Jen Hadfield interview: Northern light

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JEN Hadfield tells SUSAN MANSFIELD what winning poetry's biggest prize – and living in Shetland – mean to her

JEN HADFIELD TELLS ME ABOUT the strong winds on Shetland, which meant she almost didn't leave, and the fog at Heathrow which nearly stopped her arriving. She tells me about meeting up with her family, and reading her poems in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. She tells me how each poet read and how she decided who should win.

And then she stops and laughs a short, bubbly laugh, because she's realised she's avoiding talking about it – the moment when Poet Laureate Andrew Motion read out her name, proclaiming her the winner of the TS Eliot Prize, Britain's biggest poetry award.

"I felt... a little speechless," says Hadfield, 30, who won the 15,000 prize in January for her second collection, Nigh-No-Place. "I was quite teary, and I was mortified about that, but it was a shock reaction. And I gripped Mrs Eliot's hand (the prize is presented by the poet's widow) far too tightly for, um, support."

But the TS Eliot Prize is poetry's Oscars. Surely it's excusable for someone to do a Gwyneth Paltrow? She flinches. "You don't really want to be compared to that. Folk expect you to be slightly off-guard. I don't mind the fact that I made an arse of myself, I'm just quite aware of it."

Hadfield is the youngest writer to win the prize, picked from an illustrious shortlist which included Ciaran Carson, Robert Crawford and Glyn Maxwell. "I think a lot of people were quite surprised," she says. And none of them more than she was herself.

It was a rollercoaster journey, particularly as the day was overshadowed by the death of one of the shortlisted poets, Mick Imlah, who suffered from motor neurone disease. Hadfield faced a punishing itinerary of photographs, interviews, meetings and greetings before she was allowed to flee back to Shetland.

We meet in the art gallery where Hadfield works part-time and sit drinking tea looking out at the wind tugging the grasses, and a hooded crow rooting about by a stream. She is a funny, generous talker. Despite saying that she feels she has a ration of words in a day and often arrives home too "talked-out" to write, she makes no attempt to hoard them.

Originally from Cheshire, she has lived here for three years and speaks of the islands with a profound warmth. Shetland has welcomed her, the local agency Shetland Arts supports her hand-to-mouth existence as a poet. She speaks with delight of her house in Burra with its view from the back garden to the island of Foula. Her accent has started to take on a Shetland burr.

It was the speech of the islands which first fascinated her, listening to the poetry of Shetlander Robert Alan Jamieson, her "inspirational" tutor at Edinburgh University. She went on to the M Litt in Creative Writing in Glasgow where another inspiring tutor, Tom Leonard, encouraged her emerging voice. Then, armed with an SAC bursary and a "huge curiosity about this place", she headed for Shetland.

"I didn't have a car so I just grounded myself totally in the five or six miles around my cottage. That getting to know a place in such fine detail on foot was really crucial. In that whole time you become aware of your speech rhythms and really hash over what you're thinking." Walking, thinking and writing have been linked for her ever since.

The month in the cottage laid the foundations for her debut collection, Almanacs, published by Bloodaxe in 2005. It marked her out as an immediately original voice, a poet with a deft, vigorous aptitute with language who could be by turns colloquial and liturgical. Andrew Motion described Nigh-No-Place as "a revelation; jaunty, energetic, iconoclastic – even devil-may-care". Kathleen Jamie has called her "a beat poet of the upper latitudes".

The manuscript won her an Eric Gregory Award, which she used to travel across Canada, the backdrop for the first part of Nigh-No-Place. She traversed the country by rail, then flew to Whitehorse in the Yukon and drove the Dempster Highway 1,000 miles north (much of it on gravel road) to the village of Inuvik on the Beaufort Sea.

With wonder in her eyes, she describes picking arctic cranberries, seeing a grizzly bear, driving back South just as the Arctic autumn swept a feast of colour through the land. It infuses and informs the poems, though they are not direct descriptions. Did she write as she travelled?

"I thought it would be great to write as I went, and I really wanted to, but it didn't work in the slightest. I was so self-conscious, and everyone knew that's what I was trying to do, it's like trying to pee with someone watching!" She did take notes and keep scrapbooks. "I never find myself going to my notes and distilling them into a poem, it's just that sometimes reading them colours something else."

When she returned, she settled in Shetland, picking up a day job in a fish factory. There is as much of Shetland as Canada in Nigh-No-Place, which was also shortlisted for the 2008 Forward Prize: "It is on heaven as it is on earth –/ the sodium lamps of Hamnavoe,/ the whooping swans' earache echo..."

"Ever since I was tiny, I've been sentimental about place and home. There are definitely particular types of landscape that light me up, and I've always had this desperate feeling that it might be taken away for some reason. It's not just about nature poetry, there's a desperation there which I can't quite pin down. I'm really fascinated by those places where we overlap with the wilderness doing its own thing, messily usually. I'm very drawn to that."

She tells me she "hasn't written fluently, especially in poetry" since she finished Nigh-No-Place. She has been painting and "making", having received a Dewar Award in 2007 towards an exhibition of Shetland ex-votos in the style of Mexican folk art. She has also been working on a novel.

"I've missed (poetry] really badly, I feel so at home in that when it works. The more I write, the more I feel like myself. But I've not been wanting to write poems when I haven't something to say, and when my attention was on other things."

She says her life has changed, "opened-out". She is teaching, assessing manuscripts, working at the gallery, making art. She has an "immense and inspirational" circle of friends. "When I was writing my first book, I was focused on writing to the point of putting it before absolutely everything. It suddenly occured to me that that wasn't a very good way to be living your life.

"But trying to fit everything in and having nice a proportion of creative work to paid work is not the right pace for making poetry. It needs a different type of awareness and permission just to sit, to hear my own language again, to work out what I'm thinking." In her art studio, where she has "no expectations of myself" she finds she is free to experiment, and wants to bring that sense back to her poetry.

To another in the same situation, the TS Eliot Prize might have created impossible pressure. But Hadfield feels galvinised: "I'm starting to feel really hopeful now and determined. I don't remember being that determined since I started my first book. I'm so thrilled to be feeling that again. I've started three very lame poems this week. I don't mind that they're lame, that's OK; generally, lame poems are followed by better poems."

Though not tonight, perhaps. I fear I have used up today's ration of words. But they were graciously given, and it was a pleasure to receive them.

&#149 Jen Hadfield reads at the David Hume Tower conference room, Edinburgh University, on 11 March at 1pm, and at a Shetland Poetry and Music event at Aye Write!, Glasgow, on 13 March at 7:30pm.

Jen Hadfield on … fiction

Last year, Hadfield was granted an SAC bursary to work on her first novel. "I'm trying to get into the way of prose. I had wanted to write one of those poemy, lyrical, sense-rich novels about a lot of things not happening in a small space of time. I'm still not sure I can pull it off."

Her story is inspired by her maternal grandmother's tales of her early married life in Tofino on Vancouver Island, where her husband was the GP. "Politically it was quite a sensitive place, there were big Japanese and First Nations communities and a fishing community with a lot of Norwegians and some English settlers. I've learned that wherever fishing is concerned there will be tension.

"I thought at first it would be very simple to archive (her experiences], then things started getting a bit more fictional and I realised that I didn't want to speak for anybody else. Now I'm getting more of a handle on the main characters. I think if I can get the voices right the rest is going to work out."

In fact, she sees all her poetry as fiction too. "I treat everything that hits the white page as fiction. It always becomes fiction because it always includes something that didn't happen or is about someone else, or someone invented. If I try to stop that happening it stops being an honest poem."