Kevin Higgins is co-organiser of Over The Edge literary events in Galway, Ireland. He teaches poetry workshops at Galway Arts Centre, Creative Writing at Galway Technical Institute, and is Creative Writing Director for the National University of Ireland – Galway Summer School. He is poetry critic of The Galway Advertiser. His poetry is discussed in The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry and features in the generation-defining anthology, Identity Parade – New British and Irish Poets (ed. Roddy Lumsden, Bloodaxe, 2010) and in The Hundred Years’ War: modern war poems (ed. Neil Astley, Bloodaxe, April 2014).
Kevin’s poetry has been translated into Greek, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, German, Serbian, Russian, & Portuguese. In 2014 Kevin’s poetry was the subject of a paper ‘The Case of Kevin Higgins, or, The Present State of Irish Poetic Satire’ presented by David Wheatley at a Symposium on Satire at the University of Aberdeen. He was Satirist-in-Residence at the Bogman’s Cannon (2015-16). The Selected Satires of Kevin Higgins was published by NuaScéalta in 2016; a pamphlet of Kevin’s political poems, The Minister For Poetry Has Decreed, was published, also in 2016, by the Culture Matters imprint of the UK based Manifesto Press.
Q: When he was being held in prison, prior to his execution by the US federal authorities, troubadour and rabble-rouser Joe Hill wrote, “I keep myself in good spirits by reminding myself that the worst is yet to come.” Do you share this sentiment and outlook at all? I ask because your work very often sparkles with a kind of morbid but clear-eyed humour, which seems both winning and appropriate to the times.
A: I think that’s a fair assessment of my approach to poetry and, indeed, life. Anyone who involves themselves in anti-capitalist politics in a serious way is likely to find him or herself standing on a (hopefully metaphorical) gallows at some time or another. I’ve been the subject of at least five politically motivated witch hunt style committees of investigation during my lifetime (so far). I almost enjoy them at this stage. Most recently by the British Labour Party for writing a poem about Tony and Cherie Blair. I seem to have a real knack of making some people secretly want to kill me. I had it when I was a political activist and I appear to have retained it as a poet. So, I think it’s wise to carry about one’s person a good supply of gallows humour, as it’s likely to come in useful. And, yes, I do think it’s appropriate to the times. Thus far the 21st Century has been seriously tragicomic. I love that there are people in the world who think Joe Biden and Kamala Harris might be the answer. And others who imagine Eamon Ryan might save us and the polar bears from what’s coming. I sometime think such people were put on this Earth for the sole purpose of entertaining me.
Q: You write in your poem, ‘Knives’: “I come from a long line of men, / who saw words not as decorations / but weapons, knives with which to / cut others down to size.” To me, this could serve as a fairly concise credo for your work as a whole. Is this the case? I can’t help but think of pieces like ‘The Death of Baroness Thatcher’ here, which reads: “The look in her eyes was a shoot to kill policy / in Northern Ireland [...] Her fingers and thumbs / were ten riot shields in a row.” Another gloriously irreverent poem, taking aim at an alternative political tendency, goes as follows:
Today it all goes to the dumpster,
my old political furniture:
the broken bookcase called
nationalisation of the banks;
the three legged dining chair called
critical support for the P.L.O;
the fringed, pink lampshade called
theory of the permanent revolution...
A: Yes. I think there’s far too much reverence – unearned respect – given to individuals, ideas, and institutions of every variety. Whenever I see someone or something being put on a pedestal I always have the urge to give said pedestal a nudge to see if it topples. One doesn’t always get it right. But that’s okay. I do come from a line of people who liked to stir things up. Whenever I wrote a poem about someone she didn’t like, my Mother would say: “that would be a good one to put in the newspaper.” So that, she hoped, her unfriend might spend part of their lunchtime reading about their own shortcomings. I’ve written several elegies for public figures – journalists and politicians – who aren’t actually dead yet. They will be soon enough. Satan be good to them.
Q: Critics have seen in your poems, variously, the incendiary rebellion of a Gil Scott-Heron, the satirical elegance and rage of a Jonathan Swift, the easy erudition of a Patrick Kavanagh... and the list could go on. Do any or all of these comparisons hit the mark, in terms of describing your style and concerns as a poet? Who else would you mention as an influence (I’d be inclined to suggest Bertolt Brecht, for instance)?
