Published:  12:00 AM, 16 March 2017

Jacob Polley: 'I'm a fool as a writer - you have to take risks'

Jacob Polley: If I'm writing a poem, I should be kept busy doing anything other than writing.

Jackself and Jeremy Wren are setting / nightlines in the kidney-coloured pool.' From the first line of what would become Jackself, his 2016 TS Eliot prize-winning collection (though not, in the end, the first line of the book) Jacob Polley knew he had something different on his hands. "Oh goodness," he thought. "What on earth are you doing?

 This" - each poem telling a small part of a larger story - "isn't the way to be writing a book of poems, like those ones you wrote before." It is a surprise to discover this tentativeness, because Jackself is so confident, both in its handling of narrative (of two boys' rural childhood), and of emotion. Polley's voice is by turns mischievous, demotic, delicate, direct - and funny. So, for instance, Jeremy Wren makes a 9ft snowman based on his father "so I can give him a smile / stonier than a lip smile / poke myself / in the eyes on his hand sticks / run clean through him / and leave a me-hole". In another way, however, it isn't a surprise at all, because this is how Polley works - waiting, like Jackself and Jeremy Wren night fishing, to see what he might catch; trying to be, as he puts it, "a fool".

"I'm a fool as a writer because you have to be kind of stupid, and naive, and prepared to take risks and not overthink, or think your way out of those risks." Of course, a "fool" encompasses both mental emptiness and license; seeming simplicity and a capacity to convey complex truths. Allowing oneself to be a "fool" requires an underlying confidence, which Polley clearly possesses. He was successful early, a couple of poems being collected in a Faber anthology; was being talked of as a star in the making even before he was chosen, in 2004, as one of 20 Next Generation poets, a group that included Alice Oswald, Patience Agbabi and Jean Sprackland.  He had been nominated for the TS Eliot prize twice, for his first collection, The Brink (2003), and his third, The Havocs (2012), before winning it for Jackself, his fourth. He has also written a novel, Talk of the Town (2009), about two teenage boys growing up on the edge of a village, friends changed by a terrible act of violence. Written in a kind of heightened Cumbrian dialect, it vividly captures lives surrounded by wild open spaces but as limited in opportunity as the smoky, stale bothy in which the two boys keep ending up. It won both a Somerset Maugham award and the Geoffrey Faber memorial prize.

Did the novel make Jackself possible? There's the obvious similarity of subject, but also the control of narrative, the sense of character. "I don't know - one of the things about writing the novel was that it threw me back to writing poems with a renewed sense of the possibility of the poem," says Polley. So, for instance, he discovered that he loved "writing dialogue - that's something you don't really experiment with or do much in poems". And with dialogue came the ability to use shifting points of view, of a narrator, of Jackself, "a soft-lad, a quick- / tear, a worry-wit" - at least according to his friend, the mercurial, charismatic, elementally sad Jeremy Wren. But there were other things, too, as Wren's name suggests. Polley had already been experimenting with using old English forms - ballads especially, nursery rhymes, songs; "Langley Lane", in The Havocs, is a moving use of the ballad form that manages to combine a modern story of a boy getting stabbed in the wrong bit of town with the grief and incantatory mystery of Keats's "La Belle Dame sans Merci", which uses an older form too, for some of the same purposes. "My son, you walked from Langley Lane? / I walked from Langley Lane. / I took small steps and often stopped / to breathe around the pain." Jackself (the word is Gerard Manley Hopkins's) plays on the Jacks of English myth and folklore - Jack Frost, jackdaws, applejacks, jack-o'-lanterns - to set up echoes and undertows, then hitches them to an awareness of even older poetry, medieval and Anglo-Saxon.  "A lot of a writing life is a search for technique," says Polley. "The 10,000 hours or 40,000 hours or whatever it is - you need to do that. You have to absorb something about the handling of meter. I've got lots of unsuccessful ballads. But when the material and the form suddenly marry, then it's what you're writing for, you know, that's the exciting bit."

Polley was born in 1975 and grew up in Bowness-on-Solway, near Carlisle, the eldest of three children, two boys close in age and a girl, 13 years younger. "I had a lot of freedom when I was a child. I didn't go to primary school in the village where we grew up. I went to a village a few miles away - and I used to bike there [alone]. I can't believe I did that." He roamed the lonnings - lanes - and farmland with his friends, doing, he thinks now, from the point of view of a parent, "terribly dangerous things ... Blades and fire - you name it - and trees. I remember pedaling over a crossroads at speed without looking. Daring things - which were really fucking stupid, you know." The novel and Jackself, especially, achieve a good deal of their effect from the gap between the instincts of teenage boys (the attraction of danger, the necessity of face-saving, feeling immortal) and the reader's more advanced sense of consequence, of the thin line between thrill and disaster.  (excerpt)

The writer is a senior feature writer  and editor at the Guardian www.theguardian.com


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