You were the eighth of eleven children, and both your parents liked poetry. Your mother used to recite poetry in English and Irish. Have any of the poems or stories that were recited to you in childhood particularly stayed with you?
Loads and loads: Mangan, a much under-appreciated poet as David Wheatley will explain to you: “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 …” to lesser lights but greater gothickry in T. D. Sullivan’s ‘Death of Conor Mac Nessa’: “For his men brought him back from the battle scarce better than one that was dead, / With the brain-ball of Mesgedra buried two-thirds of its depth in his head … “. Plus lots of songs, stories and proverbs, the latter of which my father had a particularly rich store; I liked the way their sharp wisdom cut with a line as a counterpoint to the orotundity of my mother’s full-blown poetry, beautifully as in Is buaine port ná glór na n-éan, is buaine focal ná toice an tsaoil, “A tune is more lasting than the song of the birds, a word more lasting than the wealth of the world”; brutally as in Is cuma le fear na mbróg cá leagann sé a chos.: “The man in boots walks where he likes” and truly as in Ní thuigeann an sách an seang, “The well-fed do not understand the lean.” Childhood impressions do stick with us and I do have quite a good memory, which is helpful to a poet (and a liar). Later on the notebook has been essential, though recently that has been replaced by the mobile phone, as I get fewer strange looks using that on a bus. Lots of these cultures stuck, more important to me in my earlier work than now, but childhood is a time of poetry for everybody: we make it just looking around ourselves and thinking, and sometimes later our wonder may find words, if we’re lucky.
You have previously collaborated with a number of musicians, including the British composer Christopher Fox and the vocal ensemble ‘The Clerks‘. Can you say a few words on those collaborations and have they affected how you think about the musicality of your poetry?
I think it can be misleading to talk about musicality in poetry as that tends to mean a certain kind of musicality when in fact many exist, including those which seem distinctly unmusical to other musics. I’ve learned something of that variety in musics through working with Christopher Fox and The Clerks as well as having interests of my own. Practicalities have to be addressed: I once had the good fortune to write for the great soprano Sarah Leonard and asked her what she valued in a text. “Words that begin with consonants” was her pragmatic reply. Nevertheless, I think about the silence of the words on the page even in the context of song in the same way that Ian Hamilton Finlay insisted concrete poetry is silent; what exactly their hovering possibilities of sonic realisation might be is where I step aside for other people, including the readers, if there are any.
In the anthology In Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets on their Poetry, your essay ‘Office of the Wall’ looks at the concept of ‘walls’, including the “blank wall, writers’ block”. How often are you afflicted by this, and what are your strategies for overcoming it?
I don’t want to be glib about this because I know so many writers are silenced by various obstacles, social as much as psychological, but I was impressed by the way Martin Bell wrote about his block and it occurred to me that l could make it my theme too, as in my poem ‘Blockbusters’ in ‘The Blind Roadmaker’, for example. I’m still writing about walls, which have become the symbol of our post-9/11 world. Of course, perceiving language as your principal obstacle has inspired whole schools of poetry and I’m actually watching Fellini’s 8½ again with my son as I type this, a film which demonstrates a rather more brilliant way of taking inspiration from lack of inspiration than my own but nevertheless employing a similar device. At a very practical level, I heard that Sterne would change his clothes and wig and write in a different part of the house when he was stuck and I’m sure changes of routine help: I copy local Surrealist Tony Earnshaw’s random journeys on public transport and derive great benefits from them. Talking to new people is good too; it’s how I found out about Jack Metcalf, the blind roadmaker.
In 2013, the tercentenary of the birth of the author Laurence Sterne, you visited Shandy Hall and collaborated with the artist Philippa Troutman to create the book Digressions, some poems from which also appear in your latest book The Blind Roadmaker. Can you say a bit about this collaboration and what for you is the appeal of Tristram Shandy?
I digressed from my course texts at Leeds University to read ‘Tristram Shandy’ for the first time and loved the way it disrupted the narrative of English literature we were being taught, its terrible jokes, cod-learning and genuinely touching moments. I was delighted to read a denunciation of plagiarism itself plagiarised without acknowledgement, gaze on black, marbled and blank pages and enjoy the sheer pleasure of it all. When I came back to live in Yorkshire and visited Shandy Hall, I conceived of the idea to attract people to the place itself as well as the book. I’d wanted to use the nearby City of Troy maze on a project involving refugees new to Yorkshire but couldn’t get the funding. I wanted to involve Philippa Troutman in that who I’ve known since we both worked together on Leeds Shaftesbury project for resettling homeless people, so when I developed the idea of Digressions for Sterne’s centenary, which was backed by ACE, I was pleased to have her on board. She enjoyed Sterne’s visual experimentalism as well as his early commitment to Abolition and we talked about such matters driving up Chapeltown Road, one of Metcalf’s, past a house used for human trafficking and a few miles later Harewood House, built on the profits of slavery, on the way to Shandy Hall. I’m still working on all this in my head. However, as we’re at Aldeburgh, I would like to say how helpful Judith Palmer and Mike Sims of the Poetry Society were alongside Claire Malcolm of New Writing North in turning my rambly ideas into several actualities.
