Today’s interviewee on our #MeetTheContributor series is Karl Knights, a writer, critic & poet who focuses on representation, disability and culture.
Karl’s poetry and prose has appeared in the Guardian and The Poetry Review amongst other publications, and he contributed the lead featured essay to Poetry London’s Summer 2022 issue, No Disabled People Wanted Here’: Accessing The Estate of Poetry.
Poetry London is an arts charity and international poetry magazine where acclaimed contemporary poets share pages with exciting new names. Published three times a year in February, May and September, each issue contains new poetry, incisive reviews and features.
Over to Karl to hear about his career, poems and favourite Poetry London issue.
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1. What inspired you to become a writer & poet?
Oddly enough I can pinpoint the exact moment when that inspiration arrived. Back in March 2011, my Year Ten English class was taken to a writing workshop at a local arts centre. The workshop was led by a local poet called Dean Parkin. I’ve joked that everything that’s happened since then is his fault. That workshop was the first time I realised that anything could be a poem. The idea that the view outside my window or something a friend said could be a poem was tremendously exciting, and that idea of anything being a poem still excites me. I’ve realised, too, that the example of Parkin’s work was, and is, very important. Before that workshop, I thought that being a poet required being dead and several centuries old. That workshop started everything for me, and I wouldn’t be a writer at all if not for that workshop.
2. Do you have a poem or a selection of poems you are most proud of?
While I probably wouldn’t have thought so at the time of writing it, one poem I’m particularly proud of now is ‘First Meeting’, a poem about the first time I met another autistic person. I had the whole poem there, just as it appears in Kin, but no last line. I knew it needed something, I just didn’t know what. Over about six months, I tried to get that last line over and over again. There’s about twenty pages of alternative last lines that didn’t work. Then I finally got it. I knew it was an important poem for me, and I kept at it until I got it right. That last line is the one line in the book that people talk to me about the most. I’m glad that I didn’t give up on it. If you’ve got a poem that you’re struggling with, keep at it, dear writers.
Something else that I didn’t realise until long after I’d written it: I had never seen the word ‘senco’ in a poem before, which I still find mind-boggling. Senco’s are a part of the daily lives of so many disabled schoolkid’s lives. If nothing else, I’m dead chuffed that I got that into a poem (and if you, dear reader, know any other poems with sencos in them, I’d love to hear about them).
3. What are your views on how far society has to go in representing disabled writers?
To put it mildly, there’s a long way to go. Over forty years ago, a review appeared in a major paper of Christy Brown’s Collected Poems. The headline was, ‘poems from a left foot.’ I’d love to think that a review like that wouldn’t appear today, but I’ve seen so many disabled writers be reduced to the how of their writing, rather than the what.
There have been some gains, just the other week, the Disabled Poets Prize was announced, as was a new award from the Society of Authors for novels by disabled writers. But it’s hard to celebrate what always should have been there, you know? I do a lot of archival work around disabled poets, and it’s a literary history that’s full of silences and absences. The erasure of disabled writers is happening in real time now, as virtual events start to dwindle. The silence that haunts the archives of disabled literary history is always closer than we’d like to think.
4. Could you please guide us through your personal process for writing a poem?
I think part of the reason I keep coming back to poetry is that the process is different with each poem. Each poem almost demands something different. The surprise factor is important. ‘No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader’ says Robert Frost. I’m always slightly amazed when a poem appears. I look at it and can’t quite believe it came from me. There’s something wonderfully alien about it. Usually though, some nugget of language will be hanging around in my head, or there will be an image I can’t shake that seems to want a poem to belong in. Who was it who said you get one given line, and the rest is work? That’s been true in my experience. Sometimes poems do just arrive whole, but most of them have to be worked at, slowly but surely.
5. Do you have a favourite issue of Poetry London?
I’m not sure I do have a favourite issue…the recent-ish Issue 100 springs to mind. I always like getting something bulky, and really getting the lay of the land when I’m reading a magazine, especially if it’s for the first time. That’d be a great starting point for new readers, I think.
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Thanks so much for speaking to us about your important work, Karl!
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