Jacob Polley

An Interview

Greg McCartney

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Jacob Polley was born and grew up in Cumbria. He’s published four books of poems, winning the 2016 T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry for his fourth, Jackself. He has also been awarded the 2013 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for The Havocs, and the Somerset Maugham Award for his first novel, Talk of the Town (2009). Jacob teaches at Newcastle University and lives with his family on the North East coast.


Greg McCartney: Congratulations on the Eliot prize. Very well deserved I thought!

Jacob Polley: Thanks very much.

GMCC: How did it start? Were you brought up in a book-ish household? Or one of those kids that found his way to the library and stayed there?

JP: I wasn’t brought up in a particularly bookish household, but my mother took me regularly to the public library in Carlisle, fostering my bookishness. I wasn’t precocious or anything like that – I just loved reading and worked my way along the shelves, choosing fairy tales and adventure stories mostly.

GMCC: I read every Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew book there was I think! And later Agatha Christie etc. But strangely very little Irish or local. A sense of place at the time sent me to other (and probably less dangerous) lands so to speak. How much did your sense of where you came from affect your development as a reader and later as a writer?

JP: That’s so interesting. Similarly, I didn’t read anything local, which would have been, you know, Walter Scott or the Border Ballads. I read Willard Price – remember him? – and Alistair Maclean. But you’ve provoked me to really think about this, and I did have an abiding interest in the supernatural and ghost stories. So local ghost stories – I remember a headless horseman and a phantom army particularly – exerted a draw that was partly so strong because they were forbidden. And these stories are inevitably mixed up with history – they often appear to be folk memories of events, the abiding spirits of events – so through them I became interested in the stories of history, too.

GMCC: There seems (and it might me just me!) a kind of just before the end/just at the beginning feel to your poetry which maybe amongst other things reflects the uncertainty of the literary life. Was there a moment you thought ‘I’m a poet!’? And then is there maybe the pressure of having to continue to live up to that as well as earn a living? I can relate to your father blending the soap in ‘Economics’

JP: No, there wasn’t a moment. I was exposed to higher levels of poetry as a teenager through the school curriculum, and became contaminated by it. When I wrote anything ‘for myself’, it looked like a poem, and then I wanted to know how these little reactors of words I’d found in books worked. There was a point when I gave up visual art, which is where I thought I was heading – to art school etc. – and that was maybe a point when I acknowledged that I was more interested in handling the material of language than I was in handling paint. And writing had less kit, so was attractively portable. I think life is uncertain, never mind the literary life…

GMCC: You mentioned in an interview that you don’t start with ‘an idea’ as an inspiration for a poem but rather perhaps a phrase or word that then grows.  There is something organic about your work that moves beyond the strictures that an idea might bring with it. For example for me a ‘ruthlessness of umbrellas’ is the most evocative collective noun since a ‘murder of crows’. Was it a deliberate way of working or is it just how you write?

JP: Yes, I’m idea-phobic. This isn’t quite true, but I’ve found through teaching that this word ‘idea’ is an interesting catchall. Some people use it to mean a degree of worked-out-ness; some to mean ‘inspiration’ or a kind of nagging at the edges of consciousness by a phrase or, indeed, by an inarticulacy. So I’m interested in what my students mean when they talk about an ‘idea’. Exploring this with them is often a step towards beginning to share a vocabulary and an understanding about the process of writing, and the beginning of a commitment to specificity – to digging down into the granularity of what it is we’re talking about. Personally – and I would never be dogmatic about this – I value the process of writing when it takes me somewhere completely unexpected, and I tend to find that the results of this unexpectedness are more resonantly rich and interesting than those that come out of, for example, a degree of intention. But there are degrees of intention; or rather, intention can be deflected towards something other than the content of a poem.

GMCC: I saw an interview with Bruce Springsteen about how with The River he was able to expand his writing by temporarily inhabiting so to speak the bodies of the characters in the songs. I kind of like this idea of the author possessing his/her creation. It kind of reverses the Frankenstein concept in which the creation terrorises the creator. How much of yourself do you put in the characters and how much are they composite bits of the world?

JP: I think this question is very difficult to answer with any clarity. There are no characters, just the words on the page. But those words provide a reader with dots they can join up and run their own imaginative energy through, rather as the energy of the lightning is run through Frankenstein’s monster. As I say to my students: reading is a kind of attention and writing is a device for capturing, holding and directing this attention. Some writing appears animated by authentic feeling and some doesn’t, but I think an obsession with language and a kind of scrupulous attention to the weights and gradations of different words is how we begin to recognise the particular character and feelings of the writer, no matter what he or she is writing about.

