Karl Parkinson

Karl Parkinson is an Irish author based in Dublin. He has published two previous collections of poetry, Litany of the City (Wurmpress 2013) and Butterflies of a Bad Summer (Salmon Poetry 2016).


In 2016, New Binary Press published his debut novel, The Blocks, inspired by the authors childhood in a troubled part of inner-city Dublin. The novel received considerable critical acclaim. Aiden OReilly wrote in The Irish Times that “Parkinson has set himself up unashamedly and without irony as a singer of the human soul in its contrary states of degradation and exaltation”. 


Parkinsons third poetry collection, Sacred Symphony, is available from Culture Matters. Follow https://www.facebook.com/kparkswriter for updates.


Q: Allen Ginsberg once said that the word “Beat” (as in “Beat Generation”) means “emptied out, exhausted, and at the same time wide open—perceptive and receptive to a vision”, a combination of “the beat” of drums, or blood in the body, with spiritual “beatitude”. Are you a Beat poet? Have Ginsberg and his generation (writers like Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and others) been an influence on your writing? I ask because they seem to haunt your work, including your collection, Butterflies of a Bad Summer, like spirit-guides for the journey into inner-city Dublin. 


A: Certainly I’ve been heavily influenced by the Beats, particularly in the early days of my writing life, and their influencers, and others who’ve come after them  the Nuyorican poets and so on. But, the answer is no, I am not a beat poet. I feel that would be too limiting as an artistic identity, and somewhat of a fashion statement more than an artistic one. I don’t wish to be put into a box as an artist in that way. For instance, if you take up any beat anthology, you will have the leaders and pioneers of that movement, and then you will have a load of same-sounding, same-style poets filling up the pages, a lot of one-trick ponies. I feel if you are to look over the fullness of my work in poetry, you will find a range of styles and forms, for instance not many of the beats were any good at the short lyric poem, as we in Ireland have sort of perfected in the last 100 years, I have many of those poems throughout my work. My influences are vast and multitudinous, going right back to old Homer, Blake, the Romantics, and include painters, musicians, fighters, religious figures as well as poets, and if you look at Butterflies of a Bad Summer, there are poems about Sufi poets, and Buddhist legends, and Frida Kahlo. The reason my earlier work was so influenced by the Beats, and people like Hubert Selby, Miguel Pinero, was because I related more to them as people and to the subject matter, that you could write about city life, street people, addiction, poverty and politics and spirituality. 


Q: In his introduction to your new book, Sacred Symphony, the veteran housing campaigner Fr. Peter McVerry suggests that your poems present a “challenge” and a counter-narrative to the “neoliberal, capitalist ideology” that has created rampant inequality in this country, mentioning in particular the privatisation of housing and public services. I agree with those comments (thinking of pieces like The People DiedAll The Swings Are GoneOne Man Tent), but I wonder how you feel about them. Does your work set out to be political in this way? Do you take poetry in a direction and into areas not normally explored or acknowledged in an Irish context? 


A: Yeah, for sure they’re political, and also what you could term religious or spiritual, not in the sense of organised controlling religion, or spiritual, in the white guy with dreads takes a trip to the amazon to drink ayahuasca to force a vision and then comes back home and lectures everyone about beans and posts inspirational quotes on Facebook kind either. But in the sense of trying to get at the heart of what is really going on here, what is the actual moral way for us to live, so the most people can live the best way, what can I do, how can I be more and be true to my essential nature, can I connect with the oldest and best in myself and others, cut through all the bullshit in myself and the world and write something that is actually true, in the biggest sense of the word true. Have I always been like that? Do I live up to this all the time? NO!  That is what a true religious or spiritual path is, work, seeking, a flawed individual, a human being trying to be better, not better than others but himself, one could even say, dropping the accumulated neurosis and nonsense and getting back to normal.  When you do this, it is impossible not to think politically also, just by the very fact of seeing injustice, or hardship of your fellows and writing about that. Sure didn’t Christ himself preach brotherhood on a Monday and on Tuesday run amok in the temples, no better man!


Do you take ‘Poetry’ in a direction and into areas not normally explored or acknowledged in an Irish context? In a word, yes! I took it by the hand into the blocks of Dublin, and walked it safely back out. 


