Ian Parks and his Version of the North.
Ian Parks has just edited ‘Versions of the North’ published by Five Leaves. It is, as Ian points out in the interview, the first poetry anthology to come out of Yorkshire for nearly thirty years. Born and bred in the Midlands, I am guilty of only considering the obvious, when it comes to poets who have emerged from ‘up North’.
The anthology was enlightening and a delightful read, because I was able to easily engage with the poetry. This does not mean that the poetry is simplistic; far from it. Every word counts and each word is used in a way that must be savoured.
Tell me about your background and the influence it has had on your career.
I was born in 1959 in Mexborough, which is a small mining town in South Yorkshire. Mexborough was, and still is to an extent, defined by mining. It was quite a prosperous town in the 1930s and 1940s, but when I was growing up we had the two miners’ strikes and after the big strike in the 1980s, mining vanished and nothing was put in its place. So the place has been in decline ever since.
I left Mexborough when I was 16 and returned eight years ago. I actually live in the house where I was born. My father was a miner, as was everybody on both sides of the family as far back as I can remember. So my working-class background informs where I come from.
I don’t know how I became a poet, because nobody in my family was interested in poetry. The only books in our house were copies of Shakespeare and the Bible, which nobody picked up. So I think poetry first came to me from reading it at school, where I first encountered it in standard school anthologies. Then I was encouraged by a teacher both to read and write poetry. The interesting thing is that the teacher who did that, John Fisher, had also taught Ted Hughes (years before he taught me, of course). What most people forget is that Ted Hughes spent most of his formative years in Mexborough. He was born in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, and he went to Cambridge. But Mexborough is passed over in the official biography and gets about a paragraph in Elaine Feinstein’s biography. But Mexborough is where Ted Hughes went to school and where he wrote his first poems. By the time he left Mexborough, when he’s 18 or 19, he was fully formed as a poet. In fact, he wrote to his sister Olwyn and said, ‘Mexborough made me.’ Mexborough was important. So as I was growing up, knowing that Ted Hughes had lived in Mexborough and started writing his poems in Mexborough, made him a bit of a role model for me. Steve Ely is currently researching those lost years of Ted Hughes and writing a book on Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire. He’s looking at the influence of Mexborough on Hughes.
The mining background invested me with radicalism and a concern for social justice. Going to the same school and being taught by the same teacher as Ted Hughes, gave me an interest in poetry.
I was involved with the miners’ strike but it took me 25 years to write about it. My first collection Gargoyles in Winter came out when I was 25. There have been subsequent collections culminating in The Exile’s House, which came out last year. So in the interim I suppose what I became known for was love poetry. A collection of my love poems came out in 2009. It was only when that was out of the way that I could look back at my experience in the strike and start writing about it. Quite a few of the poems that I wrote about the miners’ strike started appearing in the Morning Star. The poetry editor there, Jody Porter, has done a fantastic job regarding poetry the Morning Star and he published several of my poems as well as a long interview with me. Those poems eventually found their way into The Exile’s House. So after 25 to 30 years, mining started rearing its head again in the poetry.
Even when you’re being radical your poetry doesn’t have a harshness to it.
Somebody once said about the love poems (there is about 80 poems in that collection) that, ‘You’re never once bitter or angry.’ That would be because I’ve never once been bitter or angry in a love situation. There is anger there, but when I’m looking at politics. When Charles Bennett was reviewing one of my collections a few years ago he used an oxymoron to describe what’s happening in the poems. He said, ‘They’re full of tender severity.’ I’m not quite sure what he meant by that and of course those terms contradict each other, but there is some truth in that, I think.
I think there is anger and invective in political poems, but I think what we’ve got to do is always remember that it’s poetry and not polemic. I was very much influenced by WH Auden’s political poems in the 1930s. Auden manages to write poems that are specific to the problem, for example, he wrote about the rise of fascism with all the worries concerning that subject in the 1930s. But he does it in such a way that you can still read those poems at the beginning of the twenty-first century and not feel that you reading polemic. There’s a universality to them. So I think polemic is to be avoided; although anger is not. Anger is one of the impetuses of poetry. Look at Shelley for instance, who was a great political poet. He was angry. But I don’t think we should let the anger get in the way of the poetry. It’s the poetry first and whatever else it’s writing about comes secondary to that.
There is no doubt of your interest in politics, because your doctorate was on the Chartists. How did you discover them?
