Jacob Polley Interview
Sunday morning, before the final day of the Debut Authors Festival commenced, Jacob Polley and I sat down in Edinburgh’s New Town with a cup of coffee and the following conversation. Amid the clamor of the cafe, doors slamming and cups clattering, we resumed strains we’d begun the previous evening and also forged ahead into new, uncharted territory. A recipient of an Eric Gregory Award as well as the Arts Council of England/Radio 4 First Verse Award, Jacob is the author of The Brink (Picador, 2002), which was a Poetry Book Society Choice. He lives in Carlisle.
Since we’re at a Debut Authors Festival, would you talk a little about what it means for you to have a first book out, to shepherd that into the world?
Well, Don [Paterson] talked about this last night. Anyone who’s writing – who has written a book, or a bunch of poems, or a novel, and who dreams of being published – well, I wouldn’t say they’re consumed by that, but the urge to see one’s name in print is there. So to achieve that is actually quite an unsettling experience, in some ways.
Unsettling because once you let it go you’re not going to see it again? Or because it’s out of your control?
Yes, that it’s out of your control, that it’s put paid to. You’re not going to be able to amend it anymore – all the fiddling must now come to an end.
How much fiddling do you actually do?
Quite a lot. A substantial amount of fiddling, really. Right up until the manuscript is finally committed to the publisher.
I hope you’re not running after the postman, trying to get it back.
Yes, absolutely. It’s a very odd experience because all of a sudden you have to commit yourself – you’ve reached a wall. This is the stuff that’s going to be in the book, and more people are going to see it than saw it before. Not loads of people, but a few more people. So you feel it’s very important that you get it right and that there’s nothing in there you haven’t struggled with and tried to make the best you can.
With that in mind, then, how have you pulled this book together? Did you spread the poems out on the floor and throw darts, or was it a slower mental process of forming links?
I think it’s a mixture of those two. I did do the trick where I laid the poems out on the floor before I posted them out, but that makes it sound as though you’re just relying on some sort of inspiration or fortune or whatever. Actually you keep the poems around you for a long, long time, and that moment is just a moment when all your thinking is crystallized – exactly the same process as a poem. You’ve been thinking about something for quite some time, though you don’t really know it, and suddenly it becomes crystallized in the structure of a poem. It was exactly the same process for the ordering of this book, though I don’t know whether it will be for another book.
There are stupid decisions to be made, of course. There are silly decisions to be made about where things go, whether you put a lot of poems dealing with similar themes together. In The Brink there is a poem called ‘Fish’ and a poem called ‘Salmonary’, for example.
One of my favorite poems, actually, ‘Salmonary’.
Ah. Well, the decision is, do you put them near to one another or do you spread them out? Just silly things like that, really.
But surely you don’t want things to be accidental. You do want the book to be a walk through a mind, and not to discourage the reader with arbitrariness, right? I ask because at the panel you spoke about these questions of production and volume and so forth – you said you don’t produce as much as someone like, say, Ashbery, who seems to crank these books out left and right. Is this because you tend to let the poems simmer in your mind longer?
Well, there’s no second guessing, no legislating for any of this. The process varies hugely. There are one or two poems in The Brink that were written some time ago, and some of them I very slowly accumulated, and then I wrote quite a lot of them in a very short period. It just depends – I do have bursts where I write an awful lot, but I tend to think that I work slowly. Sometimes I think I’m making a whip to beat myself: I say that I write slowly in order to spur myself on, to write even more, even faster.
One of the things The Brink does is illustrate the transformative power of the imagination. You have an object, and the mind works on that object, and then through some mystery you arrive at a poem. The poems are very much, to take John Cheever’s phrase, ‘Making sense out of their world’ – would you say you set out to do this or am I reading it after the fact?
There are several things to talk about here. Perhaps the first one is that process you’ve recognized, the power of the imagination to transform. In terms of writing a poem, the process of writing a poem for me is always to discover something, to open something – an object, usually, or a character. It’s a process to open that up and show… well, I don’t know, actually. What am I trying to show?
Well, what you’re saying reminds me of that wonderful poem ‘Thinking’ by Robert Creeley, where he says that ‘Thought feels the edges.’ A lot of these poems are trying to feel their way around the edges of things, to come to know them from a different place.
