Dan Duggan - a book of derelicts, poems from purgatory, stories of incarceration on psychiatric wards under the provisions of The Mental Health act. Duggan deals with the characters he met over a decade

Dan Duggan, Luxury of the Dispossessed, Influx Press, 2015. 

Luxury of the Dispossessed, the debut collection from poet and artist Dan Duggan, is a book of derelicts, poems from purgatory, stories of incarceration on psychiatric wards under the provisions of The Mental Health act. Duggan deals with the characters he met over a decade, from those on the acute mental health wards, to specialist units dealing with starvation, depression, suicide attempts and self-harm. Luxury of the Dispossessed is not all darkness and terror; the poems celebrate kindness in awful circumstances; a shared cigarette among friends, communal watching of bad TV, encouragement and support found in the most unlikely of places. Exploring the space of the psychiatric ward through poetry and art, this is a vital new collection giving a voice to those who so often go unheard.

‘These are raw and true poems full of bare feeling and sorrow, offering us a startling glimpse into the world of psychiatric care. Dan Duggan’s magic is his heartbreaking honesty and his ability to find tenderness and beauty within the darkest times.’ Liz Berry

Duggan’s debut poetry collection is a cut through to the bone of the modern poetic subject. As a former patient of the psychiatric institution, The Bethlehem Royal Hospital, Duggan’s verse, interspersed with sporadic furrows of illustration, charts his often melancholic and self-reflexive experiences in incarceration. Not only are we acquainted with the undercurrents of a chattering pathos that bequeath this tragic writer amid his captivity in an institution bent on the administration of judgment and control over its patients, but we are also witness to certain matchbox moments of delicacy and gentleness only ever shared between the disenfranchised and the dispossessed. - Sam Stolton

If a book of poetry leaves you totally unchanged – if you think ‘that’s a good image’ while reading, but the poems all seem to blur together five minutes after you’ve turned the last page – the book is ultimately a failure. Unfortunately, the current culture seems to produce a great many books that meet that description. They cover safe topics – historical events the poet never experienced, bad sex, middle-class awkwardness – they have a very deliberate, soulless music, and the lines all end on ‘interesting’ words. The world is flooded with inoffensive mediocrities that seem to drown the brutal blade of beauty in a scrim of dull (and dulling) rust. Luxury of the Dispossessed, Dan Duggan’s cutting first collection, is the antidote to every book that meets the above description. It is the cure for easy, unimportant work. This book blazes with the harsh fire of truth, and the poems in it will linger in your mind long after you’ve finished your first reading.
The collection treats the poet’s experience as a mental patient held in various psychiatric wards under the provision of the 1983 Mental Health Act. As you might expect, these poems can be difficult to read in places, in terms of emotional investment. They are bright and clear as new mirrors. Sympathy swells at the suffering of the poet and his fellow patients. ‘A Police State (on failing suicide)’ plunges the reader into the world of someone driven to self-extinguishing extremes by his own broken brain:
They see the knife in the
chest, attempting to nail love down
but missing by inches and puncturing
a lung.
There is no self-pity here. If anything, the description of the author’s attempt to take his own life is dissociative, detached, as though the writer were describing a well-executed (but disturbing) painting hanging in a white-walled gallery. The poet turns the same lens on others that he uses on himself, capturing character with incisive insight and a fine eye (and nose) for detail. Describing the paramedics that rescued him against his will, Duggan says:
They have a smell about them these
people, common sense and alcohol
in very equal measures.
They have a rounding beyond your view
right now. They are the ones who will pull
you back into yourself, kicking
and screaming.
Although the subject matter is terrible (in the old sense, ‘causing terror’), the poems are a delight to read. Such is the writer’s skill that a poem about wanting to die dances the eye down the page with the implacable ecstasy of a bar-song. ‘Dress Rehearsal (following a failed suicide attempt)’ uses internal rhyme to soften the brutal blow:
Chased by security guards around the foyer
of the Royal London Free, in a surgical
gown that didn’t fit me, all the flowers
were out, even the dead ones brought
colour to someone’s cheeks, I couldn’t
recollect, it had been weeks. I had a desire
to go under a bus, where even if the impact
didn’t kill you, you’d be drawled on like
a soft flint in summer. They got me back
upstairs, I filched the scissors from the apron
of a sister, they let me use a stall alone.
I could write essays about the themes explored in this book – the anorexic’s need for control, the urges behind suicidal desire, the hidden dangers of recovery, the vital importance of small acts of human kindness – but that would leave little time to describe another important aspect of this book. Duggan is an artist as well as a poet. and the poems are interspersed with frightening, abstracted ink-based self-portraits in a style resembling the twitchy, self-aware work of Egon Schiele, if that artist had worked while under the reality-warping influence of antipsychotics. Self-portraits are very revealing; their execution requires a cool, clear eye and unflinching honesty. The artist is telling himself, honestly, who he is. Such bravery is amazing, and it abounds in this book. Duggan makes a subtle song of pain, and how it sings. - Bethany W. Pope

