Features / Poets’ Corner – Jen Hadfield

Jen Hadfield.

Carol Jamieson’s latest guest in her Poets’ Corner feature is Jen Hadfield who has been living in Burra for many years.

Although Jen  lives in Shetland, she was born in Cheshire.  Her studies culminated in an MLitt from Glasgow where she had the distinction of being taught by Tom Leonard.

He described her as “A quick mind abroad alone in the ever-changing natural landscape. The language country-rooted, specific, of clear observation: a sophisticated, refreshing country brew”.

After being awarded an Eric Gregory award in 2003, Jen went on to be the youngest female poet to be awarded the TS Eliot Prize, with her second collection Nigh-No-Place in 2008.

She enjoys mixing her Canadian roots (from her mother) with the Scottish and, ultimately, Shetland influence.  This mix of cultures helped her receive a Dewar Award in 2007 to research Mexican Devotional Folk Art and to create an exhibition of devotional miniatures.

I asked Jen to describe what inspired her to write the poem and what were the circumstances around it.  I also asked her to share what were the driving forces which led her to start writing. She wrote a beautiful, thoughtful response.

“In early pregnancy, I thought a lot about the difference between the things we try to do (like housebuilding and bookwriting) and the things that sometimes – very eventually – happen with shocking ease.

“I have never shaken off the hold of those Ladybird fairytales we read as kids – Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, the Magic Porridge Pot. I’m surprised myself by how often they pop up in my own imagery, as ways of making sense of the world and the astonishing things that happen in life.

“When you ask ‘what was the biggest driving force which led you start writing poetry?’, it is this, both a survival tool and a compass for wonder: a necessary way of understanding experience. Without writing or making art, I founder, all at sea.’ We live in painful times, in a difficult world, and yet the world is still overwhelmingly magical.’

“Poetry gives us a chance to stop, reflect, process, cope, grieve and revere.”



Under the covers, the cat hooks paws
over my arm and lowers his keel
down on me: he wants me
safe in bed, and I know why. Out
in the world my once precise edges
wobble I have lost all coordination I
drop things
yesterday, I plunged
my hand in a kilner jar
of scalding water. At the scan
we saw you, with shocking
clarity, assert your own
perimeters, arch a back,
stretch ghost legs
right out, then whizz down the slide of
the womb’s wall. My belly shuddered with love;
I held my breath until the waters calmed,
closing over that secret well. I have
at least got something
right: your body is the prescribed length
from head to rump, your heart still
beats – I didn’t know – all I’ve had
to go on are a string of surrenders
– after all these years,
it took no effort
at all. My life has been
feats of escalating
will, like women who want to sail
solo round the earth, or dive in sub-zero waters –
now I’m frightened of what else could happen
if I continue not to try.  When
I dream, I fly higher
than ever
before, gathering to me bouquets of thin
air. Everyone says, I’m
growing a whole person. So
safer to lie, between trying and allowing,
with the cat a soft anchor on my arm
imagining what may be
happening now
I always
loved the Rumpelstiltskin story: in
a dim, red
loft, my body spins you,
straw into gold.


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