City desk

Bard of the Blocks

Karl Parkinson turns to page 114, his final reading of the night, and pauses.

“This bit I think I’ll read to you guys,” he says, to the dark basement. About 20 people are sat on sofas in the audience, the room is so quiet that mumbles seem clear and loud. “It’s about discovering art. So, it’s called ‘The Bloom of Art’.”

And he drops the room into a world of Kenny — “I’m called Kenny in the book,” he has said — and Georgie in a bedroom in O’Devaney Gardens, despondent about life, but enraptured by Oasis, and wondering how hard it is to write a song.

Parkinson paces and he stirs the air above his head with a loose hand. “… and the seagulls and doves appeared in the sky in a huge flock squawking a song and swirling in mad mystic patterns and glooptings shuddered in the dank regions…,” he says.

And his voice falls when he talks of a lost friend, who didn’t laugh when Parkinson swaggered that he thought it was easy to write, and that people would read him one day — a friend who told him he had talent.

“Thanks Georgie,” he says.

“For lettin’ me know…

I was good.”

The Blocks

For almost two decades, Parkinson has been filling copybooks with poetry and lyrics. Some of that writing found its way into his first poetry collection in 2013, Litany of the City and Other Poems.

It captured life in the inner-city as “an ever-expanding chamber of horrors, as a zone of multiple sterilities where the lives of young and old alike are broken and made bestial, where potential vanishes like a beer-buzz,” wrote a reviewer in the literary journal The Stinging Fly.

This autumn, he expects to put out a second poetry collection, Butterflies of a Bad Summer. In July, he released his first novel, The Blocks.

Written in the vernacular of the flats, it tells the semi-fictionalised story of an inner-city poet from O’Devaney Gardens who — amid drugs and boredom, violence and friendship — finds the redemptive power of art.

On a recent Wednesday as we walk through the near-empty flats where Parkinson grew up, he nods at landmarks. The boulders brought in to stop people racing robbed cars. The corner where The Boys would hang out, and shout at him when he walked through with his long hair and leather jacket.

“Ah, get your hair cut will you,” they’d shout at me, things like that,” he says, with a good-natured chuckle. “When you’re a teenager, an angry young man, you’d just be like, I hate these cunts, you know.”

Born in the towers in Ballymun, Parkinson moved with his sister and parents to O’Devaney Gardens when he was 4 years old. They needed to get away from the drugs in Ballymun at the time, he said. “My da was starting to use and stuff.”

He went to primary school at St Gabriel’s National School on Cowper Street in Stoneybatter. “I had friends, but I wasn’t what you’d call a swot, I knew the answer to things, but I was cool enough,” he says.

In 1986, when he was about 8 years old, his mother kicked his father out of the house. He still lived nearby and Parkinson would go around and watch the football, and ask his ma for a packet of biscuits, some slices of bread, to take when the cupboards were empty.

When Parkinson was 11 years old, some gardai knocked on the door when he was home by himself. They drove him to his grandmother’s house in one of the other blocks. The next day, he learned that his father had died, a brain hemorrhage.

It didn’t affect him that much as he was closer to his mother, he said, but it might have affected him in his teenage years a bit.

“I don’t think I’d be who I am,” he says. “Death, and getting death early makes you know, appreciate the impermanence of life and all things. It kind of makes you wiser.”

“Maybe that gave me the thing that you’ve got to do something. Better get something, better make something out of this life,” he says. “There’s been a lot of deaths in my family.”

His sister’s only son, who grew up in the same home as Parkinson, died later of cancer. “He was probably the closest person I have even been to,” he says. “It’s kind of tough now to talk about that.”

Dave Lordan, a writer and a long-time friend, says Parkinson is “someone who has walked with ghosts all his life.”

But Parkinson is philosophical. “You have to pass barriers and tests that the gods put you through,” he says. Some people complain about rejections letters from literary journals or agents but he has little time for those.

“You look at the lives that my ma lived and other people lived,” he says. “You keep going, you just say, ‘I refuuuuse to let anybody or let anything stop me.’”

Lizard King

Parkinson was a hot-tempered teenager, he said. “I went through a very angry period when I was about 16,” he said. “I was totally fearless.”

He disliked secondary school at St Paul’s on Brunswick Street, where there were too many rules and he was put in a B Class. “I don’t know was it because of intellect or was it because … everybody in my class was from the same area. All the tough kids were in there.”

He used to get in fights a lot, said Noel Smith, who used to live in the block opposite. “I don’t think he was that clever in that sense,” said Smith. “He’d back down from nobody, and at the time he was six stone, dripping wet, you know?”