Dan Duggan’s Luxury of the Dispossessed was published in March by Influx Press. The book concerns Duggan’s experiences of incarceration on psychiatric wards under the provisions of the Mental Health act. He spoke to George Jackson about these experiences and his career as a writer and artist.
I began as a musician, writing lyrics for a band in the early nineties. That developed into an indie-rock project called Embassy that got signed by MCA records. We did a few UK tours, played Reading a couple of times and released a handful of singles until everything went pear-shaped with our management. Though I was writing poetry in fits and starts at that time my main creative output was lyric writing, and that is what I was paid to do. When the band split up I decided to spend more time on poetry and artwork. A selection of these images appear in the book. I think music still informs quite a bit of the poetry that I write.
I spent most of my thirties in care, about 9 years in all, and across a range of different services: everything from units that dealt with self-harm to acute psychiatric care. I guess the earliest poem in the book is the one that deals with the first section I experienced, it is called ‘Acute Blues,’ and it’s the one that starts the book. The last poem deals with my discharge, but in between it is an assortment of different experiences at different times: ‘A Police State’ and ‘Dress Rehearsal’ deal with suicide attempts for example, and ‘The End of Summer’ is about an arrest for driving drunk under the influence of psychiatric medication.
Dan DugganThrough being a patient at the Bethlem I started painting for occupational therapy. The idea to publish this art alongside the poetry was Gary’s at Influx Press. He said that it would work well because the poetry is quite visceral and dark and the images are quite dark as well. The poems are a much more retrospective look back at my time as a service user than the paintings are. I needed to be away from the hospital to write the poetry because I had to be dispassionate. I felt that if I was still involved with services then the poems might be a bit histrionic and melodramatic. One thing I am pleased about with the book is that the poems are quite impersonal, objective and matter of fact.
I didn’t really soften any of the imagery though, or shy away from the violence. Some of experiences I went through and witnessed were quite visceral and disturbing but unfortunately that is part and parcel of psychiatric care. You see very distressing things, and people who are going through very distressing times who are often at their worst.
I am inspired by a lot of the Eastern European poets, people like Miroslav Holub for example, and Primo Levi. Concentration camp literature also, and not just poetry: books like ‘If this is a Man’ influenced me because I saw a correlation between, particularly when I was in the eating disorder clinic, starvation in the camps and starvation that is self-imposed. I also like a lot of the American poets. I’m a massive fan of Fred Voss. I used to read his stuff in Penniless Press and I was lucky enough to be published alongside him in an issue of Ambit. He reminds me of a reformed and more ordered Charles Bukowski. He has the same vernacular. I think he deals with the characters that come into his machine shop in the same way that I deal with those I met in the psychiatric wards.
Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 10.01.49The Bethlem Gallery stocks the book, and copies have been sold to patients as well as members of the public. It has got quite a good response from the perspective that it highlights the experiences of people suffering from mental health issues. The idea of Luxury of the Dispossessed is to give those people a voice because often they are marginalized and go unheard. I wanted to show that there is actually a lot of compassion – eccentricity certainly – but also empathy between patients on psychiatric units.
I’ve done a lot of work recently promoting the new Bethlem gallery, working on images for a potential exhibition there sometime in 2016. I’ve also thought about the possibility of doing another book based on the experience of someone who has been in services returning to civilian life. When I’m walking around, particularly in London, you can often see people who look like they’ve been through something, facial expressions, the way that they carry themselves physically, I even saw somebody at Waterloo Station this morning trawling along and looking quite frightened. It is people like that that I want to talk about next. - George Jackson

Dan Duggan is formerly a patient at The Bethlem Royal Hospital, the oldest pyschiatric hospital in the country. Much of his thirties has been spent on various psychiatric wards, mainly under the provision of the 1983 Mental Health Act. Now in recovery his work has appeared multiple times in AmbitPoetry and Audience and Magma.


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