Ian Duhig


Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)


Desperado Literature

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I do mock literature and take it seriously at the same time 

Interview with IAN DUHIG  (born 9 February 1954), British poet

Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006

© Lidia Vianu



LIDIA VIANU: The Bradford Count, The Mersey Goldfish, Nominies, your volumes of poetry so far. The cover of Nominies has an ‘angel of the badly-loved (by Ross Wilson)’ in the middle. The Bradford Count has a poem entitled The Badly-Loved. I detect a pattern here. Language is your badly-loved mistress. Are you mistreating her or is your poetry just a tender game?


IAN DUHIG: There is a connection between Ross Wilson’s painting ‘The Angel of the Badly‑Loved’ on the cover of Nominies and my poem called ‘The Badly‑Loved’ in The Bradford Count. My title in a poem about Apollinaire relates to his ‘Chanson du Mal‑Aimé’ and although ‘Mal‑Aimé’ is usually Englished as ‘Ill‑Loved’, I chose ‘Badly‑Loved’ because it allows two readings, ‘greatly loved’ and ‘incompetently loved’. Ross’s image was made for a poetry conference in Northern Ireland in November 1993 put on by the Worker’s Educational Association, which lays on courses for ordinary people outside the usual educational institutions, and which has employed me several times in the past. I wasn’t involved in organizing it at all, but they asked me if they could use the title in the sense that contemporary poetry in these islands is, they thought, aptly described by that ambiguous expression. Ross is a marvelous artist who was working on an angel sequence – his ‘Word Angel’ looks down on me from above my fireplace as I write this –, who has connections with poetry, including painting the portraits of Walcott, Brodsky and Heaney, as well as covers for the traditional Irish music group ‘Altan’.


LV. You can rhyme, but you mock at music, you can follow a diabolically regular rhythm, but you split with laughter at the mere attempt. Poetry is not exactly music for you. What is it?


ID. You’re right that poetry for me is close to music, but not the same thing for what I think are very important reasons. If poetry is merely lyrics, then it is vulnerable to Voltaire’s ‘Anything too stupid to be said gets sung’. Neither is it completely intelligent discourse (or the kind I like isn’t) because it is also beautiful and puts me into a stupor of admiration. Poetry’s a little from Column A and little from Column B, the alchemy of mind and heart.


LV. You seem so proud of being Irish, like Joyce, Yeats, Wilde, Swift... They are your private history. You take your handling of words from Joyce, your humour from Wilde, your bitterness from Swift. Where exactly – unless you answer merely, ‘literature’ – is your home?


ID. My attitude to nationality is best expressed by the epigraph from Hugh of St.Victor at the front of my first book, The Bradford Count


‘The man who loves his homeland is a beginner; he to whom every soil is as his own is strong, but he is perfect for whom the entire world is a foreign country.’


I suppose I regard nationality as like the major food groups, balancing all of them would be ideal but whatever variety you can manage is desirable.



LV. Your life is at this point of our interview a mystery to my readers. When were you born, what have you studied, what are you doing for a living? Would you like to be a full-time poet? Or a full/part-time anything else?


ID. I was born in 1954 in London – I wanted to be near my parents, who’d only just emigrated there from County Limerick. My father had been in the Irish Army, where he was an expert on all weapons from small arms to light artillery, oddly in the army of a neutral country. However, when he left there was no work, so they all came to London (I had seven older brothers and sisters born and brought up in Ireland) and my father worked in a dairy in Cricklewood for thirty years – I remember him in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, ‘the Father of Milk’. My mother did shopwork but at home she constantly recited the vast amounts of poetry she knew by heart in both English and Irish, which is how they were taught the subject in her youth. I went to Catholic schools which I left at sixteen, though after several years of menial and manual work I took exams at night school and went to Leeds University. After that I worked with homeless people for fifteen years in projects in London, Yorkshire and Northern Ireland until I was made redundant. Since then I have taught and written, in whatever combinations made me a living.


LV. Your sense of humour is something so intensely your own that I would not dare say you share it with others. It is, to my mind, a common feature of the Desperado poets, but, of course, each has his own path. Desperadoes do not like to be birds of a feather and flock poetically together. They want to be worlds apart. You are universes away from your contemporaries. Sometimes your lines are really hard nuts to crack. One needs linguistical nimbleness to follow your mind. What do you expect your reader to do: sympathize, smile in disbelief, study you scholarly (pen in hand), or enjoy you and nothing more?


