Ian Duhig is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Pandorama (Picador 2010). He has won the Forward Best Poem Prize, the National Poetry Competition twice, and three times been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. A chapbook of work from his Digressions project based at Shandy Hall will be published this year.
COMPOSE: Could you tell us about your latest project, Digressions?
IAN DUHIG: Well, I’m a great admirer of Tristram Shandy, and last year was Sterne’s tercentenary, so it officially began then—though in truth it had been incubating for years. It was an Arts Council grant that made it possible for me to develop my ideas, also allowing me to hire an artist, Philippa Troutman. We worked from and around Shandy Hall looking to make the project more site-specific, digging up the area’s little-known cultural history, intending to make it all finally available to everybody else on the net and in a book through a mixture of prose, poetry and visual art.
The prose section of the book Digressions will describe our procedures with greater accuracy, but the reality on the ground was that it all grew from chance as much as my chaotic, shambling noctuary where my ideas began to take shape. I found myself re-reading Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost—one of my favourites—to remind me how fruitful being lost can be, then stumbled on articles about how that part of Yorkshire is rich in meteor strikes, a figuratively as well as literally ground-breaking one at Wold Newton landing on the farm of the son of ‘Didius’ from Tristram Shandy. I chanced upon an opportunity to discuss with Cornelia Parker how she used meteorites in her art. I kept thinking of Wallace Stevens’ description of a poem as a meteor.
And that has been what was most challenging about Digressions. Far from having found material difficult to uncover, I was overwhelmed by it. I described what I was doing as ‘desearch’ to distinguish it from its more purposeful relative, research. I found myself digressing from the Wold Newton Meteorite into the work of Philip José Farmer, author of the Wold Newton Family saga and Jesus on Mars. Digressing into the maze near Shandy Hall, called the City of Troy, led me to China in trying to explain the local notion that such mazes aren’t meant to trap people but the Devil, who can only move in straight lines.
So it has been and still is fascinating, but I have learned that if you write to a given timetable requiring you to produce results, while it runs the risk you might fail, you might also strike lucky and discover more material than you have time to absorb. The book Digressions is twice the size it was originally planned as and leaves out much to be developed later. I haven’t even come to terms with discovering that the road to Shandy Hall from my house was made by a blind man, Jack Metcalf. The first poem in Digressions, which was in the last issue of Poetry, starts on this road.
C: You end your poem “The White Page,” in the Spring 2014 issue of Compose, with the arresting phrase “love’s blind signature.” Could you talk about that line? How did it come about?
ID: The writing led me to it, as did a number of poems around it in the book. I suppose it’s trying to get at how falling in love is more leap than fall; I often think of Blind Jack Metcalf as a kind of antimask to me, him always knowing where he was going, forging through his dark while I stumble in the light. Blind Jack eloped with Dorothy Benson, then engaged to another, which was a scandal at the time, but she and Jack were happy—she said when she was old that he was more full of life than any human being she ever met; knowing this immediately, she was happy to take his name. So that’s the emotional freight for me of “love’s blind signature,” though there are other dimensions.
C: It’s interesting that by the end of the poem, it is not a person’s signature that is at issue, as in a marriage certificate, but love’s itself. And that it is blind.
ID: Well, that love’s blind is a cliche with an element of truth. I’m sure I’m not the only person to have been attracted by not just opposites but completely inappropriate people. That closing your eyes while you make love to better concentrate on your other senses is surely a universal experience: perhaps I should leave further erotic speculation of this nature to your readers’ sex lives.
Of course, in my poem as in Tristram Shandy, readers are blind before Widow Wadman because she is left up to them to describe according to their own notions of beauty. Most people do that with characters in literature anyway, which is one reason films of books can be so disappointing. Closing your eyes is like rolling down screens so you can play your own films.
C: Reading your poems feels like being in a library, museum, and art gallery all at once. What are some of the difficulties in managing so much rich material within the context of the sparseness that poetry seems to demand?
ID: Probably the biggest danger is what they call over here “infodump,” where the material is more or less just emptied out onto the page. I have a new poem called ‘The Imaginary Municipal Gallery Revisited’ which invokes Yeats and Malraux in its title but also Jorn, who worked on Malraux’s project, and Jorn’s own imaginary museum, the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism. I was interested in these angles on what Mike Donaghy called “the posh shop” of Western culture.
I think there is, however, a particular problem for writers outside the usual cultural recruiting grounds for Anglophone poetry. The experience of many is that now, having finally got across the threshold of the posh shop with a determination to honour their own neglected culture in their work, they are told that such simplistic content-driven literature were now outside new academic boundaries where they are dismissed to be misrepresented and ignored.
