National Poetry Competition 40th anniversary: Q & A with Ian Duhig

In advance of the National Poetry Competition’s 40th anniversary readings at Kings Place on 20th March, The Poetry Society speaks to one of the ten poets featuring at the event Ian Duhig, who has incredibly won the National Poetry Competition twice.

What first encouraged you to write poems?

Poetry is highly-regarded in Ireland and I was born into an Irish family with a mother who knew reams of the stuff off by heart. Perhaps I was more interested early on in concentrated verbal forms like songs and jokes, which paved the way for poems later. Looking back, I suspect this was something to do with being fairly low down the pecking order in a large family and needing to be heard above the noisy throng with hit-and-run raids on their attention. Later I appreciated the way poetry could suddenly cut through the whole world’s row, slow down time and draw out the implications of words and your experiences.

Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?  If so , can you tell us a bit about it?

If I’m honest, it was something at school for a teacher called Elio Cruz, an immigrant who infused in me a sense of what poetry could do in this language and where it could take me as a reader and a writer. It was about a storm and, er, tried to use stormy language which pleased Mr Cruz but wouldn’t any of our readers. Schools get a lot of crap for how they teach poetry but those are cheap shots from people who don’t know the job. A lot of teachers manage to get a real appreciation of poetry into children that stays with them even if they never study literature at university.

What was it like to be a National Poetry Competition winner? 

I’d recommend it.

How did your National Poetry Competition win impact on your writing practice and your perception of yourself as a poet?

I suddenly had to take it all more seriously and now I tell people not to make that mistake: if you want to be a poet, go for it and think beyond your individual poems to the journey poetry might take you on. You won’t know where you’re going because that’s how it works; if you start a poem already knowing where it will finish is likely to rob it of the surprise and delight good poetry can offer readers. Whether you win competitions or not, poetry has wonderful things in store for you if you give it a chance.

What words of encouragement would you give to those considering entering the National Poetry Competition this year?

Whether you win competitions or not, as I said in my last answer, it’s about taking yourself seriously as a poet. My advice is give the poem you enter your best shot, however left field you think it’s coming from. This isn’t a race with one finishing line but where you can travel through language, time and space and end up where you like. Having been a judge myself, those are the rides I enjoy. I scan the shortlists of many competitions to see if names come up more than once. When you get that close any number could win and I know quality is to be found there. You don’t have to win the big prizes to be noticed.

In what way do you feel competitions, if at all, create a sense of community?

I made a good friend in the man who came second in 1987, Mike Donaghy, a much better poet than me, and through him gained some understanding of different poetry communities with their antagonisms. It’s easy to stand back from these things in Leeds, “completely out of the literary world” as an ex-editor of Granta was reported as saying of the place, and our heritage includes John Riley and Khadijah Ibrahiim as well as Tony Harrison. I don’t want people to feel they have to be members of particular communities or in-groups to put poetry close to the centre of their lives and anyway, it’s easy nowadays to develop web-based poetry groups.

Are there any other benefits you have found from submitting your work to competitions or journals more widely?

There are many excellent magazines but they are not a guaranteed route to successful book publication. People can be crushed by a magazine rejection more than they should and feel victimised by editors (“If I gave that bastard ********** a kidney he’d reject it!”) but your real judges are elsewhere.

What top tip or tips would you give to a young poet or a poet starting out about developing their poetry?

Read widely in different traditions and translations, beyond what may be the common names of your day. Do so humbly and attentively, especially if you review or teach —  I always liked this from Empson’s ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’:”…you must rely on each particular poem to show you the way in which it is trying to be good; if it fails, you cannot know its objects and it would be trivial to explain why it had failed at something it was not trying to achieve.” Unfamiliar poetry might just operate in different ways. Be prepared to take a long view of your work routinely, giving it years not weeks for poems and ideas to mature. Experiment. Fail. Keep the deep pleasure of losing yourself in poetry at the forefront of your mind, not least because you can’t control much else; it has enriched my life in every way except financially.

Book now to hear Ian Duhig & nine other poets at Kings Place on 20th March at the National Poetry Competition 40th anniversary readings