The Escape Artists: An Interview with Ben Parker

Ben Parker, a poet based in Oxford, has recently published his debut pamphlet ‘The Escape Artists’ through Tall-Lighthouse. An alumnus of the Creative Writing MA at UEA, his poetry has appeared in a number of magazines, including The White Review, Under the Radar, and nthposition, and he was shortlisted for the inaugural Melita Hume prize.  

Why ‘The Escape Artists’ – what’s the inspiration for the anthology?

The title comes from the prose piece in the collection, The Escape Artists. The reason the poem has that title is a conjunction of two different ideas. I wanted to write a science-fiction type piece of prose over the years, but I’m also quite interested in ideas of Carnival and the circus. I like the idea of combining the two – having a circus act with a sci-fi element to it – which is what gave rise to that prose piece. When I was putting together the pamphlet and trying to come up with a title, that seemed to summarise a lot of the poems in there. There are a lot to do with escape, and by extension travel and journeys, so it seemed appropriate. Along with Sideshow which is another poem in there with a circus theme, it meant that I could have the cover image which is an American Carnival scene, which for me pins down the idea of entertainment which I think is important to me in my poems. I write mainly to entertain – myself and other people – on ideas that interest and amuse me, and I want to explore in poetry and hopefully interest other people with them.

And what draws you to the image of the Carnival specifically – is it the festivity of it?

It’s more the strangeness, I suppose. I think a lot of my poems tend to be slightly odd character sketches, I’m drawn to odd characters with weird obsessions. I think that seems like something you might find in a Carnival. You have weird sideshows and magicians – oddities.

Why did you choose to write some prose and some in strict verse?

I pretty much only write poetry. I used to play around with prose a little bit … but when I sat down to write the title poem, The Escape Artists, for some reason it came to me as prose rather than poetry. I don’t think I could have turned it into poetry. It is a prose poem, and I think if I tried to tighten it up, give it more meter and a formal structure and line breaks, I think it would lose the energy.

What, for you, is the main difference between writing in verse or prose?

I think the ear is more involved with poetry. It’s also a slower process. When I used to write prose I could write it quite quickly, but poetry comes more slowly because each line is almost a separate entity in a way that it isn’t in a prose piece. I don’t think there’s any relationship between what you’re writing about and the shape of it on the page – some prose writers might disagree with that – but when I was writing, certainly, it didn’t matter when the cursor returned to the left hand side of the screen. That’s arbitrary. But it’s not in poetry, the line break is an important part of it, it adds to the musical element. You regularise more, and you have to focus on the end of the line before you start the next one. You can just keep going in prose, and come back and tighten it up later, but that’s not how I write poetry… Each line is virtually completed by the time I move on to the next one. The editing process is more fine-tuning, changing word order or phrasing.

Do you hold with Ezra Pound’s assertion that poets should ‘Go in fear of abstraction’?

I guess I do. I certainly think it’s sound advice. But you can use abstraction well in poetry. A lot of what poetry talks about are abstract ideas; love, one of the key subjects in poetry, is abstract. You can’t point to it, only examples of where it exists. But in writing about the abstract it’s usually best to use the concrete. I certainly didn’t go through and cross out any abstract terms I had used, but I think my poetry is quite concrete as I tend to write more about characters than about ideas, perhaps.

Ezra Pound, photographed by Alvin Langdon Coburn
Ezra Pound, photographed by Alvin Langdon Coburn

When I read through them they seemed very immediate. Do you think poetry should be accessible?

No not necessarily at all. I’m equally attracted to poetry that seems difficult as that which seems accessible. I love Geoffrey Hill, who is a notoriously difficult poet. But what I love about him isn’t that I can sit down and instantly know what he’s saying, I like the fact that I don’t always understand it and have to look stuff up. Even then I’m not sure I completely understand. But he’s such a talented writer – the music of his verse is incredible – so muscular and densely written, it’s just enjoyable to be taken into his mind and his voice in that way. Not understanding, I think, is a part of it. Certainly he said that about his poetry – people are difficult, and difficult to understand, so why should poetry be any different? I don’t like poetry that is accessible for the sake of being accessible and goes in fear of difficulty, but of course you can have equally strong poems that are instantly accessible. I don’t set out to write poems that people either will or won’t understand, but I think if there is any difficulty in my poetry I don’t think it’s of language or of ideas so much as that the situations are unusual. It’s more about painting a picture that makes people – not depicting accurately necessarily because I think people can see each poem in their own way as well as in the way that I hope it comes across – but the difficulty is one of picturing an idea that maybe you’ve not come across before. Hopefully everything that you need to understand it is contained within the poem.

