Marías at Sampaguitas
Interview with Alan Parry
We know that you are handling both writing poetry and plays. How do they nourish each other?
I believe that all writing is related to some extent. Especially creative writing, which is a form of expression and perhaps more arrogantly it’s the writer imposing their world view on others. I have tried writing a novel and I if I am honest with myself, at this point, I am not ready for such an undertaking. However, I still have all the same stories and scenes in my head that I want people to see and hear and they have manifested themselves in the form of plays for the stage, television scripts and poetry. The play that I am working on explores themes that are very close to me. I look at loss, old-age, exclusion, love and mental-health issues. This play came almost fully formed. I knew what I wanted to say, and I said it. I’m continuously developing it, looking to introduce other characters and create something a little longer and more substantial but what completing it did for me was to really light the touch paper for my creative writing, especially my poetry. I have toyed with writing poems and songs for years, since my late teens. While the play explores my relationship with my late mother and my maternal grandmother, my poetry began in earnest, some nine months or so ago exploring my relationship with my parents and my father’s family. They are related in that they both began as semi-biographical ventures and it is really the scenes and memories I chose to present that links the two forms.
In your poems your main themes are deriving between everyday life and frozen moments. Do you agree? You’re focusing one moment and there your lyricism comes. Do you think that writing poetry is a way to catch that unimportant moments and change them into immortal moments?
I am obsessed with realism, dirty realism. The gritty, mundane aspects of everyday life. I am utterly turned off by fantasy. I liken my work to old family Polaroids; I hope that it serves as a sort of written photo album. When I have boiled a memory/scene down to an idea that works for me, the lyricism, as you put it, comes next. I do believe in the instrumental force of literature – its ability to evoke change in the reader. But this is not really what my work is about. I set out to capture the world as I see it and present it to those looking to read it. Subsequently much of what I write is intensely personal.
You prefer writing short or micro poems. Why is that? Won’t you write long poems?
It certainly is not that I prefer writing short poems, although that is the way most of them turn out. I will admit to preferring to read shorter texts and perhaps this is why I write this way predominantly. However, I would suggest that this is inextricably linked to the idea of the photograph, to the moment in time that you get with what I prefer to call pithy poems, for the alliteration as much as the meaning. I have attempted to write longer poems in a more narrative style. I am conscious that most of my work is ten or so lines long and I am working to change that up. But, the editing process, that first redraft or two cuts away much of the chaff. I am interested in developing my skill to better link these vignettes that I produce so regularly. I’m 36 now but have only been publishing my work for nine months so I am a relatively young poet. I’m certain that as I develop as a writer so will the form/structure/quality of my work.
You’ve been through a depression for the whole of your adult life and you say that occurred as catharsis in your mind. Can you please expand these moments? How could you lead them into poetry?
I first started taking anti-depressants when I was sixteen. It’s mighty young. Even at that age I was drinking heavily. I wasn’t an addict, but it was problematic. There were family issues, nothing overly serious, or that others won’t have experienced (my parents were struggling to stay together and eventually divorcing). But I know now that I didn’t really understand these issues nor how to combat the feelings/emotions that they aroused. I was angry with the world too, the nineties society I knew was, by today’s standards, intolerant. I was developing my moral compass through the music I listened to and the literature I read, even the comedy I enjoyed. I tried writing songs and poetry and it felt good. I had scraps of paper everywhere, at work in my locker, in my college bag, all over my room with little bits of me scrawled all over them. At school I had wanted to write creatively, but I never got around to studying the craft nor literature itself. Sometimes, I felt I was growing up too fast and I struggled with this. I met my wife young and we have a large family. Further outside influences caused me to hit some real lows, the suicide of my closest friend came shortly after I lost another friend in a car crash. Then there was my Mother’s descent into alcoholism after my parent’s divorce and I was watching her in an abusive relationship that I was powerless to impact and this ended with her subsequent alcohol-related death. I was an adult before I first looked for emotional help in terms of counselling et cetera and as my health improved, I returned to study. I have all these experiences within me and if I don’t find an outlet for them, I am anxious that they will once again engulf me, so for that reason I find writing to be cathartic. Poetry allows me to paint pictures or produce images I cannot otherwise express and my playwriting offers me the opportunity to explore these things in more detail.
When did you first realize your affinity for poetry? What is your “origin” story?
I knew I liked language and how important it was at a very early age. I remember carrying the sleeve notes of albums containing song lyrics to school before I had left primary, so very early on. My Dad always extoled the importance of the words to songs and listened to a whole host of thoughtful and conscious songwriters. But at the same time, I was reading widely and listening to audiobooks and I can remember my paternal Grandmother giggling uncontrollably while reading to me from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. I imagine these memories of laughter and of worldview altering song lyrics and the communal experience really enforced the idea of poetry as something to be created and enjoyed. Moreover, I cannot draw for toffee, nor can I play any instrument with anything more than rudimentary skill, so I set about writing.