The year he was supposed to sit his Leaving Certificate, Parkinson stopped going to school. “I copped on he was smoking hash and he was drinking and Oasis and all of this rebellion was in him,” said his mother, Eleanor Parkinson.

She wanted him to get that bit of paper, so he could get a trade. “I just wanted him to be a plumber,” she said. “All my brothers had trades, and father, and I had a trade – I was a sewing machinist. I didn’t want him wasting himself, but he couldn’t see it.”

She begged with him, and argued with him, and went down to see a teacher she liked who said she wasn’t sure he could catch up now. She asked if he could just sit the exams and he did – passed some, failed others.

“I worked on him and worked on him to get him to go back,” she said. “It didn’t really matter, then he went off smoking hash, on the dole, with the rest of them. I thought he was wasting his life, you know.”

After his Leaving Certificate, Parkinson says he had no idea what he wanted to do. He had a few jobs over the years, always wanted to be a footballer – like Mikey Keane who left the flats to play for Hull City or Christopher Forrester who joined Peterborough United. But he wasn’t good enough.

He worked over a summer with his uncle as a plumber and hated it. He worked for IBM and 3Com on a factory line, boxing up machines and putting screws in computers. He worked as an industrial cleaner, and in Bargaintown, and lasted three weeks as a security guard.

Like many teenagers, though, he loved his music. “”You’ve gotta have your music, it’s so important to you,” he says. By his late teens, his obsession with Oasis had evolved into an appreciation for Bob Dylan, and then into The Doors and Jim Morrison — who he idolised.

“I used to drink and get on tables and all that! Everybody should go through a Jim Morrison phase. It’s essential. To be the lizard king,” he says.

One day, Parkinson read a newspaper story about a guy he knew in Mountjoy Prison who wrote poetry; turned out he’d ripped half the poems from other people, they’d been going around prison.

One of Parkinson’s friends’ fathers was in a band, with songs about Dublin. “I just thought like, if they can do it, this guy can do it, I can do it,” he said. “I just kept getting the feeling that that’s what I should do, something to do with art.”

He set up a band with some friends and they would rehearse for hours and he would write the songs. At their first gig, they dropped some Es and threatened people in the crowd.

“We just looked at everybody else as if they were enemies. Sex Pistols-type thing. When you think about it now, it’s like ‘Ahhh, lads!’” But somebody told him the lyrics were deep and he remembers it still.

Through Bob Dylan, he discovered Jack Kerouac and that opened a door to the Beats and he bought Allan Ginsberg’s collected poems in the old Chapters bookshop, and discovered his masterpiece Howl.

“That, I suppose, was life changing. That, and William Blake, the two of them,” he said, his voice becomes serious and reverential. “I felt a real kinship with Blake, and I still do,” he said. Working class. Socially engaged. Visionary.

“Seeing sort of, he saw spirits and he talked to angels and this sort of things, and I have had lots of weird experiences like that,” he says. “It’s very hard to talk about.” (The Blocks is full of magical realism.)

After that, he started to move towards writing things that weren’t songs, they were poems. In his late teens, he asked his mates to read one of his copybooks and leave comments.

He holds a flat hand up to his face and mimes reading it. “It said: Tracy Smith, very good. Keep it up, pal. Things like that. That was cool, that was my first critics,” he says, with a laugh.

And he continued to read, setting his own curriculum.

“He reads almost in a way that some of us use the internet, he reads one thing and that opens the door to another thing,” said Lordan. “He creates his own lines of inquiry.”

He read Homer and Virgil, Plato and Sophocles, Irvine Welsh and Alexander Pope – he didn’t like him, but you’ve gotta try them out – and he set his own course through a warren of world literature.

When the band broke up, he branched out on his own, performing his poetry for the first time on his twenty-ninth birthday at a night on Camden Street called Naked Lunch.

He hasn’t looked back since.

“Adaptation, survival, overcoming”

Parkinson still uses some of his earlier poems when he’s teaching kids, poems like “Positivity Manifesto” and “Ode to Me”— poems that are hip-hoppy in style but earnest in message.

Says Lordan: “These are early poems but are almost poems of coming out, in a way if you know what I mean, as a literary intellectual in an inner-city community, as a positive person.”

“He really, really stood out in terms of his lack of cynicism, you see. It’s very, very extremely fashionable, in life in general but among literary intellectuals in particular to be cynical and kind of show off and be smart ass and all that,” he says.

Others say the same. “It’s finding this tiniest tiniest hint of love, like a flower growing in the cracks down on the fucking roof of the flats, and Karl finds it,” said Christopher Gaffney, a poet who is a friend of Lordan and Parkinson’s. “And he waters it, he takes care of it.”