I’d always been interested in Chartism, because they were the first major, mass, working-class movement for political change in the middle of the nineteenth century. But it took me a long time before I realised they’d written poetry. In fact I didn’t go in search of Chartist poetry, it almost found me. When I was in Oxford and thinking what I would do for my PhD, I was looking in Chartist newspapers to take a historical view of Chartism. Because I did the thesis at Oxford, it gave me access to the Bodleian library, where I was able to source the original primary material. I started looking through old copies of the Northern Star, which was the main Chartist newspaper, edited out of Leeds. It was published for 10 years by the great Chartist leader and nationalist, Feargus O’Connor. As I was looking through the paper, I found every single issue published a poem. This surprised me, as it surprises many people, to find that the Chartists wrote poetry; reams and reams of it. The poetry ties in very closely to the successes and vicissitudes of the movement.
So what I was interested in was the way that the poetry reflected the history of the movement. I’ve put together an anthology of 60 to 80 key Chartist poems between years 1830 and 1848, in chronological order, so that they actually show firstly, the increasing sophistication of poetry and secondly, how they reflect the things that happened within the movement. The anthology will have a long introduction as well, to explain Chartism, Chartist poetry and how they made use of it.
I think what the Chartists were trying to do, at all levels, was not just something political but also economic. Chartism attracted members in economic hard times, shedding them when times got better. But I think, underlying all that, they were trying to create a counterculture. Poetry was central to that. They were writing their own poetry, disseminating it through their own presses and reading it themselves; at the meetings and in an educational context. To some degree they weren’t trying to emulate the poetry of the great Victorians like Tennyson and Browning. They were trying to break away from it, by using the ballads and traditional working class forms to write in. Thomas Cooper, the great Chartist leader and also one of the main Chartist poets, said to young chartists, ‘You must create a literature of your own, reflecting your own concerns, your own sensibilities, so that you may have more respect for each other as working people. Also, that you can understand what needs to be done.’ So he saw poetry as having two functions, firstly something to do with elevating the human spirit and secondly somebody to do with actually helping them to understand their goals and to clarify what their aims were. So Chartist poetry is fascinating, because it’s tradition that gets lost somewhere at the end of the nineteenth century. But they left behind over 1000 poems, written by 350 poets.
Are there any remnants of Chartist poetry left now?
I think Chartist poetry fed into popular song. It comes out of popular songs which are things like ballads and would now exist in things like a protest song. Chartist poetry would be closest to something someone like Billy Bragg might be doing, or Bob Dylan, rather than anything that’s been published in the mainstream press; which is interesting because most of it was written to be sung. So it never wanted to escape the musical background. If you hear a Chartist poem sung, to the music they are intended to be sung to, it makes complete sense. They weren’t written to be read by candlelight on a one-to-one intimate basis. They weren’t meant to be scattered on coffee tables, the way poetry is now. There were meant to be performed to mass audiences.
With so many poems and authors to choose from, how did you decide which ones would go into your book Chartist poetry, The Voice of the People. Chartist Poetry 1838 to 1848?
I’ve had to rewrite the content of my PhD for the book, to make it acceptable for public consumption. So it’s not too footnoted, too heavily referenced or too academic.
Some simply had to be left out because a modern audience wouldn’t be able to relate to them. So the things I had in mind were the most important poems, as far as the movement was concerned and which actually give a flavour of what the Chartist poets were doing. But there was also the issue of the ones that were going to speak to a modern audience. Many of the concerns that the Chartists had are still very much alive and relevant today. So in a sense, it wasn’t difficult and the trajectory I wanted to follow was very clear. The difficulty was making a case for the Chartist poetry. For this reason I found that the anthology needed a substantial introduction to explain who the Chartist poets were and what they were trying to do. Because, for obvious reasons, they not taught at A-level. They are also not taught in English literature courses at university. So introducing them was the most important part of the activity.
For me there was a sense of feeling that these things been dormant for 160 years, with no one reading them for that length of time. Having to say yes or no to particular poems is a great sense of responsibility weighing on me. But it’s wonderful to be able to read these poems after all that time and to be in a position where they been brought to light again.
Has examining Chartist poetry so closely influenced your writing?
I think I’d got my style by the time of doing my doctorate, but I hadn’t necessarily got my subject. So I think what Chartist poetry did was enable me, by looking closely at it, to understand that it is still possible, even at the beginning of the twenty-first century to write popular, accessible, public poetry, with a political conscience.
This issue of accessibility is interesting, because this must been a consideration for Versions of the North. Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry. The whole editing process for an anthology is interesting, because how do you know what to put in and what to leave out?
Versions of the North contains 62 poets; all of them with what I define as a strong Yorkshire connection. So they are Yorkshire by birth, or by having some other connection, for example they’ve lived here for a long period of time, or taught, or worked here.