GMC: Jackself felt very much to me like one story rather than a series of separate poems. I was really quite shocked when Jeremy died in a way that reminded me of the feeling I had in Jude the Obscure at the children’s murder (along with his own death) by little Father Time. You have to be invested in the story and characters (and that’s a sign of good writing!) for that sense of shock to happen I think.  I’m a curator and it always amazes me that an exhibition can suddenly become more than its separate pieces and I wonder if it’s a kind of shock when you see all the poems that you know individually as transmuted into something else now that it is in book form? Do you write with a book in your mind or is it still (excuse the football cliché!) taking each poem as it comes?

JP: Thanks for that – very nice to hear. It’s difficult for me to reconstruct the process of writing Jackself. I didn’t have a plan, but after the first few poems, I began to wonder if what I was writing was a book-length thing. Some of the order was almost dictated by what was in the poems, so dictated by Jackself’s age etc., and I just had to knock out what I judged to be the crappier poems in order to establish an order that was also true to my sense of each poem having to stand on its own. I wrote a lot that didn’t make it into the book, as is always the case with one of my books, and what I struggled with most at the end of the process was establishing what I suppose was a narrative arc. Establishing that, without feeling I was putting in poems ‘just to fill in the story’, was a challenge I hadn’t faced before with a book of poems. As ever, one is looking for an order that is a total surprise, but comes on as an absolute inevitability.

GMC: I read a few years ago an edition of The Waste Land that had annotations and scored out lines, corrections etc. Would you ever consider, say twenty years later or whatever, doing the equivalent to Jackself for instance? I wasn’t sure about The Waste Land. It reminds me of buying those two disc editions of classic albums with demo tracks. Great for completists but sometimes you find yourself saying ‘why didn’t they put that track in instead of…’ and you find yourself not listening to the original in the same way. It kind of changes history.

JP: Yes, before seeing that facsimile edition of The Waste Land years ago, before I’d published anything, I don’t think I had any idea of the real processes of writing and revising, of soliciting the opinions of readers, for example, and having them make hands-on changes to a piece. For me, The Waste Land is the real deal and the facsimile of the drafts and revisions are an illuminating footnote, certainly interesting to the researcher and the working poet, but without an aesthetic impact on Eliot’s finished poem, though I completely understand your point about completism and the draw of that.

GMCC: There’s a stanza which I love in ‘Man from ‘The Brink’ collection that goes ‘Grieve him to look deeply into the machine/and chronicle its black decline/in a rag with an already spotted history -/ thistle the lawn, rot the tree.’ It kind of reminds me of the struggle to somehow fix a place in the world. I think I ask this question to everyone but as the world seems to be returning to the 1980s (without the good music) with Brexit and Trump making for very sullen times what’s the place of the poet?

JP: A question like this always begs for either a preposterously self-aggrandising or a preposterously self-deprecating answer, and yet the middle ground is so middly. I think the commitments of poetry – to language, to exactitude, to history as it’s embodied in language, to the authentic, to a kind of radical receptivity and empathy with anything other, whether that’s another imagination or another living thing or object in the world – are commitments self-evidently vital and in marked opposition to the values we are presently being told are dominant. The place of the poet is to reaffirm those commitments.

GMCC: I think that’s a great answer. It’s funny, my Facebook feed is full of inspirational posts and I like the idea that poetry (which is often considered wrongly from my perspective in that same romantic inspirational vein) and its authentic and not often easy or straight-forward empathy is the opposite of this sugary easiness. Has the nature of your commitment changed, now that I think you’ve become a father, or even as you get older?

JP: Yes, I think something has changed for me. I don’t know if that’s because I’m older or because I’m a father, but I’ve just been swimming for longer in the element, if you see what I mean, and I’m more – not comfortable, as comfortable is the wrong word, but more able to be in it with a sense of its depth and with a sense of the relationship this element – poetry – has to dry land, to the shore, which is the now.

GMCC: I’ve always thought being a poet or an artist of any kind must be a bit terrifying especially in the internet era where judgement is very Old Testament, instant and with little mercy. Has the internet/social media changed how you approach things, how much of yourself you reveal in a poem? Is it maybe (in another of my favourite poems) a kind of ‘Hide and Seek’ or can ‘you kick the world away’?

