The ‘Getting to Know You’ series was started in 2016 in order to help students get to know their lecturers better. The following interview aims to find out what they are like as people and what their experiences were like as students, as well as their areas of interest.
My contribution to the series features an interview with Sandeep Parmar, Poet-Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool. As anyone who has been taught by or had the chance to speak to Sandeep will know, she is warm and welcoming, as well as outspoken on contemporary literature and affairs. Her insights are sharp and considered, and when not lecturing she is involved in numerous projects such as TIDE alongside reviewing contemporary poetry. I took the opportunity to ask Sandeep a couple of questions…
So, what is your background, where did you grow up and what university did you study at?
Well I was born in England but very soon, when I was three years old, my family moved to Canada. When I was six years old we moved to California and I went to school there and did my bachelor’s degree at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles).
So, did you study English at the University?
I did, eventually. I started off studying Biochemistry for about a year and a half. Then I realised that as much as I enjoyed it, it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So, I moved over to Art History and did that for a year – the great thing about the US system is that you can spend four years and pretty much put off deciding what you’d like to do till quite late! It’s not like here in the UK where you have to specialise quite early – well immediately in fact. So, I studied Art History and then I realised at last that I wanted to pursue English and took a class in late Victorian poetry and was totally hooked. Then I majored in English and somehow got an English degree with a Creative Writing specialisation and a Women’s Studies minor.
What have each of those choices taught you then?
Well I suppose it has given me a lot more of an understanding about how the path that we take in our lives is obviously not straight; and that’s good because every wrong turn or every diversion teaches us something new about ourselves, and what we want to contribute to the world. I think it’s very hard to expect people to know where they want to end up, how they want to exist and give back at that young age, and I certainly didn’t know myself. Also, I suppose studying the sciences was not a choice that I had made, it was made for me for cultural and family reasons. I realised that I had never really thought about what I had wanted to do until I discovered what I didn’t want to do [laughs].
How did you deal with having what is essentially a life path carved out for you? Was it difficult to make what, in turn, would be a significant career change on your own? I am asking in the hope that you may be able to extend some advice to students who may find themselves in a similar position, being unsure about the life decisions they are making at such a young age.
I hope that most students would have the support of their parents, who fundamentally want their children to be happy. My parents eventually came around to my way of thinking, but it certainly took time. They wanted me to have a well-paid job. I wanted a vocation. My advice would be that the path should start off as a field, because as life goes on it inevitably narrows.
It seems like you’ve travelled a lot and had a number of different experiences in your life so what made you decide that lecturing was for you? And what made you decide on Liverpool?
I suppose when you do your PhD you are generally on the way to becoming an academic, though there are other options, increasingly so in fact. Before that I had studied Creative Writing at master’s level but at the time, I didn’t know that I wanted to go into academia. I only made that decision when randomly I discovered the work of Modernist poet Mina Loy (her book was sticking out of a library shelf) who I just thought was amazing. I wanted to know more about her, so I started reading about her life and I discovered that she had written five or so versions of her life story, at least, that were unpublished in her archive at Yale University. I thought: “Oh well, you know that could be a good PhD project.” Then I wrote my thesis on her; she’s actually a really good example of someone without a clear path through her writing life. She had a lot of strings in her bow: she made hats, lampshades, was a poet as well as a visual artist, she made her own dresses, she invented crazy things (the plans for a very practical window cleaner are in her manuscripts) and had a very long, circuitous and itinerant life. For me, there was something about a poet who was born in London but who left as soon as she possibly could and lived in Europe and later moved to the US that made me think I like this woman I want to know more about her. So yes, I suppose it’s worth saying that in academia, very often we aren’t lucky enough to choose where we want to be. We go wherever there is a job, but I was really fortunate to find the English department at Liverpool. It’s full of people who are absolutely passionate about teaching, their research and who are just great intellects and lovely humans.
At times it’s hard to imagine lecturers and tutors as anything other than what we see of them at university: intelligent, sophisticated, accomplished, and sometimes even intimidating. So, in a bid to break the ice I wanted to ask what were you like as a student? Have you always been as together and composed as you come across? Do you ever see shades of yourself in the students you teach?
