Ghost Town Music: Stalking Bobby Parker
, January 13th, 2013 17:16
Richard Scott speaks with the enigmatic, talented but seldom-discussed poet about his life, his work and his Facebook addiction and we present two new, previously unpublished poems
Six months ago a friend of mine passed me a copy of Bobby Parker’s spruce-green Ghost Town Music in much the same way that a teenager might pass his mate porn in the back row of a biology lesson. Within days I had fallen in love. Ghost Town Music, published by The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, is a seemingly random collection of dark vignettes detailing the activities of Parker and his childhood friends as they lose their virginity, experiment with drugs and run the full gamut of emotion as they experience suicide, violence and adolescent rage. Parker’s poetic world teeters on the edge of a nightmarish landscape but is ultimately redeemed by his need to express the humanity in all of his characters; my favourite being Mandy, the perhaps local prostitute but certainly disturbed girl, who is constantly spied on by the local lads, or ghosts as Parker calls them, as they haunt her with their voyeuristic masturbatory tendencies. But Parker portrays Mandy as not just an object of sexual desire with her ‘see through night dress’ but as a vulnerable young woman ‘crying into the belly of a burnt teddy bear’. It's this sensitive and subtly resonant touch that transforms the murky darkness of his poetic world into a welcome place for his eager readers.
The poems in Ghost Town Music are interspersed with photocopied collages, pencil drawings, comic strips, and the poems themselves are almost crudely published in a variety of different fonts. The whole visual effect is rather pleasing, it’s like finding your cousin’s sexually vivid diary; but it’s not shocking, it’s beautiful because Parker has to uncanny ability to write as if he were almost a wide-eyed stranger in his own world, whilst being able to guide the reader through garages and back gardens of his friends. Parker’s writing gives the impression that were it not for his highly developed memory, he would almost be a passive observer as he allows his shy persona to be puppeted into behaviour and situations by charismatic others. But if Parker’s poetic persona sometimes comes across as passive, as he is almost forced into sexual encounters with demanding girls, then he is certainly not passive in his writing. Parker’s poetry has a natural poetic line, which is so simple and effective it almost appears un-worked, and he has a keen ear for natural spoken rhythms. Parker rarely relies on similes or metaphors but has keen eye for effective and thrilling symbols, such as Karl’s mum’s greasy dildo, ‘sticky because there was still Vaseline all over it and a couple of pubic hairs’ and the ‘burnt teddy bear’ who's belly Mandy cries into as she rocks back and forth. Parker’s best poems are thoroughly reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s, as both men seem to let life just happen to them but this is the effect of one living to write, everything is up for grabs, every experience and relationship is material for their poetry. Parker also utilises Carver’s seemingly relaxed line breaks and likeable narrator’s tone; were it not for Parker’s symbols and subtle spoken rhythms, his poems could almost be miniature stories.
Next I dived into Parker’s pamphlet Building Murder With a Smile, published by The Red Ceilings Press and containing a mere 21 six line poems that offer a glimpse into a more ordered but seemingly hellish world of masturbation, alcoholism and anger. In Building Murder with a Smile Parker cleverly finds a way of building a poetic block of council flats and each tiny perfect identical poem is a bleak window into a neighbour’s torment. Parker’s pamphlet is both familiar and quixotic but again utterly human in its scope.
After all my obsessive reading, it wasn’t just his poetry I was in love with but his mystery, who was this guy who took the hard subjects, like adolescents accidentally digging up used condoms and city dwellers stepping over heroin addicts, that I had never heard read? In fact I knew nothing about him, other than the fact that his book Ghost Town Music was just about the best thing I’d read all year. So pretty soon, together with my friend who’d originally passed me his copy of Parker’s book, I developed a war cry of ‘who the fuck is Bobby Parker?’
So after several more months of emailing back and forth with my friend, another equally smitten Bobby Parker admirer, about what we felt his true subjects were, we even embarked on a row about his poem ‘The Indian Shop Keeper Saw’ which neither of us could decide of it were truly about race or gender, I plucked up the courage to request his friendship on Facebook. I even sent a message explaining how much I loved his writing, the next morning brought a reply:
Thank you for this, really. Things have been tough and messages like this give me a massive boost. Very glad you are enjoying Ghost Town Music.
