No 3 - Autumn/Winter 1995
Interview with Ian Duhig
Ian Duhig was born in London of Irish Catholic parents, and lives in Leeds. In 1987 he won first prize in the National Poetry Competition. His first collection, The Bradford Count (Bloodaxe, 1991), was selected for the 1994 New Generation Poets promotion. His second collection, The Mersey Goldfish, was published by Bloodaxe in 1995.
This interview with John Redmond was conducted by post between April and May, 1995.
J.R. Would say a few words about your background. In particular, what aspect of it led you to start writing?
ID. I was the eighth of eleven children and the first born in England. Our nativities tended to coincide with Dad’s periods of leave from the Irish Army. He was a “known shot” (which meant arms manufacturers adjusted their sights to his performance) of everything from small arms to artillery. When he left there was no work for him in Ireland, so in stages the family emigrated to London. He got a job as a factory labourer, we got a council house, and from me on was the first time my parents didn’t have to pay for the education of their children. Both liked poetry, and although I left school at 16, I skived back in to University (Leeds) quick enough when I discovered what work was like, and did English. Since then I worked in homelessness projects until I was made redundant from one last year. (I recently heard someone describing this as me becoming a full-time writer! Ordure.) I’ve been writing poetry seriously since 1986 but always dabbled.
J.R. Is Leeds a good city in which to be a poet?
ID. Leeds is a good city to live in, but the local poetry culture is a bit anarchic. It’s tremendous for all kinds of music, though. I could listen to music in ‘The Roscoe’ in an impromptu session by a mob of All Ireland Champions and hear songs by Darach O Cathain, who S. Riada thought was the greatest interpreter of sean n6s singing of his generation. Darach performed in the traditional manner, gripping my hand and singing while looking directly into my eyes, sometimes pressing my hand against his forehead, a troubled man with a disabled boy just born to him, nobody understanding a word of his song - Lorca’s duende lecture reproduced in Mervyn Williams’ bilingual Selected from Bloodaxe gives an idea of the intensity of such experience. And this was in Leeds, you suckers.
J.R. Tony Harrison has written a great deal about Leeds and many of his poems, like yours, set down humorous situations on a formidably learned texture. Do you see any connections between his work and your own?
I.D. There are many connections, all seriously enervated by the fact that he is much better than I am. I was commissioned by the llkley Festival to work with a composer who lived in Yorkshire a few years ago, and for some reason that made me very aware of my many debts to his work - all the more obvious in The Mersey Goldfish. He is, of course, a much more serious poet than me.
J.R. Your poems also seem influenced by your London-Irish roots. Do you think there are any identifiable differences between London-Irish poets and Irish poets?
ID. Absolutely. We were unbelievably arrogant in the early 70s as London Irish. For us, Culchies began at Shepherd’s Bush. This was odd as my best friend’s family, as he was, were Mayo native speakers. But if we were patronising to our parents and elders, we treated the English with colonial contempt. We were probably more arrogant than most, but if other London Irish writers were honest with themselves, they would agree that we secretly despised the English. Once you can dehumanise like that, the world is your lobster.
J.R. The diction of some of the poems in The Bradford Count is very rich. Are you a great reader of dictionaries and encyclopedias?
I.D. A raider rather than a reader and of vocabularies rather than languages. I particularly like Brewer‘s. How does anyone get through life without knowing that the Swiss equivalent to England’s John Bull is called Colin Tampon? (p. 246 Centenary Edition).
J.R. Paul Muldoon features in two of your poems, where your attitude towards him seems to be a mixture of belligerence and affection. Is he an influence on your work?
ID. I hope people sense a lot more affection than belligerence. I am often belligerent but in this case it is largely envy. He is without doubt the cutest poet in English but he writes very movingly too. He is a constant influence on me when I write and that drives me up the wall too. He has said he likes to start poems where other poets would finish, but if I try to use that to analyse his technique I am in a wilderness of mirrors. There’s this story of a Sheffield mill which saw an American firm advertising itself by saying it manufactured the smallest bore steel piping in the world. They asked for a sample which they returned with an equal length of their own rattling about inside it. It’s like that reading Muldoon. You’re told the poem’s subject should dictate its structure, but in Muldoon the poem is its structure, as in The Annals of Chile. I think that was the most remarkable book of poems I’ve ever read. I can’t say best because I know whole tracts of it I miss as its great wheel turns. There seems a kinship between Joyce in the novel, Beckett in the theatre and Muldoon in poetry, and I’m not disposed to quali1ify the issue of stature.
J.R. ‘Double Vision’ in The Mersey Goldfish is a retake on one of Michael Longley’s poems. What was the idea there?
I.D. Well, there’s lots of doubling up in The Mersey Goldfish, as well as the Irish / English thing, and I knew he liked the poem (as did Muldoon ‘Untitled’, otherwise I wouldn’t have published them), despite getting revenge on me in The Ghost Orchid’s ‘According to Pythagoras’. Although you might not believe it, Longley’s work is the biggest single influence on my own stuff, and it is an enduring influence. And I was entertained in this poem by the Irish poet looking for his roots - Kunta Kinte on Clapham Common.
J.R. Do you regard yourself as famous? If not, would you like to be?
I.D. I know I’m famous - it’s just that no other bastard I ever meet agrees with me.
J.R. Your humour has an almost Flann 0’ Brienish quality, coarse, learned, surreal and off-the-cuff, with the quality of someone who likes pub chat. Is this a fair characterisation of it?
