Interview with the poet Jen Hadfield: Humble, Sincere, Honest.
I recently wrote up a profile of the writer Jen Hadfield, and in the process of doing so, I sent her some questions which she agreed to answer and which proved to be illuminating.
Jen Hadfield’s Bio
Shetland’s landscape and language persistently influence Jen Hadfield’s 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.
Zoë Brigley Thompson: Often you seem to write about places that are betwixt and between – nigh-no-place! Roads feature in your poems (the A835, M74 etc.) as well as spaces where the human and animal meet. In Almanacs, there is the significant image of two seas separated by the tip of Shetland, and in ‘Gigi in the Rockpools’, the speaker describes herself as a rudder between two winds. Is this a conscious preoccupation?
Jen Hadfield: It may be a preoccupation with consciousness. I think I am trying in writing to push myself back and let the uncontrolled world push in; a sensation of wanting to thin the skin, to be a less controlled and discrete critter: dissolved in the present tense and present place, more like plankton. At least this is what writing when it is fluent feels like: something coming from elsewhere. I know this sounds like what we understand by ‘inspiration’ (being breathed into) but unfortunately the word ‘inspiration’ when applied to poets so often is coated in feyness.
Zoë: Specific places in Shetland crop up again and again. Isbister, for example?
Jen: Think my totem animal may be the Limpet : ) A limpet of course covers a fair bit of territory, grazing, but always returns to the same footprint on the rock that perfectly fits the contours of its shell. I was in Fair Isle last weekend. The other guests in the Bird Observatory there made it their task to roam equally over as much of the island as they could over their three or four days, giving equal attention to the cliffs of the west and east, the North Light and the South Light, the crofts in the south and the heathered hills in the north. I got hung up as usual on a single knoll of land…typically close to the accommodation. I am more drawn to trying to go deeper in a small area than range widely. Preferred lens is macro. I have been walking the same walk every couple of days from my house in Burra for four years now. So much changes… and when I decided a month or so ago to do the same walk anticlockwise (“widdershins” and no doubt pulling down no end of bad luck on myself – ‘Some people also deem it unlucky to call things by their proper names at particular times, and there is a strange prejudice against turning a boat ‘widdershins,’ or contrary to the sun, at the beginning of a voyage’ ) it was as if I had never been there.
Zoë: In an essay on nature and silence, Christopher Manes considers the silencing of wild spaces of nature and he quotes a Tuscaroa Indian who tells how ‘the uncounted voices of nature are dumb.’ Many of your poems deal with wilderness. Could you talk a little about what wild spaces of nature mean to you?
Jen: My feelings about the wild spaces of nature are not uncommon to our time I think: attraction to some, very strong, and hardly at all to others; guilt and confusion when I’ve actually been in the North-West Territories; fear of betraying my ignorance about that place; desire to prove I ‘belong’ in that place, which is silly; above all, a really fatalistic fear of loss. I see the big houses going up in Shetland at a frightening rate, often without any sensitivity to the land, and the number of juggernaut style Jeeps on the road increasing even apparently since the downturn; I see the forests being shaved away in Vancouver, for yet another big housing development, and it always happens so very fast. Now I know people in some places more than others (such as Shetland) need to drive to subsist, and that people need houses to live in. But we need places to be alone, unselfconscious, and quiet, too. More than that, we need places where none of us are. More than that, it’s good to remember that the wild spaces never needed us, although now need us to be custodians, often: to protect them from ourselves.
But I think I can talk in a slightly more informed way about what the wildness of the white space of the page means to me. The white space can mean all kinds of things, of course, but for me it often does represent those wild spaces. Air or moor. Not suggesting that it’s a negative landscape, of absence, but that we might not have complete control or understanding over that landscape. So the white holes in a poem are sometimes for me the white holes in my understanding or knowledge of a place; or it’s a contrasting landscape or contrasting dynamic across which a bird might fly and call, like the peewit in the poem Burra Grace. Or in the poem ‘Aa’/’witless…’ the fat poem hangs like a planet in the outer/inner space of the white page.