But Parkinson doesn’t romanticise even if now, as the O’Devaney Gardens complex is about to be torn down, the temptation to do so might be strong.

“Some of the bits when I’m really really going into it, about the drugs and all that, they might think I’m being a bit harsh,” says Parkinson of those who grew up there and might read the book.”But that’s literature too, it’s hyperbole, in some ways.”

Lordan says: “You have to know that there’s a tremendous pressure in liberal circles to idealise in literature, to write basically about the kinds of men and women that simply do not exist, right?”

“When I read Karl I actually recognise the people, these are actual people that are there, this is actually stuff that happens to them, right? So I think that there’s an authenticity to what he writes,” he says.

“But what I really love about it, again, is that it is something which is about adaptation, survival, overcoming,” he says.

That’s what Parkinson wanted to do with the end of his novel The Blocks, he said. “I consciously said I wanted to make a happy ending, like the end of The Breakfast Club movie or something,” he says, with a laugh.

He wanted people to feel deadly, like they could do anything now – to reach a kind of spiritual acceptance.”I wanted people to have that kind of feeling but not as cheesy.”

The Rise of a Dublin “Vernacular Literature”

These days, Parkinson does most of his writing at a small desk in the corner of his girlfriend Tasha Smith’s place in Fatima. It is a spacious wood-floored apartment that looks out towards the Dublin Mountains.

On his desk is a laptop and some golden Buddha statues. A photo of Bruce Lee is on the wall. On two bookshelves are collections of Beat poetry and thick Russian novels and Taoist manuals and Shakespeare plays.

There are few Irish books. The literature of American writers such as Henry Miller and Hubert Selby Junior spoke more to Parkinson than the rural works of Seamus Heaney, and stories of the Troubles, he says.

“There’s not a real history of proletarian literature, or street literature [in Ireland],” says Parkinson, sat on a swivel chair by the desk. “It’s starting a bit now.”

Smith agrees. “It feels like it’s changing, like there’s something in the air,” she says, turning to look over towards him from where she is sat on the couch.

They’re not the only ones to think that there’s something going on in Irish literature at the moment, that working-class voices are speaking with a new confidence.

There’s a kind of “vernacular literature” coming up, says Lordan, who runs the alternative culture hub, The Bogman’s Cannon.

It might have been there a bit in the past, in Roddy Doyle or Flann O’Brien. Now, it’s also there to varying degrees in the novels and short stories of Rob Doyle and Frankie Gaffney and Kevin Curran. There’s the poetry of Stephen James Smith and John Cummins. And it’s there in the works of Karl Parkinson.

These writers are “coming from below and speaking both the language of the people that they actually come from, and actually talking to those people about things which are of some relevance to them,” says Lordan.

Why it’s happening now, depends on who you ask.

“It’s like something happens in consciousness itself, and you’re just like a radar, you’re open to it, or you’ve got the gift or whatever, you know,” said Parkinson. “It’s like the book is already there, in a sort of intelligible realm, and you’re just writing the thing down.”

Lordan has other theories. One is that the spoken-word scene has come of age. Another is that the spread of education, even if imperfect, means kids who in the past would have left school early are now finishing education, and finding a new confidence.

And with the spread of technology, more people who thought they were alone have found each other. That’s what happened for Christopher Gaffney, who grew up in Balbriggan and felt alone for a long time.

“They showed me that there were poets who wrote from a perspective and a style that I could relate to, and they were Irish and they were still alive,” he said.

He didn’t gel with the Poetry Ireland wine-and-cheese scene. “I’d rather be taking a couple of halves of ecstasy and rolling around in a big orgy,” he says.

He showed his work to Lordan, and Lordan introduced him to Parkinson.

“It’s living on the outside of Ireland,” said Christopher Gaffney. “We’re doing it outside the bounds of what’s the norm.”

Christopher Gaffney remembers hearing one of Parkinson’s poems about the last thing William Burroughs wrote. He was sitting with his then-fiancée in Toners, and the tears streamed down his face.

“And I thought, this is what’s it’s all about,” he said. “Yeah, this is pure unbridled emotion, this is what we need when we say performance poetry, this is what we need when we say literature.”

The King Mob

One Thursday evening in June in an end-of-corridor studio in the north inner-city, Parkinson is stood at a microphone. A book of poetry is in his right hand, two fingers clamped over the cover.

He taps his right foot gently, as he intones: “The army barracks. Beside the flats. Would sometimes. Let off a siren.”

