By LOUISE THOMASON
Local poet Jen Hadfield was by her own admission the surprise winner of the prestigious TS Eliot Prize this week for her collection of poetry, Nigh-No-Place.
The second offering from Hadfield, written partly in Shetland after a period spent travelling through Canada, where she holds dual citizenship, also contains some prose set in a mostly fictional Canada and Shetland.
Her previous work also received critical acclaim, with her first book of poems Almanacs winning the Eric Gregory Award in 2002. It was this prize that allowed her to take the time to travel and begin Nigh-No-Place.
Founded by the Poetry Book Society and named after its founder member, the TS Eliot prize is awarded to the author of the best new collection of poetry published in the UK and Ireland each year. Its panel is made up of established poets, among whom this year were Lavinia Greenlaw and Tobias Hill. Chairman of the judges was the poet laureate Andrew Motion.
In a glowing tribute, he said: “Nigh-No-Place shows that she is a remarkably original poet near the beginning of what is obviously going to be a distinguished career.
The £15,000 award, which has been described as “the most important prize in English poetry”, places Hadfield among some of the heavyweights of the literary world. Previous winners include Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson and Ted Hughes.
Asked how she felt about winning, she said: “It’s sinking in … the past few days have been incredibly hectic and I don’t like it when things are too hectic! But it’s settling down.”
Hadfield, 30, described the awards ceremony, which took place on Monday evening at Skinner’s Hall, London, as “an amazing experience”.
“It was really surreal. You hear all these names [of poets] and then suddenly you’re in the same room as them,” she said.
The award was announced by the poet laureate. The moment the author found out she had won was an emotional experience. She said: “All my family was there which was really nice, but they all cried! I did too. It was really embarrassing. There are some awful pictures of me on the night!
A unique feature of the prize’s ceremony is that each poet is asked to read aloud a poem from their shortlisted book.
Speaking with self-deprecating modesty, Hadfield explained: “You’re made to read a poem aloud at the awards which I thought was really unfair! I chose Ladies and Gentlemen This is a Horse, as the poem stands for the uncertainty of a writer’s life. The last three lines are repeated and I got the audience to read them along with me,” she said. “I thought they should feel as uncomfortable as me!”
However, happy as the outcome was, the evening was also tinged with sadness as one of the 10 shortlisted poets, Mick Imlah, died on the morning of the event.
Hadfield wanted to pay tribute to the poet who she said had written “an astounding book”.
“[The book] was amazing and I was really hoping to meet him, so I’m really sad this has happened,” she said.
Along with her writing, Hadfield fits in teaching and working at the Bonhoga gallery. Asked about what the future holds for her, she said: “I want to feel more like a writer than I have for a while. I’ve been living three lives at once; but it’s too much to concentrate on writing.”
The realities of life and financial security can be worrying for any artist, and Hadfield admitted that it was “a very unstable sort of life”. The prize has given her, however, “a temporary confidence”.
She said: “The hype is temporary too thank heavens! An anxiety has left my life temporarily, I can stop worrying. Things will be a lot easier for a while.
She added: “Originally I thought I wanted to write a movie book and travel all across Canada writing about my experiences.
However this was not to be and it was only after she was appointed as a writer in residence by Shetland Arts that she began the second book.
She explained: “Nigh-No-Place was a hard book to write. With the first book you have a lot to prove, you’re all fired up … the second one is a lot more difficult.”
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Ladies and Gentlemen This Is a Horse as Magritte Might Paint Him
Consider this percheron in the climate-
controlled hold, gimped up for the flight
in blinkers and bridle and drugged of course
from the creased Jupiter of his arse
to the spotted dominoes of his teeth,
the burden of his blood alone,
the clapper seized in his brain’s bell,
propped up on steel and the air’s goodwill.
Ladies and Gentlemen – will you fill your glasses?
May I lead us all in a toast or prayer?
May the horse never wake
that stands in mid-air
the horse never wake that stands in
horse never wake that stands in
Nigh-No-Place by Jen Hadfield is published by Bloodaxe Books at £7.95.