Zoë: You are far from sentimental about nature. Your poems about working in a fish factory present the realities of how human beings rely on the natural world for food, and many of your poems deal with dead or dying animals or animal carcasses. In the poems, the speaker seems to feel ambivalent about this relationship?
Jen: I think this may come back to this desire to dissolve somewhat. I don’t think I’ll ever feel able to write the ‘laureate’ poems that speak up on behalf of the ‘uncounted (dumb) voices’ ... I have strong feelings about the threats our ecosystems face, but I just don’t seem to have the kind of articulacy you would need to fight on their behalf. Nor to look at one group of people and say “you are wrong and I am right.” What I can do, and what I do want to do, is say what I see. Back to Shelley’s comment about the ‘unacknowledged legislators’ ... for myself, at least, I feel equipped to witness, but ill-placed to judge. I depend on oil, for example, as much as anyone. It is impossible for me to live as a writer in Shetland, for example, if I don’t drive.
Zoë: How close do you think human beings are to nature? In poems like ‘Daed-traa’ and ‘In the same way’ nature seems to be a microcosm of human worlds?
Jen: That makes it sound like an inexcusable (on my part) extension of the pathetic fallacy, really. I think it is more that I am using the imagery I know and drawing on this potent, rich lovely language we have to try and make sense of things I can’t know. That is how figurative language works, isn’t it? I like the ‘Aztec Definitions’ in Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred very much; and those creation myths that work on the principle that naming, or describing, or ‘defining’ (if we bear in mind that definitions are always subjective and multiple) brings things into being. When writing poetry is an urgent thing for me, and this more and more is the only poetry I’m interested in writing, it’s urgent because of an apprehension of (personal) loss of some kind: I am leaving a place that I love; I am leaving the involuntary state of mind and fluency in I’m most accepting of myself…and the poem is the relic. The contrary tug of the strange and familiar in the ‘described’/’defined’ (and I use ‘defined’ with the necessary pinch of salt) creates the thing on the page. Or it is like a chemical reaction: the ‘is’ and the ‘like’ react to create a third quantity which makes the described live (I hope) on the page. Not not lost, but celebrated, at least, witnessed. Sharon Olds poem ‘Little Things’ explores this, I think: the peculiarity of doting on something ‘ugly’ as much as if it were ‘beautiful’ and then calling that ‘beautiful’
I certainly don’t think of nature as a microcosm of the human world. But we maybe meet it as we do people from other cultures. We ask each other about our likenesses and our differences. We are obsessed with our likenesses and differences. At least when we are not afraid; and get beyond taking advantage…
Zoë: Specific animals often feature in your poems. I wonder whether you would talk about the symbolism of animals in your poems?
Jen: I don’t think of myself as having a ‘symbolism’... not a conscious one. I have passing and less passing curiosities that sometimes develop into obsessions. The animals that appear are simply those that I’m encountering: which, as for most of us, are the domestic! The recurrence simply reflects opportunities to get close up to the creatures …and I think that was proved to me when I went out ‘looking for’ polar bears on a tour…there were the bears, and they were fascinating; but there was no sniff of a poem anywhere about…and actually, I felt the encounter dishonest, ‘going out onto the tundra to look for a poem’ it really put off the poems! But I find it hard to think of even the cats and dogs as wholly domesticised, I suppose, even though I find it almost impossible not to regard my own cat, Owl, through a fuzzy pink glow of anthropomorphism. They are just endlessly curious to me: they have their own agendas, which sometimes dovetail with our own.
Zoë: Thinking about animals in your poems though, there is a phrase from Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘A View of Things’ that seems to echo through your collections: ‘What I hate about love is its dog’. You quote this phrase as an epigraph for ‘Staple Island Swing’ and the poem ‘Love’s Dog’ riffs on it too. Why do you think that this phrase had so much resonance for you, and how has Edwin Morgan influenced you more generally?
