Who is the real Jacob Polley?

Helena Buchanan, Charlotte Hill and Carys Thomas talk to the T. S. Eliot prize winner

Helena Buchanan
6th March 2017

How important is it to you to be a prize winner?

It’s important not to get hung up on winning prizes... I’m excited by writing… Trying to make an effective poem. I’m not writing to win a prize. So there’s a no. But there’s also a yes. Publishing poetry isn’t something with a lot of gold attached… A prize is affirming. The T.S Eliot prize is judged by other poets. To have peers give you a prize is great.

What do you find most affirming?

I get the odd email from people who’ve read my work… For them to have felt strongly enough to write to you is nice. It means that the work has gone out, met a reader and been completed. When they’ve fitted themselves into your work and injected their own imaginative energy it’s complete. So I like just having readers.

“Poetry is an odd art form - it appears on the page silently, but it also has another aural dimension”

A lot of your work is available as recordings. Do you think it’s important that poetry is available in a multitude of media?

I write poems that are fixed in some way on the page.  I’m interested in its presentation… I’m also interested in the sounds... Part of writing the poem for me is working out what works sonically. Poetry is an odd art form - it appears on the page silently, but it also has another aural dimension.

In the guardian, you’ve mentioned writing is partly the ‘storing up of the energy’, could you tell us about the process?

Writing is like any kind of craft and sometimes that’s just ‘not writing’. It’s storing up energy and listening and looking at stuff... I used to be uncomfortable if I wasn’t writing all the time. But I’ve become more accepting of the need to recharge creatively.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Practice. Read. There’s no mystery… Practice writing. Do a bit every day. I’ve just read a lot and absorbed… Not… With a scholarly eye… For pleasure.

You say you don’t want your poems to do anything… But would you say there’s a particular purpose to writing? Some people consider art narcissistic. Do you agree or do you like the idea you’re doing something?

I think the opposite of that, speaking as a reader. I read other peoples’ work because it’s consoling, it’s exciting, it develops my empathetic understanding for people I don’t know, for places I will never go. That’s a gift from other writers. Unless you give up some sense of self it’s difficult to be an effective writer. You need to lose a degree of your own ego and intention to write. How is someone going to encounter this, who has never met me but just has these words on the page?

Some artists and musicians refuse to look back on their work once it’s complete. Do you ever go back and reread yours?

I read my work publicly so I’m always reencountering it. I’ve re-amended poems that I wrote years ago, but that’s dangerous, because you’re not the same person.

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