Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Monday, March 18, 2013

Kevin Higgins, Q and A Session with the Author of Mentioning the War: Essays & Reviews 1999-2011

March 1 to March 31
A Question and Answer Session with
Kevin Higgins

Mentioning the War:  Essays & Reviews 1999-2011 

You are invited to participate in Irish Short Story Monith. Please contact me if you are interested or have any questions.

I first became directly acquainted with the work of Kevin Higgins when I read his very detailed and highly informative book, Mentioning the War:  Essays & Reviews 1999-2011.  

Mentioning the War:  Essays & Reviews 1999-2011 by Kevin Higgins is a very interesting, often challenging assortment of book reviews, focusing largely on contemporary Irish poetry, general cultural commentaries on the state of the arts in Ireland in post Celtic Tiger bad times and some brilliant political analysis.   Higgins' political thoughts range from very Irish centered issues to global concerns.      He talks a good bit about the war in Iraq, which I do see as a terrible thing, both morally and as a use of American resources.  It will be remembered as one of the dumbest wars initiated by the United States. 
When first presented with the opportunity to post on his collection I of course said I would be interested in reading it and would then decide if I could post on the work.   Initially  I was confused as to how I might approach the book.   Much, at least half, of the work is taken up with reviews of the work of contemporary Irish poets and Irish political infighting, both things very remote to me.   Then I read his two very insightful articles on George Orwell, a writer whose works I admire tremendously, and I knew I could find a way to talk about his collection.   

I thought to myself, OK you know nothing about contemporary Irish poetry and next to nothing about Irish politics but the author  admires Orwell and a lot of the essays on literary works also contain very thought provoking remarks about the role of the arts in modern society so I decided perhaps I could post on this book.   (You can read my post on the book here.)


Kevin Higgins facilitates poetry workshops at Galway Arts Centre; teaches creative writing at Galway Technical Institute and on the Brothers of Charity Away With Words programme. He is also Writer-in-Residence at Merlin Park Hospital and the poetry critic of the Galway Advertiser. He was a founding co-editor of The Burning Bush literary magazine. His first collection of poems The Boy With No Face was published by Salmon in February 2005 and was short-listed for the 2006 Strong Award. His second collection, Time Gentlemen, Please, was published in March 2008 by Salmon. One of the poems from Time Gentlemen, Please, ‘My Militant Tendency’, featured in the Forward Book of Poetry 2009.  His work also features in the anthology Identity Parade – New British and Irish Poets(Ed Roddy Lumsden, Bloodaxe, 2010). Frightening New Furniture is his third collection of poems and was published in 2010 by Salmon Poetry. Kevin has read his work at most of the major literary festivals in Ireland and at Arts Council and Culture Ireland supported poetry events in Kansas City, USA (2006), Los Angeles, USA (2007), London, UK (2007), New York, USA (2008), Athens, Greece (2008); St. Louis, USA (2008), Chicago, USA (2009), Denver, USA (2010), Washington D.C (2011), Huntington, West Virginia, USA (2011), Geelong, Australia (2011) & Canberra, Australia (2011). As part of his Culture Ireland supported trip to Chicago in February 2009 he participated in and took first place in a specially arranged poetry slam at the Chicago’s Green Mill Bar and Lounge, the birthplace of slam poetry. Kevin’s fourth collection of poetry, The Ghost In The Lobby, will be published by Salmon Poetry in 2013. Kevin is co-organiser of Over The Edge literary events. 

You can read selections form this book here

You can learn more about Kevin's work on his very well done blog

Q & A Session with
Kevin Higgins

1.In the preface to your book Mentioning the War:  Essays & Reviews 1999-2011, Darrell Kavanagh says one of the most interesting things about the collection of some 50 pieces is how it shows your evolving from far left views to a more pragmatic position.  In what directions do you see your views now moving toward?

