Ian Duhig: That blind roadmaker, love
That blind roadmaker, love
An Interview with Ian Duhig, by Richard Skinner
The meeting began with good news and bad. Richard had learnt that the Blake appeal had been successful. Ian’s news was that efforts to make Riley’s work available in print had come to nothing, though enough can be read online to demonstrate the originality, and the technical and spiritual range of Riley’s work.
RS: We recently communicated during the course of putting together the fundraising pamphlet The Ecchoing Green for the Blake Cottage in Felpham appeal. You didn’t need much persuading to contribute. Has Blake been a significant presence in poetry for you?
ID: I feel Blake’s poetry has been around me always. I can’t honestly remember when I first came across it, but certainly during my childhood. Some of what appealed to me then still does: his apparently simple ballads that in fact entertain complex and subversive ideas. You only have to try and write like this yourself to appreciate Blake’s achievement. So his first appeal was musical, to my ear, the way he set one thing against another, the contraries which drove his progressions. The second appeal was to my eye when I saw his strange art: childlike yet sophisticated, otherworldly but immediate. The appeal to my mind was less straightforward. I tend to get impatient with poets’ personal mythologies, such as Yeats’ in his ‘A Vision’, but recently I’ve come to be more sympathetic to the Gnostic influence on Blake’s thought. In my poem ‘Blockbusters’ (which was written for The Ecchoing Green and which will also appear in The Blind Roadmaker) I quote the non-canonical Gospel of Philip, where he writes ‘the world was made in error‘. It’s a typically antipathetic Gnostic position that powers its thought in the same way that Blake’s contraries power his own.
RS: ‘Did these ideas connect with your interest in John Riley?
ID: In a peculiar way they did feed into my interest in Riley’s Orthodox Christianity. Traditionally, in its apophatic theology, paradox is valued. An old Orthodox rule once decreed that all discussion of the nature of God must have two features: it must include paradox, and it must lead to silence. You remember the couplet in Blake’s ‘The Everlasting Gospel’: ‘Both read the Bible day and night, / But thou read’st black where I read white’: this is paradox, a parable of faith lit by its own contradiction. Riley has a habit of writing lines that are immediately contradicted by the next line. He deploys hesitation, white space and silence, and while this shows the influence of US poets who were important to him, such as Olson, it seems to me also to grow from, or to parallel, his religious faith. My interest in religions, although I’m an atheist, is my own theological paradox. To me, they seem to engage people at a deeper level than contemporary politics, a level where I’d like politics to engage people.
RS: You mention your poem ‘Blockbusters’ which was published in the Blake pamphlet. As I understand it, the poem exists in many versions as part of an ongoing project, a sort of state-of-the-nation address system? It’s a chatty, colloquial poem in blank verse that features a lot of cultural, historical and geographical references. Could you talk a bit more about these processes?
ID: I can’t say I quite imagined it as a ‘state-of-the-nation address system’ but I’m with you on process, which is pretty much what it’s all about as far as I’m concerned. I never really know how a poem is going to develop after I start on it. The process has something in common with the significant character in ‘Blockbusters’, who for me is Jack Metcalf. He’s the blind roadmaker responsible for many roads around here, including the one I take into and out of Leeds when I go north to Shandy Hall. He features in Digressions, the book I made with the artist Philippa Troutman about our Sterne project, where he is a kind of foil to Sterne’s literary labyrinths with his own direct roads. I spoke about my counter-intuitive manner of composition – employing deliberate accident, involving crabwise ‘desearch’ – at the Bridlington Poetry Festival, unveiling my poem-installations called ‘Interventions’ (some of which I am grateful to The Compass for publishing). These writing processes made sense at least to the other poets there, Jack Underwood describing the project as ‘Like being in a W.G. Sebald chapter set in the East Riding’. I mentioned my religious paradox earlier: whereas Sterne writes in ‘Tristram Shandy’,’I begin with writing the first sentence and trusting to Almighty God for the second’, I’ve found an approach that works just as well for an atheist: if God doesn’t provide, make your inability to write your subject, as I did in ‘Blockbusters’.
RS: So you deliberately seek a route around any inability to write by making that ‘block’ your focus, almost as if it were a place. Could you say more about this?
