FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
Abigail Parry: I don’t remember a time when I didn’t. Like most writers, I have a complicated relationship with control, and putting things into words – the right words – seems to me to be a necessary reconciliation. Working towards a state of minimum entropy. There are other ways to get that fix, but it all comes down to conferring some kind of order. Writing is how I get mine.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry.
AP: I began thinking seriously about what poems do – what makes them go – when I came across Maura Dooley’s ‘History’. It fascinated me: you could take it apart, like an engine, and examine every part to see what it was doing; at the same time, it worked a spell, and you can’t see the joins in a spell. It’s a neat paradox, isn’t it? That kickstarted a long love affair with Maura’s work, and a Pavlovian response to Bloodaxe typography.
Many years later, I was working as a toymaker and travelling with a circus. This was 2008, the summer that hula hoops became popular again, and I finished the season with a bit of cash. Life was fairly hand-to-mouth at that time, so I stashed my loot and started researching master’s degrees. Maura’s name came up as course convenor for the writing programme at Goldsmiths. I hadn’t been looking for a master’s in the arts, and the strange thing is that I applied without really admitting to myself that I was doing it: I was whistling and looking the other way as I filled out the form, posted the application, attended the interview. I hoodwinked myself. I often find I have to look askance at the things I really want – the force of one’s full attention can be quite destructive, I think. Maura was my hero and writing was what I loved best, so I had to approach both tangentially.
I couldn’t have asked for a better editor. Maura encouraged me to start publishing my poems – which I did, after a fashion. I made all my initial submissions under pseudonyms, because I wanted to have the option of jettisoning this or that identity if it didn’t work out. I still do this from time to time, and I have a small but tenacious fear that I’ll one day be accused of plagiarising myself.
So – the short answer is that I’ve been stalking Maura Dooley since I was about fourteen.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
AP: Quite apart from anything else, it was a great surprise to me: I’m aware that my stuff isn’t to everyone’s taste. Some of it rhymes. Not nice, dignified, sprung-like-a-dancefloor rhyme, either. Bell-jingling, bolt-in-the-barrel end-of-line rhymes. I’m delighted, though. I’ve got a hard drive full of poems I’ll never publish, because they’re a solipsistic bunch. The ones in the book are those I hoped might work on – and be worked by – someone else.
FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?
AP: At least one poem in the book was written almost a decade ago; the final poem was finished not long before it went to print. So the thing spans ten years – and quite a lot happened in those ten years. Writing regularly tunes you in to the ways in which the existential world runs on poetic tropes and turns, so that one’s life and one’s writing end up exerting a sort of spooky action on one another. It isn’t actually all that spooky, but the mechanisms by which the two are entangled are sufficiently obscure that it feels that way. So yes, there are poems in the book that are of particular significance to me. I don’t know that I want to give away which ones they are: I’d much rather a reader found something that was important to them.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
AP: Maura Dooley for emotional precision. Elizabeth Garrett for her acuity, and her labyrinths. Kate Wakeling for phonic pizzazz. Kirsten Irving, because she’s handy with a knife. Jon Stone, for formal control and sheer joy. John Clegg for lightness of touch. Jen Hadfield. Michael Donaghy. Fran Lock. Recently, Gabrielle Calvocoressi. Edna St Vincent Millay, always. Ah, so many others.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
AP: I had better do something really unexpected, so I can claw back some of my mystique.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
AP: Focus on poems, rather than poetry. Accept that you’ll have fallow periods. Read and listen, widely and closely – not just canon, and not just poetry. And have at least one manual skill, if you can.