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In Conversation with Karl Parkinson

Writing.ie | Guest Bloggers | Poetic Licence

Ben Simmons


Book cover image
Book Cover

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Karl Parkinson about his forthcoming collection of poetry Back to Normal that is co-authored with fellow poet Dave Lordan. Our conversation touches on the benefits and challenges of co-authoring work, the return to creative public spaces and the impermanence of everything. On Friday 11th March, the collection will be launched in Dublin’s flagship traditional music bar and venue, the Cobblestone. You can check out the events page here.

Q. As a creative artist, you’ve added many strings to your bow, in terms of format and genre. What made you move to the co-authored format?

A. Me and Dave have collaborated a lot, usually in video and performance. We did a thing called Dropping the Act years ago, a two man spoken-word show. We had a few poems, but they were co-authored poems that we wrote together. We sparked it; he had a little idea and I had a little idea,  and they came together. We toured a little bit around Ireland for a year or so. We’ve had so many discussions over the years, back and forth. A lot of time taking the same points or very different points of view, but through the pandemic and with climate change we coalesced. We’re very, very close on most things here, and I said this was the perfect time. We said we should do a book together and I thought this was the perfect time because something else will happen and we’ll go a little bit off. And he (Dave Lordan) said, ‘Yes. I think this is the time’. 

Q. Is there anything different in this collection for you? As this project is tied off and released into the world, are you feeling anything different for this project than say your novel The Blocks or a collection with Salmon Poetry publication?

A. Well, because it’s basically all done by ourselves, there is a little bit. We have to push it ourselves and promote ourselves. The total ownership of it (Back to Normal), the means of production. We designed the cover, got the books printed up. There’s nobody to fall back on, there’s nobody to blame. We’re excited about that actually, that we did everything ourselves. As I said, it’s not much different from publishing poetry with most poetry publishers unless it’s Bloomsbury or one of these big ones. I’m sure it’s different with them, and of course the culture we’re in with war, and we’re post-pandemic now I suppose. There’s still that in the air, a sort of nervousness. People are wondering what’s going to happen next, and that’s the title Back to Normal. We’re releasing the book in that climate. Will anybody care? Is a little poetry book going to do anything or will people say ‘ I’ve had enough poetry you know’. There’s always that bit with a book, a mixture of nerves and excitement. 

Q. Do you think there is a reclaiming of space now that we are creating cultural experiences again? Is there something, as an artist, that you’re eager to go back to, to reclaim or recreate at this point? 

A. I don’t miss it as much as some people miss performing. Maybe I haven’t been as into the performance over the past few years, even before the pandemic. I’ve been a bit more interested in the writing aspect of it. Then when it’s all taken away and you haven’t done it for a long time you do. It’s the getting together. It’s not the same on Zoom. We’re on Zoom now, but if we were having a coffee together in a coffee shop. There’s something about meeting face-to-face. There’s something human about it. There’s something inhuman about the Zoom thing, particularly if you’re a performer and you like that aspect. You like to interact with the crowd. It’s not the same online. I’ve done a few things like that. You read a few poems and then you just stop and people are like, ‘Is he finished?’ Then you hear a muted clap in the background. The performer’s adulation addiction is not satisfied. Then you turn it off, ‘I guess I’ll just go to the couch now’.  

Whereas when you perform, you get to come down off the stage and talk to people and get their actual reactions. You see the body language and maybe you meet a new friend, a new colleague. There are new connections, so it’s good to get all that back and we do need those places. I remember my jiu jitsu coach saying ‘Most people have three places. You have your home, your work and then you have this other place that you go to that isn’t home or work’. For some people that’s the gym, snooker, the pub, performing, and when that was taken from people during the pandemic, psychology, I think it had a really bad effect on people. We definitely need to reclaim community creative spaces.

Q. Collaborations come with an intense creative connection and, of course, challenges. Can you speak about your experience with this book?