He tells the bleak vignette of a child pulling at the door of a locked cupboard, where inside his father is “turning on”.

Conor O Connor plays a dark bendy riff on a guitar that is slung over his shoulders, and sways his head from one side to the other. Sat on the couch, Claus Jensen adds another layer of guitar, this one eerie and distorted.

The room is a bunker lit by the glare of small florescent ceiling lights There are coils of wires across the floor. Two giant Marshall speakers vibrate in the corner.

Photo by Lois Kapila

“Deadly, yeah,” says O Connor, as the track ends. “Death smoking a cigar at the window’s gonna kill that, isn’t it. Gonna be fucked when that happens.”

They move on through track after track — the high-noon twang of “Nobody Can Kill Charles Bukowski”, the glitchy stop-start of “Coke Brain”.

“I try and sort of follow some of the stuff you’re saying,” says Jensen. “The rap, the talking … or what do you call it?”

“Spoken word,” says Parkinson.

“Spoken word?” says Jensen.

O Connor laughs aloud. “Unless we’re talking about bitches and hoes, you know,” he says.

“But this is kind of hip-hoppish, though, isn’t it?” says Parkinson. “You don’t think so? Just a little bit.”

“No,” says O Connor. “Absolutely not,” he says laughing.

“A little bit … ,” says Parkinson.

“Okay. Stay away from the hip-hop,” Jensen says, half to himself.

It makes sense that Parkinson – whose bookshelf holds Ovid and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, who talks about Taoism and recently told me he had learned about the diet of the Seventh Day Adventists and it sounded kind of sensible – is in a band like The King Mob, hard to categorise by genre, punky, hip-hoppy, spoken-wordy mesh of influences from Gil Scott-Heron to Public Enemy.

The King Mob is about taking what you know and making something out of it yourself, says O Connor. But they’re not cashing in on being from the streets: “Karl’s talking about positive things you can do. Having heroes, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, whoever your hero is, have one. But we’re not just saying we’re from the slums and life is gritty.”

Parkinson agrees. “When I’m bigging myself up or whatever, I do it about myself rather than say, you know when they do it they say, like: ‘I am the hottest MC, I batter every one of ye.’ Why are you beating up on another person, who has nothing to do with it?”

There’s a pause. “Now, if I wanted to get in a rap battle, I would slaughter them all,” he says, cracking up. “D’ya know what I mean?”

Parkinson, O Connor and Jensen all agree on one thing: for the most part, their music has a message.

“How can you not say it? How can you look at things that go on in the world, and say, ‘Yeah, that’s grand?’” says Parkinson. “I can’t understand people like Taylor Swift, or you know whoever, whoever they are. You have all those people to talk to, to say something, and you don’t bother saying anything.”

The last time somebody was saying something, the last time there were shockwaves, it was Nirvana, O Connor says. Parkinson suggests the Britpop guys.

Too subtle, says O Connor. He turns to Public Enemy. “Nobody’s saying, ‘Mother fuck him and John Wayne.’ Nobody’s saying that nowadays. Nobody’s saying, ‘Fight the power,’ you know what I mean?” he says “Because, ‘I won’t get on the radio. I won’t get played.’”

They’re beyond a popularity contest, O Connor says.

“I’ve offended enough people … ,” says Parkinson.

“I’m too old …” says O Connor. “No, that’s not where we come from or what we think. We don’t need people to buy the albums, we just need them to listen.”

Hope

Parkinson knows that some people call him naive but he doesn’t really care. Nihilism is a dead end, he says.

“Fear is used by ourselves […] to keep us all in line. This idea of, ‘Ahh, the world. It’s terrible isn’t it?’” he says, on a recent Monday as we walk through a red-brick neighbourhood not far from O’Devaney Gardens.

He stops and he spins to look around. The pavements are wet but the sky has cleared. The street is still. A light breeze blows through the branches of a nearby tree, its leaves ripple like silver fishes.

“I’m looking at the world, the world is not terrible,” he said. “I’m looking at it now, the world isn’t too bad.”

You hear people say humans are terrible, people are awful, look at what we’ve done, he says. “And you say, no. It was a very small amount of people who did that.”

“I’m thinking most people are good at heart, and do want to do good and aren’t horrible,” he says, as he starts to walk again. Sure, we have it in us to be violent and to sink into the dark.

“But I think the majority of people, show them the right way, and in a fairer world, they would be fairer and would be nicer,” he says. “And would have love in them. Everybody has that in them.”

Lois Kapila portrait
Lois Kapila

Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's managing editor and general-assignment reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with her? Send an email to her at info@dublininquirer.com.

 

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