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August 20, 2010

Jen Hadfield and the Inspiration of Place.

This week I have been working away at writing up a profile of the writer Jen Hadfield for the American publisher Scribners and Sons. I always find it useful to immerse myself in other poets’ work and I usually find that, by the time I reach the surface again, I have learned a great deal. When I was writing my PhD thesis, I devoted myself to the poems of Gwyneth Lewis , Pascale Petit and Deryn Rees-Jones, and I still notice their influence on my writing.

With Hadfield though, I am learning new lessons, particularly in terms of writing about place. Many of Hadfield’s poems devote themselves entirely to reconstituting sense experiences in words. The reviewer Stephen Burt suggested that Hadfield’s aim is to produce sensibilia, sense experiences that are usually beyond the human mind. The detail of Hadfield’s poems is astounding and intimate. It presents us with familiar things in an unfamiliar manner. So a flinching hedgehog becomes a flinching kidney in a frying pan, an image that suggests too the vulnerability of animals in human worlds.

Hadfield lives on the Shetland Isles (specifically West Burra), and in interview, she has talked about how the isolation of the place is nourishing. She enjoys the loneliness, but also the dangers from wind and weather, which remind her of her own mortality every day. This experience of weather is quite unusual in Britain (though the snows last winter gave many people an insight into how Britain would cope with extreme weather: not very well!).

Extreme weather is an everyday feature of the USA. Driving across the States this summer, I encountered incredible heat in the desert; long, winding roads alongside sheer drops in the Rockies; and on the way home in the Mid-West a tornado. Living in Pennsylvania, the winter is intimidating too, the snow snapping power lines, blocking roads, drifting up to stop windows and doors. As Hadfield suggests, however, there is something awe-inspiring about seeing this weather at work: an experience is that both humbling and invigorating. This isn’t an especially new insight, but, having lived in the UK for most of my life, the capricious and indomitable weather in the US has come as a wonderful surprise.


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