A. As I said, we’ve already done a lot of work together over the years. Often Dave has helped me edit my other poetry books and the beginning parts of my novel The Blocks. The challenge was that every artist has their tendencies, their subjects. Me and him have a lot of shared things because we come from similar backgrounds. Though mine is more urban and his country, they’re still working-class backgrounds. They have similar characters, we’ve grown up with and been around. Every writer has those things where they can go a bit too far and you get a bit annoyed. For example, Kerouac gets too sentimental sometimes and you think ‘Oh, he’s gone a bit mushy there’. Whoever it is, you can mention any poet. There are a small number that don’t have those things, and I think that Dave and I helped each other with those things. To say to each other,  ‘You’re over editing there, or you under editing there.’ In that way it helped and we learned a lot, but the other side of collaborating, you can annoy each other.  It’s more like being in a band I suppose. I was in bands when I was younger and that’s hard, to all combine and say this is the thing.  I would say everyone should try it. Try more collaborative things because the original poet was anonymous. It was obviously a collaborative poet, though they call it Homer. Beowulf and all those poems, the bible. Someone edited them and wrote them down. So, it’s going back to normal, to how poetry was originally written.

Q. So, in some instances, did you give space to each other and at other times provide restraint?

A. Sometimes, I had some very long poems over the years, Howl! type ones. I like going all out, but you can have a tendency to repeat. So, it’s good to have someone like Dave to say, ‘you already said that three times already’, and sometimes he’d have that tendency or maybe go a bit overly intellectual or academic and I would say let’s bring it back down, so the person out on the street would say, ‘I know what that poem is about’. 

Q. It’s interesting you brought up being in a band. As part of that collaborative process, is there a  reason that you can improvise or adapt to what is going on creatively?

A. It’s an intimate relationship, in an artistic platonic sense, I suppose. You definitely know Dave is going to like this or these couple of lines,and you send it to him straight away. I think it was William Burroughs and Brian Gysin. Not many people know Brian Gysin as much. He’s very important in that movement there. He was a painter and a writer. He really influenced the cut-ups techniques that Burroughs used.  So they collaborated on a lot of things, and he called it the third mind, the third mind that develops between the two minds.I feel that the third mind wrote some of these (poems in Back to Normal).

Q.You mention that ‘Back to Normal’ is a book about fascism, online hysteria, climate collapse, war. Would you consider Back to Normal a confrontational view of these topics with poetry, or is poetry the tool to approach these topics?

A. I would say it’s both. How can a poetry book really confront climate change? Is it actually part of it? How many trees got cut down. That was another reason. If you sold a million copies, would you be contributing to the death of the planet through your work? Is a short print run better? Is that more in line with poetry or what poetry claims to stand for… So confronting the things, I suppose yeah. You can. The performance part, getting out there and getting back to that really does. Can you influence a few people? The more people you influence, the more people they might influence. I think poetry and art should tackle those things head on.

Q. The city of Dublin sits quite prominently in your writing. How does this collection’s launch in the Cobblestone, the building that became a battleground for contemporary Dublin relate to your collection?

A. It was actually very hard to find a venue. We asked a few other places, and they were all saying, ‘I couldn’t give you a Friday night.’ Because the pubs are only back open, and the pubs are wondering if a poetry night would bring enough people. Before the pandemic, you just picked up the phone, ‘Venue?’, ‘Yeah! Boom’’ just like that. At Cobblestone, we paid a very small, minimum fee, but they have the room, the back room. It’s traditional. There was a fight to keep it there. Yeah, there’s a lot of old Dublin.There’s a poem in there which, obviously,  I started off,  which was about about the blocks where I grew up and lived in; they’re all gone. I’m not even fifty. So, the place where I lived, where my grandparents lived, where I lost my virginity, where I got drunk the first time, where I had a first fight. It’s just wiped away. Gone. A lot of these kinds of flats have been regenerated, as they call it. 

My conversation with Karl ended with a reading from the collection, ‘Chrysalis’. You can listen to it here


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