If you've never heard of her, sit up and take notice - Jen Hadfield is going places. The 30-year-old British-Canadian poet and artist caused a stir recently when she took the 2008 T.S Eliot Prize for Poetry. Hadfield was the dark horse in the running, a relative newcomer to the poetry scene, and virtual unknown.
Nevertheless, her second collection of new poetry, Nigh-No-Place, impressed sufficiently to earn her the prize, usually dominated by major players in the poetry world. Former winners of the prize, which was inaugurated in 1993, have included the likes of Seamus Heaney, Alice Oswald, Ted Hughes and more.
Hadfield's first collection, Almanacs, earned her the Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors.
We caught up with Jen Hadfield to find out what changed after the Eliot prize, and what's next in store for her.
AbeBooks: - How has life been since winning the TS Eliot prize?
Jen Hadfield: – “I woke the first four or five mornings after the announcement with a mild specific anxiety! The past couple years have been more about subsistence than creativity. Although I've been lucky enough to have generous support for projects from Shetland Arts, the Scottish Arts Council and the Dewar Awards, I've also ended up juggling several jobs, a bit too hurried and fragmented for poetry. So suddenly I'm aware that there's an expectation that I might produce new work off the back of the Eliot. And even if there wasn't a real expectation out there, I certainly want it for myself. So the specific anxiety is turning into focused hope and determination now; I have really missed feeling like a writer.”
Abe: Did the audience really gasp when you were named as the winner?
Jen Hadfield: “I gather.”
Abe: Two years ago, you showed up at our office in Victoria, British Columbia – it sounds like that year spent in Canada was extremely influential on your poetry?
Jen Hadfield: “Canada's been very significant to my work as a poet. I'm very proud of my Canadian citizenship and I love that my 'pod' of poets includes writers from Victoria, Edmonton, Vancouver...it's always a treat to come back. I had a wonderful time at the Vancouver Writer's Festival last year and I quote the example of the Planet Earth Poetry sessions often back in Shetland. Such a generous and responsive and brilliant audience, rife with excellent poets.”
Abe: And working in a fish factory….how many poets can riff on those sort of experiences?
Jen Hadfield: “Depends if they're as nerdy as me I suppose. I'm fascinated by all kinds of fish. I used to love watching the crates come in from the fish market in Lerwick (main port of Shetland), full of strange, sloppy or neat and tiny monsters.”
Abe: Why live in Shetland? Is it a good place to write poetry?
Jen Hadfield: “I've been here for three years and I'm still being ambushed with notions for poems and paintings. It's such a rich place if you have a fascination for wildlife, or a hunger for big skies, or for friends that are toymakers and photographers and painters, musicians, novelists, playwrights, mussel-farmers, marine biologists, or archeologists. Warm and inspirational folk all. Shetland does draw some fascinating people in...This is an especially exciting time to be here too; it looks like building will start on our Mareel, our new cinema/music venue, in the next couple of months.”
Abe: What poets have influenced your writing (and why)?
Jen Hadfield: “Edwin Morgan, Tom Leonard, Kathleen Jamie, Norman MacCaig. All Scots! Experimental and political, honest and humane; larkings-about in form and voice that changed the way I thought about poetry. At university, I ended up taking a module in Contemporary Scottish Poetry more or less by accident. Everything started to fall into the place then. And Robert Alan Jamieson, a Shetlander: a great teacher and a great poet.”
Abe: You are only 30 - how can more young people be introduced to poetry?
Jen Hadfield: “By encouraging them to write it, I think, but introducing them to poetry as play, as an event where whatever they believe and feel is gospel, as a privacy and a performance. They get it instinctively, by and large, given half a chance.”
Abe: What next for you? When can we expect another collection of poetry?
Jen Hadfield: “The plan is just to rehabilitate myself as a making-dreaming-looking-teaching-writing person. It will be an enormous relief to be able to put my creative life first again...”