I’ve always enjoyed working with other artists, another way of avoiding blocks I’d recommend to my fellow poets. In practice, this has tended to mean lots of different kinds of music but at Shandy Hall, a major international centre of Conceptual writing, a different kind of relationship between art and poetry was established there which we could respond to as well as the local environment. Anybody wishing to read about our project in greater depth can do so here.
There was a furore at the time of Digressions about conceptual writing and racism which I wrote about here, something I think absolutely central for poets to address.
The crucial role of chance in all this generated more material than I could possibly use and is another area worth investigating: set aside research time with no agenda but follow up every interesting lead, including the apparently irrelevant: we wouldn’t recommend that you drink and dérive but there are some great pubs around there. It was in talking with a local I heard the story that the purpose of the City of Troy is to lose the Devil, should he be following you, as he’ll be lost in there as he can only move in straight lines, which seemed a validation of our procedures on the project.
At the end of the book Digressions you refer to the rewards of getting lost, and you have previously said that Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006) is a book you return to. What in your view are the benefits of getting lost as a writer, and do you have any tips for others who wish to arrive at that state?
I remind people of Frost on how he never knew where a poem was going when he began so you should start out lost if at all possible as well. Solnit quotes Meno on how are we to recognise something new we are looking for if we haven’t seen it before, which I think is the normal situation for poets: Queneau wrote of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape” but I like mazes you find yourself inside with no knowledge of their construction, like the City of Troy at Dalby, where it took me months to appreciate that you get lost outside this maze and not inside. As a short cut to losing yourself quickly, first of all question your certainty that you really know where you are: we don’t live in places, Wallace Stevens wrote, we live in descriptions of places. Dissolve it all in language and see where you end up. Read odd books you wouldn’t do normally. I’ve been thinking a lot about translation after a Lalić commission from Modern Poetry in Translation as I know I’m so far from his languages. What gets lost? It was from reading Sidebottom’s OUP ‘Ancient Warfare’ that I discover “Certain verbs of pain are only applied to Trojans.” This linguistic politics of agony is something that resonates with me as one of the people I am working with is a therapist whose specialism is pain. This is getting a bit macabre, but I hope it does suggest ways of finding shortcuts to your next poem by apparently turning your back on it. You also need luck. Good luck.
Last year, you worked with the Poetry School in collaboration with Wordquake and Bridlington Poetry Festival to complete a residency at Sewerby Hall, in an area of the country that, like the area around Aldeburgh, has suffered from extensive coastal erosion. As part of the residency you created the pamphlet Interventions which features a number of concrete poems, including the poem ‘Selkie’ which closes The Blind Roadmaker and the no-word poem ‘Skyhook’. During that residency what for you was the most interesting story that you came across, and what prompted you to experiment more with concrete poems while you were there?
I think ‘Skyhook’ is wordless but its text exists in the form of a question mark, which to me at least suggests a hook hanging upside-down as well as being one of the legendary items apprentices would be sent out for by old hands, along with tartan paint, glass nails and left-handed spanners.
Two very different fascinating things from the many I learned on this job depended on each other: first was that a famous naval engagement from the American War of Independence, the Battle of Flamborough Head, took place in front of Sewerby Hall. The Brits lost this and don’t like to talk about it but Walt Whitman celebrates it in ‘Song of Myself’ (“Would you hear of an old-time sea-fight? / Would you learn who won by the light of the moon and stars?”) Certain details of it reminded me of the actual Battle of Midway which in turn, as my installations linked war and garden settings, reminded me of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Battle of Midway’. I mentioned this to Dorcas Taylor who hired me and was informed a major collector of work by IHF lived near me! Long story short, I got to spend a lot of time with Ronnie Duncan, an old friend of the artist and his first private commissioner. ‘Selkie’ was installed in a sort of snogging-bower overlooking the sea much-beloved by local young people (I understand my poem hasn’t put them off at least) but there was also a song, a ballad about the Battle of Flamborough Head that l wrote in the style of the time, an intervention into the silence of the folk tradition about this event. Since then I made a visual poem for a touring exhibition of writers and poets which is still going round and I don’t think poets should be frightened to try new things. What’s the worst that could happen? I could write a bad poem? I’ve written plenty of those already.
Ian Duhig was born in London of Irish Catholic parents, and now lives in Leeds. He won the National Poetry Competition twice, in 1987 and 2001, and the Forward Prize for Best Poem in 2001. Named as one of the Poetry Book Society’s New Generation poets, his work has also been shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize.
Hear Ian talking about his early life and work, and the genesis of his well-known and much-loved poem The Lammas Hireling here.