He also accepted my friend request and with that gesture came a flurry of status updates and images. To my delight, Bobby Parker is something of a serial Facebook updater, the insight I had longed for was arriving thick and fast, although perhaps not in a linear fashion. The first status update I read was ‘I was standing in Calypso Steve's living room, waiting for him to make his mind up about buying my old PC monitor, when his ten year old son pulled out some nunchucks and started spinning them inches from my face. I wanted to say, 'Look Calypso Steve, control your kid or I'm going to lose some teeth in a minute.' But I was worried about accidentally saying ‘he’s’ instead of ‘I’m’’. I became instantly hooked to Parker’s witty and evocative updates which also included requests for suggestions about his own poetry and career. Parker uses Facebook to actually communicate with his friends and admirers.
So we began to correspond and in one of our early emails Bobby hinted at a separation in his work, ‘writing books like Ghost Town Music and Building Murder with a Smile are very different from the ‘serious’ poetry I publish, which is more crafted as opposed to the ‘arty’ experimental purity of my knives forks spoons books etc . . .’
This fascinated me, the charm of Ghost Town Music is that the poems are extraordinarily wise and vivid and that they feel necessary, like they had to be written and they had to be written in a hurry, so I couldn’t imagine Parker ever writing anything else. What was this ‘serious’ poetry he mentioned and how did it differ from his ‘arty, experimental’ poems? Suddenly I knew what form this article had to take, I wanted to correspond with Parker about his work, primarily because even from our very first communication he was open and disarmingly honest. So I wrote back.
In your last email you mentioned a ‘difference’ between your serious poetry and your arty experimental poetry . . .
Bobby Parker: I feel like my experimental work and my other, more crafted work, are two roads that will hopefully converge into something that doesn't make my creative life feel so divided. To avoid confusion, I will refer to my Ghost Town Music stuff as my art. My poetry was a struggle for a while; it started to feel like a desperate attempt to feel accepted by my peers, writing how I thought I should write instead of going with my gut.
What were the initial inspirations behind your collection Ghost Town Music?
BP: Ghost Town Music came after years of writing poetry and working my way through the small presses, it satisfied the other side of my nature, the mad, silly, pure, don't-give-a-fuck, side. I wish I could write books like Ghost Town Music all the time, but they take a lot out of me. The whole thing probably took a few days to put together, but it did make me ill, rather manic. It was hard to come down from that mania. Perhaps I'm kind of scared of going up there again and wary of forcing it. I feel lost in the dark a lot of the time. When I write a poem, or be creative in any way, it's like I have a torch, I can see things around me, examine them up close, make sense of my surroundings. Then, when a poem or a piece of art is finished, the batteries run out and I'm in the dark again.
When you talk of light and dark, what exactly is the dark?
BP: Depression and anxiety. I have this overwhelming need to be liked by everyone and putting myself out there so honestly can leave me open to attack. I think that might have a lot to do with my dependence on ‘the accident’ or that strange feeling of possession that seems to write a poem for me. If I’m thinking too much, if I’m in the way, it’s very bad. Writing can be incredibly difficult sometimes, I tremble and have heart palpitations and my mood can get terribly manic. Sometimes there is a lot more at stake than simply writing a bad poem.
When did you first start writing and in what form?
BP: The first thing I wrote was a horror story. It was about a serial killer who tortured people with magic. I wrote it in a school exercise book. Being a voracious reader, I think the excitement made me want to go a bit further – bored of the books in the library and tired of getting my own books confiscated by teachers, writing seemed like the logical next step. It still feels like I’m writing for myself, reacting against something. I think art is the best kind of rebellion because it’s a communication, a reaching out, a gathering of like-minded people. I wanted to find people like me. I was very lonely. I still am, but not nearly as much as I was.
Just what were you reading when you were reading voraciously, were you reading any poetry?
BP: In high school I studied the poems of Seamus Heaney. Death of a Naturalist was the first time poetry came onto my radar. I walked around with lines stuck in my head, and those powerful images of Dan Taggart drowning the kittens or ‘the scraggy wee shits’ and, of course, the funeral of his brother. I suddenly became aware of the music of language. I remember thinking it was a pretty morbid book, and stuff like that always struck a chord with me.. Later came Friedrich Nietzsche, James Joyce, Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg’s Howl and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and my head exploded. I got drunk a lot, lost my virginity and spent a lot of time wandering around thinking about EVERYTHING. At the same time, my depression was starting to really kick in, so these writers became the people I turned to for answers. That was not necessarily a good thing, but it happened.
