Jen Hadfield interviewed by Jennie Renton
I go to the rockpool at the slack of the tide
to mind me what my poetry’s for (Daed-traa)
Were you a big reader during your childhood?
Not really, possibly because I found it very hard to sit still for very long. The stuff that was going on creatively for me was going on in my own head – I didn’t play with other kids much, so my fantasy world was unbridled. I was brought up in Cheshire, in the suburbs, right on the brink of the country. What did light me up was explorating the fields and wild places near our house.
It seems the natural world is still important in lighting up your imagination.
Yes, and when it does happen, everything happens at once – I’ll be reading, writing, drawing, having notions and making lists about what to do next, and then I’ll be quite tired for a bit. I really like just sitting and looking at the land. The very first time I went to Shetland, where I live now, I didn’t have a car and I was on my own most of the time – and I was totally overawed by the place that I found myself in. I spent a lot of time sitting on the doorstep, looking, not knowing when I was going to stop sitting there. Something of that feeling has fed into my creative process. Recently I heard the term ‘ecopoetics’ and I thought, if the thing that I’m doing had a name, that would be it. But I’m not particularly swayed by movements, or what other people think, or whether they would say I’m part of a tradition or not; if my writing is in parallel to a tradition, it’s accident rather than a chosen route. I’m always going to end up doing my own thing.
What motivates you to bring poetry out of silence?
I’m not sure I understand it but when the impulse is there, it’s unmistakeable. I’m always delighted when someone responds to something I’ve written, always surprised that I’ve reached other people through my poetry. But as someone who has been so self-isolated through life, I can’t say that communication has been my main aim. All I know is, writing makes me feel like me, it’s like a song that I need to hear. However much I question what right I might have to put my voice out into the world, the impulse to do so, when it comes, is compelling. And it’s to do with naming, though not in the sense of defining. And wanting to praise the land, and the fact that I am are here and have gratitude for it.
Writing from a sense of the sacred?
Absolutely. A sense of the sacred is something I come back to again and again – and don’t often think original thoughts about…
Oh, God knows! If I were a philosopher I’d probably take that a bit further, but I’m not: I’m a sense person. I frustrate myself all the time not following thoughts a little further, but what I’m talking about is sensory action, almost. And to do with sense of self.
Tell me more about that sensory action. Do you usually think in words?
It’s more like tongue-tipness, I guess… sounds, speech rather than words… ‘words’ makes it feel like something written.
Mandelstam described her poetry as written on the breath.
That’s the kind of thing: you will be walking along and you will be talking to the landscape and praising it and telling it that you love it. I can’t track down why I started doing it, except that I know that all my life I’ve had strong, compulsive attachments to places, often new places where I have no history. I remember as a kid going on holiday to South Wales and one dull day ending up on a hillside I desperately didn’t want to leave; we’d been to gorgeous spots the days before, we went to lovely places the days afterwards – but that was the place, and I didn’t want to leave. I felt at home there, and safe; but not just safe – exhilarated, lit up.
That notion of the potency of new places reminds me of Alistair Macleod’s No Great Mischief, in which a Scottish migrant ejaculates on setting foot on Canadian soil, the new land.
It’s a funny thing, the significance I attach to being in new places. I’m scared of what will happen to me if I don’t have that experience. I’m very comfortable living in Shetland, but regardless of where I’m based I need to get away regularly or I start to get into a rut. I have to take opportunities to go looking.
So you shake yourself up and rattle your poetic bones by placing yourself in a different landscape?
As much as anything, it makes sure I don’t get narrow-minded. That’s something really important to be careful about. As far as rattling the ‘poetic bones’, I’m fine-tuning what is needed for that. I’ve discovered simple, quite practical things: for instance, if I’m away from home, I find it very difficult staying anywhere that isn’t self-catering because I hate being served; also, I need to be able to paint without worrying about someone’s chintz bedspread.
You talk about taking yourself seriously as a writer, without forgetting to be playful, and of getting back to it after quite a long break; I can imagine that to get the accolade of the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize might make all that more daunting, as well as being a potential spur.
Getting the T.S. Eliot Prize did make me anxious for some weeks but I’m used to anxiety, so that’s OK. The fuss and press interest is only temporary; I’ll have lots of time to think about the real issues. At the moment I’m just enjoying metabolising any expectation there may be and using the whole experience as a catalyst to get back to writing.
Interview copyright Jennie Renton 2009