ID. Probably yes. Perelman said he was the funniest writer he knew and it’s definitely the same with me. However he also does fascinating things with H.M. English, including, as someone remarked, writing it as if it were a dead language. He claimed to be able to distinguish thirteen different Dublin accents, which S.J. Ellis when he was at Leeds told me was perfectly likely. An Irish speaker from birth, he wrestled with the language hilariously in public, particularly its Blasket literature.
J.R. ‘Ten Desert Island Books’ in your second collection is a list of amusing titles - not so much a conventional poem as a ‘throwaway’ joke. Are you against poetry that takes itself seriously? What do you think of Auden’s idea of poetry as a sort of game?
ID. Poets and poetry can take themselves too seriously. I think this is a legacy of having Geoffrey Hill as Professor of English while I was at Leeds. His permanent expression was that of a pig chewing a thistle. The trouble is saying poetry is a sort of game says nothing. Games can be serious. More people die at games than at poetry readings (although one person did actually die at a Geoffrey Hill reading). I think my attitude to literature generally is sceptical - as Bertrand Russell remarked, the first duty of the citizen is to learn to resist eloquence.
J.R. Do you think that Irish poets have any natural advantages over English ones?
ID. They have many. More people interested in what they do for a start, including members of their government. I have the current Arts Minister, Michael D. Higgins’ book of poems The Betrayal in my hands, a handsome volume. He gave it in exchange for mine when I read at Galway. On one occasion I met Richard Luce, English Minister for the Arts at the time, and his idea of conversation was to tell me that his son had written poetry all through his youth and early manhood and not felt able to tell his father. That doesn’t begin to answer the question but I would note that assumptions can’t be made that the new generation of poets, North and South, are better than their British equivalents.
J.R. ‘A Basket of Dalmatian Oysters’ seems to be a comment on the war in Bosnia. Is there a story behind that poem?
I.D. I was thinking of Hubert Butler’s essays on what used to be Yugoslavia. He quotes the story of the huge basket of Serbs’ eyes from an autobiography by an Italian fascist. He also attended a ceremony of reconciliation among Montenegrin Serbs in which murderers could make restitution to the families of their victims without blood feuds developing. What happened?
J.R. A poem like ‘Estuary English’ treats letters (like ‘K’) and phonemes as the material for puns. Would you be worried if people saw some of your poems as being like crossword puzzles?
I.D. Well, the letters idea is at least partly because it’s a childish book, but in ‘A Repeat’, the experience of having a shop door slammed and locked in my face was when I was with Jackie Kay. Some of my poems are puzzles or a sort of idiot cabbala, but take ‘Six more Sides’ in The Mersey Goldfish: why did the ‘Old Croppy’, as he called himself, have his epitaph in code? And such a simple one for vowels (1,2,3 = a,e,i etc) that anyone can work it out in minutes. It then becomes “CHRIST was the word that spake it” and later “HE took the word and brake it”, so formally it does what he wants it to but what brought him to that decision? There is a fantasy abroad that the principal function of language is to communicate. In many circumstances the principal function of language is to excommunicate.
J.R. What do you think of literary theory? Is it of any use to a practising poet?
I.D I think literary theory is good clean fun but it’s about as much use to me as a chocolate saucepan.
J.R. Some of the New Generation poets, like Simon Armitage, seem to be producing books more frequently than, say, someone like Philip Larkin ever did. Do you think that, these days, there is a danger of poets writing too quickly, perhaps for career reasons?
ID. I think career reasons would lead you to a general but not an excessive level of productivity. If you can write lots of good stuff all well and good.
J.R. Your poem ‘The Gift of a Black Egg’ reminded me of a phrase a Kerryman told my father: D’ith damh dnbh ubh amh ar neamh (the black ox ate a soft egg in heaven). Is the Irish word dubh particularly important to you?
ID. I got the general words of this Kerry phrase but I called in Brendan Kennelly, a Kerry native speaker himself, and he was completely baffled. Dubh for me is interesting because in English ‘black man means ‘the devil’ and fascists are wheeling out the old codes in England (Column 88 used to refer to H.H. or Heil Hitler; the new Column 18 works the same device) and ‘black’ prefixes an army of insults. It does so in Ireland too but with a different slew. However, in Irish a man of colour is not black (dubh) but blue (gorm) and for a while I liked to fancy the Irish were less racist, even to their language, than the English. But I asked a tinker. Know the word nigéar?
J.R. How good is your Irish?
ID. Crap. I did it a couple of years in London, another in Leeds, but I’d have to sit down with cribs to get me through anything complex. I am no linguist and Irish joins the slurry of French, German and Latin all pouring into my Estuary English.
J.R. Would you have liked to be Raftery?
ID. I could out empty pockets to face the crowd already. If I pulled my dick out too I could pretend it was an impersonation of Batar the Elephant. It might earn more than music or poetry.
J.R. Would you like to write a novel or a play?
I.D. I am at present in what local authorities call ‘the pre-planning stage’ for a more theatrical piece of some description. It would have music but is more likely to have complete silence.
J.R. Is dána gach madra ina dhúthaig fhéin (Every dog is a devil in his own place). Could this be your epitaph?
I.D. Is dána gach madra ina dhúthaig fhéin, agus bhi mé nios dána thar lear (...and I’m more devilish abroad). Or, more likely, Durtaigh Reibeal unAighris Shaight.
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