Sandeep Parmar

An Interview.

Maria Isakova Bennett

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Sandeep Parmar was born in England and raised in Southern California. A poet and a critic, specialising in modernist women's writing, she received her PhD from University College London and her MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. Her books include: Reading Mina Loy’s Autobiographies: Myth of the Modern Woman (Bloomsbury), a scholarly edition of the Collected Poems of Hope Mirrlees (Carcanet) and the Selected Poems of Nancy Cunard (Carcanet), and two books of her own poetry: The Marble Orchard and Eidolon (Shearsman). Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Guardian, Poetry Review, The Times Literary Supplement, The Los Angeles Review of Books, the Financial Times and the Times Higher Education. She is currently writing a novel partly about India’s Green Revolution and hybridised wheat, for which she has received an International Artist’s Development Fund Grant from the Arts Council/British Council. She is a BBC New Generation Thinker, a curator of the 2016 Liverpool Biennial and Co-Director of the University of Liverpool's Centre for New and International Writing where she is Senior Lecturer in English Literature.

Maria Isakova Bennett: In your interview for ‘I don’t call myself a poet , you mentioned, ‘Since the Confessional poets, modern readers of Anglo-American poetry look to want more distance, more reflection …’, I wonder: what do you understand confessional poetry to be in contemporary poetics – and what do you see as its place?

Sandeep Parmar: In recent years, confessionalism has increasingly found a way into UK poetry through younger writers influenced by postwar American poetry. This reflects changes (more international leanings, at least across the Atlantic) in reading habits by a certain generation of poets likely to be in their late twenties/early thirties. My sense of British poetry when I arrived in the early 2000s was that someone like Sharon Olds—a pillar of US poetry working in a confessional mode—was not be read favourably here. Now that’s changed. As for the Confessional poets, themselves an historical grouping, I don't know if they are as revered as more contemporary counterparts whose writing involves a level of self-conscious self-revelation, again coming mostly out of the American tradition. And yet the poets Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Robert Lowell aren’t as well loved as the New York School poets who are seen as more modern still for their use of irony and urban wit, though the Confessional poets were plenty ironic and witty. It’s a different form of double-sided detachment one finds in NYS poets and their inheritors—and a different relationship to language and, particularly, the lyric voice.

MIB: what do you think might be the cause of this alternative direction?

SP: I suppose one could sum this up to the darkness of trauma, our contemporary unwillingness to let the confessional mode confess anything of any greater importance than our own daily lives, locked as we are to urbane sanity and disaffection. I favour work that has an ethical and political reason to exist. This isn’t exclusive of lyric but our focus on displacement by mundane life and political apathy is, frankly, boring. And it’s dangerously anti-intellectual.

MIB: In relation to confessionalism, I’m interested in what you say about a current ‘unwillingness to let the confessional mode confess anything of any greater importance than our own daily lives, locked as we are to urbane sanity.’ I wonder if you could expand on this and give examples of how this unwillingness is apparent?

SP: Back to someone like Robert Lowell, whose confounding technical brilliance with the line and even traditional form—something I myself don’t necessarily favour or practice—is always matched by both an inwardness for the personal anxiety, the tragic, the painful, and a worldliness that puts one person’s grief in a wider context. I would hesitate to say that the universalizing of lyric suffering is an antidote to the ‘urbane sanity’ I mentioned above. But I see them as related somehow: there’s an ethical flaw in appropriating the world into one’s own grief but it's a far greater ethical failure to presume that your grief supersedes that of the world at large. How does the poet mediate their own suffering—or desire, the two great themes of love and loss—while still speaking both to the vast tradition of literature in which they sit and to the people for whom they are writing? The answer isn’t to recede into complacency because what we say can have no political or moral purpose beyond ourselves. Nor is it to self-aggrandize the function of poetry—though many of my favourite poets do this: Nancy Cunard’s work is an exceptional example of polemical poetry driven to the sole purpose of changing the state of the world. She is clear about this and her passion drove her to the point of physical and mental exhaustion and a tragic death. Sometimes it’s brilliant, like Cunard’s poems about the Spanish Civil War and World War Two, both of which she experienced first hand as part of resistance movements. Other times it’s overly didactic, detached from the ethics of seeing. I’m reminded of a poem in her archive that’s an acrostic sonnet called ‘INTERNATIONALS’. It’s overblown and as bad as it sounds. But on the whole she gets it right. And I’d rather read a poet who’s unafraid to be bombastic than one who hides behind lyric indeterminacy unafraid to make any kind of statement at all.