Can you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
BP; Yes, I started writing poems in a small spiral notebook. My first poem was called (cringe) ‘Betrayal of a Petal’ and, though I can’t remember anything specific about the poem, it was almost certainly a poem about unrequited love, or an unrequited crush. I only showed my poems to a couple of other children: a girl I sat next to in most of my classes, and a boy who was in the same year as me at school and lived nearby. He was a very precocious, sensitive boy, who later came out as gay, and I guess I felt he would respond to the emotional vulnerability in my work, which he did. The other boys were all into fighting, sex, drugs and hurrying to grow up. I was excited by the prospect of all those things, but deep down I knew that I was still quite immature in a lot of ways. I was still happier living in my own imagination but writing was a secret thing. I lived on a council estate. To admit that I wrote poems would have been like admitting that I cried at sad films or was troubled by confusing thoughts regarding sexuality. The other kids would have made my life hell. I was different enough.
Am I right in thinking that you’ve put together some of your books very quickly, perhaps even over a single week? This seems to be in stark contrast to some poet's methods of slow methodical working in which it can take up to five years to complete a collection.
BP: Building Murder with a Smile was written very quickly, over a couple of days I think. I wanted to capture an atmosphere, and I needed somewhere to store all my anxieties and negative feelings, to trap them somewhere where they would be of use. Building Murder with a Smile is what I would call one of my experimental books. The process of writing it was far from methodical; it was all about ideas and atmosphere. When I write poems, crafting them over weeks, months or some cases years, it’s not that I take them more seriously than my ‘experimental’ stuff, but the rules change; it’s the difference between a game of tennis and a game of chess, if that makes sense?
Building Murder with a Smile has a huge and varied cast. Were you building a kind of fictional village or tower block full of people and honing in on their troubled vignettes, or are these poetic incidents true?
BP: It is the first time I have written fiction. As far as I am aware nothing in that book is true except it was my intention to truthfully document the way people have behaved around me, their extreme personalities and the nature of their relationships. I started to worry about the world, and the people we spend our time with. Becoming a father didn’t create these thoughts and fears, they were always there, but suddenly they were magnified and I couldn’t get around them. At the time, my daughter was a couple of months old and I was very scared and going through a bit of a manic phase. When my wife was in hospital for a couple of weeks, I did everything to keep myself busy, really burned myself out, so when she came home and all would be cosy and beautiful and everything would be okay, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t keep still. So one night I started writing the pieces that would become Building Murder with a Smile. I decided to try and create a dark, almost Lynchian, soap opera using six line stanzas, and I put as much darkness in there as I could without deviating from a certain feeling. With that in mind, I got to work and finished it within a few days, writing late into the night, only at night.
Then I sent it off to Red Ceilings press and it was accepted immediately with no changes. Apart from the cover, I wanted it to be purple. It had to be purple. A few years ago I read somewhere that the best-selling horror books have purple covers or have purple on the covers. It seemed appropriate because, for me, the book is about the horrors that people inflict upon each other every day: child to parent, man to woman, lover to lover, boss to employee, etc. I am very happy with that little book. It came quick and pure and it felt right.
How did you alight onto the form of the poems in Building Murder with a Smile, each poem in the collection is identical and only six lines long?
BP: I started seeing the number six everywhere, or to be more specific 666. That didn’t have any religious significance for me, but it did have power. At that time, the sixes I was seeing were somehow a part of this anxious world. I needed to get rid of them. And the only way I knew how to do that was to incorporate them into my writing. I didn’t want this to be too obvious though. There’s a multi-storey car park down the road from us where a lot of people have jumped to their deaths. One day I was walking down the hill, towards the multi-storey, when I felt the overwhelming urge to go up there and stand where these people jumped. I had my camera with me and thought I would take pictures of the view from up there; the last thing these poor people saw before they took off. When I got up there, my skin started tingling like crazy, up and down my arms and from the bottom of my spine up to my neck. The wall that people jump over had three big white numbers sprayed along it, by the council, to mark the position. It happened to be the sixth floor, and there happened to be three sixes along that suicidal wall. It was very eerie.
There are topics in your work which other poets shy away from, like drug use, sex, pornography, suicide and even ‘taking a dump’, perhaps because they worry about the reactions of editors and readers as poetry is sometimes known as a somewhat traditional forum. Do these notions worry you or give you pause? Are there things you won't write about?
BP: My books have been criticised as merely for ‘shock value’ but that’s missing the point. If something really inspires me, I will write about it. There is nothing I will not write about. Every taboo can be woven into the fabric of my work, but there is always a sense of caution. I don’t want to upset anybody. Being a self-taught writer and artist has a lot to do with this attitude, that and the way I have lived, around incredibly exciting and dangerous people. After my friends, family and my peers read Ghost Town Music I felt incredibly liberated, like nothing was off-limits any more. That is a very important book, without it I might have spent a lot longer tip-toeing around sensitive subjects instead of celebrating them. I believe that if the work is good and honest and beautiful, people will respond. I continue to regularly get messages from people who’ve read Ghost Town Music and want to tell me just how much it affected them
Do you write about your own past because you feel compelled to or because you want to exorcize certain ghosts? I'm thinking of poems like 'Mandy rocked in her window, throwing' from Ghost Town Music.