I really couldn’t say. My big hate is hypocrisy. And you’ll find that on every part of the political spectrum. My best political friend is Clare Daly, who is a member of the Irish Parliament [the Dáil]. She was in the Socialist Party until recently and was, along with me, a member of the Militant Tendency back in the 1980s. Last year she proposed the first bill to try and legalise abortion in Ireland. I like the sound of the Five Star Movement in Italy, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, which recently got a big vote in the general election there. I’m left wing on most (but not all) issues. But I think there are many on the left who richly deserve to be handed over to the Argentinian Generals. Make of that what you will.  

2.  In your very moving "Back Home to Ireland" you talked about how when you and your family returned to Ireland, you were seven, it was a time of extreme political violence-how did these early experiences, no doubt seen mostly on TV perhaps, impact your thinking as you matured?

It made very little impact on me, at least that I’m conscious of. We lived well away from Northern Ireland which by then [1974] had settled into a pretty horrible stalemate. I do remember us re-enacting in the school playground the kidnapping, by rogue elements in the IRA, of the Dutch industrialist Dr Tiede Herrema. Terrorism never had any attraction for me, though. Perhaps, in that sense, I was influenced to find other ways to change the world.

3.  Why does Orwell's relationship to the Communist Party matter.  The party hacks he turned against seem now like completely self serving men who cared little for the poor of the UK?

Orwell himself was never a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The party hack types he so despised are the raw material of which totalitarian dictatorship is made. If you endlessly make excuses about the small things, and tell the small lies the Party wants told, then you’ll end up supporting the Hitler – Stalin pact or, even worse, urging people to vote for George Galloway. This is still important because there are still plenty of people like this in the main left wing organisations around the world, who would certainly be the secret police men and women of a new totalitarian nightmare, were they ever to come to power. There are plenty of good people too, as Orwell himself acknowledged; they would probably all end up being bumped off by the aforementioned secret police men and women. For me, when I look at the current crisis in the British Socialist Workers Party and the Irish United Left Alliance, these are not abstract arguments. The left wing totalitarianism about which Orwell wrote is a real living thing. For me it is – as the folks on Sesame Street used to say – a person that you meet each day. Or at least someone you cross the road to avoid. I realize of course that my political background is a very particular one and that these issues might seem rather marginal or esoteric to some.

4.  Let us look for a moment at this key remark by you.  "In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell whose Animal Farm was later co-opted by the CIA, writes from a position that is decisively to the left not only of the Labour Party but also of the Communist Party"   You tell us that Orwell was for the revolution to a far greater extent than "all Stalinism's literary fellow travellers ever were".  The CIA did pay for a cartoon version of the book to be used as a propaganda tool (The Manchester Guardian has a very interesting article on how this happened) but this really is a kind of cosmic joke because if it lead anyone to actually read the book they would never accept any form of totalitarianism again.   It is no more necessary to understand Russian politics of the 1930s and 40s to understand Animal Farm a knowledge of English politics of the early 18th century is required to appreciate Gulliver's Travels.  

To my mind such an approach to both of the books trivializes them.   Is the attempt to place Animal Farm as a document of a time and a place an attempt to destroy its power. Do teachers who explain that Squealer was Trotsky denigrate the work because they do not have the ability to see its power?

Books need to work beyond their time, if they are to be of use to, or have meaning for, future generations. But and it’s a very big BUT I don’t think anyone who doesn’t know that, in ‘Animal Farm’, Squealer is Trotsky is fit to leave the house on his or her own in the morning never mind teach anything to anyone.  

5.  In one of your essays on Orwell you said as you developed in your thinking and moved away from Knee-Jerk left wing politics you began to think there was something inherent in leftist policies that lead to mass violence and death, i e the famines in China and the mass killings in Cambodia.  It seems right wing groups normally only turn on a segment of the population and see the need to keep people alive to work for them.  How do we compromise here or we just doomed to be the slaves of ideologues?