What sparked your interest in poetry?

I can pinpoint it exactly. When I was at school I wasn’t into poetry at all, I didn’t do English A-level and I did Ancient History at university. I got interested in writing prose at university, fiddling around with short stories and trying to write a novel that wasn’t really going anywhere. I read a lot of novels, caught up on classic novels that I hadn’t read when I was younger. But I still didn’t read any poetry, I think because I thought it would be too difficult; if I didn’t enjoy it at school I didn’t think I’d enjoy it as an adult. Then I was at a house party and overheard two people talking about the Sylvia Plath film that had just come out – with Gwyneth Paltrow – and Plath herself, and recordings of her reading her poetry, which you can access online. For some reason it sparked an interest; I wanted to hear her reading her work, because I’d never considered approaching poetry in that way. So I found some of the recordings, particularly her reading Daddy – it’s such a rhythmical poem, such strong echoes in the open vowel sounds running all the way through almost like a nursery rhyme – I just got it instantly. I didn’t necessarily understand completely what it was trying to say, I didn’t know anything about Plath or her relationship with her father, but it was so musical that I could enjoy it instantly… So I listened to some more of her poems, read through her collected works quickly. Again, I didn’t understand a lot of it as I wasn’t used to reading poetry, but I found it incredibly powerful. The images and sounds of it captivated me. From then on I just kept reading other poets and soon stopped trying to write prose and moved into poetry.

Has she subsequently been quite an inspiration for you?

In a way I don’t think she has. I still really like her poetry and I still return to it but I think what she’s doing is so different from what I’m try to do and could do, that actually I don’t think there are many points of contact between my poetry and hers. I think she was a catalyst for me, but I think there’s very little in her style that I could appropriate as my own.

Your poem ‘The Restaurant’ reminded me very much of her poem ‘Blackberrying‘. I don’t know why – I think it was the imagery of the blackberries on the wall – but then maybe that’s because I’m quite fond of Plath myself.

That’s fascinating. It’s quite hard reading my own work back to ascertain where things have come from. Certainly I wouldn’t think of it directly. But I have read her a lot – more than any other poet really – particularly in terms of time period. I’ve been reading her since I started reading poetry so I guess she must be in there somewhere.

Who are your favourite poets?

Contemporary poets? I really like Don Paterson. I started reading him fairly early on in my exploration of poetry. I walked into a bookshop and didn’t really know where to start. I’d really only heard of a few classic poets and certainly didn’t know any living ones, so I started picking up books in the small poetry section in the local Blackwells. I think Landing Lights had just come out and it seemed to have the most awards and quotes on the back, so I bought that. I try and read as much as possible, but I do tend towards the more mainstream, if any poetry can be called mainstream. So poets like Simon Armitage, Alice Oswald, John Burnside, and Geoffrey Hill. Some American poets as well – I’ve just started reading John Ashbery and I really like his work. The Cambridge school I’ve yet to get to grips with. At some point I should try more avant garde poetry. I suppose John Ashbury is quite avant garde but I find him very accessible. For more classic poets, I love Philip Larkin and T. S. Eliot.

When you say poetry’s not mainstream – why do you think that poetry occupies a periphery in contemporary arts?

