Prose of the week is an interview with Jacob Polley with our very own Greg McCartney which featured in the HU edition of June 2017. 

To read the full prose click here.

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.