Yes – we’re always engaged, aren’t we, in trying to work out how we engage with the world? I think that’s what I seem to be doing, trying to reveal something to myself about how we engage with the world and how we are moved by the world. How we’re going to be outlived by objects. How we’re going to affect nature, and so forth. I’m interested in these things, and I think that comes through in the poetry.
Like in the poem ‘Economics’.
The whole poem is encapsulated in a single sentence, in no more than the bare minimum of words required to commemorate this activity of meaning-making. And I think the title is the clue to the process inside the instant depicted in that poem. So I think your concern does come across, and in a very real way. The real struggle for the writer, for the poet, is – I’m going to quote Norman MacCaig again, because I’ve been spending a lot of time with him lately – is what he called ‘the long haul to lucidity.’ Any old bloke can be obscure.
Well, this is interesting to me, because I do think that when you’re writing a poem, you’re attempting to wrestle under your control the teeming-ness of language. Language teems with meanings and resonances and associations. That very small poem is full… essentially, it’s a poem about melting soaps together, but I think the title is also a comment on the economy of language. There’s a kind of pun on being ‘in the pink’ as well – so the poem is attempting to control all this fertility of association while still making something musically resonant. You can’t let it teem with so much that it becomes meaningless, becomes nothing.
The poem that you read yesterday, ‘Smoke’, also seems to cut into a number of different areas of mental activity. You have the imaginative reconstruction of the day of your birth and the moments leading up to it, but you also have this present yearning – wanting to know what was in the father’s diary. And the lines about him ripping the pages off and throwing them into the fire are made all the more devastating, because you realize how irreplaceable these pages are. So the poem, I find, is attempting to yoke that emotion down into something that can be not necessarily tamed but something that perhaps, maybe later on, can be at the very least understood. Whether you fail or succeed is uninteresting – it’s the act, the process, that is the glory.
I don’t mean this in any arrogant sense – the book came out two years ago, so I’ve had a chance to stand back and look at the poems as if they were a little less mine – but yes, I do think that was quite a risky poem. I was thinking about this yesterday… I do think there’s a submerged element in my work of memory and the possibility of the recovery of memory. The idea of heredity. It crops up a little in ‘Smoke’ with the figure of the father, and then in the poem ‘Drover’ which starts off ‘Father of my father’s father’. It’s almost as if I’m invoking this idea of remembering, of tracing back, as part of an attempt – or a gesture towards the attempt – to recover those things.
The poem does come from a memory; I don’t know whether the memory is accurate or not. It might be a false memory, and I think the poem is aware of that. It relates this moment as ‘This is what happened’ but by the end of the poem you realize the narrator of the poem can’t know any of this. The narrator doesn’t have access to any of this as a firsthand experience, because they weren’t yet born. But it’s recoverable through the power of the imagination. But then again, I’m not sure about any of this. I said this yesterday at the panel, that the only thing I know is that I’m uncertain of almost everything.
Your exact words were – I wrote them down – ‘The thing I am is unconvinced of most things’. But this came up in the context of a conversation about professionalism and poetry.
Well, the point here is that I’m not sure about imagination. Yes, it links into the poet’s role, asking what imagination is for, what it serves now, what it serves right now. Does it have a use or a function, above, I don’t know, inventing computer games? Does it contain lessons for us, or…
It does. I think it does. I think the imagination is a key to empathizing with the world in general, and allowing dereliction of the imagination seems to me to be a terrible thing. Something that leads to terrible effects, terrible behavior. Poverty of the imagination is what’s taking us down the global highway to destruction, isn’t it? The thing is, we live in such an interesting world – everyone throughout the ages I’m sure has felt that they lived in an interesting world – but I’m aware that we live in one now because of the way language is being used, particularly at the moment. We have politicians and leaders, for example, who will stand up and say that they didn’t say something that they are on record as saying six months ago. And they’ll flatly deny it. And it doesn’t seem to matter. Because it’s now that counts, the moment, and what they said six months ago, they argue, doesn’t matter anymore. For me this is hugely duplicitous, enormously so.
So you would see the task of the poet as reactionary against this kind of devaluation of language by politicians?
