Jen Hadfield's second collection, Nigh-No-Place, won the 2008 T S Eliot Prize. With family in Canada and England and a deep love of her adopted home in Shetland, it is perhaps no surprise that her writing is often drawn to the contradictions of travel and home, the music of voices, and the importance of land and place.
She was born in 1978 and grew up in Cheshire. After studying English Language and Literature at the University of Edinburgh, she gained a Distinction in the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde’s joint creative writing MLitt. Her connection with Shetland stems from her travel in Shetland and the Western Isles while she wrote Almanacs, with funding from a Scottish Arts Council bursary; a residency with Shetland Arts Trust followed, and she now lives in Shetland where she is currently Reader in Residence at Shetland Library, having also been a Scottish Poetry Library Poet Partner at Shetland Library in 2007-10. Just in case that all sounds swimmingly easy, it should be pointed out that residencies, prizes and bursaries have been supplemented with work ranging from framing pictures to gutting fish.
The completed manuscript of Almanacs won an Eric Gregory Award in 2003, enabling a year’s travel and writing in Canada where she has extended family, and the collection was published by Bloodaxe in 2005. Her second collection, Nigh-No-Place (2008), rather dramatically won the T S Eliot Prize for 2008, making her the youngest writer ever to do so. In both books, she writes, ‘the poems are united by my fascination with spoken language and by themes of wildness and subsistence; fretting over what it means to be 'no-place' and what it means to make yourself 'at home'.’ Her third collection Byssus was published by Picador in 2014.
Just as important to her writing is a strong sense of the visual: she also works in painting and sculpture, exploring salvaged materials (driftwood to discarded telephone wire). Making artists’ books has been an important part of her work through her own Rogue Seeds, and in collaboration with printer Ursula Freeman of Redlake Press on The Printer’s Devil and the Little Bear (2006), an artists’ book combining traditional letterpress techniques and laserprint, illustrated with her own photographs of Canada. In 2007, a Dewar Award enabled her to travel in Mexico and to make a solo exhibition of ‘Shetland ex-votos in the style of sacred Mexican folk art’ – tiny, portable, insistently familiar landscapes packed in an array of weathered tobacco tins. More recently, applying techniques like rope-making and knitting to those salvaged materials, along with the hand-modelling of a series of small porcelain forms like limpet shells, have been visual, personal ways of exploring ideas of self-sufficiency and travel, as well as unpredictable definitions of home and belonging.
Her work has increasingly been described as nature poetry, where ‘nature’ means not simply a description of the natural world, but the changing ecology and the challenges of how we adapt to living in the landscape, as well as being impressed by its difference: ‘for me it comes down to being honest about the present tense that you live in and looking as accurately and intently as possible at one place’. Her poems also invoke the sounds of liturgical language; in her hands, a combination of natural subjects, secular idioms and liturgical forms make a complex, enriched idea of a contemporary nature poem.
In a 2009 interview, she listed the poets most influential to her as Edwin Morgan, Tom Leonard, Kathleen Jamie and Norman MacCaig, and this range of invention parallels her geographical and formal travel. Roddy Lumsden has perceptively described her as ‘refreshingly hard-to-place on the contemporary British poetry map. In spirit, perhaps, she is closest to Edwin Morgan, the senior Scottish poet who has ranged across the whole of such a map with equal parts seriousness and levity.’