Karl Parkinson

An Interview

Aiden O'Reilly

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Karl Parkinson is a writer from inner-city Dublin. The Blocks, his début novel was published to critical acclaim in 2016 by New Binary Press. In 2013 Wurmpress published his début poetry collection, Litany of the City and Other Poems, and his second poetry collection, Butterflies of a Bad Summer, was published by Salmon in 2016. His work has appeared in the anthologies, New Planet Cabaret (New Island Press) and If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song (Dedalus Press), The Deep Hearts core: Irish poets revisit a touchstone poem (Dedalus Press). His work has been published in The Irish Times and RTE Culture, The Stinging Fly, and he writes a monthly column called The Write Life, for The Dublin Inquirer. 

Aiden O'Reilly: Hi Karl, good to talk to you. With your debut novel The Blocks getting rave reviews and lots of attention, and only a few months later the publication of your second poetry collection, at a launch event that filled the house (Books Upstairs) as I can personally attest because I was late and couldn’t get in the door, 2016 seems to have been an annus mirabilis for you.

Karl Parkinson: Yeah, it was certainly a big year, and successful one as a writer. I had worked hard at writing for years, this seems to happen for some writers, you have a breakthrough year or book!

AOR: Are you still riding on the wave of increased attention? Any readings or festivals coming up?

KP: Yes, I am still getting messages and emails from readers, about The Blocks saying how much they liked it. I have readings coming up at “Over the Edge” in Galway, and the Waterford Writers Weekend, both in October.

AOR: I know that your first artistic outlet was as a spoken word poet. Are you still active on the scene?

KP: Yeah, not as much as I was say 4-5 years ago, when I performed everywhere and anywhere, but yes I performed at Body and Soul this year for instance.

AOR: Is spoken word reaching out to people in a different way - different people than those who might read a novel? It seems to me to be more a grassroots working-class art form.

KP: In general I would say yes. Though of course you would have people who are into both. Spoken word is really a non-academic art form, and a much more inclusive and open space that young people are more drawn to, its grass roots in the fact that anyone can get a venue and put on a show, it's kinda like punk in that respect. But I am not sure if it's anymore working class than any other art though.

AOR: I hear a lot of Dublin accents at these events, accents I don't often hear on panels of fiction writers.

KP: Yeah that's true. In proportion to working class novelists and story writers in Ireland, it is. On a worldwide scale though, spoken word has its roots in street culture or working class culture but is extremely popular on college campuses around the world with many middle class or upper class students. Like hip-hop culture or rap music too. The wider culture tends to absorb the counter culture into it.

AOR: When I first heard through the grapevine of a semi-autobiographical novel set in O’Devaney Gardens – right across from where I currently live in Stoneybatter – I was interested because novels from writers who grew up in corporation tower blocks are as rare as hens’ teeth. But I have to admit I assumed it would be a realist novel in some mode, perhaps like the work of Kelman, or perhaps a more warm-hearted approach like Roddy Doyle, or perhaps with a barely-concealed delight in shocking people, like Irvine Welsh. But it’s something very, very different, that I would hesitate to define.

KP: Yeah, I think that there are certainly some similarities with those writers you mention, but I think that The Blocks is more literary than their books (if I can say that about myself), and has the influence of poets like Blake, and novels like Moby Dick, and the work of Reinaldo Arenas the Cuban writer. I have called it social magic realism in another interview.

AOR: OK, that sounds about right, if you absolutely had to put a label on it. Social magic realism.

KP: And Hubert Selby Jr had a big influence on me too.

AOR: I’ve always had a special reverence for the work of William Blake. Do you mind me asking about Blake in particular? How did you come across him?

KP: I found a little book of Songs of Innocence and Experience that a previous room-mate had left behind in the flat, and I was also reading a lot of Ginsberg and he talked about Blake a lot in interviews, so I read those poems in the little book, and then read his bio written by Ackroyd, and felt a great affinity with Blake, as a sort of mystically-minded lower class poet.

AOR: "Mark well my words they are of your eternal salvation" is the refrain in one of his prophetic books.

KP: Poetry as revelation! You don't get that much these days! Or as spiritual instruction.