Yes, and poetry is an act that affirms connections to the past, to memory, to history. I think those things are in the process of being denied. Whether by politicians or by whoever, I think they’re in the process of being denied. See, the problem here is that I don’t work in a factual medium. I don’t work in something that is about veracity, historical veracity. There’s a crux point here, a tension. I might be aware of these things, but they don’t go directly into my work. I don’t know – what do you think?
I think you’re probably right to say it’s done by a number of people. We shouldn’t single out politicians, even though they are the largest and most luminous target. That said, I think one of the most glaring abuses of language at the moment is this word ‘freedom’ that we’ve been hearing for the past two years. I’m not sure anyone could give you a reasonable account of what the word ‘freedom’ means, a shared definition between the two areas of the world that are batting it back and forth like a shuttlecock over the net. I don’t think they’re hitting the same kind of ball – and part of the failure of the political process thus far is this unwillingness, as you say, to empathize. To try to understand this idea that when one person uses a word, there are an infinite number of associations which you must account for when you take that word into your own waters when in a dialogue with them. So I find it very difficult to have that word ‘freedom’ hook on to the world anymore in any meaningful way.
We’re living in a time when information is tightly controlled and manipulated – through the manipulation of the language in which information is relayed to us, the way that information is released or spun. We’re living in a time when language is being used to enormous effect.
One of my favorite passages from William James is in The Principles of Psychology, when he talks about the role of forgetting. He says there is so much in the world that if we stopped to remember it all in the same time it took to first experience it, we would never get on with the new thinking we have waiting for us. That’s what forgetting is for, to assist us in that process. Do you think there are some things that should be forgotten?
Well, you and I talked about this briefly last night when we laughed about the cursing stone in Carlisle, and I was talking about the fact that this stone has become the focus of so much fear and anger. I was saying it’s odd that this piece of text could have this effect when in our major cities there are places where mass violence and brutality occurred. There are still sites, gallows hills and main streets, where criminals and rebels were taken and dragged on the hurdle to the execution site.
Are you saying we’ve chosen to forget this because it is unpleasant to remember?
I think it’s odd that a text of a curse could have such an effect. The bishop’s pen pushing its way through history to be with us today. It does say something about the transmission of power through language, whereas the transmission of power through execution sites – it’s not forgotten, exactly, but we seem to forget what brutality our modern life is built upon.
It is interesting, though, to think of the curse as an act of language. The only way to curse somebody is to use language to do so. You might wave your hands the right way or draw a circle in the sand with a stick, but you have to say the words. And every single one of them must be spoken correctly.
This is exactly it. A curse is something that exists only in language. But where that exists, well, that existence continues to have power and resonance, whereas brutality exists in the world, the physical world. Maybe it is best to forget these things. But I find that fascinating.
But some memories don’t allow themselves to be forgotten. We have so little control over involuntary recollections – have you ever accidentally caught the perfume of your first girlfriend as you were walking down the street, and felt everything about her come flooding back? It’s completely out of our hands. I think some of our more valuable memories are the ones we’re not even aware we have until they come back of their own accord.
Well, this is interesting, because am I arguing that we just exist in language? This is why there’s such a furor over the cursing stone, because we do exist in language. Those who died on the gibbet don’t exist and hardly ever did. I wonder if that’s it. And vice versa – our history is full of terrible people. But they don’t exist. This sounds odd, I know. It sounds strange, I’m aware that this sounds like I’m talking garbage, but again… we’ve talked a bit about the transforming power of language in poems, but language itself, we exist in it. There is a sense that we’re pursued – you see these cartoons where they’re crossing the bridge, and the stones collapse behind them. That’s us.
But they always make it to the other side.
They always make it to the other side, we always make it to the other side, until the moment of our deaths.
Or until you look down and see there’s nothing beneath you. That’s when you fall.
Right. If you keep looking straight in front of you, you stay ahead of this engulfing darkness. But language is one of the few things that really has the power to survive. It does last. It’s built to last. And that’s the aim of poems as well – with a poem, you’re aiming to build it to last. It’s a shot thrown out behind you, like a mole throws dirt out behind it. You’re frantically throwing these pieces of work out behind you, and leaving them in the past. They’re in the past but they’re also part of you. But the thing about this curse is that it still exists. It’s within history but outside it as well.
