Kevin Higgins - taking on Left and Right with poetry and humour

‘What astonishes me is the sheer vacuousness, the ‘nothing there-ness’ of so many of the younger TDs and councillors that have been elected in recent years’

Kevin Higgins. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Kevin Higgins. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

THERE WAS a time when a photograph of Mick Wallace must have marked the bull’s eye of the dartboard in Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s office. That dartboard must be overcrowded these days with pictures of political foes and the Minister running out of enough darts to throw at them all.

If he is no longer Minister Shatter’s sole nemesis, Dep Wallace remains a colourful and controversial TD, whose presence among left-wing TDs in Dáil Éireann arouses almost as much suspicion as the hostility his ‘pink shirt and no tie’ dress code does for the Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett.

Little wonder then that the Wexford TD, who enrages both the doctrinaire Socialists and the establishment right-wingers, should be the man to launch The Ghost In The Lobby, the new collection by the acclaimed Galway poet Kevin Higgins.

Dep Wallace will launch the book in the Galway Arts Centre, Dominick Street, on Sunday April 13 at 4pm, as part of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature. So why ask the outspoken Independent TD to ‘do the honours’?

“People will talk about it and already are!” Kevin tells me, during our Tuesday afternoon interview. “Mick also published one of the poems in the collection, ‘Alternative Proposals’, about the abortion issue, on his website. I also think, that if there is a faction in the Dáil I support, not on every issue, then it would be ‘that crowd up in the corner’ as Seán Barrett calls them, that libertarian wing of the Left, away from the ‘Supreme Leader’ and Kim Jong Il types and effect.

“Clare Daly, Mick Wallace, and Ming, what they have done in relation to the gardaí, is great. It’s very important the Government does not always have its own way in the courts.”

The Ghost In The Lobby charts the evolution of Kevin’s political ideas and views on society over the last four years, through witty, bitingly humorous, verse, that is often highly perceptive, and sometimes even poignant.

“Generally poems are written in the two to three years before they come out as a collection,” says Kevin, “and The Ghost... has emerged from a time of economic crisis. With Frightening New Furniture [Kevin’s third collection, published in 2010] the crisis was only beginning and it was still possible to joke about. It became much less humorous as time went on.

“It also came from a time when my mother died in 2011 and I became involved in the pro-choice campaign in Galway following Savita Halappanavar’s death. There was a lot of heavy stuff. These poems came from that and I feel this collection has a sharper focus, more nuance, and is much less about shouting from the sidelines.

“I think also I have clarified my stance on a lot of these issues since the publication of Time Gentlemen, Please in 2008. At the very beginning of that year it still looked as if capitalism was working. I remember attending a meeting the year before, addressed by Joe Higgins, who said ‘There will be an economic crisis, Comrades!’ I though, ‘Oh sure Joe, you’ve been saying that since 1982!’ But when it happened, it made me realise that Marx was right, capitalism is all about the gold rush and then the bust, and you can see that in how people are suspicious of house prices starting to rise, thinking, ‘Is this the start of it all over again?’ Also when the issue of Savita came up, it was clear to me that there was a right side and a wrong side and that the Left was on the correct side of history.”

Kevin says “on austerity I am to the left, on abortion I am to the left,” but where he parts company with the left wing parties is their chronic habit of factionalism, splits, insistence on ideological purity, and suspicion of any deviance from or questioning of the party line. It is a subject he explores in the merciless and mischievous ‘Leaving The Party’, where such ideological rigidness “makes me want to...be everything you’re not; to become/a war and injustice activist; to go door to door campaigning for/social exclusion.”

‘Dear General Secretary’ and ‘Being Vladimir Ilyich’ also explore this theme. Similarly ‘The Death of Baroness Thatcher’ and ‘Talking Rubbish’ give short shrift to the heroes, ideals, self-justification, and conspiracy theories of the political right.

“A key line in ‘Leaving The Party’ is ‘all the years you rhymed/’attack’ with ‘Iraq’’, that for me, links in with the idea that art is good if you happen to agree with it. I disagree. I’ve often said one of the things George W Bush should be put on trial for is the amount of bad anti-war poetry he inspired.

“The poem is also, narrowly, aimed at those who say a party or a group is more important than the issue they are campaigning on. The line, ‘now, to the Israeli embassy/at the end of which I’ll receive /an enormous fee’ refers to the fact that any change of mind is instantly seen as you being ‘bought off’. Well if so, I’m still waiting for the cheque!”

Another highlight of the collection is ‘Newly Elected Face Makes Maiden Speech’: “I am an idea someone else had/when they weren’t thinking...a ventriloquist’s dummy/that hasn’t yet said anything.”

Should this poem be made required reading for all local election candidates? “Yes,” laughs Kevin. “One member of the Galway City Council I showed it to thoroughly enjoyed it and no, it’s not written about any member of Seanad Éireann! What astonishes me is the sheer vacuousness, the ‘nothing there-ness’ of so many of the younger TDs and councillors that have been elected in recent years - something FG have been beneficiaries of most.”

The Ghost In The Lobby then, satirises and calls into question the beliefs of authoritarian, doctrinaire socialists on the Left, and rapacious capitalists and reactionary moralists/traditionalists on the Right. Could the collection then be read as an appeal for a ‘third way’, a potentially subversive option where the choice is often only ever a stark either/or?

“Yes, I think so,” says Kevin, “but I don’t know how that could come into fruition, but, and this links back to Mick Wallace launching the book, the way an unlikely collection of TDs - Clare Daly, Mick, Ming - started a process, whereby a Minister and a Government have been brought to the brink over the Gardaí. It shows what can be done. That act of refusing to go away and of raising issues important to people, and not being afraid to question the system, can expose the system and show it to be weak. There is something admirable about having that steel.”

The MC will be Athenry poet Elaine Feeney. Admission is free and all are welcome. The Ghost In The Lobby is published by Salmon Poetry.

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