Ruth Yates

Kinship and community: In conversation with Karl Knights, winner of the 2021 New Poets Prize

Winner of the 2021 New Poets Prize, Karl Knights is a fellow of Zoeglossia, the first writing fellowship for disabled writers. You can watch Karl read poems, along with the other New Poets Prize winners, at an Off the Shelf festival event (see here).

This is the first post in a mini-series about neurodiverse and autistic writers, which will be released over the next few days. I first came across Karl Knights when looking for neurodiverse and autistic writers. I wanted to ask writers about the relationship between being autistic and their creative practice. I loved Karl’s clear and thought-provoking answers. Karl kindly agreed to take part in a longer written interview, which can be found below.

First of all, thank you for agreeing to take part in this written interview, and congratulations on being a winner of the 2021 Poetry Business New Poets prize. I’ve recently watched the recording of the 2021 New Poets Prize winners as part of the Off the Shelf Festival (see here). I really enjoyed listening to you talk about and read some of your poems. Can you tell us the name of your upcoming pamphlet, and why you chose that name?

Yes, my debut pamphlet is called Kin. A few friends said that they regretted that their titles were too long to fit in their Twitter bios, so I opted for something short! But seriously though, it was a title that chose itself. Throughout the book, small moments of everyday kinship are commemorated. One of the great things about poems for me is how they can freeze-frame small moments and give them their proper due. The book is obsessed by ideas of kinship and community. I tried other titles in the drafting process, but once Kin settled in, it was there to stay. It was a snug fit that was just right

I’m always interested in what makes people want to write poems. Can you remember when you first wrote a poem?

Yes, I can pinpoint exactly where and when I wrote my first poem, if you could call it a poem! Ten years ago, March 2011. My Year 10 English class got taken to a local arts centre called The Cut, to take part in a writing workshop, led by Dean Parkin. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing both the poet and the man for many years now. His book with the Poetry Business’ Small Donkey imprint, The Bubble Wrap, is well worth checking out. The poems I wrote were truly awful, but they were a start. I’m absolutely certain that if it hadn’t of been for that workshop, I never would have written a word. For that reason, anything I do on the page now is thanks to the Leiston High English department for getting us all there in that room, and to Dean for leading the workshop and leading me into poetry. I knew I had found something I’d draw sustenance from for the rest of my days when I was the only student to keep writing through the lunch break. I really took to the idea that you could sculpt your life into little blocks of words. I didn’t have a ‘career’ in mind, or even publication. I wrote for the joy of it, for the joy of playing around with words. The task, it seems, is somehow holding onto that sense of play.

Where and when do you best write? e.g. walking/at home/in a writing shed?

I’m afraid my answer to this is incredibly boring and hum-drum: I write mostly wherever I am. The locales of writing have been more limited lately. I’ve been shielding, so since the pandemic I’ve written everything where I am currently writing this from: my bedroom. Quite a while ago now, I interviewed a few disabled poets, and it was fascinating to hear about how each writer wrote, the where, what and when of it all. I think we have this cultural image of the writer, where they’re sitting at their desk with a lovely fountain pen and writing on paper that isn’t Tesco’s own. And one of the joys of interviewing disabled poets was breaking that image down for the utter hogwash that it is. Some people used Dragon, a voice dictation software, to write their poems. Others used eye-tracking keyboards. Some wrote notes for poems in the notes app on their phone, something I often did before the pandemic began. It sounds obvious, but there are as many ways to get the words down as there are poets.

I don’t know why this is, but I often feel that I’m at my best when I have someone else’s poem in front of me. The first disabled poem I ever wrote, actually, came about that way. I had read Jillian Weise’s poem, ‘The Amputee’s Guide to Sex’ which is the title poem of their first collection. And I immediately wrote my own version using Weise’s form, a poem which is in Kin. I’m only able to write at all because of the many disabled poets who have gone before me, who have made that literary space for me. All of my work is in their wobbly footsteps. I’m reminded of some advice the late Eavan Boland gave to Paula Meehan in regards to writing poetry: ‘just show up.’ So much of the work of writing seems to be in just showing up, in being ready to follow a thread when it strikes you. It might be a set form, or a sound, or even just a word or two, but you have to be ready to respond when the poem begins to call out to you.