I like the idea of the mole, the poet, as being blind, too, in the middle of all of this. You could say, though, that the curse is a gift, a gift that no one asked for. But the giver has passed on, has become nonexistent. Now this bishop is a bishop in name only – you can’t put your hand on him the way you can put your hand on this stone. And so the curse is a bodily commemoration of -
Of someone who doesn’t have a body, exactly.
Let me switch gears from the past to the future for a moment. Yesterday you said that you do a fair amount of teaching and supervision. How do you communicate the roles and rights of poetry – in the ways we’ve just been talking about, imagination and commemoration and responsibility and so forth – to your students? What’s your approach?
My approach is to enable whoever I’m teaching to write, to become fluent. I see this as: if you can gain eloquence, then you gain a better understanding of yourself and a greater power in the world. And a greater control of your own life and decisions. It’s very simple. That, for me, is what the teaching of writing does.
Do you find this reflected in what happens to you after the seminar as well?
I don’t know. When I’m teaching I try to be a facilitator – I don’t try to impart secret knowledge.
What – because there is none? I’m shocked.
[laughs] I think there is. But like all secret knowledge, it’s right in front of you. You just didn’t see it. But for me it’s about facilitating habits of mind, really. Habits of mind and ways of thinking. There are lots of techniques for doing this that people aren’t aware of – they aren’t aware that they have material laid down inside them that is fit subject to be written about.
But somebody like Whitman would say that everything inside you is fit subject, that you should never be prejudiced against yourself.
Of course. This is the secret that isn’t a secret.
Back to the book for a moment. There’s a lot of shadow imagery in the poems – shadows as ghost images, as the trace left behind by the thought or the word or the deed. I happen to think shadows are really important, much more so than we usually give them credit for – is this something you spend a lot of time thinking about too? There seems to be something sought after in these poems, as you’re looking into this blackness, this absence.
Shadows are proof that we’re here. In the absence of a mirror to look at ourselves, a shadow is second best. I don’t know – I’m not the best person to look at my own work, and I’m not sure I want to. I don’t want to probe too deeply or convince myself that I was thinking something all that time.
But there is in the book an anxiety about identity. There’s a poem called ‘All Hallows’ that must feature a shadow in there somewhere. There’s this idea that not only do you wear masks, but you can be stuck in a limbo between identities. There’s a bit of the book that’s about that. It relates back to fathers, actually – how one forms identities and whether this is to do with heredity or it’s self-made or whether it’s separate in the way that a shadow is both separate from you and connected by the feet.
Do you know that book Peter Schlemihl, The Shadowless Man?
No. I think I’ve heard about it.
It’s a German novella published in the 1800s, in which a man sells his soul to the devil for riches and happiness and whatnot. There’s a great illustration, I think by Cruikshank, of this old man snipping off Schlemihl’s shadow at the feet. Then much later, after he becomes a freak of society and loses everything like one does, he becomes a philosopher. Fantastic stuff.
There’s a standard cipher here, a tapping into mythology and legend, isn’t there? The idea that what defines a vampire is that you can’t see them in a mirror. There are all kinds of allusions to the loss of the self and the loss of the soul. The other thing that has to be said is that the book is in some way connected to this idea of the soul. I do hope that there’s at least a partial examination… these are the crucial questions, aren’t they? These are still the great mysteries: Do we go on? Does something of us carry on? Do we have a soul? Is there a God? These are the big questions. And these are the ones I’m thinking about. It sounds stupid, really.
But if the poem is the act of commemoration or imagination, or the attempt to reach into nothingness to pull something out, even its own self, then every poem is by rights asking those questions, and the role of the poet is to be unafraid of the asking.
Yes, absolutely. That’s it. And the thing is, talking about it this way makes it sound as though poetry is this horribly serious endeavor, and of course it isn’t. To a certain extent it’s celebratory, and – this sounds odd to say as well – there’s a certain faith in me that is reaffirmed in the act of writing a poem. Every time I write a poem something is affirmed in me. This seems to be part of the project. If someone asked me ‘Why do you write?’ then perhaps it’s that. Every time I complete a poem, faith, in its most abstract sense, is reaffirmed inside me. And it might just be faith in language, which is perhaps just as ludicrous as anything else – to have a belief in language is just as ridiculous. But there’s also a certain purity to that belief.