A: Swift and Brecht are certainly literary heroes of mine. I’ve read a lot of biographies of both of them. I love the way they were intimately involved in the very different politics of their respective eras. They also on occasion both came closer than most to being put on an actual gallows. But they survived. And both were literary populists, in the sense that they had little interest in just writing for an audience of other writers. They also both made the difficult appear easy. They were the opposite of pretentious. I’d love to share a bottle of Champagne with the two of them in the House Hotel if such a thing were a possibility, which sadly, due to the material nature of reality, it isn’t. Another recent big influence is André Breton and the Surrealists. I love their attitude. In 1924, when the newspapers reported that revered Nobel Prize winning novelist, Anatole France, was on his death bed, Breton corralled the other the Surrealists, such as Aragon and Éluard, to contribute to a joint pamphlet in which they explained why they thought Anatole France was crap. It was to be published the day he died. Though the printer balked and delayed it a couple of weeks; it did come out. I would love to do something like that. Though no doubt it’s a terrible idea.
Q: For all your skill in skewering the pieties of neoliberal Ireland (and, for that matter, its self-perpetuating literary elites), I get the sense that poetry, for you, is as much about revelry and replenishment, restoring the good things in life to a proper fullness. You encourage readers, for example, “to make wild / and inappropriate / love to the whole world”! Could you comment on this interpretation of your work?
A: These days, I am an odd combination of a Puritan of the John Milton variety and a libertine of the Baudelaire type. Politically, I’m a Puritan. I think there is hope. And it’s worth being disciplined to bring that hope to something like fruition. But on my days off I’m a bit of a libertine nowadays. Since I developed a chronic autoimmune condition in my lungs, which means I spent large portions of the day in bed (alone), I have come to see that the sensual side of life is central to our existence. I hardly ever drink. But when I do, it has to be Champagne. Prosecco won’t do. For health reasons, I have to eat well as it makes a life altering difference to my ability to function now. One of the participants in my poetry workshops is a nun, though she’s way out on the left of the church. A really good woman. We were talking about how the erotic has been suppressed and denied in society. In the past by the church. Now by others who dress more mundanely. We came to the conclusion that food and the erotic are very closely related. I said: sometimes you’re passing a kebab shop and the smell really makes you want a kebab there and then. It doesn’t mean you think that kebab is good for you. Or that you want to spend the rest of your life with said kebab. But you just want it at that particular moment. She replied: “yes, that’s exactly it!” I hardly ever eat kebabs these days though.
Q: A couple of years ago, three prominent Irish literati entered into a rather hefty financial sponsorship deal with Rolex International, the watch and jewellery multinational suspected of benefitting from child labour. The three (all writers of fiction) used the occasion to stress, according to the Irish Times report, that “the writer’s job” is primarily “to look after their sentences.” It’s a common attitude, I think, including in Irish poetry circles, where people sometimes enthuse about the virtues and heady delights of ‘poetic form’ alone (instead of poetic content, or other considerations). What’s your response to this? How do you envision (if you do) the role of the poet/writer in society?
A: I was unaware of this particular instance. In late 2019, when it apparently happened, I was very focussed on the hope that was the Jeremy Corbyn movement. I think the line about a writer’s job being primarily to look after their sentences is just a cover in this instance. Laughable really. There are so many mediocre “non-political” writers out there, both poets and fiction writers, who are actually deeply political in the sense that they would do anything to slither their way a little further up the slimy pole. Part of being human is to try to be true to one’s self. Writers are less different from everyone else than we sometimes rather pretentiously like to pretend. In a sense, by doing this sort of thing, I think Colm Toibín, and others of that mindset, are being true to themselves. I have always thought Tóibín seems to be someone who genuinely loves the establishment. He is not putting it on. I have to say I laughed hard and long when I saw the photos at this link, relating to the sponsorship deal you mention: https://www.rolex.org/rolex-mentor-protege/literature/colm-toibin-and-colin-barrett. Colm Toibín is another of those I’m pretty sure was put on this planet for my personal entertainment. On the other hand, the role right now of any writer who seriously dislikes things as they are is mostly to try and avoid becoming just another Rolex sponsored ‘liberal’ while at the same time trying to find exactly the right words. It isn’t easy.