Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Karl Knights

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Karl Knights

is a freelance journalist who has appeared on The Victoria Derbyshire Show, BBC Breakfast, ITV News, CNN International and various radio shows. His prose and poetry has appeared in The Guardian, The Dark Horse, The North and Under The Radar.  He was highly commended in the Suffolk Young Poets Competition three times. He is twenty-three and lives in Suffolk.

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry/essay writing?

I imagine I’m quite unusual in that I can pin point exactly where and when poetry began for me. Poetry properly entered my life in March, 2011. I was fourteen, in Year 10. My school took a group of students to a local arts centre, and a poet called Dean Parkin (whose books I would highly recommend reading) did a workshop with us. I had written the odd thing here and there before, as a child, but it wasn’t a consistent habit. But this was the first time I’d written poetry. I wrote awful stuff, but I enjoyed it enormously. I was the only student to keep writing through the lunch break!

As for essays, they’re more recent. I had done short 800 word pieces of journalism, for the Guardian. But longer essays usually emerge when I’m trying to work something out. My most recent essay, in The Dark Horse, came about as I was trying to work out, what does it mean to write disabled poetry? Do disabled poets act differently to their able-bodied peers? Are different pressures acting upon them? How should a disabled poet conduct themselves, think about their work? And until those questions were answered, I felt I couldn’t move forward in my own poetry. So that particular essay emerged from confused, frantic notes I’d made about the disabled poets I’d come across and what kind of conditions they’d written in.

2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets and essay writers traditional and contemporary?

I was, and am, a great information hoarder, but I was more aware of the older poets. There’s a running joke that I like my poets dead, which has a bit of truth to it, though that’s something I’m trying to fix! So certainly early-on contemporary poetry was something of a gap in my mind. All the voices I pilfered from and adored were dead poets (though still 20th century). For me, I wouldn’t say they’re a dominating presence so much as a liberating one. C.K. Williams said that some poets, like Dickinson or Whitman, are self-starting engines, who started writing something new without models. I’m not a self-starting engine at all. I thrive when I have some kind of model. Every now and again a ‘new’ poem will force it’s way through, but by and large when I have something tangible to begin from, I write more forcefully.
In terms of the influence of essay writers, I’m less sure. I used to, and still do, read very widely, and essays were always a part of my literary diet. But I’m unsure what influenced me, as my essay writing is still in its infancy. In a few years I might have more to say on what’s gone into my essays. I know that generally I favour essays and literary criticism that is unabashedly personal, stuff that steers away from academic language. I really loved Eavan Boland’s criticism for those reasons.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

I often feel like a bit of an imposter, because I don’t really have a daily writing routine. But I’m always thinking about writing, or better yet I’m reading. I think the time away from the laptop can be as essential to the process and as instructive as when you’re in the chair bashing out the words. Jane Kenyon said poetry should grow in the dark like a mushroom, and I think she was right. I’ve noticed that I can write prose on demand, and if I wanted to I could write it, day in and day out, whereas for whatever reason, poetry is more mercurial for me and emerges in great bursts, where I’ll write dozens and dozens of poems in a very short space of time, followed by a barren period. I’m mostly happy to ride the process.

4. You’ve spoken of how your essays are motivated, what causes you to write poetry?

I’m not entirely sure. Usually there’s some kind of image or line or sheer sound that won’t leave me alone, and will keep me awake until I write it down. Poetry is the most economical of the arts, and often entire universes are contained in a tiny slab of words, and I love that. Poetry is often brief but you never feel shortchanged by it’s brevity. Because it is smaller but no less strong that its artistic siblings, poetry can reach places other art forms cannot. For example in my own life, I’ve had periods where my concentration has been non-existent, so novels, plays, even short stories were out of the question. But poetry remained. Poetry is wily and can reach places and people that other literary forms cannot hope to. Writing poetry is a thrill that has never waned.

5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?

I’m not sure…it seems a question better judged by people seeing my work from the outside, rather than coming from me. I often talk with poets about who their first voice was, the first poet they found for themselves. For me it was Allen Ginsberg, and ‘The Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour’ remains a favourite poem. I was an absolute Ginsberg fanatic for several years. But I don’t think you can find a trace of Ginsberg in my work. I find myself referencing Heaney a great deal, he seems to have entered my blood without me noticing. An anthology that was important to me starting out was a book called The Poetry of Survival, edited by Daniel Weissbort. The book is made up of the voices that emerged in the post-war period in Eastern Europe, who wrote very concrete, tangible poetry. It had the authority of witnessing. It seems the thing I take most from poets is their attitude, Ginsberg said he made the private world public, and I think he’s right on the money. He wasn’t afraid to make fun of himself either, but somehow he did so without sacrificing his pathos. A more recent example would be Vassar Miller. I couldn’t write what I’m writing now without the disabled poet’s from the past having come before. Miller was punk before punk, writing metrical verse about disability, faith, femininity and sexuality in the fifties and beyond! It was a bold, in your face attitude, and I hope I’ve taken that, but who knows?

6. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Too many authors to name! If I had to pick just one, I’d say Jillian Weise. Her first book, 2007’s The Amputee’s Guide to Sex is the reason I started writing about disability at all (alongside reading the anthology, Beauty is a Verb). Weise’s new book, Cyborg Detective, is absolutely extraordinary. With each book her power as a poet has grown, the voice grows larger and larger and it’s utterly enthralling to watch. Her alter-ego, Tipsy Tullivan (which you can see on Youtube) is a brilliant satire of the casual ableism of the literary world.

7. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I’d say, do the work. All too often I come across people who are in love with the idea of being a writer, rather than loving the actual act of writing. The kind of person who is afraid to read because it might ruin their style. Whether unpublished or published, simply by typing or putting pen to paper, you are a writer. The other thing I’d say is read, read absolutely everything you can get your hands on. If you’re a poet don’t just read poetry. If you’re a novelist don’t read novels alone. Read about etymology and the politics of water use, read poetry and history, read comics and children’s books. Read outside of your comfort zone, always. Be unafraid to borrow from other art forms too. For example, Mount Eerie’s album, A Crow Looked at Me was important to my writing life. It’s an album about the singer-songwriter’s wife’s death, and it’s completely raw but painfully beautiful as well. The album taught me that being direct is nothing to be ashamed of, there’s enormous power and urgency in bluntness. Mainly, keep your artistic antenna open to all things. Rejection is constant as a writer, whether you’re just starting out or you’re a Nobel Prize winner, so prepare for many, many rejections (maybe do what Hemingway did and pin your rejections above your writing desk). Do the work, find the right words. Keep reading. Repeat ad infinitum.

8. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

At the moment my main task is putting together a poetry manuscript. David Foster Wallace described assembling a manuscript as ‘like wrestling sheets of balsa wood in high wind’ and that’s about right. It’s a chaotic but invigorating process, and one I’m glad to sink my teeth into. In my spare time I am organising what poems to read for a few events in 2020, which like putting together the manuscript, forces you to see your poems with new eyes. I’ve got a few essays that are being written at the moment that will hopefully see the light of day in the New Year, but you can never be sure. We shall see!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.