Do you see this experience of purity as something that you start with or somewhere you arrive?
I just mean that there’s a purity in the terms. It’s not a sullying, soiling thing like a belief in money.
You mean there’s no money in poetry?
No. I’m sorry. I hate to disabuse you of this idea, but that’s the secret that is a secret. [laughs]
Just one or two more things before we wrap up. One of your poems, ‘The Boast’, is, in a sense, a collaboration, a poem inspired by a painting. This is a swiftly burgeoning genre, one you see poets trying out more and more. Would you give a little insight into the background of this particular poem?
Absolutely. I’ve actually written quite a lot of this kind of poem. There are quite a few hidden away in the bag here beneath our table. What can I say about it? The main thing is that the poem has to stand without its visual prompt. But I am interested in the interface between – well, there are several interfaces. I’m interested in where the writing interfaces with a piece of art, and the way a piece of art initially interfaces with the viewer or the apprehender or whatever you want to call it.
Which visual artists or works do you gravitate toward?
Lots of things, really. I’m an inveterate cutter of things out of newspapers. I tend to cut out anything that catches my eye in catalogues and newspapers. Photographs by news photographers, pieces of reproduced art, or whatever. In some ways it’s a perfectly logical step for me, because, as you say, the work is quite visual, and it’s interesting to take a step back. When you regard a painting of an object, you’re regarding something quite different from the object itself.
The same is true of photography as well.
Yes, and I use photographs a lot, actually, to write in the same kind of way. If I’d written a poem about a painting of a jar of honey, it would be quite different from writing a poem about the actual object. You’re interacting with the representation of something rather than the thing itself. And again, you are mediating again – you’re turning that into language. But how do you find a language that does justice to the speed and the freshness of that apprehension? How do you do that?
I did a project recently where I curated an exhibition from a borough art collection, the kind of collection that’s owned by local councils. Most councils no longer buy work or collect it, so most of it is stashed away in storage and council buildings and so forth. So I was asked to curate this exhibition in Darlington at the end of last year, and my brief was to curate as well as produce some work responding to the art. So I did, and I worked incredibly quickly, and I decided to write a poem for each of the thirty pictures I had picked. But I tried to do it in a way that… well, the temptation is to tell the story of the picture.
That’s always the response, isn’t it.
But I tried not to do that. Then I realized that actually I was doing that, but in a way that – it wasn’t a comic strip, obviously, but it had elements of comic strips to it. Although the writing was reproduced on boards beside the painting, I could just have easily seen them in thought bubbles coming out of the frames. I’m still wrestling with this, because to a certain extent I didn’t quite get where I wanted to be. I didn’t quite crack it. I wrote these pieces of work very sparsely, with hardly any punctuation – I gave them a lot of space – it was an attempt to represent a completely clean apprehension of a picture. But I realized as I was doing this that it was impossible. You can’t actually do it. You’re encountering something, a picture mediated through, as you say, another consciousness. And I’m another consciousness with all my baggage colliding with that. It’s impossible to just look, to look cleanly. Let’s not be silly about this – it’s impossible to see anything without the full circuits and processes going on behind your eyes.
I realized as well in this project that I was presenting possible views of this work. In the form of poems I was presenting readings of these paintings. In some ways it was an attempt to say ‘I’ve read this, but it’s just an example.’ It was a fragmentary reading. And that’s just amazing to me, what goes into our comprehension of the world. It’s exhausting.
Last question. What’s next?
Well, I have a fellowship at Cambridge next year, and some other bits and pieces. I’m quite cagey about what goes on – some days I’m cagey and some days I’m not, but this morning I’m feeling cagey and I’m slightly suspicious of everything that I’ve still got to do. I’m heading on with another book of poems and some other bits and pieces, but we’ll see. To go back to the beginning of our conversation… the hope is that one just keeps working, really.
The Brink by Jacob Polley is available from Picador (£8.99 PBK, ISBN 0330412884).
© Benjamin Morris 2005