/ 8 July 2019

Week of the Festival: Ledbury Poetry Festival, Ledbury, UK

Difficulty, Diversity and Responsibility

Interview with Sandeep Parmar, poet, critic and professor (by Sarah James)

Sandeep Parmar is Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool, Winner of the Ledbury Forte Prize for Best Second Collection 2017 and Poet in Residence at Ledbury Poetry Festival 2019.

One of the series of workshops that you’re running at this year’s Ledbury Poetry Festival is On Reading and Writing ‘Difficult’ Poems. What is, or might be, a ‘difficult poem’?

That very question is one I hope workshop participants will answer differently (and challenge) but of course there is no one definition of ‘difficulty’ in poetry. Certainly, there are strands of British poetics that invest in ‘accessibility’ and ‘difficulty’ in language and form. What we’ll really be asking is not ‘is this difficult?’ but how should reading and writing, as interdependent practices, demand a level of engagement from us. Difficulty shouldn’t be an impediment to reading but a way to recalibrate, collectively and individually, what we want poetry to do. For me, this is a complexity that interrogates the expressive and authoritative function of lyricism. Possibly every generation feels they are living through ‘difficult’ times, but in our current political moment I can’t imagine wanting to read poems that retreat into simplifying the present. Sometimes this is an ‘I’ assuming a shared space with a reader, or a conservative rhythm or tenor of communal knowledge formulated on exclusion. A difficult poem rises, at the level of language, form, and content, to challenge our relative comfort (though much poetry is made possible by leisured comfort). Ultimately, I hope we’ll find that nothing is too difficult and it would be irresponsible to just seek out those poems that affirm what we expect of poetry and the world into which it speaks.

I like poems where I need to do some work in understanding and love it when poetry leaves enough space for me to interact in this way. But there was a time when I would have put down such a poem and walked away. What advice would you give readers when tackling a piece that might at first feel off-putting? And, following on from this, you’re one of the co-founders of the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics, a Ledbury Poetry Festival mentoring programme to encourage diversity in poetry reviewing culture and are running a reviewing workshop at this year’s festival. Can you talk about the importance of this diversity? 

Yes, poems that leave room for readers are satisfying, they allow us space to shape our interaction with the medium of language in all ways including the symbolic and the constructive (that is, speaking to the archival qualities of words). My advice to readers would be to question your expectations and read generously. Poetry rarely falls into simple categories; how and what we read, or choose not to read, tells us more about ourselves than whatever’s on the page in front of us. I don’t personally believe poetry should affirm what we already think we know—language exists to challenge our interpretations of the world. And I do think most readers of poetry are up for being challenged. Critics should be all the more obliged to fulfil the above, to balance knowledge (of context, aesthetics, the ‘canon’, etc.) with their own taste to develop critical judgements. 

Setting up the Ledbury Critics programme was a response to a concern that Sarah Howe and I had about how the range of critical judgements (and indeed taste and knowledge) were limited by an unrepresentative and rather limited set of opinions (white middle-class men appear most prominently). As blogger and critic Dave Coates found in his report commissioned by the University of Liverpool last year, less than 5% of UK poetry reviews since 2011 were written by people of colour and less than half by women or non-binary people. Thanks to mentoring programmes like The Complete Works, the most recent estimate of published British poets of colour is up by 15% since 2005 (when the date suggested less than 1% of poets published were BAME). I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of diversity in critical culture, but ultimately Sarah and I strongly felt that British poetry culture couldn’t rely solely on these critics to evaluate an increasingly broad and diverse poetry culture. And we discovered a wealth of critical talent through the scheme…and began knocking on editors’ doors.

Your Shearsman collection Eidolon won the Ledbury Forte Prize for Best Second Collection in 2017. It’s a stunning book that the cover describes as: ‘Partly a modern revision of the Helen myth, Eidolonmeditates on the visible and invisible forces of Western civilisation from classical antiquity to present-day America’. How difficult was it to write, given it is as wide-ranging geographically, historically and in literary term as that quote suggests? I was also very struck by your afterword where you talk about an Eidolon as ‘an image, a ghost, a spectre, a scapegoat’ and about silences, and their power. Could you say more ghosts and silence in terms of poetry, contemporary society and our historical archives?

Eidolon was written relatively quickly (and I write very slowly, if at all, these days). The book felt more like a finite period of time than a text, into which images, voices, fragments of observation, research and reading, momentarily rushed. Multiple (blamed, defiled, celebrated) Helens and multiple others, including spectral aspects of beauty and commodity value. The geographical aspects are meant to be hard to pin down. I suppose this is partly because I don’t feel rooted in a national context, as a descendant of Partition refugees who was born of immigrant parents in the UK but lived much of my life in the US and a bit in Canada…. For me, it’s not a book of place, even though America is the most clearly evoked; it’s a book that necessarily draws on the globalised sense of being in many places at once, if one has the privilege to do so. And Helen herself doesn’t stay in one place—on multiple levels, she’s fleeing and being pursued to the ends of the earth and the margins of literary canons and still we almost never hear her speak. 

What are the main difficulties or challenges that you see facing British poets and poetry now, and in the near future?

In terms of diversity, I often worry progress will reverse either slowly or dramatically. I’ve noticed some subtle backlash against the prominence of poets of colour in Britain in the media. We all have to be vigilant (a word I loathe that is used too often in our post-9/11 world). Let us say instead we all have to be responsible. Change is a long game, and British poets of colour also need to question more how they are fitting into the poetry establishment, myself included. For British poetry to fully admit writers of colour into a national tradition (and I do not favour national literary traditions though one has to admit that they exist), we need diversity in publishing, reviewing, and most importantly poetry’s readerships. I don't want to find in ten years’ time that I can still count the number of poetry book editors or book review commissioning editors who are non-white on one hand. That’s just not acceptable. 


Sarah James is a poet, fiction writer, journalist, occasional playwright, photographer, poetryfilm maker and arts reviewer, and editor at V. Press. Author of four poetry collections, three poetry pamphlets, a poetry-play and two novellas, she was also longlisted for the New Welsh Writing Awards 2017 memoir prize and longlisted in New Welsh Writing Awards 2018: Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection.