FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH IAN DUHIG

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

IAN DUHIG: My mother knew reams of poetry by heart, that being how they taught it in Ireland in her youth, and she recited it constantly in my hearing when I was very young, Mangan being a favourite:

Good luck to you, don’t scorn the poor, and don’t be their despiser,
For worldly wealth soon melts away, and cheats the very miser.

I’ve always fiddled with words to make jokes or songs, verbal contraptions, schoolboy obscene contrafacta yielding eventually to such commissions as the Fauvel update for the Clerks at the core of ‘The Speed of Dark’. My father knew a lot of proverbs and their verbal shafts counterpointed my mother’s lyric flights: ‘Is minic a bheir dall ar ghiorria’, “a blind man often caught a hare” was one of them that somehow links ‘The Lammas Hireling’ with ‘The Blind Roadmaker’, as well as ideas of shape-shifting, including in my new book between poetry and prose. Poetry drew me in because it can contain so much so easily in its own paradoxical compass.

FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.

ID: There wasn’t a point at which I felt, now I’m a poet, but I slowly wrote things that came to resemble poems. After university, I worked with homelessness organisations in England and Ireland for fifteen years, so during this time my development as a writer was fitful but reading the Northern Irish poets in Belfast when I worked there gave them a special power for me, which I also find in the work of John Riley, who lived near me in Leeds before he was murdered in 1978. Riley’s Czargrad reflects his home city as Lalić’s Byzantium reflects Dubrovnik. Admired by poets ranging from Andrew McMillan to J.H. Prynne, Riley has been out of print too long and I’m honoured to be writing the preface for a new selection edited by Ian Brinton. Location and poetry dissolve into each other for me and I’m always quoting Wallace Stevens on how we don’t live in places, we live in descriptions of places. For Szymborska, poetry is not born in noise, in crowds, or on a bus. There have to be four walls — but I write as much on buses as in rooms.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?

ID: A lot, particularly the validation of my work by judges who are also poets I admire, the chance to explain myself like this in a conversation about poetry when so much of it is conducted in silence, before and after it is written. The Forward Prizes have earned their reputation for wide-ranging and progressive selections, which is another reason I’m so pleased to be here, but ultimately, as Eliot said, there is no competition in poetry and given how very differently people write the stuff now, that’s truer than ever.

FAF: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?

ID: Departures and changes as well as well as continuity: shape-shifting in ‘The Lammas Hireling’ in my new book includes that between poetry and prose. Its first words derive from those of Dora Diamant, Kafka’s great love (later a refugee in London) in what became a parable about narratives as I followed where her story led. Love is its own kind of blind roadmaker and a series of poems about love conclude while in between are swervings, digressions, amplifications and distractions on themes emerging from the journey. Poets are blind roadmakers as Frost described, never knowing where a line will take them, like Klee. Changes here reflect work produced under various challenges, often site-specific; ‘Interventions’ involved making installations for Sewerby Hall and gardens, during the course of which I discovered a local battle hymned by Walt Whitman (“Would you hear of an old-time sea-fight?” ) and conveniently forgotten by the Brits who lost it. War and gardens brought Ian Hamilton Finlay to mind and his influence was all over the pieces I had installed and some here: ‘Selkie’ which was made for a bower overlooking the sea where young people come for a snog to rise like a wave silently behind them. ‘Digressions’ was a celebration of Sterne’s tercentenary based round Shandy Hall, a centre for Conceptual writing where Bök, Dworkin and Goldsmith have held residencies. This stretched my ideas regarding borders between poetry and prose but the furore over Goldsmith’s Michael Brown piece reached Leeds an organisation I am involved with had ties with Black Lives Matter, which I wrote about in Poetry London (http://poetrylondon.co.uk/to-witness-ian-duhig-on-poetrys-responsibilities/). ‘Mother Shipton’ grew from a chance remark in the same way as ‘The Lammas Hireling’: I commented on our odd weather to a till lady in the local Co-op who replied “Mother Shipton said we would know no seasons.” Jeremy Noel-Tod, who reviewed ‘The Blind Roadmaker’ in the Sunday Times, in subsequent contact said this was his favourite poem so I have hope I did her justice, or her words at any rate. I couldn’t exactly say my poem about Manuel Bravo was a favourite, though important to me to try and write; after it was published a solicitor working with asylum seekers got in touch, which led to the project I’m currently engaged in researching.

With six sisters, five of them older than me, writing ‘Bridled Vows’ by imagining a woman’s clear-eyed and realistic statement of love wasn’t too hard but I love the fact that this wry sonnet is really being used in weddings. ‘Blockbusters’ grew out of the opposite, isolation; its epigraph, a throwaway remark by former Granta Editor John Freeman, He lives in Leeds, completely out of the literary world, all too well representing the view of the literary world, added to the struggle of being a freelancer in an art almost entirely absorbed into academia, being blocked but far from the world of blockbusters and broke to boot all went into its making. Tony Harrison has shared his interesting idea that Leeds dialect falls naturally into iambic pentameter and it’s certainly a paradoxical place: the architectural historian Nuttgens called it ‘The Back-to-Front, Inside-Out, Upside-Down City’. It has long been a magnet for immigrants, and when these were fleeing pogroms it earned Leeds antisemitic nicknames like ‘Jerusalem of the North’ and ‘The Holy City’, strange abuse in a Christian country but there you are. Religion continues to interest me since I was a terrible altar boy and I live where it comes in a rich variety: a particular recent delight was learning through Leeds poet Khadijah Ibrahiim’s book ‘Another Crossing’ that Rosicrucianism also features in the Caribbean heritage of my new fellow citizens, returning echoes of Yeats and Satie.

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?

ID: An uncountable number of dead poets and too many among the living to detail but recently I was enormously impressed by Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen’ and Peter Riley’s ‘Due North, valuing in both their pursuit of new forms for poetry as well their choice of material. I’ve been interviewing therapists of traumatised refugees, many of whom in Leeds are Syrian, and this got me re-reading Adonis. His ‘Music’ (in Mattawa’s translation) contains the line, “In this house an immigrant lives and his name is meaning” which I love: simple, almost proverbial words suddenly blossoming with possibilities, so for me his house relates to the Arabic, ‘beit’ ( بيت‎) literally meaning “a house” but also a metrical unit, in the same way that stanza means room in Italian. This is the kind of scrutiny the best poetry bears, as far as I am concerned, showing how poets come to make homes in language, like ‘forms’, a word also meaning the nests hares make for themselves in fields.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

ID: Part of my plans I mention earlier, but I wouldn’t like to give the impression I ever have a clear idea of where I am going or how I’m going to get there.

Donald Barthelme put it this way, The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do … The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Blind Jack fascinated me because he is my dynamic opposite, always knowing where he is going like the old song whereas I can get lost on a sofa. “I begin with writing the first sentence and trusting to Almighty God for the second” Sterne writes in ‘Tristram Shandy’: this works just as well for an atheist and a poet. ‘The Blind Roadmaker’ invokes Paley’s divine watchmaker but I know the importance of faith.

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

ID: I always liked that line in ‘Rasselas’: “To a poet nothing can be useless.” Find the value in the overlooked and listen to all sorts of people. Learn to live on very little. Never underestimate what a massive pain in the arse you will be to your loved ones and everybody else. Be lucky and be kind.