I would have no interest at all in compromising on this issue. And, no, I don’t think we’re doomed. A friend of mine once told that though he always votes for the American Socialist Workers Party (as a protest) in U.S. Presidential Elections, that were they to actually win he would immediately leave the country. The old bastardised version of the party according to some people’s interpretation of what Lenin said has to go. If the British Socialist Workers Party came to power tomorrow morning, or the Socialist Party grabbed power in Ireland, then the result would certainly be, for many, no doubt including myself, the knock on the door in the middle of the night. These people need to be stopped, pure and simple. Whatever the better way of running things may be, they’ll be no part of it.

6.  I know from following lots of Irish writers on Facebook, e mails relationships, web pages and such that literary workshops are very big in Ireland, perhaps most especially so in Galway.   I know also you have done lots of workshops.  How do you feel about those who say workshops are cottage industries which thrive by suggesting to anyone who enters that they are a budding genius but in need of some training from the work shop runners?  Long ago there used to be ads on match box covers in America for art schools, you were asked to mail in a drawing for a free evaluation of your potential.  Someone did an expose on this and they sent in 100 of the most horrible drawings possible, each drawing for a response telling the person who sent it in that they had great potential and strongly urging them to sign up for art lessons.  

The workshops I facilitate are both very open but very rigorous. Several of the participants , such as Mary Madec, Lorna Shaughnessy, Aideen Henry, Sarah Clancy and Nicola Griffin, have gone on to publish collections and win prizes. Readers can read more about my view of workshops in my short essay ‘The Destructive Critic And The Idiot Who Thinks You’re A Genius’ which appears in the first issue of Galway’s new poetry paper, ‘Skylight 47’, copies of which can be purchased here
The guy – and it really is just one guy -  who implies that the workshops I facilitate are “cottage industries which thrive by suggesting to anyone who enters that they are a budding genius” is simply telling lies.

7.  How important are government grants for the arts in Ireland?  if they were cut to zero, would Ireland still have a reputation as a place of great writers 20 years from now.

I think that if they were cut to zero, then damage would be done, certainly. The forms of patronage which existed before there was an Arts Council no longer exist.

8.  Somewhere in 
Mentioning the War:  Essays & Reviews 1999-2011 you said that America's foreign policy was basically one of pure malignancy.  I know your articles are sometime period pieces but do you see America's saving millions in Japan and Germany from starving after WWII as an evil policy.  Of course the Americans knew they would have not been treated so well if they had lost the war?  Has any other country ever aided its enemies in a war after they beat them as the Americans have?  

I don’t think I exactly used the word ‘malignancy’ but that would have been my view, yes. I wouldn’t hold that view now, as is indicated by some of the other things I say in more recent essays. I would agree with what you say about the American role post-World War II.

9.  I have read lots of Indian and American short stories in addition to Irish and alcohol plays a much bigger part in the Irish stories.  How should an outsider take this and what does it say about Irish culture.    

Well, I suppose, drink is a more important aspect of society in Ireland than in some other places. The Irish drunk is also both a cliché, sometimes promulgated by bad writers, and a racist stereotype.  

9.  Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father?  Do you agree with this?  I have seen this over and over in the stories I have read.
I would say that there is something in this, yes.

10.  Galway for a city of 100,000 has produced a huge amount of literary works. What are some of the causes of this. It is also suggested by some that this is not really true but is somehow caused by the literary climate of Galway which makes everyone think they are brilliant so as to exploit them via workshops and such?
Galway has more good writers and a much livelier scene than most places, certainly by far the liveliest in Ireland. Those who suggest “that this is not really true but is somehow caused by the literary climate of Galway which makes everyone think they are brilliant so as to exploit them via workshops and such” are lying. I think the causes of Galway’s literary vibrancy are many. It is a good place to organise events which bring people together and we at Over The Edge give no platform to cranks who are only interested in discouraging others, so that they themselves can pose as the only writers in town. Elsewhere, they might get to take themselves seriously. Here, they just look like a couple of sad bastards. Everyone’s too busy with their own writing to be bothered with that sort of nonsense.