I think people are scared of it. Certainly, speaking from personal experience, the reason I didn’t read much is because I didn’t think I would understand it. I think partly this is because of the way it’s taught in schools. Of course my experience of this was a few years ago now, but it’s still taught this way. You were given a poem and you had to go through and explain what the poem was saying and what each line meant. This meant that the poem and the meaning were almost two separate things. It seemed like a puzzle, which will attract some people, but I thought ‘Why aren’t they just saying that?’ Well – they are saying it, and in the only way that they can say it. The way they’re saying it is what makes it a poem, and what makes it true for them. If they said it in a different way then it would be a totally different poem. What makes a poem is a combination of its sense and its sound, the rhythm and imagery, everything working together. You have to look at it as a whole, and I don’t feel that we do. If you’re given a novel, everything is there that you need. All the characters and situations are explained; you start at the beginning of a story, or halfway through – things happen – you reach the end and it’s very clear. With a poem, there’s so much you don’t know when you start. You’re thrown into someone’s mind, in a way. And poems are such small things, sometimes, there’s not room to explain a lot of things which is why they have to be very dense. That’s an advantage of poetry I think, over prose; they force us to constrict our language a little bit. But it also scares people off.

Do you think that there are things you’d like done slightly differently relating to poetry’s position in society, whether it’s teaching in schools or public positions for poets?

I think the recent Poet Laureates have done well, actually. Andrew Motion started the Poetry Archive, which is a great website which has recordings of poets reading their work, and you can buy CDs of their work. That’s a great idea because poetry is an important spoken art and I think people can forget that. I’m less aware of what Carol Ann Duffy‘s doing at the moment but I think she is going into schools and trying to branch out. In schools, I certainly think poetry could be taught better than it was when I was at school. Less analysing the meaning of the poem and more trying to explain why a poem works technically, perhaps, and what you can enjoy in poetry before you’ve even understood it – how the music of a poem works. I think poetry recordings are a good way of doing that.

What do you think poetry can give to people that makes it important?

For me, it can combine sound and sense into one thing. It can be both music and argument, or a story that is close to song. That’s what I like about it – poetry’s pleasure on the tongue. It’s really enjoyable to read poetry out loud. I don’t think people do that very often, but poetry – good poetry – should be able to be read aloud and enjoyed just for the sound. There’s the argument or plot of the poem, where a poem can lead you into a person’s personality or subconscious, their ideas, in quite a personal way. I don’t know whether I think it’s important or that more people should read it. If more people enjoyed it then great – if people enjoy it they should read it. But I wouldn’t try and force it on people because it is something that I think should be pleasurable. I choose to read it not because I think it’s important but because I enjoy it. I don’t get that experience from any other medium, which can do something no other art can. But then music can offer things that poetry can’t; the same for art, films, plays. I think every medium has its own benefits and drawbacks, its own unique way of looking at things. I think it depends what chimes with people’s own approach to art, and what they want to get from it.

Has studying history influenced your choice of subject matter?

It’s possible, yes. Certainly there are a couple of poems in the anthology called From the Histories which are mock historical narratives. So yes, they do have their source in the study of history. But my interest in that subject is sort of waning as the poetry is beginning. There’s no point where I felt they were coming together, and certainly my early poetry didn’t have any debt to historical study.

Where do you think poetry falls in our construction of historical narratives? Can poetry affect the way we interpret history?

Because poetry tends to be a quite short and quite private form, in some ways, there are lots of examples of poems being written in prison, or on the night of an execution, for example. There’s no time to sit and write a novel or a long prose argument about how you are feeling. I think metaphor, as well – the ability poetry has to say things in a veiled way – people could perhaps express opinions in poetry that they couldn’t express in any other way. It’s a bit more subtle. If you sit down and write a prose argument for or against something, there’s no question about how you feel; if somebody reads that they know what you think about this law or that monarch, etc. But if you put it in metaphor, in a poem, it can be both public and private, I think. For example, Wyatt‘s hunting metaphor to express a feeling of love for someone he shouldn’t be in love with.

Do you consciously use the first person very rarely?

I certainly did. When I started writing poetry I was very wary of the first person. It might have been as a result of reading Plath, but I felt that if I started using the first person too much it might become not confessional, but too easy. I would be drawing on immediate personal experience and I would just be writing a diary. I think that is a risk in writing poetry, and certainly a view that a lot of people have about poetry, that in confessional form it’s just a form in which people expose themselves on the page. I wanted to work at my technique and do a lot more reading before I felt comfortable appropriating any personal experience into my poems. So for years I didn’t use the first person at all, until I felt I was comfortable enough using the first person without it being obvious that it was me. I could write a character speaking in the first person and not allow too much of myself to seep into it in an obvious way. It took a lot to feel that I was formally adept enough, or had read enough poetry, to be able to do that.

