Andrew Parkin, born and educated in England, emigrated to Canada in 1970 and has published his poetry in Canada and elsewhere ever since. He is a member of the Canadian Writers’ Union, the League of Canadian Poets, and Adviser to the Chinese Canadian Writers’ Association. He now visits Canada every year but lives in Paris, where he is Chairman of the Paris Decorative and Fine Arts Society. His poetry books are Dancers in a Web (Turnstone:1987; rept. 1991), Yokohama Days, Kyoto Nights (Ekstasis: 1989), Hong Kong Poems (Ronsdale: 1997; rept. 1999). At Chinese University (La Cour Pavée, Paris: 2000), The Rendez-Vous (Peter Lang: 2003), Shaw Sights and Sounds (Shaw College, Hong Kong: 2006), Bird’s Egg (La Cour Pavé, Paris: 2007). His poetry has been chosen for seven anthologies and been translated into Chinese, German, French, and Hindi. His “Four Treasures” was displayed for a year in the B.C. transit system; “Models” was featured in shop windows for a Hong Kong Poetry and Fashion Month. In 1997 his twenty three weekly broadcasts on poetry for Radio Television Hong Kong were used also in schools and universities. He gave three readings in Toronto in 2007.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
Yes. I was visiting Japan in about 1965 when I first saw Japanese theatres and visited the home in Tokyo of a famous actor. It inspired a poem about the visit. A performance by the same actor in the World Theater Season at the Aldwych in London, U.K., inspired another poem. These were later published in Ariel and I realized I could be a real published poet. I have written and tried (it’s not easy!) to publish poetry ever since.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
As always in my own feelings and the people, places, events, actual or part of history or legends, and works of art, that move me in such a way that an inner voice starts to speak. Poetry suddenly appears. You can’t miss it. Where does it come from? I don’t know but it seems to be both inside and outside the writer.
What is your writing process?
I never force verses. When this inner voice starts to speak I write down what it says, quickly, without bothering about grammar or trying to be literary. It’s a voice speaking to other people. I know that the experience will probably lead to a poem. If I find some phrase or bit of experience that needs more knowledge, more facts, I look things up in handy reference books or on the internet. Sometimes I need to consult a few books. Some writers put me in the mood to continue with a poem. I make notes and allow lines and half lines to surface. I do not seek rhymes or verse forms. Each poem will find its appropriate form. I jot down a mixture of prose and verse, using often for the verse a number of strong beats, perhaps three or four per line. Sometimes I find rhymes cropping up naturally, sometimes not. There is no rule I follow but my own thoughts and feelings and what I think needs to happen next in the mess I am gathering! I don’t mind writing down rubbish. I can cut it later. Sometimes a gem appears. In “Last Reel” I found enough rhymes to make a sonnet. I cut and rephrase and cut. This is a sort of shaping process. I am always reading aloud what I have jotted down. Poetry must have its own music, even if it isn’t always a song. When I think I have finished a poem, I print out what I have and put it away for at least two days. Then I re-read aloud slowly, word by word, line by line. Each word in a poem must count, must have a need to be there. I learned from Chinese poets in Hong Kong to cut as much as possible. My poem “Four Treasures” started with 42 lines in what I thought was a good draft. It finished up with six lines! I don’t try to make abstract “great thoughts” and “politically correct” ideas. I want actual, real experiences and feelings, images from real life, like the video-recorder in “Last Reel” or the world wide web in “Seeds” (see Dancers in a Web). I try to find the right voice for the poem. Sometimes I use different voices in the same poem. I find endings but poetry doesn’t in fact end. I bounce one poem off another. I am sometimes moved by a picture or a statue. The poem ricochets off the work of art. I like to make a montage of one poem against another in a sort of dramatic dialogue between poems. For this reason, the final stage of writing for me is the arrangement of poems in a sequence.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
Yes, when I was about thirteen. In a music lesson we were singing “I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair.” After school a bunch of friends had met some girls. The prettiest turned out to be called Jean. When I got home I immediately wrote a variant on the song and put it in a love letter to Jean. When I saw her again, I gave her the letter. She and a group of girls giggled about it and I blushed. It took me about two years to live that down at school! I stopped trying to write poems. Then when I was sixteen I met some boys from a different school who wrote poems. So I tried my hand at it. Then I became friendly with a guy called Roy at my school who wrote poems better, I thought, than mine. I kept trying to improve. At eighteen he died of peritonitis. I vowed to keep writing poetry, in a way, because of Roy. It was, I guess, a way of keeping him alive through words.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
I use The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and sometimes refer to The Princeton Dictionary of Poetry & Poetics. I refer regularly to the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary, because of its detailed lists of uses of words by different writers over the centuries. I also listen to current popular songs. A few of these are very good poems. These sing of what is moving or significant to huge numbers of people and singing it in the language people use.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
a) I would like to have been advised that rejection slips are received by most writers. Harry Potter was rejected by fourteen different publishers. Their editors had different interests, or had different taste, or thought the book would not sell. Rejection does not mean you should give up. Put the rejected work away for a week and then re-read it. You might see ways of improving it. You might discover that its subject fits perfectly the publications of a different publisher. Try again. Literary fashions change.
b) I would like to have been shown a brilliant poem with some key words obscured by peel-off labels and then asked to think of good words to fill in the gaps. Then I would like the poet to help me see why this word was the very best one to use. But you can do this for yourself. If you find one of your words seems better that one of the original ones, you know you are not wasting your time!
c) I would like to have been told: Use your own speaking voice. Don’t try to sound like T.S. Eliot or Margaret Atwood. Don’t try to be literary. Be a person speaking to her or himself, and to other people. Poetry communicates with others. If it is so obscure only the poet can understand it, it is useless for the public i.e. other people.
d) I would like to have been told: Don’t think that there are dogmatic rules. When a piece of writing works, it doesn’t matter if it is so-called free verse, or metrical, or syllabic, rhyming, or unrhymed, using a traditional form or creating anew one, open-ended or clicked closed at the end, is religious or not, is political or not, is simple or difficult. I would like to have been told, though, that poetry can just exist, being about anything, and that it is musical speech. If it has no music, it has little chance of moving us or creating atmosphere and feeling.