I first saw this done by the poet Martin Bell. He declined and died in Leeds, and often wrote of Leeds as hell. His poem ‘Writer’s Block’ describes the block itself as ‘a jewelled piece of furniture of hell’ I’ve always been fond of the Wallace Stevens line about us not living in places, but in descriptions of places, the yarns we spin about our homes like Calvino’s Ersilians. Leeds is ‘The Jerusalem of the North’ according to its antisemitic abusers because of the Jewish immigrants who came here to work in the rag trade; in fact, Leeds’ Jewish community came from such unsophisticated rustic stock that Mancunian Jews regarded them with disdain, my Jewish friends tell me. Leeds doesn’t mythologise itself either, in comparison with othernorthern cities like Manchester, Liverpool or Newcastle; former editor of Granta, John Freeman described Leeds as ‘completely out of the literary world. However, in that way it seems to stand in for all cities: David Wheatley in his paper for the Leeds University John Riley event asked if Riley’s great poem Czargrad might be ‘smuggling Leeds onto the list of cities – ‘Jerusalem, Alexandria, / Vienna, London’’ – which are part of Eliot’s vision of world culture in The Waste Land. ‘With his studied non-specificity, Riley does bring something democratic and ubiquitous to his ‘City of God’.’
RS: Your poem ‘Blockbusters’ reminds me of Paul Muldoon’s poem ‘Something Else’, in which he describes a series of events and objects ‘which made me think / of something else, then something else again’. Does this similarity ring true for you?
I take the Muldoon line you quote as darker than my own poem, perhaps with an unwillingness to put that darkness into words, something related to a wilful blindness, whereas my thinking of something else, then something else again might even be an articulation of some form of intellectual ADHD I’ve been told I suffer from by exasperated friends and editors. I am genuinely interested in a great mix of subjects. I am also interested in a great range of poetry: I can’t understand the enthusiasm many people have for wearing blinkers. As well as Riley, I also admire the Leeds Young Authors and recommend their film ‘We Are Poets’ at every opportunity, as I am doing now.
RS: We’ve mentioned John Riley a few times but I want to ask you more about your interest in him. You’ve long been a staunch supporter and admirer of his work, even recently appearing on a panel at a mini conference about his work at the University of Leeds. Riley famously converted to the Russian Orthodox Church a year before he was attacked and killed one night in Leeds aged just 41 and religion was obviously important to him. TE Hulme said that Romanticism was ‘spilt religion’ and I’ve previously suggested to you that I think of Riley’s poetry as a kind of nouveau Romanticism. Do you agree with Hulme’s view and what are your own feelings about Riley’s work?’
ID: I think Hulme’s ‘spilt religion’ remark is meaningless when you talk about poets like Riley, whose religion filled him and his poetry with its own kind of milk. I can see how you detect an element of Romanticism in his work as there certainly is in the background to all the Cambridge poets of that generation, particularly in the figure of Wordsworth and what he has meant to Prynne, for example. However, I’m going to return again to the influence of poets from the US on Riley, which led to Donald Davie criticising Riley’s translations as being too ‘Americanized’. Tim Longville wrote to me recently and said he hoped all the new interest in Riley’s poetry didn’t detract from an interest in his late poetry-and-prose and prose experiments which Tim felt was the direction that Riley’s work was moving in at the time of his death. I was reminded of this forcefully when I was reading Claudia Rankine’s brilliant Citizen, an American Lyric and the at-least-as brilliant Due North by Peter Riley, as Rankine’s lyric essay style and Peter Riley’s deployment of prose in his epic long poem, with both writers showing how to strike out in new directions in their new work. I mentioned earlier my mix of interests and such literary experiments as these attract me by virtue of the flexibility of their forms. The word ‘stanza’ as we all know derives from the Italian word for room but an Arabic near-equivalent is beit, which originally derived from the word for ‘tent’. I like the idea of a tent as a poetic form, one which can be repitched according to the terrain the poet finds herself occupying. Times change and I think these times are changing poetry in very interesting ways, drawing the Anglophone world together as well as what were previously regarded as very different kinds of writing, including those formerly regarded as the exclusive province of the page or the stage.