11.  I sometimes wonder why such a disproportionate amount of the regarded as great literature of the world is written in the colder temperate zones rather than in the tropics.  How big a factor do you think the Irish Weather is in shaping the literary output of its writers.   I cannot imagine
The Brothers Karamazov being written on a tropical island, for example.  If Ireland were located in the south Pacific would the literary output be radically changed?
I’m sure that if going outside were a more attractive option then some would choose to do that rather than write. But then maybe there’d be more short stories and poems written in sunshine drenched pavement Cafés…Of course the atmosphere of the literature and the images within it would certainly be different if the weather were better.

12. A character in an Ali Smith short story, asks in a conversation on the merits of short stories versus novels
""Is the short story a goddess and nymph and is the novel an old whore?"    Does this make a bit of sense to you? Pushing this, where do poems come in here-of course sometimes an old whore is maybe what one wants.

I’ve never thought about nymphs and whores in that way before. I would say, then, that my poems are mostly very old whores with no teeth but a wealth of experience.

13.   Several people in their Q and A Sessions have spoken highly of the Over the Edge literary events which you began several years ago with your wife. Tell us a little bit about what this experience has meant to you.

Myself and Susan really enjoy working with new writers. There is nothing better than helping a new poet or fiction writer work towards the point where they are able to hold an audience for fifteen minutes while reading on the same bill as a much more established poet or fiction writer. It has been great to see how the event has grown over the past ten years. The format has remained the same since the beginning: three Featured Readers reading for fifteen minutes each followed by an open mic, with a usual maximum of eight readers reading no more than one poem each, or a page and a bit of a short story.

14.  Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers?
I think it has something to do with our semi-detached relationship with the English language and the more than occasional horrendousness of life here over the past couple of centuries. In the horrendousness of everyday reality department, we have something in common with Poland, a country which has, in the twentieth century, produced an astounding number of great poets.

15  This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declain Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking this:" One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there."   

No. I do not believe in fairies. And not because they’re there, but because they’re not.

16.  Do you think the very large amount of remains from neolithic periods (the highest in the world) in Ireland has shaped in the literature and psyche of the country?
I couldn’t say. I know Seamus Heaney has used this as material in some of his best known poems. More generally, I suppose when you visit, say, the United States or Australia you realise just how big a deal the past is here in Ireland.

17   In my post on your book I mentioned that it was often said that Samuel Johnson spoke for victory and I said, kind of rude of me I know, that I sensed you sometimes write for victory? How do you react to this-to what extent to you see yourself writing to persuade versus simply telling the truth? If my remark was out of line I offer my apologies.

I think that’s a fair observation. If I’m out to get you, then you will know about it and, if the poem or article works, you will be got. Of course what works and what doesn’t isn’t for me to say. And what effect such writing has is debatable.

18.  How important are the famines to the modern Irish psyche?  

I think the idea that catastrophe might always be just around corner is a very influential one here.

19  Does the character of the "stage Irishman" live on still in the heavy drinking, violent, on the dole characters one finds in many contemporary Irish novels and short stories?

To a certain extent, I’m sure he does. But most Irish people are pretty wary of clichés. So, he’d better have something new about him. Otherwise he’ll end up in the Leprechaun shop at the airport.

20.  William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "“The popular poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons”.    I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines.  American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence.   The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by the Spanish or American rulers.   How do you think the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature.

Well, I don’t think we’ve had many victories to celebrate. Also, I don’t think victory tends to make for good poetry. Though there are exceptions.

21. Back to Yeats and other poet revolutionaries. Are they posers who talk revolution who want above all to be assured they will have a special place in society?

It very much depends on who you mean by ‘they’. I don’t think that the likes of Dave Lordan and Sarah Clancy, both of whom are a bit revolutionary, are posers at all. I think they mean it. There are for sure others who are posers, mostly they’re just guilty of talking out of the wrong orifice.