MIB: Could you tell me some of the contemporary poets you might recommend to students?  I’m thinking of your comment about favouring ‘work that has an ethical and political reason to exist.’

SP: Nothing good can come of poets who write pithy anecdotes about their everyday lives and wish to entertain us with small revelations. Perhaps this is high-minded, but I remember something my extremely high-minded first creative writing professor at UCLA said about a poet who was doing that very thing: ‘Poetry won’t have him’. At first that sounded a very elitist thing to say but then I thought, well, why not? Poetry shouldn’t be easy. Unsettling ourselves from the immediate world through whatever means possible ought to be the goal of poetry that one writes and one reads. It should make us uncomfortable. The enemy of poetry is the satisfied ‘aaaahhh’ from the assembled audience who, on recognizing herself in the reader’s work, scrabbles to buy the book. The best poets are often the widest readers, and we shouldn't be afraid to hear a poet reading their own work, to be challenged by the breadth of their knowledge and the emotions that emanate from their journey through the world via books.

We worry too much that poetry shouldn't be polemical. This is terribly bourgeois of us. Poets that have moved me to think ethically, politically, who have changed my aesthetic or made me think radically about all manner of things, recently, include Americans like Juliana Spahr and Bhanu Kapil. I recently read with the British poet Sean Bonney at the UEA Poetry Festival and his radical post-crisis poems are blisteringly direct and sharp. Less direct but no less politically radical are the poems of the Irish/British poet and Blakean Niall McDevitt. The Indian/French poet Karthika Nair’s feminist revision of the Mahabharata, Until the Lions, is fantastic as is the Moroccan poet Rachida Madani’s Tales of a Severed Head, a contemporary feminist retelling of the Scheherazade myth, beautifully translated by Marilyn Hacker. Of my contemporaries, I continue to learn from the Belarussian poet Valzhyna Mort’s Collected Body, the Russian/American poet Ilya Kaminsky, whose Dancing in Odessa is a masterwork, and slightly less contemporarily the work of D.S. Marriott and the late C.D. Wright. So much of my daily work sees me immersed in literary modernism, which means that contemporary poetry, for me, has to be technically, linguistically and intellectually challenging without sacrificing the (yes!) meaningful relationship between the poet and her world.

MIB: You reference archive material in your work, which is interesting especially in Archive for a Daughter.  Can you tell me about the source material for this particular work, and how you went about the composition of the work?  Also can you tell me something about the difference between how American and British poets approach both documentary and archive in poetry?

SP: ‘Archive for a Daughter’ was written back in 2007, I think, at the end of my PhD work on Mina Loy. Initially, I thought I’d write my thesis about her poetry—and psychoanalysis—and I have my supervisor, Rachel Bowlby, to thank for picking up on much more interesting material I was uncovering in Loy’s archive at Yale. Loy’s several autobiographical manuscripts are unpublished, and brilliant, and there are reasons for their unavailability that make absolutely no sense. However, the arc and organization of lives in the archive was, and has been for many others, appealing as a way of thinking about silence and authority. Susan Howe’s excellent work with women’s lives and archives, as well as textual/historical forms of authority, are an obvious example, as is Anne Carson’s to a lesser extent. In Derrida’s Archive Fever he makes much of the totalizing assemblage of fact as a site of power and I think this is felt even more strongly in the ways we evaluate women’s lives—Loy is no exception to this. She was born British, but rejected England and critically has been taken up by American academia as one of their modernists (she did get US Citizenship late in life and of course lived there for several years off and on). If we took Loy back—and some have tried, like the excellent poet-critic Sara Crangle—in the UK where would we put her? She’d sit uneasily next to our token female British modernist Virginia Woolf. Loy’s indictment of Victorian British society in her autobiographies—and in her anti-imperial poem ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’, in the 1991 Carcanet edition for British readers—is all the more reason to embrace her into the British canon of modernism. But where we ‘place’ women writers, thinkers, historical figures, or even our own mothers in the largely male narrative of history is crucial to us as women and as writers ourselves. My poem is an attempt to understand my mother’s life as a young woman in England, mostly, and how her inbuilt sense of being an immigrant—and the violence that it meant in the 1960s and 70s—set her on a course for the rest of her life. Hers was a world under siege. One of her first real strong memories of England was Enoch Powell’s speech whilst she herself was living near Wolverhampton. This is not an unusual case. I inherit the discontinuous narrative of her life and I listen to the things she’s not saying as I do in my archival research on lost modernist women poets. Importantly, in terms of structure, what the archive gives us is not the chance to re-piece these lives together seamlessly, but a sense of the power that creates silence, gaps, discontinuity.