C: Could Eliot’s notes to “The Waste Land” be seen as an attempt to preempt dismissal, a sort of “I’ll make dismissing me as hard for you as I can” move? Of course, such notes could be seen as a power play as well, an establishing of dominance.
ID: I think Eliot’s notes to “The Waste Land” have an intriguing relationship with his poem, while mine are based on the question, “How much can I reasonably be expected to know?” Sometimes my information will be new but not easily integrated into the main body of the text. I had a note to do with the title of my last book Pandorama because I suspected people would not get its reference to Bert White’s entertainment contraption from Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. I agree with you that such a directive use of notes could be seen as a power play, but my intention is to be helpful.
C: Speaking of Eliot, you don’t seem to use parts of other works as fragments to shore against your ruins but rather as almost living things, full of life, which you want to graft onto an even richer work.
ID: I used that exact image in a short story I wrote once of a science fiction bent, referring to victims of a language phage; however, it is true that once you know a poem it is a part of your mind perfectly. The hero had a skin disease and I was paralleling his xenografts in terms of the mental virus of poetry, a bit of a cliche from Burroughs to Bök, but there you go. Nevertheless, even the music in your brain is diminished if it isn’t heard at some point, but not so with a poem. Often, I prefer the version in my head of a piece written by a contemporary poet to the way she reads it when I finally hear her; sometimes, going to hear poets read when you know and enjoyed their work is occasionally disappointing, like seeing the film after reading the book.
C: You have said, “Compression is the distinguishing feature of poetry, the feature which allows the words to have resonance and create a space around themselves like penicillin in a culture of disease.” Could you elaborate on that for the benefit of poets at or near the beginning of their practice of the craft?
ID: “It is the job of poetry to clean up our word-clogged reality by creating silences around things.” – Mallarmé puts it better. In Irish pubs, you might talk while locals play music but the call is for order to make room if a singer is ready. I’ve just read, and can recommend, Matthew Sperling’s Visionary Philology on Geoffrey Hill’s poetry. It is very good at uncovering the larger etymological patterns behind Hill’s vocabulary, mined over the decades of his career. That would be what I’d emphasize for the poets starting out you mention, to develop the kind of focus that lets you see the true depth of what is beneath you—I think of finding out more about the poet who lived closest to me, John Riley, familiar to U.S. readers through Tuma’s Oxford anthology. Riley’s conversion to the Orthodox Church got me interested in its theology: I like an early rule which said all talk of God must involve paradox and lead to silence. That gets a poet weighing her words alright.
C: Your words, your lines, have a richness of texture, of sound, and a cadence that commands immediate attention. Could you talk about your writing process, particularly as to how aware you are of the sounds you are gathering into words?
ID: I do understand that for a lot of poets, the sound of the words is irrelevant. Even for those to whom it is important, the sonic realisation of poetry will be subject to regional or class inflected pronunciations, etc. Nevertheless, I still write for the mind’s ear if nothing else because I want to engage a reader at that level too. I’m fascinated by the way language pulls in different directions; an ugly word may describe something beautiful, like ‘smaragdine’, while the phonesthetically beautiful means something banal, like ‘cellar door’. So for me it is a lot to do with music but also deliberate dissonance, and like other writers I’ll use ugly words and sounds if they seem effective and relevant. I do belong to a group where I read aloud poems I am having trouble with, and even that in itself can make flaws clear to me. Not all of them, unfortunately, but I can recommend reading your work aloud as a general principle, especially if you intend to do so in public at some point. Especially if you want your audience to still be in the room with you when you’ve finished.
C: Your poems feel as if written with the ages in mind, not just for the living but also for audiences not yet born. Does that ring true?
ID: Researching a poem once, I found out that road contractors used pulped books to bed down the asphalt. I think my books are all going to end up under some new motorway in the future. If any individual poems at all hang about, I’d be very lucky.
C: When you write, do you have an audience in mind? Do you write for an ideal reader? For yourself?
ID: I have to feel interested in what I’m doing and hope to communicate my reasons for doing so in the words I put together. Because a lot of what interests me is the neglected or ignored, it won’t be on syllabi, so I am hoping for an open-minded, widely-read and intelligent reader rather than an academic one. She’ll have a sense of humour too and be prepared to engage at levels beyond the cerebral. It seems a lot to ask, but I do meet people like this regularly. They don’t exactly overlap with my readership, such as it is, but it’s the best sense of them that I have been able to develop during a process that has left me humble and grateful.
C: What elements or characteristics, in your view as both a poet and a reader of poetry, make a poem not necessarily great but satisfying to write or read?