Do you not like the idea of confessional poetry?

Not for me to write, no. Obviously, I think that confessional poetry can be brilliant. Like any form, there are good and bad examples of it. The danger of confessional poetry is that it can stray too close to being overly sentimental or making ‘truth’ the prime purpose of a poem. The prime purpose of a poem is to be a good poem – whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter. Of course, if you’re as good as someone like Plath, you can be totally truthful and also fantastically skilled. You can mediate your own experience in such a way that anyone can read and relate to the poetry, and not feel alienated by the experience being so personal that you can’t approach it. It’s a great way to write, but not something I feel particularly comfortable with. That said, there are two poems in the book that have specific roots in my own life: Painting Your Voice, and Remembrances. The former moves quickly into the realm of imagination, but the latter is based entirely on actual events, with only slight invention to suit the poem. But generally I’m more interested in inventing a world, and characters that are imagined.

Your poem ‘Heroine’s Bath (after Daniel Eltinger)’ – why that particular artist?

That poem came out of one of the Oxford Stanza Two group. We were asked by the artist to respond to his work; he was doing a show at the Said Business School and was keen to have some poets read in front of his pieces. We were presented with postcards of the works he was displaying there, and I chose Heroine’s Bath, the title of the piece and the name of his painting. We were allowed to choose which painting we wanted to work with, and I was most drawn to that one. It’s very abstract, there’s no indication in the title how you should interpret the painting.

Would you usually draw on paintings as inspiration?

It’s not something that I’ve done very often. I have tried doing it and I’ve felt too constrained. That’s why I liked working with Eltinger’s work; because it’s abstract it’s more freeing. There’s a catalyst there for your imagination to start work with, there’s no risk of you just describing the painting. Obviously, if you’re working with a portrait or a scene you run that risk. I’d avoid that for the same reason that I’d avoid confessional poetry. I worry that I’d stop writing poetry and start stating facts.

Why did you choose the image of the shogun in ‘From the Histories II;’ is that one that particularly resonated for you?

There’s no historical basis for that poem, shoguns aren’t anything I’ve ever studied. That poem came out of wondering how a shogun might choose to defend himself, in a very elaborate way. I had an image of a field of bells as a strange defence system, there’s something almost Baroque about it.

Are you working on another anthology?

I’m always working on individual poems – there was no point where I sat down to write The Escape Artists as a pamphlet. The poems built up and I felt they fitted together. Eventually I felt confident enough to start approaching publishers with it. Even after someone had accepted it I was adding other poems in and others got shifted out. It was quite an organic process, and I think the next one will be as well.

From the Histories II

The Shogun’s palace is surrounded
by a field of bells that always ring,
strung as they are on light ankle-high
wooden frames, designed to catch
the famous breeze lifting from the valley
and fanning constantly the open
courtyards and surrounding landscape
of this magnificent ancient dwelling.
So familiar is the movement of the air
to the Shogun, so deeply lodged
in the bloodline its seasonal changes
and daily agitations, that the orchestrated
music is as predictable to him
as his own heartbeat, and any disturbance
could indicate the advance of assassins
who, well-trained though they are
in the art of silent approach, cannot hear
an individual bell ring out of time
above the din. Even in drunken sleep
the Shogun knows when the tune is wrong
and wakes to dispatch his guards.
Thus his reign continues, and his family
will glorify the earth with their presence
for a thousand years, while their wives
and daughters stuff their ears with wax
and develop the intricate sign-language
for which their line is justly remembered.

For more information about Ben, please visit his website or follow him on Twitter @BenRParker. ‘The Escape Artists’ (reviewed here by Todd Swift) is available from Tall-Lighthouse. Ben will also be reading at Cheltenham Poetry Festival on April 26th, 5.30-6.30pm, along with other Oxford poets; and at the Dorchester-on-Thames Festival on May 6th, 6pm.  

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture and on Facebook

Leah Broad

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