Alan Parry Interview: “Poetry should be inclusive and accessible”

Shaun Ponsonby talks to poet and playwright Alan Parry about the release of his debut chapbook, Neon Ghosts.

By Shaun Ponsonby
Tue 16 June, 2020

Planet Slop friend and contributor Alan Parry has released his debut poetry chapbook, Neon Ghosts.

The collection is a series of vignettes of a distant and unattainable America, which has proven to be a very timely subject in the current climate. Throughout, Parry confronts death, criminal lust and love.

Taking inspiration from the painter Stuart Davis, the book paints images we will all recognise from social osmosis and our own lives.

Having had works published by the likes of Dream Noir, Streetcake Magazine, Black Bough Poetry and Porridge, Parry co-founded The Broken Spine, a poetry and arts collective, who have published Neon Ghosts.

Click here to order Neon Ghosts

Planet Slop: This is your first published book of poetry, but how long have you been writing poetry before now?

Alan Parry: Wow, when I think about it, over 20 years. I was one of those who was writing angst poetry at high school. Shit poetry really. But stuff poured out of me. I used to do free writes and try to pick the bones of it (I still do). I hoped to write political stuff like Dylan and Lennon back then. But that’s changed as I have matured. For a while, I stopped writing altogether. I was young and drinking too much and didn’t have time for reading or writing. Then not long after I met my wife, I had an accident at work. I was too afraid to leave my front door even. Eventually I joined the library and signed up for an OU course. Once I was reading again, I was writing again. That’s kind of how it goes. Read. Write. Edit. Repeat.

PS: Has publishing an entire volume of work always been a personal goal?

AP: Yeah, and it remains so. I have lots and lots of work that needs revising and I’m creating more all the time. This chapbook has sated that urge for now. But I’m certainly looking at what comes next. Always. I spent ten years not working due to ill health. I’m making up for lost time now.

PS: How did you initially discover your love for poetry?

AP: It started with song lyrics. The words of The Specials, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa. That was uber early. I was about nine when I discovered Zappa. Lyrics are just so important. Poetry was part of my life growing up though. I remember my Nan reading Revolting Rhymes to the whole family and laughing at A. A. Milne‘s work. Then when I was 14, John Cooper Clarke played the Southport Arts Centre and Dad took me for my first pint (I probably shouldn’t say that). I saw him the following year too. We bumped into him in at the Box Office and I thought he just oozed cool. And I started thinking, to be a poet, eh?

PS: The press release for the book describes it as “a collection of vignettes of a distant and unattainable America”. That statement can’t help but feel extremely timely right now.

AP: It’s a reference to the supposed American dream, and that appeals being the son of a plumber. We all think we know what that means, we all think we know America, it’s in our collective social consciousness. Unavoidable. But how true is that. It’s intangible. The America of the past and the America of the future seem just as unattainable. I’m a passionate advocate of change and championing unheard voices. But do I see real change coming now? I’m reluctant to say yes. The ideals I hold for life seem so very distant. We get fleeting moments, when we have hope that something is afoot. But so often these moments are squandered or trampled. That’s my position on it. But, poetry is beautiful in that once it is out there, it’s yours to bestow your own meaning upon.

PS: There is a very visual style to the poems we have seen from the collection, so I wasn’t surprised to find that you have cited the artist Stuart Davis as an inspiration. What is it about his work that has influenced you for this project?

AP: Well, however much I enjoy the work of Cooper Clarke, I could never write anything like that. It just isn’t within my reach. So my work takes on other forms. It’s quite often sombre in tone, but I try to make it jump off the page. I am wanting to use the page as a tool. The white space is as important as the words and punctuation. What there is of it. Stuart Davis in particular painted striking images, of an incredibly conservative country. That drew me in. I hope to use turns of phrase as he uses colour and shape to capture the ordinary, to present it through his lens and me mine. And I’m undoubtedly a product of many northern British writers. There is a lot of Alan Bennett and Barry Hines in my work for example. But this collection is as if Bennett was writing about mid-20th century New York. What I want more than anything is to be able to paint like that. To have that mastery over the craft. But I don’t. And I can live with that as long as I am able to conjure images with my words that represent that the world, or any other world I’m gazing upon.

PS: Are there any specific paintings that inspired any specific poems?

AP: Yes. Davis’ House and Street, and Owh! In San Pao. They’re just everything that I can’t do with a paintbrush. More, they’re everything I’m not. They’re bold and imposing. But somehow very real too. And that’s the connection I draw. However tenuous, between my writing and his art. But also, Edward Hopper‘s vision of America is very inspiring. Solitary individuals. Often alone in thought. So familiar to us all. I like the banality of Hopper‘s work and the blaze of Davis’ and I hope that I can sit somewhere in between.