JP: I avoid looking at any of that stuff. If I saw it, would it help me to live a better or happier life, or to write something new? Even if I saw nice stuff, the answer is no, so the ‘don’t look for it’ approach seems eminently sensible to me. More seriously, I suspect that social media – with its discourses of connectivity and communication – is often used to snipe at, take down and silence people: it’s not a kind of listening, and listening is what sustains me.

GMC: Your work is full of folk-tales and biblical imagery. Though not particularly religious but as somebody brought up as Catholic I kind of absorbed large tracts of it which consciously or unconsciously adds to the apocalyptic aesthetic of the Abridged for example. Are these tales something you grew up with or had a love for?

JP: I loved Norse and Egyptian mythology and the Greek myths, which I read in a very early edition of the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, and I grew up in what became an Evangelical Christian household, so maybe I actually had quite a mixed-up and handy exposure to the Bible, to the conventions of charismatic Christianity (with its emphasis on things like the gift of tongues) and to those powerful archetypal and non-Christian stories of fickleness, mischief and tragedy.

GMCC: I also remember reading that Leonard Cohen worried that his reference points would be lost on current generations whose sense of place and person aren’t influenced by the same kind of stories. Are you conscious that your readership may not be familiar with every reference you make use of? Personally I think looking up what the occasional thing means is a good thing. It leads to new paths and horizons.

JP: I was going to say that I never think about this, but I must do, as it’s surely part of the alertness that you exercise when making a poem. I have a fair bit of faith in readers, though, and in something like a shared – or overlapping – cultural knowledge. Although, I’m reading new things and finding out new things all the time, so I feel there’s much more of an exchange going on, in which I’m using my work to absorb and reflect new knowledge and influences, rather than the work setting out my already established cardinal points.

GMCC: I think it was yourself (sorry if I’m wrong!) who said to paraphrase that we use our memories and experiences over and over again but we try to present them in different ways and maybe that’s where those and other mythologies and stories can be really useful. I wonder if there are any modern myths (if such a thing exist or could even be described) so to speak that would be as useful?

JP: Yes, this sounds like something I said. Your question is maybe gesturing towards an idea of a growing sense of ‘archetypal-ness’, a sense that maybe – if we’re lucky – we begin to see our own memories and experiences as fitting into archetypal patterns, and, rather than this depressing us or leading us to feel this as a loss of individuality, we’re actually able to see aspects of those memories and experiences rinsed and clear, in a way that renews them, rather than wearing them out and diminishing them. And that renewal is a kind of inspiration.

GMCC: You mention musicality and music quite a lot in interviews and you’ve worked with composers. I’ve read you’re a Tindersticks fan. Do you see any similarities between the musical and poetry worlds and would you like to work with anyone in the rock world?

JP: I envy musicians. I envy them their spontaneity in performance, their improvisatory options; I envy the expressiveness of music, which is wordless or has words that don’t depend so much on the things that poetry depends on. I think, as a writer, I get to be spontaneous and improvisatory, but it’s behind closed doors, on my own. I’m already working with John Alder (he was a founder member and guitarist with The Jags) on a musical version of Jackself. I’m pretty delighted to be doing that, but I like working with other people, I like collaborating. I don’t know. Poetry’s not cool. In fact, there’s something about it that I don’t think can be sustained if you’re trying to cultivate the kind of cool that bands cultivate, though I’ve met poets who are probably accidentally cool.

GMCC: Final Question! What’s next?

JP: It’s always very difficult to say. I suppose I’m at the end of one process – of having written and published Jackself – and at the beginning of another, which I don’t yet know anything about, so this question catches me in a slightly listless, somewhat dumb condition of waiting, which is nonetheless a good condition to be painting walls, gardening, tidying, rearranging my sock drawer etc.

GMCC: Thanks Jacob. Much appreciated.

Photo by Mai Lin Li.

Jackself was described by the judges of the T.S. Eliot Prize as ‘a firework of a book; inventive, exciting and outstanding in its imaginative range and depth of feeling.’ A poet of the uncanny and the startlingly lyrical, Jacob Polley’s work explores his rural upbringing, the forces of tradition and history, and the power of speech as it approaches song.

It can be purchased here:  https://www.panmacmillan.com/authors/jacob-polley/jackself