ID: Some element of wonder or at least surprise, I think, is vital to either enjoy the reading or the writing of a poem. Nowadays there are a huge number of styles for writers, but if any of them become predictable they lose interest. It is important for the use of language to be original but also that the journey it takes you on should be different, at least in some features. More than any other art form, if I read a poem I like I reread it immediately, then do so off and on for years, for ever. Good poetry has for me an intensity that continues to reward me for doing that. I can’t be too specific because I know I will see new work that I admire which will contradict any rules or guidelines I suggest here. As soon as you lay down a law for poetry, an opposite but equally plausible law will formulate itself in response. Both will be wrong.
C: If it’s not an unfair question, especially to the latest one, which of your books are you fondest of?
ID: The stock answer here would be “My next one,” but probably The Lammas Hireling. I was just having a really good time while I wrote it. I know that sounds totally unprofessional, and it is. But inside, I’m very fond of the title poem and it’s freely available online. It’s a kind of unreliably-related folk-horror, as if the Ancient Mariner’s mind gave way under his experiences. It’s even been filmed by Paul Casey, and you can see that on Youtube. Of course on film, it’s hard not to commit the hireling to a gender while the text allows for a more pansexual character. I recently finished teaching a course on poetry and song at Maddy Prior’s Stones Barn. I listened to her song ‘The Fabled Hare’ while I was writing The Lammas Hireling and told her so repeatedly as she tried not to snore.
C: Could you talk about your poem “Midnight on the Water,” from The Lammas Hireling? Did you feel an obligation to write the poem? How did you get started writing it?
ID: There was a fundraiser for the 9/11 firefighters in a mining community near where I was working at the time. In support of this, campaign singers released a version of their old local industrial lament ‘The Trimdon Grange Explosion,’ which inspired Larkin’s poem ‘The Explosion’; the second section of ‘Midnight on the Water’ (named after an American ballad and an Irish dance tune) relates to a performance of this and quotes from the song, though it ends with Lorca again, who dominates the first section through his ‘Poet in New York,’ a city that brought out strangely intolerant and sectarian reactions in him. Absent music in a text for me parallels what the white space is doing around a poem.
It all looks naive in retrospect, trying to leave huge political questions on one side while attempting a micro-historical collage, but I wanted to look beyond the big players to the sort of people, like firefighters or mine rescue workers, who rush into the most dangerous of situations to help others. I think about the families of the Turkish miners as I write this now. Burns was heard at the miners’ benefit: “Man to Man the world o’er / Shall brothers be for a’ that.” Sadly, I think Burns underestimated “a’ that,” which has got so completely in the way of our brotherhood and sisterhood.
I incorporated into this poem a random error in the poem from the Northern Echo website at the time, which spoke of somewhere holding a “thousand-word silence.” It struck me as an almost Oulipian conceptual poem in itself. Writing anything which attempted to deal with 9/11 was like being set the task of writing a thousand-word silence. Perhaps I should have left it at that rather than stumble off after some fractured gesture of sympathy, but that would be a cerebral response and I didn’t feel cerebral at the time.
C: The Lammas Hireling marked the second time you won the National Poetry Competition. I believe you’re the only person to win it twice. That must be tremendously empowering for you, but I’m sure there’s another side to it.
ID: Well, the publicity the organisers’ used mentioned the only two “outright” wins because Jo Shapcott shared a win one year having previously won it on her own. I feel I always have to mention Jo’s achievement when this comes up, but I have to say that I was obviously very happy about this. I suppose what I like about competitions is that they return the focus onto poems, not poets. It’s also true that women are consistently better represented among prizewinners than in magazines here.
I don’t think winning a big competition makes quite the difference to a poet’s career that some people imagine. Paul Adrian, the youngest winner of the National Poetry Competition, a member of the Leeds poetry group I also belong to, still has to build up a body of substantial work like everybody else before he can be taken seriously. Poetry is a long game.
C: A huge question, but why do you write poetry?
ID: Not that huge, as I’ve asked myself the same question very often; the simple answer is I write poetry because I don’t know where it will take me, language being what it is. The Digressions project was even more about getting lost and making surprising discoveries than I thought it would be, and that’s why I embarked on it. Sterne writes about having the most religious approach to writing in that he puts down a sentence and hopes to God another one suggests itself. Losing God, this seems to work for atheists too, in my experience. Everybody knows Queneau’s definition of Oulipians as rats who build labyrinths from which they will try to escape, but that’s easy if you planned it surely. I feel more like a rat who finds itself building a maze where the walls keep moving into new configurations, beyond those I had designed, with ingenious obstructive capabilities I never imagined they might possess. I’m lost in poetry all the time, but wherever I am, I wouldn’t be anywhere else.