Which is your favorite genre to read? Which is your favorite to write?
I love an edgy, barbed coming-of-age novel, or a bildungsroman for those in the know. I like to read about that struggle during adolescence and young adulthood because it often chimes with my own experience of maturation. In terms of style, I enjoy bare, pared language and story which is deceptively simple. In poetry I enjoy the intelligent employment of white space, caesura and line breaks from modernist writers through to the contemporary. I believe these devices give the reader time and the opportunity to reflect on the text as they read. While I am in awe at some of the classics of the literary canon, I am interested in more relatable/accessible work. For this reason, I get excited when I see the description ‘modern classic’ on a book cover.
Do you feel like your poetry falls under a certain category, such as experimental, contemporary, etc.? If you could have your work associated with another poet, who would it be and why?
I think it is clear for anybody that devours poetry that my writing is brutally honest in the way that the work of Bukowski and other New York and/or Beat poets is. I cannot compare myself to them in terms of quality, that would of course be silly. But if people can draw that line between our work, then that would make me happy. I am interested in literature in all its forms that works with things close to home. So, Alan Bennett, Ken Loach, Shane Meadows, Dr John Cooper Clarke, Roger McGough, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Jimmy McGovern all excite me and please me in equal measure.
Do you participate in spoken word/slam poetry? If so, where can we find your performances? How is writing spoken word different from ‘traditional’ poetry?
Poetry slams are not for me. Although performance poetry is something that really turns me on. I have only performed live once. It was a wonderful experience and fresh life was breathed into my work consequently, people were warm and accepting and I will do it again when the opportunity presents itself. In the meantime, I have begun recording some of my work and putting it out on Soundcloud. This is truly in the embryonic stage, but it is something I will be exploring more and more as time passes.
What is your ‘process’ for writing poetry?
I write something every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s a single phrase, a full line, a revision of an old text or something new and fully formed. Something goes on paper. And if not on paper on a useful note taking phone app. I keep a pen about my person when I read, which I do as often as my time permits because it is the lifeblood of any writer, and I make notes on what I think works. I write much more than I publish, and the editing process is a lonesome affair in the main. I am working with an editor as I look to put together a pamphlet of my work, but we’re only working on less than twenty poems. Most often I am doing this alone. And it is a slog. Sometimes you cannot see your way through and as a relatively inexperienced poet I find this to be difficult. I welcome all feedback, no matter how strong. I want to use that, my learned writing habits and my reading to advance as a writer.
Which do you prefer more: writing poetry or reading poetry?
I don’t think that writing and reading poetry are anything like the same beast. I love writing because of what it does for me in terms of expression and the cathartic release. I love reading for a whole other set of reasons. I get lost in books, in poetry and in drama for long periods and am transported to other places and find my emotions are toyed with. I cry and laugh regularly when fully immersed. Writing is entirely different. It’s all about me and what I want to say and how I see things. Eventually, if published the reader will own my work and impart upon it their own meaning. But I cannot say that I prefer one over the other.
When writing poetry, do you write from emotion? What usually inspires you? When putting together a chapbook/collection of poetry, what do you keep in mind? How do you keep it a cohesive piece of work?
I write from experience a lot of the time, Something I have witnessed or done myself. That is the first port of call. First, what I see every day. But I also search out inspiration in the form of literature, of photography; work that already has an audience and I create around my response to it. If somebody else out there feels something similar that’s wonderful. I am an emotional being and my emotions are close to the surface in much of my work, there is often a layer of truth. I try to be honest, sometimes I’m guilty of being too honest. But I try hard to stick to this because that is what I want to consume. However, I will find that my writing will often change with the book I am reading, the drama series I am watching, the music I am listening to. I’m malleable in that way. I enjoy going back and sorting through my work, putting the biographical stuff together, putting the dark together and the light. The collection I am piecing together now has a distinct style and the poems are thematically, stylistically and structurally similar in their properties. If I deviate from this too much the collection will lose some of its impact. However, I understand that I couldn’t put out a full collection of this one style and expect commercial success. People would potentially pigeonhole my work or be critical of my range. I also feel that over a fuller collection the reader would need some relief.
I know a lot of poets/novelists, writers in general, struggle with marketing themselves and their services. Have you ever encountered this feeling? If so, how did you overcome it?