PS: How do you go about painting these pictures with words?

AP: Well, there’s a few games I play. Pairing words that don’t or shouldn’t be paired. That’s very basic and something kids or start up writers can attempt. But it is of great value. I list what I see. Then begin to describe them. What can I see in my mind’s eye? What’s there in the room? What are the characters doing? Usually it’s nothing of any note. A man watching school children crossing a road safely. A boy and girl kissing on the stairs. Then, it becomes how can I surprise you? What language choice can I make? Can I show you that particular moment in fewer words? Am I avoiding cliché? Poems are never written by me. Rather they are crafted. From component parts, collected over time. I polish them up and fix them together and present them. That’s my skill, if you can call it that.


PS: Davis is obviously known for his jazz-inspired work, but jazz has its own relationship with poetry, particularly with beat poetry. There’s a certain staccato delivery in Neon Ghosts that chimes with this. Has beat poetry influenced you at all?

AP: I listen to a lot of poetry set to jazz. Those smoke filled bars with bongos and brass. I can’t help but be inspired by what I’m reading or listening too at any one time. I’m an English teacher with a love for mid-20th century literature. Not just the Beats, but definitely including the Beats. And while I find them inspiring, I don’t really try to emulate them. True, some of the scenes could be lifted directly from On the Road or anything by Bukowski, but I think I colour them differently. Through that contemporary British lens. On the page my work resembles that of Robert Creeley, his brevity is something that I seem to have latched onto. I have tried to compose longer poems, interconnected scenes and vignettes, but I think I begin to lose my voice then.

PS: You mentioned some of your influences already, but are there any others that you would cite?

AP: Well, in addition to Barry Hines and Alan Bennett, there’s Stan Barstow and Sam Selvon, and Seamus Heaney and Elizabeth Bishop. They’re obsession with life as they see it. Minutiae. That ability to create a sense of place. I also love Irvine Welsh and Richard Milward. All of these possess distinctive voices and dialects coupled with a tendency to present universal images. But there are many exciting independent poets out there working now too. My co-founding editor at The Broken Spine, Paul Robert Mullen, does some incredible things with pen and paper. There’s an honesty about his work, finely honed and cut to the bone. Justin Karcher, and Stuart M Buck (who designed the cover for Neon Ghosts) are exceptional talents. Elizabeth Kemball, David Hanlon, and Mari Ellis Dunning I admire greatly. They go to places that I can only dream of at this point. Seemingly perfectly happy to point that lens of theirs upon their own lives. Too many to mention really. I’m on the lookout for all the time for exciting voices. I do want to broaden my reading and get to know the work of writers in the BAME community though. I feel for whatever the reason that I don’t see enough of it. I’m encouraging people to share with me their favourite writers of colour. Poetry should be inclusive and accessible if nothing else. And those voices need amplifying.

PS: Strange question, but you said you work as an English teacher. I’m interested to know if you feel any added pressure in the knowledge that your students could potentially find your own work!

AP: Not at all. I’m proud of my output. In the spirit of creating a safe space in the classroom, I have shared my work with year ten pupils. It was totally relevant and I wasn’t tooting my own horn. I’d be delighted to engage with pupils about poetry and literature more widely. And if they come into contact with my work, that’s fine too.

PS: What is it that you hope people take away from the collection?

AP: I want them to find value in the work and a desire to read more. I hope to empower potential writers to craft and submit their own work. And if I can bring joy or offer an escape to readers all the better. Once again though, this work, once published belongs to them, not me. They are free to gleam what they can or want to from it.

PS: Are you eyeing up themes for further volumes?

AP: I am. I’m in the process of writing my follow up, which is more introspective and deals with family and memory more than this collection. Each poem is inspired by fruit, in one way or another. It’s a loose theme, but a theme all the same. I have started reading some of these at online open mic nights and they’re being well received. It’s very exciting.

PS: Are there any other projects you are working on?

AP: Other than completing my PGCE and the continuing work with The Broken Spine I have a few other things going on. I love study and I love my role editing. But I need to find time to be creative once again, with more regularity. I’ll be submitting to journals and ezines again once study finishes up and I might even go back to my short play script. Somebody mentioned co-writing a sitcom to me only this week too. There is always going to be multiple irons in the fire. Rest assured.


Neon Ghosts is available to order now. Click here to get it from The Broken Spine website.