MIB: I wonder if your position as Co-Director of The Centre for New and International Writing gives you the opportunity to introduce the literature you feel important, and if you could tell me something about your rationale? I’m thinking for instance about writers such as, Sujata Bhatt, Sudeep Sen, Karthika Naïr, Janne Nunmela, Katariina Vuorinen, and Sigurdur Palsson

SP: My co-director, the poet and critic Deryn Rees-Jones, and I were clear from the start of the Centre that what we hoped for was to create a space that was truly international—something we felt not enough literature organisations and Universities were prioritizing. In times like these, the age of Brexit and a new Foreign Secretary who believes the British Empire was a force for good, I feel even more strongly that we have to keep looking out beyond our diminishing borders. I would go as far as to say that it is unethical, always but especially now, to read, write and promote poetry from only within our country. The arts should be a way to slow the backslide into nationalism, and to encourage dialogue. A younger generation of poets is learning from translation and from reading more widely outside of Britain. This gives me hope.  

MIB:  Your response relating to the hope you sense in a younger generation reading more widely outside of Britain is the first light in the gloom I’ve felt in these post-referendum times.  I wonder if you could tell me something about your view of teaching creative writing in British universities compared to the US approach?

SP: Having chosen to study creative writing in the UK instead of the US, I have a certain bias already and have taught in both countries and indeed studied in both, too. And, as I alluded to earlier, things have drastically changed in the fifteen or so years since I completed my MA in creative writing at UEA. Not just in terms of publishing platforms, a proliferation of various outlets, events, and a co-mingling of American and British poetic aesthetics diverged since the second world war. I see the approach to teaching at MA level (or MFA generally in the US) as quite similar workshop-based methods coupled with a focus on publishing on some scale. The professionalizing of the younger poet in the past decade is a slightly worrying turn perhaps, as is an eagerness to publish younger writers who may not have quite hit their stride on the basis of their appeal to a new audience of young readers. On the one hand it’s wonderful that young people are more involved in poetry as readers or writers. On the other hand I worry that this crystalizes their style into a ‘brand’ built around established modes of the post-war Movement lyric tradition and we have yet to see how these poets will mature. Perhaps not coincidentally, we’ve fallen into a feverish 24-hour news cycle of poetry. But not all good poetry is ‘breaking news’. As Reviews Editor for The Wolf magazine over the past decade, I’ve been fortunate enough to read and publish writers and interviews and features on international poetry and poetics, and this has undoubtedly made me a little cynical about nationalized traditions and their comfort zones. Recently, I taught a class for San Diego State University’s creative writing MA (run by Ilya Kaminsky and Sandra Alcosser) and found the students there to be truly, almost brutally, engaged in the social ethics and wider stakes of poetry—they hold themselves up to a very high standard in ways I have yet to see in the UK. I really felt that they saw poetry as a life-long vocation—inspired as they are by the breadth of international reading and the vast knowledge of their teachers—rather than a particular style of skill that can be mastered in one or two years.

MIB: Could you tell me about current influences and any new work you’re creating at present?

SP: At the moment, I’m in Paris writing a novel about the Green Revolution in India in the 1960s. I come from farming stock in deeply rural Punjab. The momentous shift—economically and ecologically—that came with hybrid, ‘high-yield’, wheat seeds led to various breakdowns in the social and cultural fabric. I’m interested in how money and migration and education scattered my family across three continents and what it means to be someone who has no ‘real’ home nation from choice, partly, or is it a choice? Bhanu Kapil’s brilliant books, Schizophrene and Ban en Banlieue, have been absolutely essential in thinking about the same migratory route from India to the UK and on to the US. It’s a typical diasporic leap, but it’s a long jump taken over several decades from the Partition of India and Pakistan to the present day ecological and political battles about water shortages, land disputes, farmer suicides, multinationals like Monsanto, seed slavery, overfull grain stores, the hoarding and global pricing of food in times of war and mass migration. I’m also reading a lot about the history of wheat since antiquity, stuff on wheat genomics and I spend a lot of time wandering around the wheat and barley fields near where I live in West Lancashire when I’m not taking any opportunity to go back to my family’s farm in Punjab. On the note of diaspora, I’m continuing my work on UK and US poetry and race, which I began thinking about with an essay for the LA Review of Books last year, and I’ve just finished an edition of Nancy Cunard’s poems which will be a doorstopper of a book.

MIB: Fascinating new work! Sandeep, thank you so much for your generous responses which have been enlightening and given wonderful insight into your own work and into contemporary poetry internationally. I look forward to reading your new work and to future events at The Centre for New and International Writing.