Q: In your piece Ireland, you face a number of difficult issues head-on. “Ireland my flats are knocked down now. / Ireland Moore street is the next to go”, it reads, “Ireland remember the Tiger and the bust? / Ireland what’s coming next?” That question receives a potential answer in the apocalyptic (if scarily familiar) piece, “Nightmare Vision of the Possible Future City”; but the poem is also funny, taking the piss out of a State that measures art in penny-cents, judging artists by their productivity, like cogs in a machine: “I’m on the job as you can see, grinding out lines, banging out poems, / for you Ireland.” Can you tell us about how “Ireland” took shape, where it came from (so to speak), what drove you to write it? And what is it like, as a writer or more generally, to try to live, not just survive, in Ireland today?


A: To be honest that was one of the easiest poems to write. I had the idea to do some poems that were homages or parodies of famous poems: the first idea I had was to write a version of TS Eliot’s Love song of J Alfred Prufrock, only my version would be called The Love Song of Anto Brady, and would about a working-class Dublin guy rather than a posh English toff. So I thought I could do a few of these, and started with a homage to Ginsberg’s America, and changed it to Ireland, with the template of the original poem it was easy to write, and was intended as a bit of fun, but of course when you pick a subject or theme to write about, it starts to intrude or shape the poem, and in addressing Ireland, I got a bit more serious in parts. Thing is I never got around to writing The Love Song of Anto Brady


I must be honest, I live a good life these days, making money and living life as an artist is a trick that the artist, in particular the writer and even more particular the poet, has been trying to master for all of history, Hollywood actors, writers of books about sexy monsters, and rockstars have pulled it off in the last century.  Poets generally need help with it and I have allies in that.  The thing is, I have low expenses, I don’t drink alcohol, or go to nightclubs, I don’t smoke or take drugs, I did all that in my teens and twenties, I don’t drive a car and don’t wish to drive one, I’m not bothered if I go on a holiday abroad or not, I’ve been to a lot of the places I wanted to see, I live in a council house. In saying that: the pandemic has effected all of us monetarily, work in schools and institutions has gone for months, many writers depend on teaching to make a living, musicians and performers from gigs.... I was awarded a Covid-19 arts council bursary, and that came and a much needed time. But the truth is making art and making money are separate things, you’re an artist you make art. You need to figure out like everyone else in the society we live in, how to pay bills and eat. If you write a best-selling novel and it gets made into a movie and you get rich, great, if you write a novel that is just as good if not a better more important one artistically speaking, than your friends bestseller, good! 


Artists are no different to everyone else when it comes to day to day living, they eat and shit the same as the postman or the nurse.


Now, when it comes to that day to day living, here in Ireland, and now with the pandemic recession coming. Its clear and obvious that housing and work are the two things at the forefront. Landlord rents are a disgrace, they need to be capped, we need as much social housing as we can build. We need to insure that people can eat, and live, we may need universal basic income, or as poet Dave Lordan put it, universal basic goods, we need people not to be under threat of being cut off welfare if they can’t find work, businesses need time to get back on their feet, some will never come back and those people need to be allowed and assisted in ways to move into some other occupation, we need everyone to have the ability to access the basic living requirements, housing, food, health care, and then work up from there. We can absolutely do that, we always could. We need leaders with empathy, and who are grounded and real, human beings, not robots, not conmen, not spoofers, not power mad merchants. We need to get through the Covid crisis and its aftermath, I believe we can and will do that, how we do it is the point, and rearing on the red hot horizon is the possibility of environmental collapse, we (the entire human race) need to put our incredible, unmatched-by-any-species inventiveness and our seemingly unparalleled creative genius to work on solutions, forget whose fault it is or isn’t, we need to come together with solutions, and I tell you this, it won’t be charging old women for plastic bags, or carbon tax on the individual that will solve it.  Sorry, went on a bit of a rant there lol.


Q: No, that was great. Reading Ireland, I was reminded of the Fontaine’s D.C. album, Dogrel, which pays tribute to Dublin with vivid lyrics and a visceral, punchy vibe. It also occurred to me that your own poetry often shapeshifts into other art-forms, as in your work with the band, King Mob, and in your video-poetry in collaboration with Dave Lordan. Can your poems be understood as (literally) a kind of music? And what’s the difference for you, if any, between working on page-poetry and producing pieces for musical/video performance, like Sing the City?


