Born: April 6th, 1967
Died: January 10th, 2023
The Galway-based, London-born satirical poet Kevin Higgins, who has died at the age of 55, was described in an article in The Stinging Fly literary magazine in 2016 as “likely the most widely read living poet in Ireland”.
And while that view can be disputed, there is no doubt that Higgins was impactful both with his words and personality. President Michael D Higgins said that he could not think of anyone “who did more to bring the public to [the] appreciation and joy of poetry, to make the case for performed poetry and who encouraged others to read broadly and, most of all, to make poems and find their meaning in their lives”.
The author of six collections of poetry including The Boy With No Face (2005), The Ghost in the Lobby (2014) and Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital (2019), Higgins was a leading public literary figure in Galway city. He won the Grand Slam award at the Galway poetry festival Cúirt in 2003. And in 2010, he contributed to an e-book collection of political poems entitled Emergency Verse — Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State, edited by English poet Alan Morrison.
His poetry has been translated into Greek, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, German, Serbian, Russian and Portuguese. His work was widely read on the British left-wing newspaper the Morning Star and the now defunct alt.culture website The Bogman’s Cannon, where he was satirist-in-residence. Higgins regularly read his poems on Not the Andrew Marr Show, the Sunday morning political chatshow on Zoom presented by Crispin Flintoff.
He had a way of talking to people that made them feel they were the most interesting person he had ever met— Susan Millar DuMars
However in the wider creative writing community, Higgins is probably best known for Over The Edge, the popular literary evenings promoting new writing. He curated and programmed these events, mainly in Galway city library, for 20 years with his wife, the American writer Susan Millar DuMars. The couple first met in 1993 when Millar DuMars — who had moved to Galway from Philadelphia — submitted poems to the Burning Bush poetry magazine that Higgins had co-founded. They were together for 24 years. “The first time we met, we spoke for four hours. He had a way of talking to people that made them feel they were the most interesting person he had ever met,” said Millar DuMars.
Higgins also led poetry workshops and creative writing classes at Galway Arts Centre, Galway Technical Institute and University College Galway. He described his students as “his lifeblood and inspiration for his own creative work”. His own personal heroes were the German theatre director Bertolt Brecht, the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift and the French writer and co-founder of surrealism Andre Breton. In the pamphlet Thrills & Difficulties: Being a Marxist Poet in 21st Century Ireland (2021), Higgins mingles autobiographical musings on his political activism and poetry writing with observations on other poets and their poems.
As artist-in-residence at Merlin Park Hospital in Galway city for more than 15 years, Higgins worked with staff, patients and their relatives. He did reminiscence projects with long-stay older patients, which he said was the hardest work he had ever done in the arts. He said, “I always tried to get patients away from the niceties and into the nitty-gritty, more subversive side of life”. With Millar DuMars he also ran creative expression workshops for people with intellectual disabilities in Galway city.
Irreverent, provocative and anti-establishment, Higgins was a member of the militant tendency wing of the British Labour Party in the 1980s. In his verse, he regularly criticised living or dead public figures (including poets, academics and the current Irish president) who he considered to be inauthentic, intellectually weak or dishonest. He was expelled from the British Labour Party in 2016 because he satirised Tony Blair in a poem. He also regularly made polemical online remarks about well-known journalists and columnists —including those writing for this newspaper.
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— Kevin Higgins
In an interview with Island’s Edge poetry blog, Higgins said, “I think there is far too much reverence — unearned respect — given to individuals, ideas and institutions … whenever I see someone put on a pedestal, I always have the urge to give said pedestal a nudge to see if it topples”. One friend described this as Higgins’s ability “to puncture the proud and the pompous”.
In the aforementioned interview, Higgins also remarked, “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.”
At the launch of Higgins’s latest poetry collection, Ecstatic (2022), Russian-born Irish writer Polina Cosgrove said that his poetry forced us “to wake up and examine the world and look attentively at things that disconnect us even if it is painful”. Through his signature satirical lenses, he explored early childhood memories of living in Coventry [he moved back to Galway with his Irish-born parents when still a child and completed his secondary school education at St Joseph’s Patrician College in Galway city], grief at lost friendships, erotic love (“her spine is a repossessed grand piano/you still play to yourself in your sleep”) and political extremism (“no-one hates Holocaust denial more/than the old woman who runs a bed and breakfast/five miles from Auschwitz”).
We are certain that one of Kevin’s last regrets was that he wouldn’t be around to ruthlessly satirise his own obituary— Dave Lordan and Karl Parkinson
In 2015, Higgins was diagnosed with the auto-immune condition sarcoidosis. The illness, which mainly attacked his lungs, slowed him down significantly but he nonetheless continued writing and running his workshops. However, a diagnosis of leukaemia in October 2022 forced him to give up teaching. He continued to write poems until days before his death. Many of these — including his last poem, I always thought I’d live — were published in the Galway Advertiser newspaper where he was poetry critic.
In a tribute to their friend and colleague this month, Dave Lordan and Karl Parkinson wrote, “we are certain that one of Kevin’s last regrets was that he wouldn’t be around to ruthlessly satirise his own obituary”.
Kevin Higgins is survived by his wife, Susan, his father, Stephen, sister Helen, nephew Mark, extended family and friends. He was predeceased by his mother, Mary.
His last poem, I Always Thought I’d Live included the following lines: “I always thought I’d live to learn how to swim/do the backward butterfly to Olympic standard/and see trickle-down economics deliver/at least one albeit slightly polluted drop. I always thought I’d live to learn how to drive/win at least one Grand Prix motor racing championship/and see the Democrats legislate for free/universal healthcare ... The risk of getting tossed in the back of a police van/by over enthusiastic members of the constabulary/is a luxury my lungs can no longer afford/Even holding a placard in my wheelchair/would soon have me gasping for breath.