[laughs] Obviously I do and in fact I think the students here and the students I have taught at other universities in the US and the UK are much more serious than I was. I think that’s because things are changing, the job market is becoming more difficult, there’s more competition, more focus on targets throughout education. When I was growing up we never really thought about what we were going to do for the rest of our lives. I mean I was an undergraduate in the 90s, they were times of relative prosperity and now students are facing a very different political climate. I think there’s a strong sense of seriousness about all of you which I admire. And I certainly didn’t have that myself. I wasn’t terribly studious as an undergrad—I would very often write my papers the night before they were due, into the early hours of the morning. Which I probably shouldn’t admit to.
Tell me about modern and contemporary literature: what does it mean to you? Is there anything lacking in the works of the past or is the literature of today just doing everything a little better?
That’s a good question. I guess the way you’ve asked that question sort of brackets off the 20th and the 21st century as somehow being unique, and I suppose even though that is the period that I specialise in, one of the great things about what you’re doing as students is learning the canon; learning the scope of literature and who is left out. It’s through this that you get to see that innovation exists in every iteration, every century, and in fact authors are driven in each historical moment to do that in order to respond to their times. I think we’re no different in doing so more recently. There is increasingly, of course, a burden to be new and innovative now because publishing is so much more easier. There’s just a proliferation of authors and the market forces are now quite different in terms of printing. Now, of course, we have the internet and social media. I think that there are dips, there are times when the attitude is to write in a way that is more self-referential and insular and really thinking about how interiority in literature expresses that personality in a way that might appear apolitical. Then there are times when authors feel it is imperative for them to respond to what is happening in the world, and I think that now we’re in that sort of moment.
I also wanted to say that I haven’t really encountered any tutor that both teaches literature and is at the forefront for reviews and criticism of contemporary work that has only been released in the last couple of years, how do you even approach the new stuff? Is it intimidating or liberating?
I think it’s liberating actually. I think that for authors and critics that are living in the present moment we have the same frame of reference. So, in a way, simultaneously, you are in a space where your points of reference are equivalent or at least you can kind of understand them. Whereas, if you’re writing about something that is a hundred years old you have to, not only wade through existing critical work and a build-up of legacy, you also have to imagine what confluence of textual, political and material cultures these authors existed in. That can be kind of beguiling sometimes, and sometimes not really accurate. For me, I do see with the literature that I’m interested in at least as being a weathervane for what’s happening in our increasingly uncertain world. So, it feels, to me, much more important that people read contemporary writing knowledgeably. My role as a critic is to provide or at least offer some kind of guide, not to say that I’m necessarily going to be an authority, but I think to help to generate a knowledgeable conversation around the work that is being produced in the moment we live in.
After having a gander at some profiles of the tutors and lecturers in the English department I learnt that you were also a poet. What is that like?
Yes, we have a few poets on staff. Professor Deryn-Rees Jones is a brilliant poet and a scholar of women’s poetry. She is the editor of Pavilion Press which is (currently by default) a women’s poetry press with many accolades already. Professor John Redmond is a poet and a critic interested in form and thinking about mid to late twentieth-century poetics. The three of us occupy a space where poetry and criticism intersect though will not always overlap, and this gives us greater insights into what we teach. There are other poets and writers on staff, I’m sure, who aren’t declaring themselves quite yet.
My work as a poet and a critic converge and there is quite a lot of historical precedent for that figure of the poet-critic. At the moment there is an understandable suspicion of orthodox form, ideology and a questioning of certain types of generic boundaries leading us towards more hybrid forms of poetry that tends towards the essay—let’s say the lyric essay—in order to break the lyrical sameness and an expansion of voice. I don’t see these as distinct activities, just an engagement with literature in different ways.
I forgot to ask, aside from Mina Loy what writers have had the greatest impact on your decision to pursue literature after the twists and turns in your life path? Also, what in your life impacts how you perceive literature and what you write yourself?
In terms of influences and what I write now those have obviously changed. Certainly, when I was starting out 20 years ago, I had no real sense of what to read other than what I was being taught. I do remember that one of my earliest influences was W. B. Yeats—which is odd because I don’t really read him that much anymore. But there’s something really wonderful, mystical and musical about Yeats. Maybe it’s because I come from a Sikh background though I’m not religious but there’s a kind of portentousness and high mindedness and I quite like this idea that poets should all be prophets. I’m interested in the idea of oracular pronouncement, from myths to religious texts to activists. Another thing that I read at around 13 that was really important to me was Homer’s The Odyssey. I read one of those condensed versions that was translated into prose, I’d like to think I was reading the full poem at that age, but I wasn’t. The Odyssey gave me a tremendous sense of grief and longing—the story of a man away from home for 20 years and I totally understood that epic shape, the trials, the despair. I could understand it through my parents and their families, and a kind of intergenerational trauma that started with the Partition of India in 1947 and resulted in different kinds of migration and disconnection from family and nation. I think that I wanted to get to the bottom of that kind of grief I saw through my parents missing their homes and families. I guess a lot of the work I have produced since then engages with longing, disconnection and nostalgia – but those are deadly states, you cannot live there. If you do, I think it’s difficult to produce something that will be useful to anyone else. So, it’s about trying to figure out how to make it useful for others and other writers since have helped…
Is it ever difficult to separate between these roles and responsibilities as a lecturer of poetry, a critic and a poet?