22.  Do you think poets have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers?

I think some poets play one role, other poets the other. I think poets should be the people they are and not pose. I know of one poetess who is anti-abortion but pretends (quite loudly via the internet) to be a feminist. I’d rather people were honest in their views than pretend. At the same time, the poetry I am most drawn towards is usually that which is acutely aware of History as an ongoing living process.

23.  "To creative artists may have fallen the task of explaining what no historian has fully illuminated – the reason why the English came to regard the Irish as inferior and barbarous, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetic and magical."-is this right?  Kiberd, Declan (2009-05-04). Inventing Ireland (p. 646).
I think there is something in that.  If history is written by the winners, then poetry is perhaps more often written by the losers.

24    Do you think Irish Travelers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment?  are the Travelers to the Irish what the Irish were once to the English?  I became interested in this question partially through reading the short stories of Desmond Hogan.

I am not sure being granted the status of a distinct ethnic group helps anyone very much. But I wouldn’t be opposed to it either. The thing is to end discrimination, which is terrible. I don’t have much time for those who make government funded careers out of promoting politically correct labels but really changing nothing.

25.  What do adult students in workshops most want from their teachers?

They want you to push them to write new poems and to help them make poems they’ve written be the best poems they can possibly be.

26  What are the biggest rewards of teaching in a workshop?  The biggest heart aches?  

The big reward is when you see someone beginning to gain competence and confidence as a poet. The biggest heartache is mostly those who are too egotistical to ever put their poems through a workshop but who insist on inflicting them on the world anyway.

27.  Do you think the suggestion that workshops produce "instant poets" who upon graduation and publishing their own book with sales below 1000 copies then become instructors in more workshops produces an inbred atmosphere of self satisfaction in which workshops are run primarily for economic gain.  

This is a fantasy. I don’t know of a single person who fits this description. No doubt, though, someone has said this to you. I was doing a reading in Amherst, Massachusetts last week and a guy came up to me in a coffee shop and told me that he was once thrown out of a hotel in Boston by Osama Bin Laden. People say all sorts of crap. And sometimes they even believe it.

28.  Tell us about your work a bit as writer in residence at the large public hospital, Merlin Park?

I work with long stay patients and Merlin Park Hospital and, since last Autumn, also with staff at University Hospital Galway. I love this work. The people involved are all so wonderfully unpretentious. It started out as a reminiscence project (with the long stay patients). The Galway University Hospitals Arts Trust, led by Margaret Flannery, has published several editions of the patients’ memories as told to me. These were launched at the Cúirt Festival in successive years. This year we will publish a collection of creative writing by patients and staff, which will also be launched at Cúirt. It’s the sort of work which helps keep me sane, most of the time.

29.  When you are outside of Ireland, what besides friends and family do you miss the most?  What are you glad to be away from?

What I miss most is the certainty of a decent cup of tea. What I am glad to be away from is the weather and the few cranks who, in a good capitalist country like America, would be too busy begging for change outside what was once the adult cinema to find time for anything as lofty as writing letters to the editor of the local newspaper.

30. How do you view Aosdána?  Is it a great aid to the arts in Ireland or does it perpetuate closed elitism?

I am sure it has its flaws, but it is better that it exist that not exist. I think most of its loudest critics are disappointed little people who didn’t get asked to join. If said people were invited to join then I reckon their criticisms would be dropped faster than a onetime supporter of the cultural boycott of Israel on his way in the door of a travel agents to book a flight to read at the Tel Aviv Book Festival.

End of Q & A

I offer my great thanks to Kevin Higgins for taking the time to provide such informative answers to my questions. An open discussion of any of the matters in this Q and A is very welcome in the comments on my blog.  

I strongly endorse Mentioning the War:  Essays and Reviews 1999 to 2011 to anyone who wants a serious introduction to the world of Modern Irish Poetry, and its interaction with politics, locally and globally.  

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