Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Caleb Parkin

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 three options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger, or an interview about their latest book, or a combination of these.

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.

Caleb Parkin picture

Caleb Parkin

is a day-glo queero techno eco poet & facilitator, based in Bristol. He won second prize in the National Poetry Competition 2016, first in the Winchester Poetry Prize 2017, and various other competition shortlists. He has poems published in The Rialto, Poetry Review, Under the Radar, Butcher’s Dog, Coast to Coast to Coast, Strix, Magma, Envoi, Lighthouse, Finished Creatures, Tentacular and Molly Bloom. He tutors for Poetry Society, Poetry School and First Story. In 2019, he completed an MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes through Metanoia Institute and was awarded Arts Council DYCP funding to explore queer ecopoetry in his first collection. From October 2020, he’ll be the third Bristol City Poet.

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

I really started to get into poetry as a teen (as lots of poets do, I suspect). At the time, your GCSE English Language could be a longer-form piece of work which, for me, was a folder full of poems. I found it not long ago, with various early experiments with poetry! That definitely set something in motion for me, for which I’m really grateful. My family are really wordy, though I’m the only big ‘w’ Writer – we’re playful about language and absurd humour, all of which finds its way into my writing.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

My earliest memory of poetry is likely my elder sisters reading me silly poems and stories – one I especially remember about a duck, where she’d replace a lot of the nouns with things like ‘pots and pans’ to make it really surreal. Which I loved, and still do.

At secondary school, it was my English teacher, Mr Charleston (see above re the GCSE task). Actually, I re-met him in the last couple of years when performing at Poetry in Aldeburgh (I’m from the Essex-Suffolk border). It was delightful to reconnect in the context of being an adult, practising poet – a path he was very instrumental in setting me on. He’s running a bookshop now, of course.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

If you mean, by the ‘canon’ – then I guess the curriculum is set up to really push those now, to its detriment. It wasn’t quite as such growing up – but being state schooled during the Section 28 era (which was only repealed in 2003, to many people’s surprise) there was a total lack of queer poets or very little queer culture on my horizon growing up. Some of the work I do now with school sessions is certainly about redressing this balance, offering students a wider range of queer and intersectional poetry voices.

Thankfully, I did have other experiences and exposure to poets and poetry, including a reading I remember at Colchester Sixth Form College with John Cooper Clarke and Martin Newell, supported by the now very well-known Luke Wright – who was in the year above me at College! (He got straight on with the poetry, whereas I meandered off before coming back to it…)

4. What is your daily writing routine?

Oh gosh, I don’t have one! It varies hugely for me. I go through cycles of being more generative, then periods of time where I’m focused on editing – which I view very much as part of the writing process. I like Don Paterson’s idea of the ‘wild red eye’ of writing and ‘cool blue eye’ of editing – often too much focus is placed on the former. That inspirational phase of writing is important, but there’s a whole load of other ways to be nourishing your writing skills and ‘craft’. So whether I’m writing, reading poems or criticism, critiquing other poets’ work, researching a course I’m hosting…Is see it all as part of being a poet.

5. What motivates you to write?

For me, poetry is a way through the world. In my own practice, it’s helped me to process experiences by containing them and extending a hand to others through that poem. So there’s a wellbeing aspect, for sure (I graduated with an MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes in 2019). Sometimes when I haven’t been writing much, Poetry feels like it’s following me around, tapping me on the shoulder. And then I have to pay attention to it.

When I do sit down to write, it’s usually great fun – I love the surprises that crop up when you write, the way the thinking and mechanical action of pen on paper, flow together. By practising this regularly, there are those moments where something pops out and you feel like you downloaded it from a spaceship. Something numinous, but which also has the beginnings – with crafting, editing – of articulating exactly what you wanted.

6. What is your work ethic?

I view writing and tutoring/facilitating/education as two wings on a bird/plane. When I’m researching a course, I’m still involved in poetry and ‘being a poet’. There’s this idea of a ‘network of enterprises’ – or a portfolio, most people call it – and I like having lots of things on the go (up to a point). Working full-time in one place never suited me, so I’m delighted to largely structure my own time and order my work in a way which feels sustainable and enjoyable. Most days, the joy of this carries me through and I get a lot done!

I also view myself as part of an ecology, so really like making time to join people up, spot ways that people might collaborate, generate my own collaborations, and so on – in order to be a part of that ecology. This is also part of the work of being a poet, I think, and what makes it such a lovely world to be in. It’s not a ‘zero sum game’! There’s not a finite amount of poetry or creativity or joy – they’re endless, and we should work to share them, celebrate each other and create opportunities.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

Growing up, I read widely and particularly enjoyed those infused with sci-fi, fantasy and the surreal. These included Kurt Vonnegut, H G Wells, H P Lovecraft; I love Margaret Atwood as a writer who spans amazing fiction and poetry – and still enjoy her work now.