As part of this series of posts about writing and autism, I have asked a number of writers two questions, to be published in a separate blog post over the next few days. These questions are ‘Are there any neurodiverse or autistic writers or artists that inspire you?’ and ‘What is the relationship between being autistic and your creative practice? Thanks for your answers below:

Are there any autistic writers or artists that inspire you?

Gosh, too many to name! Coming across Joanne Limburg’s collection, The Autistic Alice (Bloodaxe: 2017) was one of the first times I saw autistic experience reflected in poetry. I still think that collection didn’t get anywhere near the amount of attention it should have got. I think that, when the histories of autistic poetry come to be written, that book will be seen as a landmark, groundbreaking collection. I’ve been re-reading the poetry and prose of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a writer who deserves to be more well-known on these shores. I’ve been revisiting Cyree Jarelle Johnson’s book, Slingshot, too. It’s always a joy to be shown what a poem can do, and how much a poem can hold, and Johnson’s expansive book reminds me of what poetry is capable of in droves. I’m looking forward to Jane Burn’s forthcoming collection, Be Feared, from Nine Arches Press. I’ve been returning to a poem by Mollie Russell called ‘My Nephew’s Second Birthday: A Saga of Self-Stimulatory Behaviour’ that people can find in The Emma Press Anthology of Illness. Each time I read Russell’s poem I get so much pleasure out of this line: I am not broken. My bones just need more oiling.’ I’ve been enjoying the erasure poems of Chloe Erin a great deal, too. There’s an optimism to them that I like a lot, but it’s not a twee or hokey optimism, it’s hard-edged, hard won and earned. 

Beyond poetry, I’ve been immensely excited by the work of a Scottish writer, Elle McNicoll. Her second novel, Show Us Who You Are, is published by Knights Of. Just the other day, the news came through that her first book, A Kind of Spark (also from Knights Of) will be made into a BBC series. It’ll be a real joy to see an autistic main character on screen. When I was a child, a BBC series with a protagonist like me would have been unthinkable. One of the few spots of joy in the last year for me has been seeing primary schools engage with McNicoll’s work very deeply. Any autistic kid in those classes will know that being a writer is something that’s possible for them, and the other kids there will understand more about people’s experiences. I was ecstatic to see the appearance of Erin Ekins’ book, Queerly Autistic, which is a guidebook for LGBT+ autistic teens. As a poet, as a writer and as a human being, I’m not always inspired by other poetry. Often, I’m inspired by other writers, in whatever genre, who are wholly and unabashedly themselves. 

One of the great pleasures of being an autistic reader at the moment is the fact that it’s hard to keep track of all the autistic writers writing now. For example, Milkweed Editions, a Canadian poetry publisher, have launched an imprint for neurodiverse writers. There’s a press in Minneapolis called Unrestricted Access which has published a great many books by autistic poets. A few years ago, it was entirely possible to know every autistic artist that was at work. Now, so much work is appearing from autistic writers, in so many genres, that it’s hard to keep up with, and I love that. Though while it’s brilliant to see more and more autistic authors being celebrated, we still have some way to go. Naoki Higashida, of The Reason I Jump fame, also writes poetry as well as his more well-known memoirs. Will we ever see his poems translated into English? I hope so. Often, surveys of autistic literature are too male, too heterosexual, too white, and too Euro-centric in their outlook.  I’d love to read more work from autistic people in translation.

Thanks so much for your recommendations here. I also love ‘The Autistic Alice’, but I have not read many of these books, and am looking forward to exploring them now you’ve told me about them. I agree I’d also love to see work from autistic people in translation.  What else would you like to see more of in poetry?

Gosh, where to begin! I think I would separate what I would like to see in poems, and what I would like to see in the poetry world. Something I realised in the editing of ‘First Meeting’ was that I’d never seen the word ‘Senco’ in a poem before. Not once. Isn’t that extraordinary? A SENCO was a part of my daily school life, as they are for many disabled kids around the country. There’s so much of disabled people’s daily lives that just doesn’t exist in poetry, and it’s to poetry’s detriment. Usually, people pull out a well-known quote from Toni Morrison at this point. She said, ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ That’s good, but it can be phenomenally difficult to write a poem if you just haven’t seen anything like it before. And there’s a fair amount of pressure in trying to write a poem featuring something you’ve never seen in a poem before, and that pressure can be a hard thing to navigate.