AOR: This is something I wanted to ask. In your first collection, Litany of the City, there are lines such as “I am the poet laureate of the city streets.” “I’ve got a golden key and a reality-changing code, typing it into the atmosfear” Among others. Is this not presumption and egotism?

KP: Ha-ha! I certainly have what you would call a well-developed and healthy ego. I am also using hyperbole as a poetic technique like old blues men would, when they would sing things like I eat nails, or I'm the greatest man alive, etc. Muddy Waters or even James Brown or rappers. Its a cultural thing from the lower classes, the ghettos, the council estates, you might be poor, you might be down-beat, you might be uneducated, but you have style, you have a sexualness about you, you have to speak yourself into something new, and also sometimes I am just letting the poetic voice speak through me, the voice of the beyond, poets seem to have forgotten that you can get out of the way and let that deeper voice speak. It's not something you would see much in Irish poetry though so may cause one to jolt when read on the page.

AOR: Getting back to The Blocks. For those who haven't read it, it's Kenny Thomson's (social-magic-realist) account of his childhood and teenage years, his journey to being an artist. I think part of the driving energy of it is that the reader joins Kenny in a belief that this summoning of memories redeems his friends and family members, in some way rescues them from the blocks, elevates them. Does that make sense to you?

KP: For sure. The book is in many ways a literary memorial to them, and to the place and people of the inner city tower blocks, saints and sinners all. Lives of the saints in a lower class tower block.

AOR: I was hoping to avoid the clichéd question "How much of Kenny's story is your own story". But you've sort of answered it there.

KP: It's a thinly disguised me. Very thin in fact.

AOR: Your book gave me an insight I'd never had before, into how drug addiction is an escape, and how it can, at least temporarily, give a transcendent experience.

KP: Cool. Yes, I think it may be that I have actually lived with and known addicts so can talk more truthfully on that. I think many use to escape the boredom and dullness they feel in life. The transcendent part you need the right drugs for that! Hint: not Heroin or Cocaine, they are soul murdering drugs!

I would caution against getting stuck on trying to find transcendence in drug trips though, you can find it I'm many other ways and places. Myself I haven't done any drugs or drank alcohol in five years.

AOR: Your book is generally optimistic, but I felt when reading it a growing sense of the walls around the blocks, not just physical walls, and a growing desperate need to escape. Poor Georgie doesn't make it. Your alter-ego Kenny achieves escape from the blocks through his mission as an artist. But is that a path open to others in the blocks?

KP: I am an optimist by nature, I wasn't always. Some of those walls are self-built walls, but of course some are societal and cultural, walls of poverty and addiction and violence etc. Can everyone go on the path of the artist? No, I don't think they can, they have to find their own path, and some never will for whatever reason. It takes strength to keep going in pursuit of your calling or dreams, and it takes a lot of deep meditative thinking sometimes to find out what it is that you want to pursue, for some people that might have a bad illness or health issue, that pursuit may be just to stay alive or to find some joy in live. So many factors and mysteries can be at play, ya know?

AOR: There's a constant awareness of a need to cleanse the doors of perception, a feeling that reality is not something given, but something that you need to actively and imaginatively perceive.

KP: Hmmm, yes, the need to renew one’s self and one’s reality, to see the sacredness of existence, without denying the suffering also, if that makes sense. I sound like a Dostoevsky protagonist.

AOR: Hopefully not the murderer in Crime & Punishment.

KP: No I won't be hitting anyone with an axe haha!

AOR: There's also a sense of the dignity of suffering and deprivation, that it is not to be weighed solely as a deficit.

KP: Yeah, suffering seems to have some religiousness to it, some sort of teaching quality. As does joy and having a good fucking laugh!!

AOR: Can you tell me a bit about how the book came to be published?

KP: I was working on it for 3 years, and sent it to New Binary, as I knew they were looking for new writers, I knew the book was a bit wild and experimental and uncompromising, so a smaller young press would be the place to go with it, and they were up for it. New Binary were great, in that they allowed me a lot of artistic freedom.

AOR: Were they the first publisher you ever tried then?!?

