Jacob Polley is a poet and writer. His poetry collections are The Brink (Picador 2003), Little Gods (Picador 2006), and The Havocs (Picador 2012), and his debut novel Talk of The Town was published in 2010.
Hi Jacob. Thanks for taking the time to chat. You collaborated with composer Luke Carver Goss to create a ballad opera called Ballads of Blood. Can you tell us a bit more about the project and what challenges you faced putting together this material compared to the poetry you normally write which is intended to be read on the page?
The London Sinfonietta instigated the project in 2012/13, as part of their Blue Touch Paper scheme, which puts composers together with non-composers to collaborate on something.
For me, poems always hover between the page and the air, between silent reading and heard speech, so it wasn’t a giant leap to begin to intend the words to be sung. Luke and I were trying to write an opera around a ballad of mine, ‘Langley Lane’, and someone – was it Cecil Sharp? – once said that you can’t call it a ballad unless it has a tune, which was a challenge: I wanted a tune for my ballad, and I wanted it to not be my ballad any more but to meet the tune and be carried wherever it might.
We didn’t quite get where we wanted to with all this, but the process of instigation and experimentation was extremely useful and interesting, and Luke wrote some beautiful music, giving ‘Langley Lane’ a haunting setting.
Your poem ‘East Sands, Salt Prints‘ pays homage to David Brewster, the 19th century Scottish scientist and inventor. I understand you incorporated and adapted material from a survey Brewster published in 1843 about photography. I’m curious how much you feel using this method influenced and steered the direction of the poem compared to if you had sat down and written it from scratch without referring to this source text?
I was looking for a way to engage with the history of photography in St Andrews, as well as with certain specific early photographs, and there’s an excitement to Brewster’s survey of early photography – which he calls ‘photogenic drawing’ – that was irresistible.
There was also something fitting about representing early photography by re-presenting some of his text, just as the early photographers were framing and re-presenting parts of St Andrews – the ruins of the cathedral, the rocks of the coast.
The processes of early photography were so interesting, all the enquiring into materials, the way light was, well, seen in a new light, and Brewster was leading this process of enquiry.
You participated in New Boots and Pantisocracies last year where poets engaged with the current political landscape. Your own poem took a personal approach and describes a parent explaining a flower to a child. There are poems in your last collection – ‘Manifesto for the Makeshift‘, ‘The News’, ‘The Havocs’ – which work on a similar level of engaging with the political realm in a more oblique way. I’m curious if you think this technique is how poetry can and should best tackle such a thorny subject?
Sidling up seems the approach I was born to. Though weirdly, I often assume I’m approaching something as directly as it can possibly be approached. That’s writing a poem, I guess: a process of absolutely forthright indirectness.
You’ve mentioned in the past your novel Talk of the Town began as an experiment to see if you could follow an idea beyond the confines of the single page you were so used to dealing with in poetry writing. Do you foresee yourself writing another novel in the future and, having gone through the process of writing one previously, do you think you would invariably approach it in a different way second time around?
I have no idea. I haven’t been gripped by the urgency to write another piece of long fiction, but I might be in the future. I also started to teach full time the year after the novel was published, so all the energy that I might have used to plough down thousands of words of a new novel went into trying to work out what on earth I was doing when I was teaching, marking, designing courses etc.
But everything, for me, is an experiment, so if I wrote another novel it would inevitably be approached differently – it would have to be or I wouldn’t have the energy to write it. Performing the experiment is what creates the reaction that generates the energy I need to stick at anything, so establishing the conditions of the experiment becomes what my approach – what my life! – is all about.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have enjoyed this year or are looking forward to?
I’ve got a weird new book of poems, Jackself, out in November. I’m also collaborating with the musician and sound designer, John Alder, to set many of the poems in this forthcoming book to music and ‘do them’ as some kind of recording and performance, so that’s exciting, and great fun.
I also recently taught for Arvon at Lumb Bank for a week last month, which I always love doing.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
It’s from Jackself, which unlike my previous books is a book of poems with a story and characters moving through it. The main characters are Jackself and his friend, Jeremy Wren, and here they are in ‘Cheapjack’…
as an elephant has memory
so Jeremy Wren has merchandise
in his pocket, an order book,
a Biro behind his ear, and in his palm
a matchbox from which he offers
Jackself the patter, eight-legged
and shrivelled like a dead
wrap your tongue round this,
he says, and sell a man
a second shadow
isn’t it an old spider,
Jackself says you have to learn to overlook
your own eyes,
Wren says, otherwise
you’ll never live the life you might
he slides shut the little drawer
and stows the matchbox back in his jacket
Jackself lies awake,
his commercial inhibitions coming undone
in the dark and hiss of the rain
and next day at school he’s barking the corridor
in a sandwich board that proclaims
a belt of Eden serpent’s skin
a fairy’s skull, a stone age stone
a map of sleep, a stick of rock
from Pompeii’s only sweetie shop
a pick n mix of famous stains
a hanged man’s jerk, a traffic cone
a bedbug from the riverbed
an ominous pencil, a furry mint
the last gold hair from Satan’s head