There’s a famous quote from William Carlos Williams about how people ‘die miserably every day’ for lack of what is found in poems. The poet Mark Nowak turns the quote on its head by asking, ‘what do poems die miserably every day from?’ It’s a reversal that I like. My own answer would be that poems die every day from not having disabled lives in them authentically. So much of people’s daily realities simply doesn’t exist in poems. I was saying to someone the other day, I’ve never seen caravan parks in a poem before. There are plenty of poems featuring international travel, but I haven’t seen the soggy, muddy slop of a caravan park in a poem. I want to read more poems from the voices we haven’t had the privilege of reading yet.

Now, the other side of your question is, what would I like to see more of in the poetry world, that strange apparatus of prizes, reputations and magazines that so often surrounds poetry? The T.S. Eliot prize shortlist was announced a few days ago. For what feels like the first time, disabled and D/deaf poets are there. Maybe one day disabled poets being on award shortlists will be so banal and ordinary that it will scarcely be worth remarking upon. This year’s Nine Arches Press list featured a lot of disabled and ND poets, and that’s still rare. Hopefully diverse publishing lists become more common.

I’d also like to see the poetry world be more self-reflective and criticise itself a bit more. The fact is, inaccessibility has excluded poets from readings, festivals and courses for longer than I’ve been alive. And that’s not acceptable. One of the most wrenching experiences of the pandemic for me was having it confirmed that broader accessibility in the literary world was always possible. For years, disabled people have heard the same excuses for inaccessibility, that it would cost too much, that it would take too many resources, that it just wasn’t worth it. But as soon as nondisabled people needed accessibility, the accommodations that disabled people had been asking for for years were granted immediately. As accessibility began to appear, I wondered whether it would stay. I feared that it would vanish as quickly as it appeared. And unfortunately, I’ve mostly been right so far. The majority of the events that I could attend, often for the first time last year, are now reverting back to solely in-person events, and it’s just crushing.

Now that we all know accessibility was always possible, where do we go from here? I think the poetry world needs to ask itself the hard questions. When you look around at a poetry reading, who is not there? Who is being excluded from that space, and why? The poetry world needs to be honest with itself, and admit just how structurally ableist it can be. It needs to put its hands up and say, ‘we’re not going to exclude people anymore.’ It needs to acknowledge the failures of the past so we can move forward to something more, to greater accessibility and inclusion. We’re not hearing from so many brilliant poets, because readings and the like exclude them via inaccessibility. How many poems are we all missing out on due to easily amended inaccessibility? The pandemic has been, and continues to be, a horrific experience, but it has shown what is possible – and what’s always been possible – for accessibility and inclusion.

What is the relationship between being autistic and your creative practice?

I’m glad this question is being asked. One of my great regrets is that I didn’t get to interview the Australian poet Les Murray before he died in 2019. In his later years, Murray often mentioned in interviews that he felt he was an ‘autie’, just as his son was. But no one ever followed it up, as far as I can tell. No one pressed him further about how being autistic affected his poetry, at least not publicly. And now, perhaps, we’ll never know. I hope I am wrong, and that there’s some astonishing essay or something in his archive that some budding researcher can find. 

You know, I didn’t really realise how autistic my work and my working methods are until I was editing my debut pamphlet, Kin. One of the gratifying and mortifying experiences of editing the book for me was finding out what it is I am concerned with in my work, and a key theme that runs throughout the book is communication, the ways that people do or don’t communicate. In hindsight, it seems pretty obvious that an autistic poet would be concerned with communication in their work, but I wasn’t aware of that as a presiding concern until I came to edit the book. I imagine that, from the outside, the way I work seems deeply autistic in nature. For example, when I was working on the arc of the collection, I charted what each poem’s emotional temperature was, by giving it a mark out of ten. So say, a grim poem might be a one, and an elated poem might be a ten. Then once I’d done that for each poem, I had a graph of what the emotional trajectory looked like for the whole book. Maybe there is a neurotypical poet out there who would do the same thing, but atomising poems in that way seems a very autistic thing to do.