KP: I sent it to one English publisher (can't remember which one) and then New Binary, that was it.

AOR: Was there much editing or changes to it? In particular, were the editors OK with the phonetic rendering of the Dublin accent?

KP: Very few editing suggestions from them, other than proofing changes and a few minor things. They were fine with the phonetics. Dave Lordan helped me with the editing of the first two drafts and Rob Doyle read an early version and made some suggestions to me that was it.

AOR: Because often when you come across the Dublin accent on the printed page, it's a cue for laughter.

KP: Yeah, I can see that in say a lot of Roddy Doyle or Brendan O Carroll the funny thing, but you had Love/Hate on TV and then Frankie Gaffney's Dublin Seven that had more serious elements. But yes I did want to make the main protagonist in The Blocks (my alter-ego) a working class non-university-educated intellectual, like Ishmael is in Moby Dick, but from inner city Dublin.

AOR: I see O'Devaney Gardens is almost all demolished now and the residents moved elsewhere. Is this a good thing or a bad thing for the community there?

KP: Mixed I think: I mean there’s something weird about living all on top and under and beside each other, sharing a big balcony etc. and the social problems that come with flat complexes, that you don't have when you have your own house and own Garden and so on. On the other side, the sense of community is never gonna be the same in the new places they have moved to.

AOR: The Kenny character takes the blocks as a given reality. He doesn’t get angry that the corporation flats were planned & designed to keep people of a certain social class within one area 

KP: Yeah, when you're born into it that's how it is, you are there, and that's reality, I think he shows some anger in parts of the novel, though not overtly at that one point I suppose.

AOR: Where have the residents been moved to? Do you keep up contact with friends who used to live in the O’Devaney blocks?

KP: Oh they have moved to areas around, Cabra etc. My Ma and sister live around the corner from you actually. I keep up with a few people who have contacted me on FB that lived there and have read the book!

AOR: Does the phrase "the literary establishment" mean much to you? Do you think of yourself as an "anti-establishment writer"?

KP: Not really, I mean who would you say is the literary establishment, I know and have met most of the top writers of my own generation here, and have been published in lots of the best journals and anthologies, and have had work published in The Irish Times, so some people would say that's establishment, on the other hand I am not hanging around with Anne Enright on a regular basis. I don't think it's good to think like that, in worldwide terms I am not on talking terms with Martin Amis, but I wouldn't rule it out someday haha.

AOR: “I am the establishment.”

KP: I wouldn't say I am exactly the establishment just yet, but that I am established! Also, these days it’s hard to know who or what the establishment is or are, are the Rubber Bandits establishment or not? Like they're on RTE a lot, Blind boy has a book coming out and it has quotes from Russell Brand and Kevin Barry on the front (are they both establishment or not?) Trump was the anti-establishment candidate wasn't he? Look at him now, head of the house, and world’s most talked about and reviled man on the planet. Is Louise O’Neill the literary establishment or not? You get what I am saying, it’s hard to answer isin't it?

AOR: I get you, there’s a lot to think about there. A maybe vague question: is your writing something that's a private concern of yours or do all your old friends and relatives know and accept you're a writer.

KP: Everyone knows that I am a writer, and I think after last year they all finally accept me as one, I was on the telly, so it's official now haha!

AOR: Your first collection was Litany of the City, and parts of it seem to prefigure the style and rhythms of The Blocks.

KP: Yes, in the longer poems, and the hip hop influenced ones, that have a sort of driving rhythm I would say.

AOR: It seems to be a kind of hammering out of experience, emerging from a belief that even the act of recording the sounds and voices of the city and events of childhood years can transfigure them.

KP: Yeah, a sort of shamanic exorcism with words, spitting out the demons, better out than in.

AOR: Your second poetry collection, Butterflies of a Bad Summer, had a full house for the launch. I couldn't get in the door. How do you manage that??

KP: Well it was a double launch with another Salmon poet John Murphy. Also I promoted it online through FB, I had a short promo vid made and made an event page, and other friends who are poets and writers spread the word.

AOR: But it seems it's not a bad time to be a poet, particularly a spoken word poet?