I think it’s the same for myself as for my colleagues teaching Creative Writing is kept somewhat separate from our own practice as poets. Partly that is because it is just egocentric and self-referential to assume your practice will enlighten others on different journeys. Also, probably one difference between writing poetry and being a critic is that when you’re a critic you are entering a space which is very discursive as well as shared and hotly contested. As a poet you are too, ultimately, but there is something about being in that moment of creating that is you versus the page. It is an activity that requires a slightly different mindset and is much more solitary.
Do you feel that being a poet/writer of today comes with having to assume certain responsibilities?
I suppose I would say that not everybody should feel obliged to take on any responsibility beyond language, a special kind of shared burden. Everyone will see or negotiate their relationship with the world in different ways, and that is good. I don’t think there should be some kind of edict about how one has to approach what is happening in the world today and, of course, everyone’s perspective will be different based on their own relationship to ideas about nationalism, race, austerity, sexuality, etc. I do think as things get worse in Britain – with pressing issues like Brexit – I am always a little surprised when I hear a poet who wilfully ignores the noise that we are facing politically every day. Then again, people do go to art for escapism whether they are writing it or whether they are reading it, so not everybody can have the same fever pitch about Brexit, Nationalism, the refugee crisis, global wars etc. I do think – not that I am ascribing to the idea that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world – that art helps us focus on the ways in which we relate to each other and how we relate to the past. It can be a type of political discourse that is extremely human and extremely useful in this time where language is being challenged and manipulated.
I remember reading a piece of Seamus Heaney’s critical writing on poetry and one line stuck out to me a lot. He wrote that ‘technique’ in poetry was essentially ‘the definition of his or [her] stance towards life’ which entails the ‘watermarking of your essential patterns of perception, voice and thought into the touch and texture of your lines […]’ In recent years, I have come across significant backlash against the ‘types’ of contemporary poetry that are taking the forefront in poetry competitions mainly from – though not always – poets of colour. What is your opinion on such conservative views on the poetry of today? Do you think there is a place for budding poets to practice their own technique and articulate their own culture of experience?
I think writers and editors who express these anxieties about an absence of craft or about the focus on poets who are writing so-called “identity politics” are expressing their own deep anxieties that they will be excluded by change. The work that they once valued is perhaps no longer valued. This is normal. When it becomes problematic is when they intentionally denigrate work by poets of colour on the basis of it not being proficient; that flies in the face of everything about we know about necessary transitions between generations and forms and innovation just as a kind of baseline concept. If we think about how the early Modernist poets were written about in the early 20th century there were sure as hell a lot of critics and reviewers that were like: “What is this weird stuff with the words splattered all over the page?” And, equally, Modernists went out of their way to take a swipe at their predecessors in the nineteenth-century, though they owed them much and engaged with the past while ‘making it new’. This is all a function of the fact that poets of colour have (finally) become very prominent very quickly. A 2005 report (called the Free Verse report) found that less than 1% of poets published were poets of colour. Now it’s closer to 15%. That’s a huge difference in about a decade. And British poetry’s much better for it, frankly.
As a poet, do you find that there are certain limitations inherent with language or the jurisdiction of form? Is the process of fashioning a poetic voice a result of resisting traditional forms?