To what degree is my work autistic? It’s a hard thing to think about, as I’d argue that every word I write, and everything I do generally in life, is autistic in some way. My work is a lot like me stylistically, in that the poems are quite direct, blunt and literal, which is very much the way that I communicate and move through the world. Though, of course, having something be literal in a poem does not mean it’s simple! And sometimes, the seemingly ‘simple’ or literal poems can be the hardest thing to get right. It’s noteworthy, too, I think, that I generally don’t explain autistic things in the poems themselves. So say, in ‘First Meeting,’ an account of my first encounter with another autistic person, ‘stims’ are there, and there is no explanatory note of what stims are that you might expect to find in some books. Even though I may not have known it at the time of writing, I evidently had autistic readers in mind by not having an explanatory note there. A few autistic poets have responded to the manuscript in its draft form, and that’s meant the world to me.  I’m excited to see how other autistic people respond to the poems once they’re out there in the wild. A few years ago, I said to a friend that my journalism and essays were engaged in looking outwards at the world, while the poetry looks more inwards towards myself. Though, the two processes bleed into each other, and by interrogating yourself, you’re interrogating the world, and vice versa. 

Recently, I’ve been writing more essays that are concerned with literature rather than journalism. Usually, in long form essays, I am trying to work out a question for myself. In my most recent essay that appeared in The Dark Horse, I wanted to try to answer a question that had hounded me for some time: ‘how does ableism emerge in poetry? What does it look like? How have disabled poets responded to it?’ I don’t know if I succeeded in answering those questions (that’s for readers to say!) but that’s what started me off. In some ways, my essays are an attempt to make sense of what being a disabled, queer, autistic poet means for me. One of the joys of writing, for me, is finding out what it is that I actually think. The essays are perhaps a more ruminative space than the poems, essays allow me to burrow into questions deeply. One of the main points I raise in that essay is the need for more autistic critics. In an essay on Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney writes that Thomas needed an ‘almost autistic enclosure’ within his words. I love Heaney’s work deeply, and his poetry is seared into me for all time, but here Heaney uses autistic to be synonymous with insularity and detachment, a reductive idea of what autism is that I would push against. Many writers have inaccurate conceptions of autism and disability, something that often emerges in interviews, critical prose and poems. I suspect that for many editors in poetry and beyond it, the term ‘autistic poet’ is still seen as a contradiction in terms. But, as any reader of poetry by autistic writers knows, what autistic work looks like is as expansive and infinite as poetry itself. One of the things that unifies both my work in prose and poetry is pushing against simple conceptions of what an autistic life looks like, and in all my work, I try to be true to my life and my thoughts as much as I can.

I also really like Les Murray and would love to know what he thought about being autistic – as you say he felt like an ‘autie’ – and how this related to his poetry. In your poem ‘First Meeting’, you write about the first time you met another autistic person, when you were asked to mentor them at school. It seems to me that you celebrate the things you share, like being forced to make eye contact by teachers. You also said that ‘what autistic work looks like is as expansive and infinite as poetry itself’. What, if anything, do you think autistic writers have in common?

I think I would make a distinction between having something in common as people, and having something in common as writers. I imagine I’d have a lot in common with other autistic writers as people, but we might not have much in common as writers stylistically. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy one another’s work. Lately I’ve been digging into the Library of Congress’ audio archive. You get strange pairings of poets reading together who you would never imagine reading on the same stage, like Denise Levertov reading with James Tate, or Robert Hayden reading with John Ashbery. You’d think those poets wouldn’t have much to say to one another, yet there they are, on the same stage, reading and talking together. And once you get over how radically different their styles are, you realise that they have a lot in common just as craftspeople. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that differences in style can often be vaulted over by what we have in common in terms of our craft, and just generally as people. Diversity of subject, style, and theme is essential to any group’s literature, and autistic literature has those qualities in droves. Ultimately, there are as many ways to be an autistic writer as there are autistic people.

It pains me to say it, but I think one thing autistic writers would share is a sense of disconnect or distance from the wider literary world, from the world of stellar sales and acclaim. One of the things that surprised me the most about winning the New Poets Prize was how many young autistic poets got in touch with me, telling me that it felt like the win had made a space for them and their work. I was, and am, incredibly moved by that. But it troubles me, too. Young autistic poets writing now have already picked up the message from the poetry world that they will get less opportunities than their neurotypical peers, simply because of who they are and what they write about. If that’s the message that’s being sent to the next generation of disabled poets, then something is deeply wrong with the poetry world.