KP: With the internet and video poems and the many places to read and perform, it's exciting in that way, a big audience can be reached. For instance the video poem that Dave Lordan made and I performed in, of my elegy I wrote for my nephew has 17,000 views on FB and YouTube combined. Not many poetry books will sell that many copies, and other video poems are reaching millions of views, no poetry book will get that. But of course the book can get a complete vision or theme into the hands of the reader. But all round poets do have many options today.

AOR: Your nephew Graham Parkinson? You have a long poem "No more the clopping hooves of Death's horses in your legs" dedicated to his memory in the new collection.

KP: Yes, the video poem is the same poem, it's a long 16 min video, we changed the title to Lament for Graham Parkinson, as it's easier for people to remember and search for online, but it's the same text, a long elegy.

AOR: It's a brilliant poem, but I don't want to intrude on a personal tragedy.

KP: Sure. No problem.

AOR: Butterflies of a Bad Summer is in the main a gallery of homages to poets & thinkers of great spiritual courage. Not all of them are well-known names. There's the 15th century Indian mystic Kabir, the medieval nun, writer & composer Hildegard, the Hindu mystic poet Meera .... what attracted you to these?

KP: I had a number of poems written about writers and painters, and thought this would be a good theme to run through the book, and I was watching or listening to a lot of Robert Bly poetry readings and lectures, and he got me into the Persian poets and Indian poets like Kabir and I had also been reading Osho the mad Indian mystic, and he also would talk about Rumi and Meera and Kabir, so I started to read them and really loved it, some of the best poems in history really.

AOR: Is there one Logos running through history and all these figures have sought to be informed by it and live by it?

KP: That sounds very like something Jordan Peterson would say in his lectures on YouTube (check them out), but yes I think that it's something like that, you could call it the Tao or God or Logos.

AOR: Ha, I will! Was the collection to some extent a conscious effort to move away from the themes of the earlier collection - themes of deprivation, working class life?

KP: Yes, I didn't want to write about the same things, and I had written about my life, childhood, drugs, violence, flats, working-class life in the previous two books, and also I wanted less me in it, and explore new themes.

AOR: Butterflies of a Bad Summer is like a living encyclopaedia, one that reanimates interest in select figures from the past. Is that part of the idea?

KP: Sorta, it's also a book of warnings, anecdotes, advice to writers, and also an enquiry into what is the writer’s role or what is it for me, anyway.

AOR: Well it got me reading poems by Arenas and listening to Hildegard's music.

KP: Yeah, I do hope that people look into the writers. Arenas was a great novelist too, his Pentagonia series is wonderful, and Hildegard was a genius, the music is beautiful!

AOR: On the fiction side, when reading The Blocks I felt it was a unique achievement. I couldn't imagine what could follow it. Is there anything to follow?

KP: Thanks! Yes I am working on a new novel, it's about 30,000 words in, but hasn't really started yet, so it will be long and ambitious and set in Dublin. I can't give any more away, other than it will not be based on one life or a follow up to The Blocks. If The Blocks was my Portrait of the Artist ... I'm hoping this will be my Ulysses.

AOR: What's your day generally like? Do you teach creative writing? Work to earn money?

KP: My day would be quite boring looking to most folks probably haha. Things I do most each week are: read, write, work out, watch YouTube. I do teach creative writing, and along with performances, and other bits and bobs here and there I survive, though I don't have huge expenses, I don't drink, smoke, take drugs, I live in social housing. A writer’s life!

AOR: Karl, it's been great talking to you.

KP: You too Aiden, thanks!

Karl Parkinson’s poem in memory of Graham Parkinson:

His novel The Blocks is published by New Binary Press http://newbinarypress.com/product/the-blocks/

Aiden O’Reilly's debut short story collection Greetings, Hero was published in November 2014. He lived for nine years in Poland and Germany and is now based mainly in Dublin. He studied mathematics, and has worked as translator, building-site worker, mathematics lecturer and property magazine editor. His fiction has appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, the Irish Times, Prairie Schooner, 3am magazine, Litro magazine,  Unthology, and other places. He reviews for the Irish Times and the Dublin Review of Books. He won the biannual McLaverty Short Story Award in 2008.