who might seem close to it in some way, but I generally have reservations about all poetry, and I’d have to start writing little critiques to illustrate what I was talking about. For me, the new thing (uncapitalised) includes the idea that all poetry forms from any period are fair game for inclusion and reference. There’s no responsibility to the reader to make things accessible, but lyricism makes poetry pretty, and some narrative makes it feel rounded. Rounded and pretty seem like nice framings from which to issue poetry. So I still think aesthetics has a big role in the New Thing. Write poetry as a semi-conscious montage of periods and styles and attitudes and mind-states and narratives and language forms, and I’ll accept you as the New Thing. Or else just write some pithy, obscene observation of a football game, and I’ll accept that too. Everything is the New Thing when we have this much diversity, and probably only the critics think there’s any argument about it while they steer us towards the next manufactured enclave of ‘the new’.
The last poem you wrote, how did its creation begin, to the best of your knowledge?
I was thinking about a time years ago when I spent a while living in Cairo. I used to hang out with some pretty crazy local guys who sold heroin on the streets and carried flick-knives. They all had handlebar moustaches, for some reason. One night they took me to a kahwa, which was a little cafe sort of place down a load of alleyways in some part of Cairo that I never managed to find again. We sat outside and the proprietor brought out a sheesha pipe (a hubblebubble thing) and a tray with a lot of clay bowls stuffed with hashish. Someone loaded this lethal thing and lit it, then handed it to me. I took a couple of hits then passed it on. “No,” they told me, “it’s for you!” So I smoked all of it and proceeded to dissolve into ectoplasm. We sat there for about five hours with weasels running all over the place and jumping over the tables. This was real; there genuinely were weasels everywhere. Anyway, it all suddenly came back to me and it seemed like some dream vision encoding a journey through the underworld and its dream inhabitants. I just felt like writing it down in some form. It’s not a great poem, but I just write anything that comes into my head when I get into the right mindstate. It just comes out like undifferentiated ectoplasm. If any of it is ever any good, it’s generally a lucky accident. Broken clocks right twice a day, Shakespeare and lots of monkeys etc… Or weasels in this case.
Damn it, do you know how boring my life is? And I’m supposed to make poems from it? Don’t answer those questions. Okay, answer the second one.
Hmm, that’s a heck of a question to lay on me. I don’t know anything about your life. I suppose I’d have to say that the life circumstances themselves aren’t the deal. The attention is the deal. That poem I was just talking about might have its origins in some exciting circumstances, but it’s not in any way a better poem for that. People like Eliot or Kafka seem to have managed pretty well with rather pedestrian lives. Apparently, Kafka chewed each mouthful of food exactly thirty times. Do you believe that? I don’t think I do. Anyway, I happen to like that circumstantial Boys Own element in poetry, so I’m quite into people filtering their existential adventures through their writing. But the real stuff is the emotional and experiential topography. It’s the understanding and relating, not the map itself, isn’t it? I’ve read fantastic poems by people whose entire life experiences have been ‘limited’ to caring for kids and houses. That can be a huge adventure in itself. I think poetry is some sort of dazzling light in which we feel around for sharp edges to locate ourselves. It can seem like a lifestyle or a religion, but I think it’s really a repeated moment of intoxication in which we feel strongly our own frailty and mortality. It’s putting ourselves out on the edges of our experience. I have a big mythology about ‘edges’. It’s an extreme sport, I think. But then it’s everything else that it is too. I don’t want to negate other people’s experiences of it. But for me it’s quite a demanding thing that has elements of de facto shamanism and suffering about it. That can be the case whatever your life circumstances. You seem to write some pretty vibrant stuff for someone that has a boring life. I guess that shows that boring lives just aren’t really boring.
Sometimes I think it doesn’t matter what my poem says. The poem is really a glimpse into me, so what matters is that I have a viewpoint that, if not honestly “me” at least is something I viscerally understand. Other times, I think the poem is an object and I want to make something that will suit many different readers and viewpoints, something crystal and beautiful without “me” interfering. So which matters, the frame or the picture? Which way do you lean?
