FESTIVAL INTERVIEW: Jen Hadfield
Jen Hadfield lives in Shetland, whose landscape and language persistently influence her poetry and visual art. Her work often pivots on the idea of the secular-sacred, relating to landscape – “It is in heaven as it is on earth” “it is on earth as it is in heaven.” Liturgical rhythms underpin many of her poems about place, home, ecology, space – an idiomatic mythology of the here-and-now.
Of her two books published by Bloodaxe, Almanacs was written in Shetland and the Western Isles in 2002 thanks to a bursary from the Scottish Arts Council, and it won an Eric Gregory Award in 2003. Nigh-No-Place, written in Canada and Shetland, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize in 2007 and won the T.S.Eliot Prize for poetry in 2008. She is currently working on her first novel. A CD collection of Jen reading her work is available from The Poetry Archive.
Sir Andrew Motion, one of the judges when Jen Hadfield won the TS Eliot said of her, “she is a remarkably original poet near the beginning of what is obviously going to be a distinguished career.”
Winning the TS ELiot Prize is a real achievement – has it altered how you approach your poetry in any way?
Not really. It’s something I try and forget about and this is quite easy, because the award came some time after writing Nigh-No-Place. It was confusing, if anything: I’m a very present tense sort of writer and maker; and when a work’s completed I feel quite rapidly distanced from it. Poetry is something that is ultimately the present tense I think: when I’m writing, I’m a poet, when I’m not, I’m not sure what I am! Every time I start to write something it’s like I’ve never written before, it’s like learning from scratch every time. It’s just distracting and bewildering to try and compare or connect the new work to the old whilst you’re making it. Or maybe it’s new lamps for old. At any rate you don’t lose what you learn in the writing.
I like Don Paterson’s take on all this: “All praise or damning only serves to interpolate the author – again – between the work and its source, and can only interfere with the abstract and inscrutable mechanism by which that work is delivered. Those who find praise an aid to their production will produce nothing of value; the source is impure, already turbid with self-hood. Burn your reviews, and warn your friends to give you no word of them.”*
The T.S.Eliot has changed my life of course, it has simply, practically enabled me to approach my writing full stop after a long, long lay-off. For which I am very, very grateful.
You’re writing a novel at the moment – do you find similarities between the way you work on that, and the way you approach your poetry, or is it very different?
As I say, it’s like learning to write for the first time. Almost like learning to speak actually. The novel is 60,000 words in and yet hardly past the holophrastic stage, and yet less efficient than holophrasis in children! I mean that the voice is muddy and unfixed still. This has been going on for some time…
The difficulty of it worries me quite a lot, but I remind myself that writing Nigh-No-Place also took me through effortful, impossible, tongue-tied phases, and that eventually I surfaced into something like fluency. Writing is both very hard and ridiculously easy I think. In both poetry and the novel, there doesn’t seem to be any shortcuts: you have to raise the masonry brick by unresounding brick in order to work out what a springing arch might be like, you can’t bypass that.
In both the goal is leaving yourself behind.
In general I think I do have similar experiences whether I’m writing poetry, writing prose, making porcelain limpets, teaching, reading, walking. The acts blur into each other when I’m working well, a sign usually, that I’ve begun to leave myself behind, although sometimes I play them off each other to trick myself into working…
What poets out there at the moment are you reading and enjoying?
Sharon Olds as ever. I can’t do without her. Charles Simic. After Ovid – a collection of contemporary poets who have rewritten episodes from the Metamorphoses.
Your workshop at the festival is called ‘Credo’, do you have your own poetic credo?
A constantly evolving thing. It’s a mixture of messages to myself to remind me what I do and don’t need to write; what it feels like being fluent; what I call poetry and what I don’t. Fluency is a bit of a theme! I think credos are maybe most useful when we’re not writing. It’s almost as if you don’t need them so much when you’re fluent. The whole thing is so intriguing to me, because the act of fluent writing seems to bring about such changes of perception (it’s definitely that way around) – from closed to open, from fearful to hopeful, from tongue-tied to fluent. Time changes. Everything becomes relevant to everything else. I like very much an idea that was put forward by Ray Tallis (I think) in Grayson Perry’s Creativity and the Imagination – that ‘creative people’ (let’s say ‘people in a creative state’) may not so much be using this part of their brain over that, but that they may be experiencing slower transmission of impulses between parts of the their brain. This really makes sense of the peculiar sensation of seeing things more thingily when you’re writing or making fluently; maybe we’re just getting a better look at the thoughts droning by …
But the credo question isn’t just about that change of state, of course It’s questions about voice and identity. Questions about who the art is for…about the specific natural laws that are unique to each poem. Like ‘what does the white space of the page mean?’ The credo question invites the poet to articulate their own assumptions about the poem, to justify what they call poetry.
Jen is reading at Exeter Poetry Festival, with Ronald Tamplin, at The Charles Causley Reading, Exeter Central Library, Friday 8th October at 7pm. Tickets are available from Exeter Phoenix, £6/£5 concessions. There are limited spaces for her workshop on Saturday 9th – tickets also from Exeter Phoenix.
Don Paterson, in Strong Words, ed. W.N.Herbert & Matthew Hollis, Bloodaxe, 2000