RS: You said earlier that the significant character in ‘Blockbusters’, for you at least, is the blind roadmaker, Jack Metcalf. It seems to me that he is the meeting point for many of your poetic interests and obsessions, i.e. the social and political, the cultural history of place, characters, song, myth, etc. Can you tell us a bit more about his role in your next collection?
ID: Jack haunts my book The Blind Roadmaker, as he does me. He’s a kind of Yeatsian anti-self, always knowing where he’s going, like in the old folk song, despite being blind, while I stumble along in the light. He appears in some of the poems in the collection but there are other blind roadmakers, myself being the most obvious example. ‘I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering’ Robert Frost wrote and it’s certainly true as far as I’m concerned. The whole book was a process of discovery and my conception of it changed constantly. Other blind roadmakers who make their way through it are migrants and refugees: a long-standing interest of mine, not least because of my career in homelessness. On a Welcome Refugees march recently I heard about the Leeds City of Sanctuary scheme. I subsequently volunteered for this, running it parallel to a long-term writing project involving asylum-seekers suffering from PTSD and their psychiatrists. My intention is to produce a variety of texts related to this project in different forms, hence my interest in Rankine, Riley and Eaves. My last book, Pandorama, contains a sequence of elegies about David Oluwale using a variety of forms, while in The Blind Roadmaker, a sequence about Manuel Bravo, a devout Christian, is in a large part composed from extracts of the Book of Job, though it’s not technically a cut-up. I’m not really a purist in my procedures: if I see a tool working in other hands I want to try it out for myself.
The book opens with a parable about a lost doll which turns into a parable about writing and ends with a glancing reference to the Grail legend referenced in ‘Blockbusters’. Blake arrived at Felpham virtually as a refugee and left it a virtual refugee as well. My poem ‘Half the Story’, first published in Poetry London, probably signals what I’m trying to do in The Blind Roadmaker better than more straight prose can do. (The poem is reprinted below as referenced by Ian in this interview). It has been described as a prose poem. Its source is Kafka’s lover Dora Diamant, later a refugee from Hitler and Stalin, who ended up here. She’s buried in an East Ham cemetery and the carving on her headstone reads ‘Who knows Dora, knows what love means’. Somehow, in writing and in life, that’s what I feel I spend my life trying to find out: what that blind roadmaker, love, can possibly be up to. There are other love poems scattered throughout the collection and it ends on a series of three of them, albeit as strange as you might expect from me. I’m not really thought of as a love poet – ‘From the Irish’ has been described as the most unsuccessful love poem since the Second World War – but love ties all this together: my love of Blake and Riley’s poetry, my love of words and people too: it’s certainly not a love of money.
Half the Story
Franz Kafka, the story goes, encountered a little girl in the park
where he walked regularly. She was crying. She’d lost her doll.
Kafka helped the girl search for the doll, but they couldn’t find it.
They arranged to meet there next day to look again for her doll,
but still they could not find it. When they met for the third time,
Kafka gave her a tiny letter that he told her he’d found nearby.
She read ‘Don’t be sad: I’m only travelling. I’ll write I promise!’
And every day that summer, when Kafka and the little girl met,
he’d read a new letter to her describing places the doll visited,
what it did there and who it met. The little girl was comforted.
When the holiday was over and she had to go back to school,
He gave her a doll that he said was the lost prodigal returned,
and, if it seemed a little different from the doll of her memory,
a note pinned to its scarf explained: ‘My travels changed me.’
Or so ends this version of the story, popular with therapists,
but in Dora Diamant’s own account, our one first-hand source,
there was no new doll, nor a message of change and growth;
instead, Dora had described a final letter sent to the little girl
detailing how the doll met its soul mate and had married him;
how it would be too busy with its new family to write again,
enjoining the little girl to seek similar fulfilment in her own life.
Dora also noted how this affair had driven Kafka to distraction,
who’d endured white nights, tortured by his own compassion,
feverishly thinking up new adventures for his changeling doll
made out of letters and lies and love; how this correspondence
had been maintained in this fashion for a period of three weeks ―
as long as that holiday when Dora Diamant had first met Franz,
a place with a name that I only half-recall now, Graal-something.