You write about the depiction of autistic people in the media in a Guardian article here, and in your poem ‘The Difference Between a Dog and a Biscuit Tin’ where you first see the portrayal of an autistic boy in a film. You say in this interview that ‘many writers have inaccurate conceptions of autism and disability’. How can writers, readers and publishers challenge the inaccurate ideas about autism and disability that you describe?

It sounds obvious, but if you’re a writer, reader or publisher who wants to learn more, you have to listen. And once you’ve listened a little, go away and do some of your own research. Autistic people may be able to give you some pointers on reading material, but keep in mind that it isn’t autistic people’s job to educate everyone about their lives all the time. I’m not saying you have to write a dissertation to understand and challenge your ideas of autism, but you will have to read a few blogs, read some books, listen to autistic experience. All of the above sounds like it should be a given, but good lord, the amount of books about autistic/disabled people by authors who do no research! Mark Haddon, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which has arguably become the Rain Man of my generation, admitted that ‘I did no research for curious incident.’ Which is just a jaw-dropping statement. Ursula K. Le Guin said that ‘Words do have power[…]Words are events, they do things, change things.’ It’s worth asking yourself what ‘things’ and changes your words are doing. Sunny Singh’s list of questions for writers to ask themselves when they’re writing the other is an essential resource, and a must read for every writer, regardless of what you’re tackling in your work. By doing their research and asking themselves tough questions, writers, publishers and readers can make sure that what they write, publish and platform doesn’t reanimate active harm through inaccurate representations of disability.

Are there any communities of neurodiverse, or disabled writers that you are a part of, and which you can recommend to other writers?  I’ve read that you are a fellow of Zoeglossia, the first writing fellowship solely for disabled writers. Can you tell us a bit about this fellowship?

Yes, the Zoeglossia fellowship is relatively new. The fellowship will be opening up for its third year soon, I think. So, usually a bunch of writers undertake a week-long residency in New York, though for obvious reasons, those plans changed this year. Even on Zoom, it was a joy to share space with other disabled writers. Usually, I am the only disabled writer in the room. But with the fellowship, that dynamic got reversed, so that any non-disabled writer was the odd one out. That change of suddenly being in the majority is something that my writerly self is still learning from. The fellowship is based in the US, and one of the other fascinating developments for me was realising just how rooted in place my work is, something that I hadn’t twigged before.

To answer your first question, I would struggle to recommend specific things or places for a budding disabled poet to do or go to. One of the problems of being a disabled poet is that there isn’t a one-stop shop that will enable you to find your kin. Perhaps, in years to come, organisations like Zoeglossia can serve that function and enable connection between disabled poets, particularly in the US. But at the moment, there’s no single organisation I could comfortably send a disabled poet to in the UK. The communities I find myself in tend to be a little ramshackle, a little loose-knit. Online communities have been and continue to be important to me as a person and as a writer, as they enable me to interact with poets that I might otherwise never meet. Indeed, almost every piece of information that I’ve gleaned about autism didn’t come from doctors, but came from the internet and primarily from other autistic people.

Particularly for writers, there is another community to find, too, what Emily Dickinson called the ‘kinsmen of the shelf.’ For example, one book to look out for will be a forthcoming anthology from Flapjack Press called NeurodiVERSE, which is centred on ND poets (also, I can’t believe I never spotted that the word ‘verse’ is in Neurodiverse before!) I often tell people that if they enjoy somebody’s poem that they should tell the author, as writing can be a lonely business at times, and I’ve come to know some poets that way, by knowing the work first, and then the person. It’s a shame that there aren’t many concrete things I can recommend for a disabled poet to do to find community. Hopefully there will be a more concrete and supportive literary infrastructure for disabled poets soon, so I can recommend things to do with more clarity in the future. 

Where can we read or hear more of your poems?

Folks can read eighteen of my poems in Kin, which will be let loose upon the world in June 2022 (Yes, this is a shameless plug!) And some poems can be stumbled upon in that Off the Shelf reading you mentioned earlier, too. For better or worse, I am most active on Twitter (@inadarkwood), and I post any upcoming magazine publications and such over there. Hopefully more poems will be out and about in the world soon!

With many thanks to Karl Knights for kindly agreeing to this written interview.

Upcoming blog posts will draw on themes from this post, including some of my favourite books by autistic writers, and an exploration of the relationship between being autistic and creative practice from a range of perspectives.

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