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Ian Duhig: ‘Machines’ Parts

The first thing I want to do is bear witness to the value of the Long Poem Magazine’s mission; I found working on a larger scale liberating and productive, but it had somewhere to go in the poetry world because of LPM and I again thank its editors. The next is to mention that whenever I have taught, I have encouraged people to see their poetry as a developing whole, with poems as episodes — or parts of the machine to draw the image closer to this reflection on my LPM poem Machines — and although I am not in that relationship to you, it’s as well you know where I’m coming from.

I can best summarise my actual writing process here by quoting from my favourite book, Tristram Shandy: ‘I begin with writing the first sentence — and trusting to Almighty God for the second’ albeit with no role for God. I heard at Shandy Hall that if Sterne was stuck, he’d move to a different part of the house and that made sense to me: it’s a process in space as well as time, fluid and involving movement — I like to be travelling on the bus when I write at least once a day. If I discuss this in the context of how Machines came about and where it led to next, something might be useful to readers on similar journeys. Although, for reasons that are becoming clear, I couldn’t possibly claim my processes were efficient, they try to cooperate with that inefficiency to get somewhere, which occasionally they seem to do, somewhere or thereabouts at any rate. This is an inexact kind of geography.

After an exhibition at Armley Mills concerning the different immigrant communities who came to be involved in Leeds’ textile industry, in which I had some poems, the organiser, Pavilion Arts, commissioned me to be involved in a day’s follow-up event with Ryoko Akama and Ahmed Kaysher, the former an internationally-known sound artist, the latter a musician, singer, poet and organiser of this city’s extraordinary RadhaRaman Folk Festival. I do a lot of reading for projects like this, but a lot of talking too, more listening, including to music which was a particular feature here and I learned a great deal from Ryoko and Ahmed as well as mill volunteers, some of whom were former workers there. There was irony in presenting music and poetry in a workplace which would once have been so noisy a sign language had to be used, but after discussions Ahmed organised a programme of music and anti-imperialist songs (of which there are a wealth in India, many communist party compositions), Ryoko designed the installation loiner or and I wrote Machines. Ryoko also suggested I write something for our day to be accompanied by one of the old looms. As described in my last piece for Long Poem Magazine, I chose the song Poverty Knock as a textual framework, which was itself composed to the rhythm of a loom by Tom Daniel, a Batley weaver.

Of course, my performance was often unintelligible, but I handed out texts and the point about human music being lost among remorseless machinery was taken by the audience. Money talks over everything still, but there were differing dialects of the silent language of mills and this would have helped with inclusivity as well as communication. As well as the noise, it was a disorientating experience for the audience in other ways too, much as it would have been for new workers when they started at the mill. Ryko would use bits of old equipment she found lying about whose purpose had been forgotten for her installation, furthering the sense of alienation even among old workers from the industry. For my part, I was possessed by the numberless, nameless ghosts that haunted the building and sometimes Ryoko’s machines seemed to be communicating with a world beyond ours, tuning into wavelengths of the séances that were a feature of Leeds working-class life, even when I moved here in the early 1970s. (The middle-class version was an esoteric brand of Freemasonry; Bradford welcomed the second lodge of Yeats’ Golden Dawn).

Armley Mills in their present form are basically those built by Benjamin Gott at the beginning of the 19th century; at the same time as in 1814, after a visit to Orkney, Sir Walter Scott wrote of a minister in North Ronaldsay who thought to introduce Thomas Gray’s The Fatal Sisters to some locals; they informed him that they already knew the song well ‘in the Norse language’ as The Enchantresses, a poem found in Njal’s Saga, where Valkyries weave on a nightmarish loom whose warp and weft are guts and sinews, the weights human skills and the shuttles swords, celebrating the deaths of the Irish the Vikings were slaying, although the Irish in fact won the Battle of Clontarf which this scene was supposed to portend. Many later Irish ended up working in Gott’s Mills, often involved in sectarian gang warfare in the local streets within the larger class war, until the latter absorbed many of the energies of the former. I was disturbed by images of one of the machines suddenly dripping blood after a mill girl or loom scavenger was caught in its action. These did not fit in with the scope of Machines, where I was looking to reflect a world-wide pattern, though I returned to them later; I have found commissions to be not only useful in getting me out of my comfort zone, but also for pushing me in new directions: spin offs irrelevant to the task in hand can be pursued later, as I did with the loom accident for a later series of poems about Tom Maguire, the second-generation Irish radical poet and song-writer involved in the gas strike Engels called the Battle of Leeds.

In the aftermath of our show, Ryoko Akama invited me to join a worldwide project where participants received prompts for work that would become part of a Berlin exhibition in December 2021. Mine came by postcard from German sound artist christian kesten, which required me to document a random journey, but wandering around aimlessly paying attention supplied more ideas than I could possibly use, eventually providing material for another long poem with a Steve Ely project who is a considerable exponent of the long form himself, as demonstrated in his recent The European Eel. Perhaps I should admit my process overall resembles writing one long eely river of a poem with constant digressions of an unforeseen nature, which returns us to something very like Tristram Shandy. In my riverine image, though, part of the course separates some digressions forming ox-bow lakes, or in an image from Ryoko’s loiner or, new small devices from the changing production line, one of which was Machines, a later one Seven Stops, Sean Nós for christian kesten in Berlin and, recently, Omni, from the forthcoming We’re All In It Together, a state-of-the-nation anthology from Grist Publishing at Huddersfield University this March. The larger-scale projects within this such as a longer poem or commission intersected with my usual creative practice at angles I couldn’t imagine until I tried and it may be the case for some of you reading this as well.

When I try to imagine what aspect of all this might be useful to other writers, I’m reminded of the old definition of a bad researcher as one who finds what they are looking for: I’m advising you to get lost by giving you directions: Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Chronicle always comes to mind at this point but in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit expanded on the usual quotation from it in an insightful way which also helps me move towards a conclusion: ‘Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance—nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city—as one loses oneself in a forest—that calls for quite a different schooling. To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.’  The Dalby turf maze near Shandy Hall is supposed to trap the Devil as he can only travel in straight lines, I discovered working there and I feel the locals were on to something there, so I’d suggest trusting yourself to arrive at interesting places with your work, a bit like Leeds surrealist Tony Earnshaw would take random bus journeys in his versions of dérives. So I won’t say get lost now but good luck: you’ll need some of that too.

You can read Ian’s poem here:http://longpoemmagazine.org.uk/poems/machines/


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