As a teenager, I read ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison as my A-Level personal study and remember reading it in bed and weeping, especially some of the chapters where Morrison experiments with voice and form so effectively and affectingly.

Poetry-wise, I liked (and still like) contemporary stuff which plays with form, language and experiments with what a poem can be. Moments of E E Cummings appearing on the curriculum were those where I really perked up and often I’m looking to make free with language like that, while still reaching a reader – which Cummings’ work does so well.

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

I do think we’re in a lineage and various traditions, blends of tradition, and that includes of queer poets – so I wish I’d been more aware of those who came before me, but am catching up now. The contemporary queer poetry scene is incredibly rich and writers like Ocean Vuong, Danez Smith, John McCullough and more particularly inspire me to push what I do with my own practice further, to write better and take more risks. From a ‘leisure reading’ perspective, I adore David Sedaris for his ability to balance wicked, incisive humour, with poignancy and bathos – the way he can turn in a moment. Sometimes I’m looking for that in my poems too.

9. Why do you write?

I think I’ve mentioned this above, but a big factor is enjoyment, play and experimentation. Not knowing where an idea will take you is so invigorating – and then when that’s really developed and gets shared and someone gets it, or really doesn’t! Those are really exciting moments in human connection, including where it connects with something in someone that isn’t easy, or might be a point for discussion. (I’ll always say that in workshops when we read a poem: do you like it? Do you really dislike it? Both are useful.) Poetry opens out questions and I’m hoping to do that with my work – especially in my new role as Bristol City Poet – while also, yes, making people laugh and introducing them to new, peculiar ideas.

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

Eek! There’s so much to this. It depends on what you want to write and why, of course.

If you’re in poetry, then you’ve got to know that it’s the thing you’re here to do and that you’ll do it anyway, even if poetry ‘success’ never arrives. But if you are committed to it and keep learning, growing, practising, then as I said above, I think, hope, there’s plenty for everyone.

As a poet friend of mine said, “There are contexts in which it’s much easier to be excellent”.
There are lots of structural reasons why some poets find it harder to get on than others (race, class, gender, geography, dis/ability, sexuality, and so on) – so I don’t want to seem glib about this. These factors can make it even harder to access opportunities; there are subtleties to all of these facets of identity; and intersectional identities (ie which span more than one of these tags) exist and need to be heard!

As such, I’d say to find your network and support, find those who are prepared to offer their experience and knowledge, establish that community – this will definitely bolster your confidence, resilience and potential. Groups like Malika’s Poetry Kitchen have been powerful in raising up voices that the wider poetry scene has missed out on before. It’s not just as simple as keeping at it – but building your networks will help you to do so.

From my perspective, being part of a critiquing group and tutoring/facilitating have been crucial in developing my work and making it sustainable. Making a living through poetry can be hard, so having the ability to host groups is important – and again, there are structural factors which prevent some poets becoming teachers.

I’m just in the process of setting up a couple of lots of free mentoring, for those who can’t access training or mentoring, to support specific skills in submitting work and facilitating groups – so I hope that this does a tiny bit to address this. I’ve benefitted from mentoring and training a great deal, so this is an effort to pass that on. I’ll post this up on my Twitter once this is good to go!

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

The big news is that I’ve just been appointed Bristol City Poet for 2020 – 22! I’m really looking forward to writing poems for the city which reflect on, celebrate and challenge what’s happening in the city I’ve made my home.

My pamphlet is in process and should be out with tall-lighthouse press, in the first quarter of 2021 – more on that as it emerges.

For the last year or so, I’ve had some Arts Council England Developing Your Creative Practice (DYCP) funding to write and edit a collection of poems around queer ecopoetry. This has been such a gift and the work has really progressed – I’m excited to see it evolve into a full-length publication. It feels like something really distinctive and unique is emerging.

I’m also involved in various poetry education projects, including the Beyond Words programme with Cheltenham Festivals, tutoring for Poetry School, a ‘Queering the Museum’ commission with Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) Exeter – and investigating setting up an online Writers in Museums Network. I’ve probably forgotten something, but that’ll do for now.

More about my network of enterprises at: www.couldbethemoon.co.uk

Or find me on Twitter @CalebParkin or Insta @Couldbethemoon

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