The last substantial anthology of Yorkshire poetry was published in 1984. So it was edited 30 years ago, by the poet Vernon Scannell, and there’s not been one since. This meant that part of my motivation in producing another anthology was sheer exasperation, because I’ve been waiting twenty years for someone to do one. When nobody did, I suddenly decided that if I didn’t, it might not happen for another decade or so. I was actually in the Vernon Scannell anthology, which is quite sobering because I was the youngest poet in there. Now I suddenly find myself in a position where I’m editing the next one.
There were three things I wanted to do:
1) Include a substantial section of Yorkshire poets who are no longer with us, whose work is beginning to slip away. People like Stanley Cook, Ann Atkinson, Mabel Ferrett, Glyn Hughes, Anna Adams, Frank Redpath, Harold Massingham (another Mexborough poet), Pete Morgan and George Kendrick. Their collections by and large aren’t available anymore, because they’re out of print with no plans to republish. So I felt there was a responsibility to put something of theirs in the book, just to bring them back into the discussion again.
2) Include poets who came into prominence in the last 30 years, who weren’t included in the Scannell anthology.
3) Include poets under 30. There’s a healthy section of poets under 30. All from Yorkshire. Helen Mort in particular, who is Sheffield born and based around Sheffield and is in her twenties.
So ultimately my aim was to include poets who are no longer with us, to try and do justice to the poets who have developed since the last anthology and to promote new, younger poets from Yorkshire as well.
By the time I thought about all that, I guess the contents of the anthology were pretty much set. I then asked for submissions, to make sure that there wasn’t a brilliant poet out there that had slipped through the net. So 40 of the 60 were chosen, then there was room for 20 more and these were sourced through submissions or recommendation. Sometimes a publisher or another poet would suggest someone I’d not heard about before.
I have to say when I was reading the anthology I found it very easy to read. Normally I can only read a few poems and then I have to put the book down and then come back to it later.
That’s credit to the poets, but also I had in mind what you’ve just said, because of my own experience of reading anthologies. I wanted it to be accessible. I don’t want it to just be on shelves in university libraries. I want people who might not ordinarily read poetry to pick it up and find something in it that attracts them. So accessibility was one of the main criteria that help me choose between two different poems from the same poet.
I have spoken to editors who have edited poems for an anthology, even though they have been published before. Did you do any editing of poems for this anthology?
I only did one change to one of the poems. There was one poet who had used one word that I felt was unnecessary. It was a poem that had not previously appeared in print and I suggested to the poet that the word come out, which he agreed to. That was the only intervention I made. The discussion was usually at the level of which poems to put in. If a poet said that a particular poem was very important to them and that it should be in, we would discuss it. Generally speaking it would go in.
I just took it that some of the poems had already been published and were already in print, that they were finished. I took them on at that sort of level, as being finished.
I have to say, there was very little in the way of change or negotiation required with the poets. They seem to be very happy with the choices I made, which made me happy too.
The anthology is arranged chronologically, but doesn’t actually start with the oldest poet and end with youngest one exactly. But it follows the general chronological feel.
On a practical level, concerning editorial work, how did you overcome the issues of copyright?
A third of the poems in the anthology have appeared in collections before. Another third had just appeared in magazines before. The final third were entirely new.
You have to seek copyright. In some cases it was so prohibitive that I was unable to include certain poets. For example, I sought copyright for poems by Tony Harrison, Simon Armitage, Ted Hughes and Donald Davie, but the copyright would have wiped my budget out. For example the Copyright for three Ted Hughes poems would have taken the entire budget for the anthology.
So it seemed to me that people don’t have difficulty finding poems by Ted Hughes and reprinting the ‘Thought Fox’ or something like that. Even though it’s a seminal poem, I began to think was fairly pointless trying to include it. People are aware of this anyway and I can access it easily, so it was preferable to put in a poem by someone like Maurice Rutherford instead.
Generally speaking most publishers were willing to release the copyright as long as they got an acknowledgement, which is what happened. The really exciting thing is that many of the poets wrote poetry specifically for the anthology. They knew I was editing it and instead of offering me poems that had been published before, they offered me new ones. Ian Duhig sent me five completely new poems for the anthology. Generally speaking I was looking at publishing one or two, or at the most three poems by a poet. But when Ian Duhig offers you five poems you’re not going to send any of them back, are you? So he’s got five in there. Other poets like Pete Sansom, Graham Mort and Helen Mort wrote a poem specifically for the anthology, which is gratifying. So anyone buying the Versions of the North anthology will get access to poems no one’s read before, by their favourite poets.
