Aug 17 2011: The Lammas Hireling: An Interview with Ian Duhig (Big Issue in the North, 2003)
This interview took place at Ian Duhig’s home in Leeds (the exact date escapes me) and was occasioned by the shortlisting of The Lammas Hireling for The Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2003: the title poem had already received the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2001. Obviously, given the social interests of The Big Issue and the North edition’s regional focus, Duhig’s experience working with homelessness and his residence in Leeds made his shortlisting a matter of very particular interest. I’ve still not managed to read his latest collection, Pandorama (2011), but I’m certainly looking forward to getting hold of it at some stage: as his comments below suggest, Duhig strikes the balance between depth and accessibility as well as anyone currently writing and long may he continue to do so.
It’s a dull lunchtime in Leeds and Ian Duhig has an urgent dental appointment looming, but you’d hardly know it. Perched on an armchair, he’s happy to hold forth on subjects as diverse as WB Yeats’ claim in old age to have had monkey testicles transplanted (“of course, he’d just had a vasectomy”), the lost history of the Northern Celtic Saints and his own discovery of Chinese poetry.
Twice-winner of the prestigious National Poetry Competition, Duhig’s fourth collection, The Lammas Hireling (Picador) is an erudite, bawdy, brilliantly crafted volume spanning – if possible – an even broader range of subjects than his conversation. Medieval conspiracy theories collide with Ken’s Videos, sonnets commissioned for lavatory walls share space with a prayer to Our Lady of Atheists and an elegy dedicated to the popular novelist Catherine Cookson.
As all this indicates, Duhig has little time for the conventional divisions between high and low culture, whichever direction the snobbery might happen to be coming from.
“Often you feel you’re pushed into situations where you’re asked to choose between two things you don’t need to choose between,” he says. “Things we see as terribly important differences now will be forgotten in a few years. People won’t understand why they were even issues.”
Perhaps it’s his own singular route into poetry that shapes this refusal to acknowledge the usual rifts of the poetry world. Duhig came to poetry relatively late in life, making his debut with The Bradford Count in 1991 after 15 years spent working with homeless people in London, Yorkshire and Northern Ireland, and becoming a freelance writer only in 1994. It’s given him a healthy sense of perspective and tolerance, however angry he gets when faced with injustice.
“One place I used to run was in York, next door to a pub, which was famous as a folk club, where big names from folk, from Ireland and all over, would perform” he explains at one point. “But when the hostel was being built and the pub’s management found out what it was, they barred all the staff and residents immediately, and in perpetuity, which was a pain in the arse anyway, but especially because when you were on shifts you’d have to listen to them singing songs like I Am A Jolly Beggar Man knowing full well that if any actual ‘jolly beggar man’ went near the place they’d call the police.”
“So I started to put some of the stories of people from the hostel to traditional folk tunes, just to avenge them musically,” he laughs. “Actually, I think the portability of poetry and song are already associated with homelessness and the road. Someone once pointed out that a poem is the only work of art you can carry around with you, complete, inside your head, so there have always been lots of links between poetry as an art and rootlessness as a condition.”
Despite this act of verbal revenge, he hasn’t often drawn directly on his experience of work in hostels.
“Partly, it’s because writing poems was usually a bit of light relief from work,” he explains. “If work was really depressing, which it could sometimes be, I’d write a poem about a Romanian king or something to take my mind off it. One of the reasons I didn’t deal directly with those experiences sooner than I eventually did was because I only found it possible to write about them once I’d stopped doing the work itself as my day-job.”
Instead, Duhig was inclined to delve into all kinds of arcane historical sources in search of material and often it’s his most peculiar and unlikely-seeming subjects that turn out to be most firmly based in truth.
“Who would make up, or suspect, that it was very common to have festivals in Britain and Ireland at the end of Lent to ‘ridicule the herring’?”, he asks. “But they did. What fascinates me is that all this stuff is so implausible but turns up everywhere when you start digging – you couldn’t make it up, which is exactly what draws me to it.”
Despite his diverse subjects, Duhig admits that “it’s the musicality of poetry that attracts me to the form. But if you go too far into pure musicality, it’s like Voltaire said, ‘anything too stupid to be said gets sung’. I once did a session with opera singers and to loosen up their voices they’d sing their breakfasts, but in Italian – ‘pomodoro‘, words like that. Total nonsense, completely meaningless, but it sounded fantastic.”
Somewhere between his distinctive subject matter and his fascination with the music of his words, he’s careful to ensure that the poems remain accessible in the fullest sense.
“Sometimes I suspect that what a lot of people mean by accessible is ‘easy”‘, he explains. “But poetry is a small, very intense art-form, and most people’s relationship to it becomes very important in certain circumstances, at times of love or loss, births and deaths. It’s also a form that – at its best – makes you want to keep going back to it, over and over again, but it’s never easy, because the virtue of a poem is that it packs so much into such a small space.”
“Memorability is key,” he adds. “Memory, in Greek myth, was the mother of the Muses, at the root of everything. Everyone has the experience that when you haven’t heard a song for 30 years, something from childhood like Torchy the Battery Boy, you still remember it all. It goes to show what a deep part of the brain poetry and song tap into, and snatches of poems will always survive, in the same way that quotes from Shakespeare do.”
“Besides, I’m not sure that books are always the best place for poems”, he concludes. “A poem might be something that came out of a light shade from time to time, that you’d look at, not in a book, just in the air, somehow. That would be nice…”