I usually lean towards trying to create something that doesn’t even consider any of these issues, and just comes out. My take on it would be that if you try to keep yourself out of it then all of that personal process of excluding yourself is deeply expressive of what you are anyway, so it only puts the personal element onto a more calculated and (paradoxically) sometimes more unconscious level. Is it really possible to achieve that degree of disinterest and extraneity? These feel like genuinely mystical/magical metaphors to me, where mysticism is the writing of poetry that tries to exclude the writer and achieve a loss of self; and where magic is the slightly wanton approach of just writing semi-consciously but acknowledging everything that is encountered along the way, maybe with a little more humour than the mystical approach. I agree that it doesn’t really matter in some ways what it says overtly, as I’m always more interested in the underlying stuff anyway. If I watch people reading the news, I’m always deeply interested in their natural and learned mannerisms and techniques, and what they say about who those people are. So take your pick. You can’t hide in either of them, I don’t think. Like magic and mysticism, they’re both different ways of looking at the same processes. To take it even more extremely, people have stated that any branch of science, as it depends upon observations filtered through the human nervous system, is really a branch of psychology… In all of this we see the human thing observing its own seeming activity and remarking upon it. You decide what you think objectivity is…
You try to create something that “just comes out”? Do you mean automatic writing? Are you a Surrealist?
No, because I don’t believe that’s possible in any useful way. Every statement, whether poetic or whatever, is totally immersed in the partial reality of whatever birthed it. The Surrealists ended up moving from at first championing people like Dali (not for long), Ernst, Chirico, and Magritte (I’m excluding the Dadaists here for historical reasons to do with WW1), who purported to document the Unconscious, to people like Miro who did relatively incomprehensible squiggles that were aesthetically nice and that could be reasonably interpreted as automatism. It became pretty obvious eventually that nothing was happening that was really completely outside of all individual psychological and artistic hegemony, and by extension outside of the hegemony of whatever society the artist had developed within. The only thing left, surely, was not just to allow the intervention of the artist, albeit as unintrusively as possible… but to always include it as integral, even in things like photography and film. It was no longer really possible after the arrival of later Freudian Psychology (WW1/WW2) (and everything that followed) to pretend that there were distinctions. Eliot went straight to the centre of all that understanding. Where is that now then? Well, wherever you like. We’re still in flux. Are we into Language Poetry? Are we into the English Avant Garde? Everything is up for grabs right now. Everything. Yes, I’m a Surrealist. No, I’m not. I’m sorry for these long answers. They could easily be far longer. I’m better at ranting about poetry than writing it. Sorry. I feel like an impostor. Why are you interviewing me?
Do you ever worry that you’ve thought too much about poetry? That you’re too jaded? That so much seems unoriginal to you that you venture into a zone of obscurity in which you will never reach anyone?
First off, I guess that’s a statement from you about my poetry. I can’t imagine you’d ask that question unless you thought some of my stuff was pretty obscure. So we’re immediately into the old problem of who are you writing for… Will they get it… etc… Seriously, I don’t have a big thing about anyone getting it. My ‘poetry heroes’ are people who are almost impossible to ‘understand’ anyway. But then I dispute the whole idea of ‘understanding’. My take on poetry since I first read the stuff has been that you read it differently. You don’t need intellectual understanding. If you could understand this stuff in some other way, then there wouldn’t be any need or justification to write it as poetry. You could paraphrase it in prose or conversation or whatever. If that isn’t possible, then there has to be a reason why it’s impossible. My reason is that I can’t say those things in prose. In fact, I don’t think they even exist in prose. The language itself becomes part of what you’re doing, just like everything becomes part of what you’re doing. You can’t talk about politics without your own body being involved at some level. You can’t speak about anything without all of you creeping in there. It’s an attempt to do the whole thing. My aesthetic regarding all that stuff is that a poem should always be out of reach, just. It should be close enough for people to be able to design their own stuff around it, but should never be prescriptive to the point where it tells you what to think or feel. I don’t mind absolute obscurity either, personally. Am I ‘jaded’ about it? Haha, probably. I assume that ‘jaded’ means experienced and slightly less optimistic. If it means something like negative and resigned, then no, absolutely not. It’s always the attempt to cry out in as many ways as possible. What can you do but try to refine that big, silly trumpet? But it’s not really my job to help others to get it, no. That would be showbiz, and that’s something else.