Well when we think about traditional forms in poetry in Britain we are really talking about the lyric tradition. It is British lyricism of a very specific kind that comes out of a Romantic tradition that prioritises and gives authority to the lyric ‘I’. That’s not to say that all British poets necessarily do this, there are poets who have their own ways of expanding lyric subjectivity. There’s a very strong tradition of avant-garde or innovative or experimental (all these words are problematic) poets who emerge from Modernism in the post-war era who question the authority of language. Those don’t tend to be the poets that are celebrated in our culture most openly; they are certainly not the ones who are most popular; they probably quite like it that way. In American poetry and other Anglophone poetry like that from the Caribbean, there is a tendency or a kind of wish for the lyric subject, if it does exist, to be collective, inclusive, expansive and itinerant, reflecting the lived and historical conditions of their national and postcolonial framing often. Mainstream poets, particularly in the 80s and 90s, fell into a tradition stemming from Philip Larkin among others. They believed somehow that the truth and meaning of the world was condensable from experience, and that creates a strange lyric space where ambiguity or collectivity are not permissible—only deep sincerity or irony, which is deployed in the most cowardly fashion. For me it isn’t a terribly socially engaged type of work, it celebrates the idea that the artist is somehow separate from the world and that their work doesn’t have a responsibility towards others.
So, do you think that today it is problematic for art and literature to exist in a vacuum of its own design?
To an extent, it always will. There probably still has to be both kinds of writing. You couldn’t really have all poets on the battle lines chanting different battle cries. Art of all types is influential and important in social movements for change and there haven’t been a great many Brexit poems or poems about the love of the European Union but there are certain books and anthologies that have come out that have been thinking about being separated or estranged from an identity that we believed was ours as Europeans. Robert Sheppard, the innovative poet who is based in Liverpool, has written a series of poems about Brexit in a pamphlet called Hap’ which he read the other night at Edge Hill University, in fact. I always think of the American example of Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen. It is a piece of work that had such an important political moment in the Black Lives Matter movement. It became a way that opened out – through the use of the second person pronoun and the use of the lyric essay – the collective perspective and voice of a terrible legacy of racial violence. Of course, Rankine is not the first person to do so but there was something about that book that took on a life of its own. There are now books doing similar things here, which is great to see.
Do writers and poets have the same authority today as they have had in the past?
That’s a hard question because what does authority mean? Also, the poets that you’re reading for your degree often didn’t have any authority at all during their lives. They have authority now that their lying happily in the Norton anthology alongside others of high repute. But there are certainly examples of poets who were authorities in their own lifetime – T.S. Eliot being a really obvious one. He was an editor at Faber, he was a critic, a poet and he was emblematic of a certain kind of man of letters. He has had a lot of influence over the way we read 20th-century poetry. I hope it is less obvious now who is an authority. But I suppose in Britain we have our poets laureate who will always have role that is central in thinking about the development of poetry, particularly in relation to the wider public. Poets like the late Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes have very deep and long shadows. Personally, I am less interested in authority and am more attuned to how those voices that have been excluded contribute in different ways to expand our picture of what it is that is happening in any given moment, especially if it is the role of the poet to determine what it is like in the time in which they are writing.
What are your interests outside of literature? Do you have any secret hobbies?
Well me and my colleagues spend most of our days, nights and weekends doing our job but all of us must have some secret hobbies. I bake amazing chocolate chip cookies? What else do I do? I like walking and travelling—I’d like to do both more. Really, I don’t have any hobbies and I spend all of my time working and occasionally eating and sleeping [laughs].
To round up I wanted to ask: how much has university life changed since you were a student? Do you have any advice for first-years who may still be trying to find their feet?
Okay, well my experience was different as I was in a different country and UCLA was huge. In some ways that was nice as you could disappear if you wanted to but the great thing about Liverpool – particularly the English department – is that everyone is focused on making sure that students come away with the skills they need to succeed, and more importantly, to think critically. Things have changed, as I said before, you are all under a lot more pressure. If I think about the equivalent in Britain, obviously 20 years ago people weren’t paying for their education. So, I can imagine the pressure you are all under. One thing I would say is – though I am much more privileged and don’t have to worry about these things as your generation does – think about the ways in which literature can unlock the world for you and think about what you want to be in that future and how you would like to relate to the world. Those things are more important than you knowing various types of literary forms and plot points. The great thing about an English degree is that it does help you learn how to think and think critically, and we need that more and more. We are relying on your generation because we’ll be really old and feeble by the time you guys are in power so we selfishly hope that you will make a difference. For first-years, I would say try and see this as a different kind of experience compared to the other educational experiences that you’ve had even though the nature of higher education has been made transactional and therefore focused on grades. Never take for granted that you’re extremely lucky to be where you are and that there are many people that would give anything to be in your position. As much as it may feel you are – legitimately – under a lot of strain and pressure you should enjoy your time here and you should take it as an opportunity to learn about yourself and the world. Yeah. Also be nice to your tutors we’re people too who have no hobbies [laughs].