All night the mind had dreamed itself clean.
~ from ‘Outer banks, N.C.’ by Jacob Polley
Joining our letterboxing journey is UK poet Jacob Polley. Jacob was the Poet-in-Residence for 2011 and recently released his T. S. Eliot Prize nominated collection The Havocs. Here he talks rivers, collaboration, the sound of water and his contribution to the Letter.Box.Stamp.Collect. project.
You were the swiftest to reply with a piece for the project when you sent me a selection of ‘loop’ poems, so you had already made a connection with the idea of circular poetry. Could you articulate the association to a circular theme in your loops and in your poetry overall?
I think I’d been looking for a way to represent the water cycle. This goes back to a commission I had with Pip Hall, a letter artist and stone carver. A few years ago we made ceramic panels to decorate the flood defences in Carlisle and – because Pip’s work is so beautiful – I started to think about the visual possibilities of little poems, or little phrases. It seems so simple and arresting to join the end of a phrase up to the beginning and have the beginning and the end effectively disappear, or – if you can find the right words – be anywhere in the poem. There’s something attractive to me, as there must be to lots of writers and artists and musicians, in a kind of feedback loop that you set off and it goes on, self-sustaining, forever.
The poem we selected for the project was River, which I immediately related to, having lived in cities that are built around rivers. The words ‘time and memory unwinding’ conjure a river-like image and make connections between passages of history or revisiting the past. Could you explain the process and ideas behind writing this piece?
I grew up beside an estuary, and my home-city sits at the confluence of three rivers, so I’ve been beside water all my life, and I’ve always thought of it as a kind of recording device. There it is, running like a tape, printed with the sky, bearing away leaves, being peered into. We don’t have the means to play what water records but we hear murmurs and chuckles, and then the great roar of the sea as all that’s been recorded is thrown back against the coast.
The Scottish poet and artist, Alec Finlay, who in part inspired this project, says of collaboration: ‘There are boundaries that can be marked, but also sparks that leap between consciousnesses. The work is not within one consciousness.’ You are a regular collaborator, too, such as your current ballad opera ‘Ballads of Blood’ with Luke Carver Goss, the audio/visual installations, ‘Bathtime’ and ‘Recollection Rooms’ with Imogen Cloet, and the short film ‘Flickerman’ with Ian Fenton. How do you identify with the process of collaborating?
I think something lovely happens when you meet in a piece of work. The process of collaboration itself is valuable and worthwhile, because you’re sharing responsibility, negotiating, having a relationship, recognising someone else’s strengths and insights and being recognised yourself. These things don’t really happen when you’re working on your own as a writer, when I think you often stand somewhat outside, well, society. Collaboration somehow – selfishly – helps me ease what must be the age-old tension between being an individual ‘who just makes stuff up’ and being someone who needs to forge connections with other people.
It is fantastic to have you return to the Queensland Poetry Festival in artefact form. What have you been up to since you were the Arts Queensland Poet in Residence in 2011?
In ‘artefact form’ – it sounds as if you have parts of me dried and in a box! It doesn’t seem a blink since I was in Brisbane, but I’ve just been noodling along – I published a new book of poems, The Havocs, and I’ve been, you know, writing. Writing isn’t terribly exciting unless you’re actually doing it, so it would probably look from the outside as if I’d been sitting on the sofa for the last couple of years, staring into the laptop. But I’ve been excited on the inside…
Jacob’s latest collection, The Havocs, is out now.