Apart from the length of time since the last Yorkshire anthology, why was it so important to publish another one now?
There’s a very vibrant poetry scene in Yorkshire that’s not always recognised, because it’s so far away from the centre. There’s something that makes Yorkshire poetry distinctive. There were certain prominent Yorkshire poets who, if you mentioned their name in London, nobody would have ever heard of, even though there were very important to Yorkshire. So for example if you mentioned someone like Milner Place or Gaia Holmes in Yorkshire, they would be considered to be major poets. This is not just within Yorkshire, but within the national scene. So there is a sense in which Yorkshire poetry is discreet and self-contained. Not necessarily because it’s been chosen, but because by and large it’s been ignored and marginalised by the mainstream, with one or two notable exceptions, for example, Simon Armitage. So I wanted to try and represent that distinctiveness that exists in Yorkshire poetry.
How would you define this distinctiveness?
It’s not to do with place in terms of subject matter of the poems. If you flick through the anthology you won’t find many poems called ‘Flamborough’, ‘Leeds’ , ‘Bradford’ or ‘Ilkley Moor’. It’s to do with a certain responsiveness to that landscape, a shared sense of identity and place and mostly I found it reflected itself in a straightforwardness in the language, so there was very little evasiveness in the poems. The language is fairly straightforward. I suppose it’s a cliché to think of Yorkshire people as being straightforward, but I found again and again the poems were calling a spade, ‘a spade’. There was very little in the way of evasion and it was generally possible to get what the poet intended in one. I think it’s something to do with the straightforwardness that is in the Yorkshire character.
There’s also something to do with the rhythm of the poems. There are inherited rhythms of Norse and Anglo-Saxon, which is still very strong here, in the way that the language is spoken in the North, which of course is not there in the South. That pulse (as opposed to the iambic pentameter rhythm which has been imposed on poetry), that natural alliterativeness that you get from the Anglo-Saxon, is still very strong in northern poetry. The sound it makes with the flat vowels is distinctive as well.
So I think it’s the straightforwardness, the receptiveness to language and awareness of being away from the centre of things, or remoteness from the centre. There’s also some sense of self-centredness and self-sufficiency. I mentioned in the introduction, Sheffield, ‘The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’, the red flag flying from the City Hall and John Prescott saying that, ‘If Yorkshire was a country, it would have come third in the Olympics.’ It’s that sort of state of mind, which is saying, ‘We don’t really need you. We can manage our own.’ It’s that sense of autonomy that comes through the poetry. It also comes through in the way that poetry has found an audience in the North, as well is setting up distinctively northern presses in Leeds, Sheffield and Hull. Sending out the message that, ‘We don’t need Faber and Faber to publish good poets, we can do ourselves.’ So there’s a resilience here as well. There’s also something to do with the Yorkshire character that is reflected in the poems produced in Yorkshire by the people in this anthology.
There is a great sense of landscape in the anthology. Did you have an underlying theme going on there?
No, but there was a theme. I discovered as I was editing it that the theme floated to the surface. So instead of posing any themes on the anthology, as I was putting it together I could see that were certain correspondences there. One of them is to do with landscape and the other is to do with what happens in the landscape, whether it be farming, industrialisation or even warfare. There are two or three poems in there to do with the battles that have occurred in Yorkshire and the sense of Yorkshire being a place where things are decided. There’s a wonderful poem in the anthology called ‘Towton’, by Stanley Cook which is about the bloodiest battle fought on English soil. If the battle had been fought in the South, we would have never heard the last of it. But, because it was fought an obscure corner of Yorkshire, it’s been forgotten and it’s probably one of the most important battles in British history. It’s to do with the way the landscape is being fought over. That came to the surface too.
So when I started editing the anthology there were no prejudices in the sense of who was going to be in there or what it was going to be about. If there are themes running through the anthology, then they simply made themselves known by shouting at me, rather than me selecting them. I can look at it now I’ve finished it and think, ‘Goodness me, there’s more in there than I ever intended.’
I’m very proud of the poets in that anthology.
The cover of the anthology is very interesting how did that come about?
The cover image ‘Looking for Larkin’ is a photograph taken in Hull, by the Leeds photographer Dan Lyons. Ross Bradshaw and Pippa Hennessy of Five Leaves and I instantly wanted to use it, because it’s vibrant, colourful and engaging. The one thing that we all agreed on was that we didn’t want whippets, pit wheels or cobbles.
Dan is working on a project taking photographs of Yorkshire. So the poetry and the photography come together really well. There will actually be an exhibition of his photographs of Yorkshire at the Flux Gallery on the evening of the launch which is Saturday 20 April, 7.30 pm.