Arts: A place for a poet

Cathy Feeny interviews award-winning poet, Jen Hadfield.

“I’m never going to be an urban poet”, says Jen Hadfield, whose volume, Nigh-No-Place, recently won the 2008 T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry. A spell spent in Edinburgh left her desperate to get as far away from city life as possible, which is how she came to make her home in Shetland.

What Hadfield discovered on arriving in the isles astounded her, she tells me. A compulsive walker, she spent many hours covering the same small area, noting the minute, day-to-day changes in plants and rock pools, overwhelmed by what she describes as “the surreal, exotic, almost tropical landscape”, the “massive sky”, and the “non-stopness” of birdsong.

Even now, three years later, it is hard to overstate Hadfield’s wonder at her surroundings. She rejoices in the fact that Shetland is not a managed environment, but a real wilderness, “with real wildlife doing its thing”. And she is adamant that human beings should be able to engage with this, and confront the risks it can pose. She relishes walking on the edge of cliffs without warning signs or fences. A lover of solitude, she glories in her ability to disappear into the landscape, without a soul knowing where she is.

For Hadfield, finding the right place to be proved a life-altering event. Not hankering after elsewhere is vitally important to her, because the result is “me, living in the present tense”. This full engagement with the here and now informs and dictates the character of her poetry.

Living in Shetland has, for instance, given Hadfield access to a “unique language”. Dialect words “flit” through her vocabulary, just as Shetland’s weather and windswept vistas provide much of its subject-matter. As she says in the poem entitled “Daed-traa”, “I go to the rockpool at the slack of the tide / to mind me what my poetry’s for”.

The layout of Hadfield’s verse, too, is intimately related to the landscape. As such, there is a strong argument for simply looking at the poems before reading them. Typography mirrors topography, and the blank spaces are, Hadfield tells me, as significant as the writing. They might represent the wilderness, for instance, or silence. In “Burra Grace”, the last four words of the poem are placed far away from the main body of the text, like rocky outcrops in a vast expanse of cold sea.

Hardly surprisingly, there is an ethical concomitant to a poetical outlook that considers everything on the page as a part of the whole. Hadfield has been influenced by the emerging genre of eco-poetry, which, broadly speaking, takes as its topic the relationship between human beings and their environment. As she explains, it is about us making ourselves “at home in the natural world”.

This requires a sense of responsibility for, and an understanding of, our surroundings that Hadfield maintains it is up to every individual to find for themselves. In the same way as a human being should be willing to get lost in the wilderness, or bring their own imagination to bear upon a piece of writing, they should, she believes, undergo a solitary quest to arrive at an awareness of where we stand in the scheme of things. In “Hum (noun)” Hadfield describes the insight to be gained from walking “blind against the wind” at twilight – from having the courage “To not know the gate/till you run up against it”.

So does Hadfield see her interaction with nature as having a spiritual dimension?

Yes and no. Although she is more inclined to put the mental effects of long tramps across the Shetland hills down to the release of endorphins than to anything transcendental, Hadfield does, nevertheless, frequently feel herself to be a fluid part of things.

ranslated into poetry, she terms this awareness the “secular/sacred”. Its result is a willingness to “hijack a ride” on liturgical language, while discussing matters firmly rooted in the “bit of broken biscuit” that is her particular corner of the earth. Thus we have “Our Lady of Isbister”, and a workhorse that prays for its “daily wheat”.

Mightily successful though such poems are, Hadfield says she intends to “stop playing in that particular sandbox” when it comes to writing her next volume. She does, however, plan to stay in Shetland, rather than using the prize money to travel, as she has done in the past. With the exception of “an intense pilgrimage” to Foula this summer, the main project for the future is “not to be afraid to sit and dream”.

This will be a luxury, and Hadfield is familiar with the business of totting up how much sitting and dreaming any given award can realistically buy her. Writing poems requires much contemplative space, but the need to make ends meet makes it impossible to “leave the life of compromising your writing behind”. On the other hand, winning the T.S. Eliot Prize has left Hadfield feeling more of a poet than ever before, while an inherent modesty keeps her from being oppressed by the weight of expectation that will greet what she produces next. In fact, she expects that by the time her next volume is published, everyone will have forgotten her current high profile.

I doubt that. Given the plaudits that have been heaped on her work so far, I agree with the poet laureate, Andrew Motion, when he says that Hadfield is “near the beginning of what is obviously going to be a distinguished career”.

At one point in our conversation, Hadfield tells me about her frustration when she drives past tourists, leaning up against fences, taking photographs, but venturing no further into the landscape, because they don’t know that in Shetland they have a right to roam. “I want to stop”, she says, “and show them a way through”.

The title poem of Nigh-No-Place concludes with an invitation: “Will you go with me?”

Do. Let Jen Hadfield show you a way through. You will be in very good company.

Cathy Feeny


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