I think there is ample opportunity out there for a poet to market themselves. But there is a caveat. They must be willing to put in the leg work and they must be thick-skinned. There is a world of journals, new and established, with myriad different themes. You will find a home for you work if you submit often enough. It helps if you are tech savvy and open to engagement with other writers, with the journals and editors. I have been working at this for nine months or so and have only scratched the surface. There is a whole world out there, but you must be out there looking for it. Have I ever felt unable to market myself? Not really. But I know that I took risks that others might find uncomfortable taking. My advice to anybody wanting their work to be read or published is jump at every opportunity. Seek out calls for submissions! I use the mantra read – write – submit – repeat. There are also specialised magazines for emerging writers and marginalised voices.
Do you feel that social media has helped poets? Why or why not? If so, what platform do you believe has helped you the most with marketing yourself?
Social media has been a fantastic tool for me in terms of everything I spoke about in my last response. Twitter is brimming with friendly, creative, supportive folk. I am yet to get any negative feedback. That is not to say that all my work receives a hugely positive response. It doesn’t. But the worst experience I have suffered is indifference and I can live with that. There are Facebook groups and pages out there too and probably other platforms. But Twitter is where I spend my time as a writer. It is free, simple to use, and has been very good to me to this point. And I will reiterate that I have barely scratched the surface. But I have discovered countless submission calls and people I could probably call friends as a result of my engagement with likeminded folk. And therein lies the key. If you are not engaged, you will not find success on any social media platform. It also helps to get yourself a website, somewhere you can drive and measure traffic. This can be free with a template style site (i.e. Wix); or you can pay a small fee for a domain and extra for all your other needs. I am fortunate to have enough contacts to keep that cost at a minimum. This is something I have to be mindful of. It’s advice I wish somebody had given me sooner.
What are your methods for overcoming ‘writer’s block’? What do you do when you can’t seem to find inspiration?
Writer’s block comes to all of us. But I think the trick is not to worry. Just keep the same habits, read, revise, immerse yourself in music, books and literature. Get out and about. Watch people. Free write first thing in the morning. Make notes or highlight your reading books. I doubt the drought will last forever. I play word games, write lists and pick up my guitar. I don’t think you can force the issue, nor do I think you should. But you should keep the good habits up, in eager anticipation of the returning muse.
A lot of writers struggle with time management. Do you have a day job? If so, how do you balance work, writing (poetry and your novel), family, and personal time?
I do have a day job at the time of writing. But I leave in August to train to teach English. I make creative use of my lunch break and commute. This is part of the reason I use my phone to take notes. It’s a practical issue. However, I can fully appreciate the time-management problem and realise the amount of self-discipline that is required. When I leave this position, I will build time into my days and weeks to fulfil my obligations first as a father and husband, then as a student-teacher and lastly as a writer. But writing is my hobby, it is what I do with my personal time. I might feel differently in a few years, if I am ever able to do this for a living. Right now, I don’t have any problems making time for me to engage in my favourite pastime.
What do you want the readers to know about you?
Readers should know this about me, that I am aware of my privileged position as a white man. I understand that what I say about being in the game, about being thick-skinned and seeking out opportunities is not the same for everybody and that for those in some sections of society the chances are less frequent. But, just like my advice to anybody suffering from writer’s block, you must keep good habits. Letting this slip will only hamper your opportunities. I am in my mid-thirties and suffering with mental-health problems, but I know from recent experience that my drive to get work out there serves to highlight that it is possible to become a writer at any time, whatever your background.
What change would you like to see within the writing community and why?
I despise the elitism that I have come across on occasion. I think that a shaking up of the literary canon is always a good thing. Those that curate such things ought to be progressive and judge literature fairly. Popular does not equate to inferior.
Where do you expect to see yourself (as a writer) in the next five years? The next ten years?
In the next five years, I hope to have had my chapbook published. Maybe even have a collection out in paperback or similar. I’d also love to see my play hit the stage. These are realistic targets, I think. But they are also dreams. What I want more than anything is to be a better writer. I want to still be enjoying what I do, because if it ever became a chore, I know it would be time to stop.
Are there any immediate events or publications that you have coming up that you want the readers to know about?
I have some poems due to be released in several journals and ezines, Night Music Journal and Bonnie’s Crew are just two examples. I am also working hard on my pamphlet manuscript which I expect will be complete just after Christmas. Perhaps most exciting is the journal a friend and I are looking at starting up. It is very early stages. We have a name and a vision, but we need to get together and thrash a few more things out ahead of opening for the first round of submissions. I hope that this will happen this autumn. But mostly I will be continuing to read widely and write as often as I possibly can.
Interview conducted by Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu, who is the Interview Editor for Marías at Sampaguitas. She is an author from Turkey, enthusiastic traveler, Feminist activist, and Mother of four cats and countless animals all over the world. Full-time resident in Georgia, escaped from the oppression in Turkey. Has 5 published books in Turkish. For further information: www.nazlikarabiyikoglu.com.