Since I began this blog six months ago, I have been amazed at how open all of the poets have been to sharing their poems and giving me background to them; and it has also been great because I have learned so much – not only about poetry but the subjects behind the poems and poets. And this experience has continued this week with Ian Duhig.
During a break at last week’s New to Next Generation Poets at the Institute of English Studies, where I gave a paper, I ‘collared’ Ian Duhig, who I had spotted sitting a few rows ahead of me. We chatted about a joke I had shared with him on Twitter and then I asked him if I could feature a poem or two of his on the site, which he kindly and instantly agreed to. Later that evening he gave a reading alongside Patience Agbabi and Hannah Lowe, both of whom I have featured on PP. The next morning, when I opened my emails there they were – not two but a mini-selection box of poems from Ian.
I could have chosen them all. However, I decided on Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen and Jungle because of the history behind the stories and the discrimination and attitudes towards the subjects in their situations – one a transgender Mexican revolutionary, the other a ‘successful’ homeless male sex worker. For the many of you who know Ian’s writing, the poems are founded on truth (sometimes an uncomfortable one), either historical, or from his direct experience of working with homeless people for fifteen years. And the poems are leavened with a humour as well as a directness and richness of language.
In Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, Ian tells the story of Manuel Palafox, who became an important adviser to Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century, but was ‘Dismissed from Tlatizapán for changing sex’. Palafox then embarks on an epistolary odyssey, writing to Magonistas, to tell them that Zapata is finished; to Lenin, that Trotsky is finished; to Freud of whom he asks, ‘Were you coked when you dreamt up this?/No Mexican has even heard of the sexual revolution’. But ending with respect and acknowledgement “Regards to the Missus”. Finally, he imagines living in Ireland and writes to Yeats, “I’m finished/in Mexico – it’s full of bigots. Ireland can’t be worse.” And offers him his poems or other services, “Your brother paints – I’ll hold his ladders”. He’ll do anything, he needs help. “Willie, GET ME OUT OF HERE.”
[Critics as different as Sheenagh Pugh and Stephen Burt accused Duhig of inventing Palafox, but he was following comments by Womack in his history of this period that Palafox was “in doubt of his sex”; in Newell’s book on Zapata that of Palafox it was “rumoured that his sex was changing”; and that Palafox was “of mistaken sex” according to his contemporary Maurilio Mejía]
Jungle draws more specifically on Ian’s work with homeless people. It starts out with a common tale of a young person, looking for work and a place to stay. “Down in the jungle going on the run,/going to get a life and going to have some fun./Down in the jungle heading for the Smoke,/my old man’s going to have a stroke.” But for the person concerned, although becoming a sex worker, he does not feel exploited and if you were to ask him how he felt about his life, he’d tell you: “Down in the jungle got a proper flat,/do a bit of this and do a bit of that;/the punters come and the punters go:/suits me fine, I’m cushty cho!//Down in the jungle – down on my luck?/Me downhearted? Like fuck.” He has made what he can out of a bad situation and who are we to judge him.
As Ian Duhig explained to me, when talking about both poems, “Transphobia was behind the presence of a number of young people being in the Earls Court hostel for young people I worked at and I continued to work in homelessness projects for 15 years before I became a freelance writer. ‘Jungle’ was written for a character equally difficult for people to accept as real, a young man who comes to London, becomes homeless, works as a male prostitute on the proceeds of which he sets himself up in a flat and with a lifestyle he is quite happy with – it does happen…. The rush of certain people to make easy judgements about the subjects of both these poems was part of their point. By the time I was writing my sixth book of poetry, ‘Pandorama’, I was reacting to how dismissive and facilely judgmental more and more people had become about the whole working class. “
Ian Duhig worked with homeless people for fifteen years before becoming a writer after the last organisation he worked in closed down. Since then he has written six books of poetry, most recently ‘Pandorama‘ (Picador 2010) while a seventh, ‘The Blind Roadmaker’ is forthcoming from the same publisher. He has won the Forward Best Poem Award, the National Poetry Competition twice and three times been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize.
Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen
Dismissed from Tlatizapán for changing sex,
Manuel Palafox sulked in Arenista. At markets
he bought cherimoyas, limes and ink from Oaxtepec.
Some days he wore his twenty-ounce sombrero,
deerskin pants and “charro” boots. On others,
gold-embroidered blouses and red kerseymere skirts.
He wrote to Magonistas, Zapata is finished.
He takes orders from Obregon. Rally the Peones!
Death to Carranza! Tierra y Libertad!
He wrote to Lenin, Trotsky is finished.
Seek concord with the Ukraine Makhnovshchina.
Brest-Litovsk’s a cock-up. Regards to the Missus.
He wrote to Freud, Were you coked when you dreamt up this?
No Mexican has even heard of the sexual revolution.
All Eros last year now it’s Thanatos, bloody Thanatos.
Jung was right- grow a beard, you think you’re Moses.
I hope your jaw drops off. Regards to the Missus.
At last he wrote to Yeats: Dear Willie, how’s The Vision?
Mine’s double, ha-ha. Shit. Willie, I’m finished
in Mexico — it’s full of bigots. Ireland can’t be worse.
I’ll work. Your brother paints — I’ll hold his ladders.
You can have my poems. The one about this year —
change it round — it’ll do for Ireland. What happened
to my lift with Casement? Willie, GET ME OUT OF HERE!
Shopping in Cashel for pulque, Michael Robartes —
“Research Assistant to a popular writer” —
itched in his Connemara Cloth. Himself well-known
for a Special Devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe,
he frowned on local talk of a drunken madwoman
in red skirts, publicly disputing with the bishop
Down in the jungle living in a tent;
better than a prefab: no rent!
– Children’s rhyme.
Down in the jungle going on the run,
going to get a life and going to have some fun.
Down in the jungle heading for the Smoke,
my old man’s going to have a stroke.
Down in the jungle going to get a job,
going to get a flat first: no prob.
Down in the jungle, London Town,
Hope and Anchor, Cricklewood Crown,
Elephant and Castle, Rising Sun:
promises, promises, bugger all done.
Down in the jungle, accommodation tied:
lost my bar job, I’m back outside.
Down in the jungle living on the street;
next to Leeds this life is sweet.
Down in the jungle kipping on a bench:
beats the Riviera – no French!
Down in the jungle skippered in a squat:
better than my old man’s? Do what?
Down in the jungle going on the rank;
I get fucked, I blow, I wank:
wank them in their motors, blow them in the parks,
fuck them in their offices – what larks.
I’d two chances come my way,
none at all and sweet F.A.
Down in the jungle got a proper flat,
do a bit of this and do a bit of that;
the punters come and the punters go:
suits me fine, I’m cushty cho!
Down in the jungle – down on my luck?
Me downhearted? Like fuck.