Jen: Again, I think this is the limpet tendency. The way I read is very much the way I write, a habit of fixation, turning the peered-at through all its angles. Or else it’s that I’m quite slow and it takes me a long time to work out what attracts me so to a place, a line, a creature. Things rarely appeal to me on one level; and discrete definitions don’t make sense to me. That phrase of Edwin Morgan’s in particular stayed with me for a long time; it speaks to me of the effort and deliberation of love.
I have his last book, Dreams and Other Nightmares, beside me as I type: it is very strange to think that there will be no more new poems, I don’t quite believe it: if anyone could speak across the divide of mortality, it would be Morgan. It is very few poets that have affected me as Morgan did and does. I am often afraid of reading, something that I challenge continually: but I was never afraid of his poems. When I was beginning to work out what I might have to write about myself, Morgan’s boundless curiosity and his tendency to speak in tongues were delicious permission. Write about anything. Write about everything. Hitch a ride on this voice. Dress in that voice. Make your own way. Make your own rules. I took and take from his poetry, as I did from the teaching of Tom Leonard, the imperative to find my own credo for poetry: and my belief in poetry as a kind of science-fiction, in which the poem is an ecology obeying its own natural laws, comes very much from Morgan. Other than that, his poems are simply good company: so often hopeful, rapturous, clear-eyed, honest, playful.
Zoë: Are there any poets beyond Scotland that have influenced you? In the epigraph of your poem, ‘Full Sheeptick Moon’, you quote Les Murray, for example.
Jen: When I meet a question like this I wish I could quote a list of little known and experimental poets to demonstrate how widely read I am. I can’t. I think my literary influences are few and far between actually. I read randomly, and I’m just as ‘influenced’ by the ceramics of Andrea Walsh or by David Attenborough’s Blue Planet (with an emphasis on copepods), as I am by poets and novelists and theorists. It is generally the poets who make me want to write and make me want to live more intensely, that I read again and again, but I don’t necessarily want to write like them, I want to write like me, if I can work out what that means! At the moment, I don’t think I could do without Sharon Olds or Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology of world literatures Technicians of the Sacred.
Zoë: Do you feel that you are part of a community of writers in the UK, or are you more solitary than that?
Jen: I’ve never really sought out a writing community in a structured or formal way; my friends are writers, and photographers, and musicians and animators, and toymakers, and divers, and ceramicists; thinkers and readers; diverse intelligences all. I am more solitary than most, I think, in that I don’t thrive in pubs or big groups of people; I don’t like casual relationships.
Zoë: You are an artist as well as a poet, and your exhibition on ‘Our Lady of Isbister’ was accompanied by a poem of the same name. To what extent, do your artwork and poetry practices go hand in hand? Do you think that being an artist makes you a slightly different kind of poet, and are there any visual artists that have influenced how you construct the poetic image?
Jen: I rarely call myself an artist, and I hesitate at the moment to call myself a poet; I’m a bit of a stickler for defining myself according to what I’m making at the time. There is often not much separation for me in the two behaviours: if I’ve developed a fixation on something, let’s take the limpet example again, I will be wanting to write about limpets and make the limpet-shaped thumbpots of porcelain, I will be wanting to peer at Limpet through as many lenses as possible. Then it’s just a matter of which way of making is proving most successful, really…I do like to let the work drive me, and not vice-versa. I always like the quite clumsy sounding term ‘maker’ for a craftsperson…it covers a multitude of sins, I think. I think I would be a more prolific poet and less confused person if I could only focus on one way of making throughout my life, but what can you do with a creative compulsion except act upon it?
Zoë: In your essay, The Urge to Make , you describe the act of making and firing pottery as ‘a domestic orogenics’, comparing a simple act of making to the folding and faulting of the earth’s crust. Domestic scenes in your poems seem to take on huge significance, and everyday occurrences become spiritual or sublime.
Jen: I’m looking for the word that would sum up exactly what IS spiritual to me in these creative processes. I don’t like ‘flow’ but I often settle on ‘fluency.’ The moments of absorbed making, writing, seeing are desperately precious to me, and increasingly rare; dependent upon the right quantities of stimulus and relaxation and silence and curiosity and determination. I do it, I live this peculiar, deliberately isolated life (and curse it often) because those moments of ‘fluency’ make me feel most alive, most whole…they cost, and are precious, and are a privilege, yes. Metaphors to the earth are, I think, the best I can come up with to imply ‘sacred’, ‘dear’.
