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Literature Projects: Ian Duhig on Digressions

Written by Ian Duhig

ian-duhig2013 was the tercentenary of the birth of Laurence Sterne, the celebrated author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767, Tristram Shandy remains one of the greatest and most influential of all comic novels in the English language.

In celebration of Sterne’s legacy, the award-winning poet Ian Duhig and artist-printmaker Philippa Troutman produced the site-specific collaborative artwork, Digressions, based around Shandy Hall, Coxwold, where Laurence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy.

Digressions takes in the topography, history and traditions associated with Shandy Hall, in wandering but site-specific engagements with its mazes, meteors and medieval shapeshifter ghost stories against a background of shifting religion, politics, science and art – from the world’s first marbling techniques of Suminagashi, through dada to contemporary art practitioners. Duhig’s poems draw on ballad traditions as well as the modern conceptual writing, for which Shandy Hall is a recognised international centre.

Ian writes:

A detailed account of the procedures artist Philippa Troutman and I adopted for ‘Digressions’, including a discussion of the part chance played in them, is available on the ‘Afterforeword’; now I want to concentrate on practical issues you might find relevant when developing your own plans.

First: how do you turn asking for money to digress around Shandy Hall and see what you find into the kind of idea the Arts Council funds?

Seek immediate professional advice before you finish planning your project and modify it accordingly. They know: you don’t.

Flexibility is vital throughout: I delivered all my principal commitments on time. Departures included studying the Conceptual writers who’d been at Shandy Hall, but one was Kenneth Goldsmith, then being engulfed in the furore over his Michael Brown piece. I wrote about this here, but mention it as an example the kind of unexpected development demanding a response, not least because of Sterne’s pioneering opposition to the Slave Trade.

Initially securing an Arts Council England grant involves far more work than accounting for its use afterwards: provided we fulfilled our aims broadly, produced the book and were financially rigorous, nobody mentioned the sci-fi element to ‘Digressions’, promised but dropped, which didn’t work with the configuration of ideas we developed. It wasn’t wasted research: as Johnson wrote in ‘Rasselas’, “To a poet, nothing can be useless.”

The social media campaign I promised for it did take place and I recommend Twitter particularly in this context, not least because it was how I heard about New Writing North’s Northern Writers’ Awards in the first place, which led directly to ‘Digressions’ through making contacts that ultimately proved vital.

The Poetry Society London exhibition was positively reviewed in Printmaking Today, the book in the Morning Star and Poetry Salzburg Review. There were also exhibitions at the Shandy Hall and the Burton Gallery at Leeds University ? nice as I only thought we’d get Shandy Hall, but I’d consequently only budgeted for one, so travel was my worst overspend. Our actual book was twice the size we proposed and I could point to that in justifying budget variations, gone into in considerable detail. They didn’t seem interested in the artistic quality of ‘Digressions’ but perhaps by then it’s taken as read.

For our part, we both produced much more material than anticipated, discovering all sorts of interesting possibilities we’re still pursuing, including new work for a Shandy Hall exhibition, while my pursuit of the son of Didius’ meteor led to the ‘Interventions’ Sewerby Hall commission and pamphlet the following year, both feeding into my new book The Blind Roadmaker.

None of this happened exactly as I planned, but neither do my poems: if it seemed a lot of trouble in the early stages, the reward of genuinely concentrating on one project for a year, allowing all the risks and possible dead ends that involved, was fantastic: an opportunity to find store lumber as well as make things. Be lucky.

5 tips for writers looking to develop a funded literary project


Get the best advice you can early: New Writing North were vital to me over this and I don’t believe I would have received Arts Council England funding without them. Take this advice.


Be flexible: old soldiers say no plan survives first contact with the enemy, so go where your material takes you and capitalise on all opportunities.


You can’t do everything in the time: package and store what isn’t vital to your project and return to it later. Consider it a seasoning process.


If you are going to work with a partner or partners, try and find ones who see the artistic value of your project. They will need to be patient: writers can be a complete pain.


I believed in my project, so had a cut-price version I would have gone ahead with if I failed to get ACE funding. I’m doing the same now as one I’m working on involving local asylum seekers and their therapists has twice been turned down for money (not ACE). If something’s important to you, don’t let it just hinge on money: that is the advantage of being a writer rather than a filmmaker, say.

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