ID. I believe humour in these islands has a class dimension, the less power you have the stranger they seem. It was related to how I consumed poets like Eliot too. His obscurity is comfortable because it is completely available to those with the appropriate cultural resources. However, when you write poetry relating to cultural resources not of the ruling classes, such as that of the working class, their traditions or those of the regions, many people get upset or accuse you of willful obscurantism. Yet this is exactly the direction the English language is heading away from being a national tongue and towards more a sort of cross between Esperanto and Dog Latin, a technical code adapted to local circumstances – there are more people learning English in China now than speak it in the U.S.A. Someone has described pressures on its use in the future as being the balance between identity and intelligibility. I’m sure I fall off that tightrope all the time but I’m not sure I could do it any other way.


LV. Your poems are hoaxes, relying on hidden changes of the words, swift and hardly perceptible. Association of meanings, instability of sounds is what you mainly use. You worship and yet mishandle words in every possible way. I have the impression that the poem exists, for you, at the level of the word, each word is a poem in itself. How long does it take you to write a page? Do you feel at ease when you write, before you begin, when you have completed a poem or at last when you talk about it, as you do now?


ID. I suspect the apparent differences between this generation of poets from each other will resolve into similarities soon enough. A suspicion of the political implications of language I believe will be a common theme. You use the word ‘hoax’: it derives from the expression ‘hocus pocus’, a parody of ‘hoc est corpus’ the moment of transubstantiation in the Catholic mass. Salman Rushdie has already pointed out English’s facility for racial insult: nigger, yid, spic, dago and so on. In Northern Ireland, before you even get to words, letters themselves, even fragments of letters act as shibboleths in the original sense of that word – Protestants say ‘aitch’ for ‘h’ while Catholics pronounce it ‘haitch’ – you have given away potentially fatal information before you have finished any comprehensible statement. How is this language to be decommissioned? It does slow the writing down a bit, but what can you do?


LV. You are a Rabelaisian poet. You laugh big, you see big, you tolerate Everests, yet you write mostly short poems, one page usually. How does your appetite for poetry put up with this power of concentration? Do you write everything your instinct puts on your plate or do you choose? According to what?


ID. I prefer to keep poems to a page for the same reason I don’t like to have to turn over a tape in the middle of a song. Also, there is just so much I find interesting in the world I want to register that special intensity and move on. Poems are sex, novels are marriages.


LV. I had a very hard time detecting influences in your lines. A little bit of Eliot (the Philomel and the Procne mention, possibly, and then Babylon, and Poem Ending with a Sausage), Yeats and Joyce mentioned once or twice. I know a Desperado is very sensitive to his uniqueness, as I said, and will not belong if he can help it, yet I have to ask: who are your literary masters and who your friends, however different from you? Is there anyone whom you would be willing to join on the literary scene?


ID. It may be that so vast are the range of influences on me that they cancel each other out. I am interested a lot in my contemporaries, including those associated with Picador. The Irish poets who started publishing after the 60s made a big impression on me and I find quite a lot of poetry does translate well, even its humour – I laughed loud and long at Sorescu’s man with a halberd.


LV. You are not in the least afraid of four-letter words but never abuse them. There is a basic decency in your poems, which does not happen in American poetry, for instance, or anyway, not in most of it. You take vulgarity as far as laughter goes. The readers, I am sure, if they are like me, must sense your essential decency and even shyness. There is tenderness where you most avoid it, which is almost everywhere. Quoting good old Eliot, what is the use of Poetry in your opinion?


ID. I do have moral, ethical and political convictions but I do feel shy about assuming they are necessarily the best. I think poetry allows for tentativeness, or at least I hope so. Poetry has many uses from purifying the language of the tribe, to debauching the language of the tribe and from suggesting possible truths to advancing total lies with complete conviction. All I can say with confidence is that other people’s poetry has made me think as well as feel and I don’t think the world’s problems include people thinking too much.


LV. If you could, I think you would bar all understanding of all written language but that achieved via a sense of humour. Irony is worshipped by all Desperadoes, as a last resort, after twenty centuries of earnestness. Previous writers may have laughed at human folly, but never at the folly of words. You undermine literature from its foundation, the very use of letters. When you form a word, you laugh and it comes out changed. Am I wrong to say that you forge new birth certificates for good old English words? Is that just fun or also fulfilling?


ID. This is probably a fine point of translation, but nobody called me ironic until I went to university. Before then I was sarcastic. I think this is a class thing as well. Aristotle said wit is educated insolence and I’m not sure I’m educated enough. If irony is not saying exactly what you mean, all art does that. It is also a function of language, which forges its own birth certificates to disguise the fact that ordinary people are the mothers of invention. The word ‘politician’ now is quite respectable, though in Shakespeare’s time it was a plain insult. Knowing this can be fun and fulfilling.


LV. Most poets avoid directness by using lyricism. Your poems are a race which conceals meaning in a manner that suggests thoughts that brush you too swiftly (word that ought to derive from Swift a little bit) to be uttered in full, so you compress several in just one word and move on to the next compression. Are you aware that you are using literature in a similar way to the manner in which crossword puzzles do? All Desperado literature is a huge crossword puzzle, meaning to challenge more than just appease. How would you describe the act of writing poetry?