BP: I believe the past is something you can’t exorcize or escape from; I don’t think any writer or artist can, despite what they say. What you can do is keep moving it around and looking at it from different angles until you arrive at a place where you are comfortable with it. There’s too much to think about in the present, it’s overwhelming! Better to take some control. We all have fucked up experiences, and it’s okay to write about them; it’s okay to talk about them. No matter how grim and uncomfortable, they are just as beautiful as anything else. You just have a find a way to make them work for you instead of against you.
I should admit that throughout the process of writing this article I have been on Facebook a lot and correspondence with Parker has been punctuated by his status updates. One morning he uploaded a photo of himself; looking much younger, wearing dark clothes and sitting awkwardly on a sun bleached lawn, with the accompanying text ‘Clearing out my desk, I found this, taken in the summer of 2004, I was very ill. Totally detached, unable to even hug my girlfriend or see my family. I thought things would never get better; it is reassuring to think of all the things I have achieved since then’. I felt so privileged to be party to these honest and personal updates surely written for just his friends and relatives. I also wanted to include some of them in this article because it gave me such an insight into this mysterious yet generous author. A few days later I received a notification telling me Parker had tagged me in a post, I logged on to find this characteristically warm and humble update penned by Parker:
‘Today's interview questions have focused on my little book Building Murder with a Smile. I don't even own a copy and haven't looked at it in a while, so I was a bit surprised just how much I could talk about it. I am, of course, also surprised that someone is passionate enough about my work to study it and write a feature about it. Thank you Richard! I might see if I can get another run for it, seeing as it is currently limited edition numbered copies only’.
Needless to say I clicked ‘like’ and then commented that I had copy number 32 of Building Murder with a Smile’s original print run of 40; Its deep purple cover somewhat faded and dog-eared from obsessive rereading.
My neighbour spilled his wine
shouting I was wrong; told me
I’m full of shit as the wind
snapped his letterbox.
I stared at the dark spots
on his beige carpet
and thought about the first time
my daughter bashed her mouth.
How the sight
of her fairytale blood
blew a fuse in my chest
running my fear like a black kite
on the empty beach.
This is the kind of truth
I wish I could explain
without spite and a smug face,
posing by the window, soggy spliff
bouncing on my bottom lip:
Things are different for me,
you wouldn’t understand
because you’re not a parent.
His hand trembled
as he poured himself
another one, a bigger one,
before giving me the last trickle.
Smiling like a silent criminal.
The bottle’s green lip chiming
midnight off my dirty glass.
The poem Vanish came from my issues with friends who are not parents; how they seem to think they know what it must be like to have children when they don’t, they can’t. I was the same before I became a father, so maybe I’m writing to my younger self as well.
My friend’s dad’s bedroom had
a Betamax player with one tape inside.
One day, when the chocolate
was gone and nobody knew anything,
a few of us crept in and pressed play.
Funny music, pianos banging
madly under strings. A dirty old
man peeping through a basement window,
watching an overweight woman
gently masturbating. I think she was
Italian. She looked like somebody’s Mother.
Scattered around the bedroom
we yanked without shame or interest
in each other, only the naked woman
performing with reds and pinks
and wet teeth on a torn single mattress.
The old man was yanking too,
under rags that looked like dead leaves,
wheezing with popping yellow
eyes in the rain. Under the spell
of Blue Movie we yanked like athletes.
When the old man sneezed
she stopped, tilted her gorgon head
towards the window as the pervert
ducked then carried on until, peaceful,
she blew the candles out.
When the tape finished, boredom
was there like a dusty teacher
tapping his watch outside the school gate.
Later we wrestled each other
on the sunny front lawn
as my friend’s pissed dad snarled,
‘Little cunts!’ flicking his stinking fags
under the ice cream van parked nearby.
As for Blue Movie, I have been trying to write about that memory for years. I could never get it right. I wanted to talk about it but was afraid people would not be honest enough to admit to the sexual stuff they got up to as kids, and that I would be embarrassed and ashamed. Then I remembered the blue movie in my friend’s dad’s bedroom and it just flowed free and easy and I felt much better. I have control of it now, you see, and I can talk about it as well. That’s the power, that’s the real addiction.
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