Dublin Poetry connoisseurs will get a rare chance to hear one of Ireland’s most widely-read and consistently relevant poets, Kevin Higgins, when he reads (alongside Mary Madec and Simon Lewis) at Double Shot in Books Upstairs this Thursday. Bogmans Cannon caught up with him for a mini-interview in advance of the reading:
What motivates you to write poetry?
For a very long time I’ve been interested in how things are said, as well as what is being said. Back when I was politically active with Militant, the predecessor of the Anti-Austerity-Alliance/Socialist Party that was very much the case. Then when I retired from active politics in 1994, I had to do something. And the idea of doing something artistic – it was always going to involve words – nagged away at me. Then in late 1995, twenty years ago, I started writing poems, most of them awful. For me poetry is about the freedom of having your own say in words that are absolutely your own. Lately politics has taken over my own poetry – not entirely but they are the poems that tend to fly. Which is ironic in the non-Alanis Morrissette actual sense of that word. If I was to pick two words to describe why I write poems I think they’d be freedom and revenge.
How important is the live reading to you? What does it add to your poetry?
No poem is finished for me until I’ve tested it on an audience but and it’s a very big BUT I’m more and more interested in being read than in reading to every audience going. Partly it’s a health issue in that I’ve not been that well this last while, so running about the country on buses is less of an option. I like the idea of being one of those awkward bastard poets, like John Milton, who despite the efforts of every Tory critic going, is still read several hundred years later. Of course in Ireland we don’t have Tory critics; the one great thing about the Tories is they have a perverse kind of honesty and actually do come out and say, more or less, what they mean; in Ireland our literary tories try to hide what they really are. So, to get back to your question, reading aloud is very much part of the process for me. But being read is the thing.
What’s your favourite very long poem, and why?
MacFlecknoe by John Dryden. I love the way it drowns its target, Thomas Shadwell, in fake over the top praise.
Which non-english speaking country has the richest poetry tradition, in your opinion, and what makes it stand out for you?
I’ve been reading a lot of German poetry in translation lately. Brecht is the big one. But also Enzenberger. And many others too. All twentieth century. I love the clipped German ways of saying things.
If you had control over the public budget for poetry in this country, how would you spend it?
I would find a way of spending much less on administration, much much less. I am less and less in favour of Centres – buildings – in which administrators are put until long after they die. I would find a way of getting money to poets directly via events and publications which are actually popular. I am not in favour of giving money to cranks so they won’t give out about you on Farcebook. The key thing is to get the money to those who are actually doing things, as a means of encouraging more people to do more things. That’s one way of helping the flowers bloom in all their variety.
And the arts in general – say you were minister for arts in the countries first non-crony government after the next election, how would you re-arrange the funding and supports for the arts?
I would first look at ways of moving money from the administration side to the creative side. We need administrators and some of them do great work but we don’t need jobs for life for a few at the top. I would reform Áosdana by allowing the public to nominate some of its members. I would look at the possibility of a New Deal style regular payment to artists who work with the public in a consistent way. I would insist that national organisations which represent a particular art form become membership based organisations with regular elections for the board, and all the committees. Like the Poetry Society in the UK does. Giving money to those who do things, while standing firm against the elitists and cranks would be my main day to day modus. I would tilt any increase in spending – and a significant phased increase is needed – towards the small towns, places that have suffered atrociously during the recession. The arts can play a role in rebuilding the social fabric. First of all though I would have all the administrators of the main literary organisations in to see me, one by one. To prepare for these meetings I’d make sure the Department ordered an extra large delivery of the softer variety of toilet roll; there’s no point being too hard on people, and, after all, change makes everyone nervous.