ID. Don Paterson put this well when he said poems are crosswords in which the reader is the compiler. Everyone accepts the ‘intentionalist fallacy’, that divining the writer’s motives is the way to understand literature. 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. I would describe the act of writing poetry differently between different poems, never mind between different poets.


LV. A memorable line goes, ‘This is going to be a Godless century’ (Archbishop Mar Jacobus Remembers the Baron). I wonder what you think the 21rst century will bring for poetry... When you are ‘old and grey and full of sleep’, what will they say your poetry has achieved?


ID. I think the new century will vex poets in new ways as they always do. It’s all material, to be brutally pragmatic. For a while I don’t know what to do about something, and run around like a hungry man with a fork when it’s raining soup, but we all make our words into spoons in time. When I am old and grey I will be too deaf to hear what anyone says about my poetry.



LV. In Note a line mentions ‘the snuff that dreams are made on’. Poetry is both an ideal and an addiction for a poet like yourself. Have you written anything else, fiction, criticism, drama?


ID. Kipling said words were the most powerful drugs available to humanity. He should have tried crack. Addiction is a complicated thing – I’ve worked in a few drugs projects. The sociologist Jock Young once made the case for love as being like addiction, you want it all the time, you ignore evidence staring you in the face about negative consequences of  it and so on. It’s a matter of taste. Some people like the wine of prose, some like it distilled again into brandy. I’ve tried prose and drama but not with much pleasure, conviction or success.


LV. You are a consummate actor and you also like masks a lot. It helps you to protect your privacy. Women poets are more generous with their biography on the page. You reveal precious little, and even what you do say is said mockingly. What is the stuff of your poetry, if we come to that?


ID. You don’t have to worry about protecting your privacy as a poet in Britain. I’m just not sure that what there is of me to reveal will be an edifying spectacle. There’s lots of ingredients in my poetry including elements working against each other, like sweet and sour.


LV. Old Shanghai ends with ‘You are guilty/ and being hanged by your own narrative thread.’ Your poems are very cautious around stories, you seem afraid you might be nailed down to the old hybridization of literary genres, which mixed fiction, drama and lyricism in one (see Joyce and Eliot). When you tell a story, it becomes a joke. You mock at literature, yet take the WORD very seriously. Would you be very angry if I said you had a lot in common with the Joycean use of telescoped terms? Must you be the inventor of your skill or do you accept sharing the copyright with others?


ID. I do mock literature and take it seriously at the same time, but anyone who is passionately attached to a football team will have similar mixed feelings. We Chelsea supporters tell very good jokes against our own team. It is all shared; there can be no ownership of poetic ideas any more than Cruyff being the only footballer allowed to make a Cruyff Turn.


LV. Reading you I experienced the fear I might not really know English at all. I had to question my every step, every word I thought I had understood. The reader has to check his safety belt whenever he reads a new group of letters. Your poems are challenging (not at all horror) trains. They disestablish understanding, unbalance what we usually take for granted, the common meanings, the ready-made phrases. You walk your language as you would a tight rope. Is this your aim? Why/not?


ID. I think a lot of people reading my poetry think I don’t know English at all. As I’ve said, some of this is I think a function of the language but also poetry isn’t plain exposition. Someone complained to the painter Turner that his pictures were indistinct and he replied ‘indistinctness is my forte.’


LV. In support of my previous question, I have chosen a line from your third volume (from the poem Nominies itself): ‘Why is six afraid of seven?/ Because seven eight nine.’ The whole poem is a delightful demonstration that everything can rhyme with everything else, and the more unexpected the rhyme, the happier you sound. This is another Desperado feature: debunk rhyme, while sticking to it stubbornly. It is the contemporary ideal to shock rhyme into self-doubt: Am I necessary to anyone? Is poetry my slave? And your mocking answer is, By no means. Irony is the key. Play upon rhythms, rhymes, images, and prove them all wrong. You destroy a lot. Describe to us what your building dream sees at the end of this pyramid which is your poetry...


ID. What’s the opposite of debunking? Bunking? I’m guilty of both. Creation is destruction, as with Ogun, the Yoruba god of both. Rhymes in English depend on accent and have different realities in the mouths of different speakers. In my poem ‘Nothing Pie’ ‘pudding’ and ‘budding’ are half rhymes for my father and full rhymes for my son with his Leeds accent. It’s less about being a Pharaoh raising a pyramid than raising questions like why in the English King James Bible after God instructs Moses to go to the Pharaoh. He then tries to kill him in a hotel…(Exodus 4. 21-24.)


January 2002