A chat with Jacob Polley about musical collaborations & Jackself

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We caught up with Jacob Polley, recent winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for Jackself, to discuss his event with John Alder as part of our Poetry & Music programme at the Sage Gateshead, Wed 10 May, 18.00-21.00,  £19.40 (£16.10) 


(Jacob Polley & John Alder. Photo credit: BBC)
NCLA: What inspired you to add a musical dimension to your poetry?

JP: It was chance, really, which plays such a huge part in life, and in the creative life. In 2015, I was asked to make ‘something with someone’ by the Verb on BBC Radio 3, and I immediately thought of John, who I’d worked with for years, but never on something that was quite ours. So I set him what I thought was the ridiculous challenge of doing a musical version of a couple of poems from Jackself, a challenge he rose to, big-time.



Can you describe the writing process between yourself and John Alder? In an appearance on The Verb, you describe the process as similar to an ‘old-fashioned postal service.’

Yes, we started by just exchanging audio files. I’d record a poem on a Zoom recorder and send the file to John, and John would listen to it loads and then make something, then send it back. So he’s never seen the poems on the page. Our process has evolved a little, with us re-recording some of the poems, but we also wanted to retain something of the atmos of those original recordings, often done in a living room while my small son was asleep, with the rain outside and soot falling down the chimney. I’ll also experiment to find sung melodic lines in some of the poems, and record these scraps of song, too, which John often uses, one way or another.


Having seen your collaboration before, it feels as though there are tonal and rhythmic similarities in Alder’s music and your performance of your work. Do you feel that music is a natural partner to poetry?

Well, the short answer to this is no. I kind of don’t buy into the setting of poems to music thing at all, as I think that poems are quite sufficient in and of themselves, so I find myself in the odd position of doing something quite happily that I’m apparently ambivalent about. But John’s settings are so interesting, are so of the world of Jackself, and the opportunity that doing this musical version offers for performance is so irresistible and brings so much blasting off the page that I can only embrace the contradiction in my position!


What are you working on these days?

John and I are still working on the music, hoping to release a version of Jackself as audio – as an album – and I’m pushing things around the page, in that desultory way one does in the period after a book is finished and done and all one can do is wave it into the world.