A: I must confess I never heard of The Fontaine’s, they probably never heard of me either tho, so its cool.  Yes, my poems could absolutely be understood as music. The first words I laid down to paper were influenced by lyric writers, Dylan etc. I was in a band with some mates, and I was the front man, and wrote lyrics, after the band broke up, I got much more into poetry and literature, but I have always retained that musicality in my poetry. I think about a collection in terms of albums in some sense also, which poem should end the collection, or how do poems sit beside each other, that kind of thing.  The thing is, poetry and music are deeply connected, and one of the worst things to happen to page-poetry is much of it strayed too far from that, from the sound of the words, the breath, the body.  I do feel that some poems work better in performance than on the page, but I believe that as a good performer, you should be able, like a good actor, to perform any page poem well. I don’t distinguish too much between my poems in that way, I want them to be good poems, I want to make the best art I can. Now when it comes to music and putting words to it, the poem has to fit the sound, fit the rhythm, the beat, you know? Even with my novel The Blocks, I composed it like a long poem or symphony, not just words on a page, the sound, the beat, the movement, cord and key changes.     


Q: Near the end of Sacred Symphony, after a visceral catalogue of personal and communal losses (touching on torture, addiction, poverty, State neglect, clerical abuse), you imagine a moment when “young Arthur Rimbaud climbs on my back, kisses my ear / and says, The suffering of the artist is the suffering of the world”. For some reason, this line reminded me of your earlier ‘Poem For My Body, which celebrates the pure physicality of being alive, even amid the suffering and sadness your work absorbs so completely. “My body a pneumatic fuck machine”, the poem reads with a kind of triumph, “a cello string plucked by the finger of the lord.” A big question, I know, but is this what poetry is about, for you? Being real when it comes to pain and harshness (politically produced or otherwise), recording these; but at the same time bringing us closer to who we are as people, at an elemental, almost erotic level? (Sorry if I’ve put that poorly!) Can you help me here?


A: I’m not sure if I can help you, but I’ll try hah! 


The artist must confront what they see head on, must accept loss, suffering, pain, and yes be real about it, what I am concerned with in that sense, is the unnatural and unnecessary kind of pain and suffering, death is natural, suffering is universal, but dropping  bombs from the sky and blowing up villages and burning children to death is not natural, people suffering from hunger and cold is unnecessary in a world that has so much wealth and abundance. 

On the other side, yes, to be alive is a glory, to experience, to love, to dance, to make music, the Buddhists speak of life as suffering a lot, but they also say to be born human is the greatest birth, better than to be born as human than a god even, for the opportunity it brings for experience, William Blake speaks of contraries of innocence and experience in a similar way, death is universal and so is life and love, the whole of existence is erotic, filled with the procreant urge says Walt Whitman, every species of plant, insect and animal, us most of all, wants to reproduce, to sow its seed, to make love, the bee and the flower have an erotic partnership, the sun with its erotic heat and light keeps the planet alive, the trees and us, breathing each other alive, how much more erotic can it be than to exchange breath, the whole existence charged with the life force... Chuang-tzu, the old Taoist, on the day his wife died, was visited by friends, they saw him out the back garden playing his guitar and singing a joyful song. What’s this they asked? You sing a happy song on the day your wife has died, don’t you understand the situation? Yes, he said perfectly, I understand, but you do not, every day I sang this song for her, and now on the day she died I sing it again, for she could have died any of those days, and today is the day she died, to die is not unexpected for one who knows, and besides that she lived with me for the last 50 years, the poor women now she’s free, and he played louder and sung with even more joy!


The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;

And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,

And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward—nothing collapses;

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.


(Walt Whitman). I hope that helps. Ha-ha!


Q: Definitely! Your novel, The Blocks, was published in 2016. Do you have any difficulty in switching between poetry and prose in your writing life, or do they complement each other? And will there be a follow-up novel at some point, to add to your expanding shelf of books?


A: No, I don’t have any difficulty in switching from poetry to prose or performance and back, it’s all writing to me. The novel takes time, and more physical effort, more stamina, poems come more natural, you can shape them, and carve them over time, at a nice pace, it’s just this one thing to get right, the novel has all these people running around, wanting to things, and fight with you. Yes, I have an 87,000 word novel written, its on a 3rd draft, and ready to send out, I hope to get an agent and/or publisher for it. Its set in inner-city Dublin, its themes are masculinity, the toxic side and the heroic side, violence, fighting, art, young manhood.


It centers around a group of young men: drug dealers, a mma fighter, a poet, a young man who breaks down. I think it will be unlike anything seen in Irish fiction, but that’s just my opinion.