This article is from 2009.
From fish factory worker to TS Eliot Prize-winning poet, Jen Hadfield talks to Kirstin Innes about Shetland, language and rockpools
It’s been a strange old year for poetry. Although the highs of Carol Ann Duffy’s appointment as the first female Poet Laureate and the unpleasantness of Ruth Padel and Derek Walcott’s fight for the Oxford Professor of Poetry position have almost overshadowed it, Jen Hadfield, a 30-year-old shop assistant from Shetland, became the youngest ever winner of the TS Eliot Prize, an annual award that usually does the rounds between usual suspects like Seamus Heaney and Ciaran Carson.
‘I’m having a lovely time at the moment,’ she says, on the phone from Shetland, her voice a strange soft mix of accents that betray her Scottish/English/Canadian heritage. ‘I’m getting to call myself a writer, which is not something I’ve really felt willing to do for a while. That’s definitely my decision: other people have called me a writer while I’ve been working as a shop assistant. I’m completely at home with myself, as a writer, for the first time in ages, which is quite a treat.’
The idea of being at home with oneself is an important one for Hadfield. Although she’s usually described as a ‘nature poet’, her Eliot award-winning collection Nigh-No-Place seems to be much more concerned with the idea of place and home, in nature and in language. Although she started it in Canada, where her mother lives, the prevalent spirit is Shetland, where she settled three years ago. ‘The thing about Shetland is being able to step out of my front door and walk, not drive, straight to a clifftop. I quite often write while I’m walking, build up a walking rhythm. So it’s a feeling of total immersion, and the potential for it to be uninterrupted: I get a mighty kick out of rockpools. I went out in my back garden two days ago and there was a shower of tiny silver fish on my back lawn, which was hilarious and strange.’
Hadfield is aware that, as a non-native speaker, there are political problems inherent in her adopting the language, but the transfiguration she uses is saturated with her immediate environment. ‘When I first moved to Shetland I worked in a fish factory, and the folk I worked with mostly spoke Walso, a very particular Shetland dialect. I was working on Nigh-No-Place quite intently then, and that language couldn’t help but come to the fore. Poetry has always been a way of me looking at the world and trying to make a temporary home in words. I think that’s a poet’s job, to be true to speech.’
Jen Hadfield & Emily Ballou, 17 Aug, 4.30pm, £6 (£4); Jen Hadfield, Liz Lochhead & Aonghas MacNeacail, 21 Aug, 3.30pm, £9 (£7).