August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Sandeep Parmar by Olivia Tatum
Author Page at Shearsman
1. When did you start writing poetry?
I started off as an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles studying Biochemistry, but I found myself enjoying my English Literature classes much more and neglecting to study for Physics midterms…finally, via a year doing Art History, I signed up full-time to English and found myself in a situation of total incompetence in Creative Writing workshops led by poets like Stephen Yenser and Harryette Mullen. My sense of embarrassment being around serious poets was a wake up call and made me think about what I wanted to do with my work, instead of just jotting things down in a juvenile manner. From there I focused seriously on writing poetry, and more importantly reading it.
2. What was your first experience of being published?
I honestly don’t remember—probably I was about 18 or so. I hope whatever it was never surfaces.
3. Which other poets inspire and/or influence your writing?
That’s always a difficult question to answer—and saying so will, I hope, make it clear that mine is an incomplete and inaccurate list including everyone from James Merrill and Mina Loy to Anne Carson and Christa Wolf (who, admittedly is a novelist) to Derek Walcott and Ilya Kaminsky. My partner, the poet and editor James Byrne, has over the past 7 years made me a better poet exponentially by exposing me to writers whose work wouldn’t have otherwise crossed my desk and by looking at my work with a critical and extraordinarily perceptive eye. But I am more often inspired by something other than poetry, than by poetry itself: archives, fragments of text, family history, silences, rumours, myths, religion, painting…
4. Do you think strong emotion is needed to make a good poem?
Well, certainly in terms of women’s poetry of the twentieth century, strong emotional content in a poem has been problematic. There is the bias that emotion—especially female—is watery, loose, ephemeral, even dangerous, and anyway has no place in art of the intellect. I’m certain that some people think those days are over, but I’m not so sure. Since the Confessionalist poets, modern readers of Anglo-American poetry look to want more distance, more reflection, more the conjured anecdotal thing than that which lives and questions as threat. Perhaps that is only my sense—that we are moving away from the personal, partly towards a populist universality that reflects the ‘art for the masses’ mentality of government budgets—yes, probably I am being unfair. Or we have become too afraid of losing an audience by being obscure or personal (and this isn’t of course true for certain poetic communities that rather thrive in either/or). For my own work, I am interested in the force required to control strong emotion, which must by turns be as equally strong as it is less and more so. The tension is where the poem exists, for me. But I do remember, many years ago, during my MA in Creative Writing, that my tutor (a man) scribbled ‘sp’ up and down the margins of all my poems. I was baffled by this—did he mean ‘spelling’? Well, ‘sp’ are my initials, so what? As it happens, he meant ‘Sylvia Plath’. And he didn’t mean it as a compliment. ‘SP’ translated in his mind as: ‘these poems are too emotional, too wrought, too volatile’. Total copout I thought, to put it nicely. But also worryingly misogynist.
5. Is there a particular process you use when writing poetry?
Like many ‘maturing’ poets (I would say ‘emerging’ but that’s becoming cliché, as my partner likes to joke ‘emerging from where?’) my process has changed dramatically over the 15 years of serious writing. At first I had little else to do, I think, than write and draft and my mind was much more open to the will of the imagination. Now, and especially during my PhD—a rigorous and humiliating mental process that divorced me irrevocably from my ‘inner instinctual reader’—I write less than I’d like. Nowadays the incipient poem has really to break the door down to be heard and, yes, to extend the metaphor, most times they just freeze out on the doorstep.
6. Is there an aspect of your life that is particularly influential on what you write?
The sense of self-exile, of inheriting exile as an internal condition rather than a situational reality—my grandparents suffered Partition and then moved to middle England in the 1960s, my parents moved to the US in the 1980s and now I live back in England having no particular sense of belonging anywhere but with the handful of people I love. There’s a great deal of loss and wasted opportunity and diminished expectations in the lives of immigrants and these all play into my writing. And of course the issue of nationality, of race, of immigrant women’s lives, of those uncomfortable differences that society ignores at its peril. I sense my work becoming increasingly political in the bogus age of Tory austerity, of pointless spending and even more pointless cuts—our love affair with floral prints and union jack cupcakes and the senseless and profligate monarchy give me the sense that we’re devolving as a society and that worries me. I suppose it boils down to feeling alien and betrayed by the places you were supposed to belong to. But that’s surely one of the anxieties of the exile.
7. What was your inspiration behind ‘The Octagonal Tower’?
My father’s mother died when he was only 2 years old in an Indian village with little defense against the too-often deadly affects of childbirth. For years he was lied to about where she was but he realized at about 5 or 6 that she wasn’t coming back. And then one day he found her photograph, taken the day she died, with all the family around her. Years later, he was shipped off to England to marry my mother—and this second loss, of his entire family and country and childhood—was coupled with a sort of replacement in a young and mostly Westernized Indian wife. As my mother says, when an immigrant leaves they are forever trapped in the year of their arrival (also the year of their exodus). I think this is certainly true for my father, whose love of history—‘the love that enters us through death’—connects him to an unrealized present.
A poetry editor once told me that ‘The Octagonal Tower’ was really only written for my immediate family and had no resonance for the general reader. Maybe he’s right. But more importantly the poem was written to explain something to myself.
8. What would be your advice to someone who was interested in getting their poetry published?
Don’t be too eager and the longer you wait (within reason) the better you’ll probably get at it, especially if you’re young. And once it’s published you can’t really take it back. As a literary critic I’ve seen poems unearthed from the past 100 years take their rightful places as having outshone and outlasted the cotton-wooled specimens of coteries and isms and prizes. So don’t be put off by who’s popular now—if it’s any good, they’ll love you when you’re dead.