Zoë: In poems that have a domestic feel, food seems to feature prominently. E.g. ‘the last clove of garlic sprouts a yellow talon’, ‘Under the broiler / turned sausages ejaculate’, ‘the longjohns were like bread pudding’, ‘Breading haddock, I / bury in the coarse, bright dunes / the pale, wet children’. In all of these examples, the food is more than just a sensory experience. It feels more like a clue to a state of mind?
Jen: Just that all of this present tense is ‘dear’,’sacred’ in fact. It is not a choosing of particular experiences to serve an intellectual message; it is just an experiencing of the world and the world’s ways as acute as I can make it.
Zoë: Thinking about your unusual imagery and use of language, Roddy Lumsden says, ‘she seems to put words together in a way they have never been before … she’s an experimentalist, but not wilfully or frustratingly so’. Do you see yourself as an experimentalist, and if so, where did that interest in language come from?
Jen: I don’t think I’m all that very experimental! I hold to Ezra Pound’s tenet ‘Make It New’ and not for the sake of novelty; more because my belief is that only with visual and linguistic detonations can we make the familiar live on the page. I want to respect the reader too, though: I hate it when reading poetry turns into an intelligence test, and I know that my brain, like an early computer, can only process just so much information at the one time…so I try increasingly to make the poems courteous…to play the games I want to play, but in a digestible way. Again, if we think of all poetry as spoken language (even when it plays graphic tricks too): the emphasis is on communication. I like to communicate to more rather than fewer people. I think. I certainly don’t relish intimidating anyone in person, so I shy away from that in poetry these days.
Zoë: Often your poems include sighs, cries or interjections that reflect the rhythms of ordinary speech and create a music beyond ordinary language. The Canada and Shetland place names have a specific kind of music too. How important is sound when you’re writing a poem? Is sound the primary consideration in your creation of poetic form?
Jen: It is becoming that speech is the primary consideration in the poems anyway. It has just been a decision that even with all the larking about with white space and black text, making the thinginess and the visual quite important paralinguistic cues, that the poem should always be treated as a piece of spoken language: verby, pragmatically sayable, and honest about what spoken language is like, more spacious perhaps, than ‘written’ language; naturally iambic, often repetitive, ‘faulty’, grammatically ‘incorrect’, eating into silence and silence eating into speech. One reason for the predominance of Scottish poets in my ‘influences’ may be that these poets may or may not draw more heavily on the oral tradition than many of the English poets. But I am cringing at these generalisations as I type. It also seems to be the case that those communities and cultures that are comparatively confident about their ability to ‘get’ poetry, that consider themselves included by poetry, as opposed to poetry as the province of an elite, are those which treat it like spoken and not written language. More a human communication, and less a hidden message encapsulated in a graphic code, which only the initiated are able to crack.
Zoë: Liturgy and litany are reworked in many of your poems with wit and humour. I especially like Thou Shalt Want Want Want , and I wondered whether you could talk about the process of writing this poem?
Jen: I think I would just like to say that this is a poem I still can’t quite come to terms with: I wish I had filtered it out of the book! In my writing, many poems get written that help me learn how to write the few…and sometimes it takes a while to spot which are which. ‘Thou Shalt Want Want Want’ does say what I wanted to say about the tourist’s eye (and I mean my own eye): a shame about looking shallowly, travelling rapidly, powerless against the momentum of long-distance driving. I reminded myself of some of Roald Dahl’s spoilt child characters: I see, I want, I grab. A frustration about writing place without really experiencing place: I thought I could cross large tracts of land rapidly and write. To the extent that I tried speaking into a dictaphone as I passed from the temperate rainforest to the dry country, or scribbled illegibly against the centre of the steering wheel as I drove. So some of the message got through, I think, but that was never going to be anything but a crass poem. Honest, at least.