Name a contemporary poet and tell me why I should like her.
Hmm, that feels tricky. I haven’t got any good reasons why you should like anyone. I’m almost tempted to say Pam Ayres, with the reason being that she might be some sort of antidote to people taking themselves too seriously with poetry, and also she’s a sort of reminder of the folk traditions of poetry. But some antidotes can be a bit lethal in themselves for people with the wrong underlying conditions… (like me). So after more hmmming I thought of Kristiina Ehin. The main reason you should like her is that you’ll have to learn Estonian to read her stuff, which will probably involve something of a transformative experience in itself. I like to think of you Googling for an Estonian tutor and then having someone visit you once a week to instruct you in Uralic languages. Who knows what might come of such an adventure? We might get a whole new poetry from this encounter.
Of course, you could just read the translations like me. In translation her stuff comes across as visionary and confessional, without being too icky in its confessionals. It’s got enough humour and surrealism going on to lift if from that. And it’s often an in your face display of the use of the modifier as a secondary poetic. Her modifiers set up a sort of second-level poetry in themselves for me, so I tend to read back through them. I like the confidence and casualness of it all. She just seems assured of what she is, which is always cool, even when it’s self-questioning. Anyway, she somehow does all that angular melodramatic of the mundane, which I also like. She makes her experiences into overblown drama in order to pick them apart, which is what I like people doing most of all. And she’s not afraid to go way over the top with it and turn it all into little epics. That’s almost my definition of poetry, so I have to like stuff like that. I’d like to see her take it a lot further, but she’s still only in her early thirties, so who knows where she might go with it.
I’m also sort of getting into Janet Hamill, as sometimes she gives me the same sort of feeling as those weird short stories by Clark Ashton-Smith. But you only wanted one…
This is an insanely long interview that has to end, but I think it’s only fair to give you the last word. Please answer a question that you want me to ask you.
Aw, but Post, man… I forgot it was an interview. I thought it was like a new form of e-relationship we were doing here. Now you want me to ask myself a question??? That’s like getting out of bed all of a sudden and saying, ‘Hey you finish yourself off I’m going for a smoke’…
Okay then, finishing off:
Postman: What would you do about the global economic crisis?
Steve: I’d give the banks conditional credit vouchers which expired after sixty days. Either they bought back into the loans market or they lost their support. Then I’d invent the guillotine for a laugh.
Postman: Knock knock.
Steve: Who’s there?
Postman: (Silence for a while) How was it for you?
Steve: I feel like an impostor about it all. I’m slightly embarrassed.
Postman: It’s nice here looking at the sea, hey?
Steve: Yeah, you don’t normally see it from this close.
Postman: Have you got the fish hooks and the survival stuff?
Steve: Postman, it’s just not right, you can’t do it.
Postman: No, I know. Let’s get a beer or something instead.
Both of them lift from their seats before the huge fishtank, grunt slightly, then head into the kitchen looking for the fridge. There is a crashing sound from outside. Water and tropical fish flood through the doorway. Postman is last seen being borne away into the cellar on a tide of dirty water with a clownfish in his mouth. Steve is last seen swimming for high ground clutching the fridge.
Someone called Mal stands on the mantelpiece in a diving suit watching all this, shaking his head, frowning.
No way I’m getting wet for these fools, he says looking out loud like the mad owlfather from Gormenghast.
The wet curtains come in.
All have come to A Bad End.
Ode to Damask v.i
© Denise Porthun Jankauskas