By M.M. Wittle
Iain Haley Pollock lives in Philadelphia and teaches English at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. His debut collection of poems, Spit Back a Boy, won the 2010 Cave Canem Prize. In addition, his work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, and Callaloo. Here is the interview I was lucky enough to have with him.
What about the form of
poetry attracts you to use poetry to express your ideas?
I’m attracted to the distillation of experience and language involved in poetry. I enjoy the
challenge of boiling down a range of details to that one or those few that best
render an experience or idea. The same
goes for language: in English we have reams of vocabulary at our disposal but a
poem demands that the poet chooses the best combination of words to capture
details and actions. Poetry—even free
verse, which is famously anything but free—requires a rigor and discipline of
thought and language that I admire.
In many of your poems,
you use an ampersand and alliteration.
In your opinion, what is the reasoning behind using these constructs? Is
it to further the sound and flow of the poem or is there a more personal reason
behind their uses?
I use both the ampersand and alliteration for sonic
reasons. In some senses I’m working to
perfect the Romantic dictum that poetry should have something of plain speech
in it. These days folks don’t seem to
fully pronounce the word “and,” and my use of the ampersand attempts to capture
that speech pattern. Also, I find the
ampersand moves more quickly and is less bulky in a line of poetry than is
“and.” I think of ampersands as
coordinating conjunctions but “and” as a subordinating conjunction. As for alliteration, since I don’t use rhyme
and meter, I need tools to help heighten the intensity of a line and call
readers’ attention to a moment in the poem.
I’m also interested in the history of the two poetic traditions—English
and African American—in which I work.
The use of alliteration helps loosely tie my work to the tradition of
English poetry—Old English poetry was heavily alliterative. Of course, the use of alliteration can be
dangerous; one only need check out tabloid headlines to see that alliteration
tends to be overused and can become hackneyed in a hurry.
In a few of your
poems, “Oya in Old City” and “The Recessive Gene” you capture childhood
curiosity so well. In “Oya” the narrator
focuses on the “three-whiskered mole” (18).
With “The Recessive Gene,” the narrator takes a knife to his skin looking
for the “. . .black on the inside” (4).
What advice could you give to someone who is looking to write a young
narrator? What things do writers need to keep in mind to carry out a successful
I would suggest that folks looking to write a young narrator
spend time around children, particularly when children are hanging out together
and don’t seem as conscious of the adult world.
My writing about childhood has been informed by teaching and coaching at
an all-boys middle school and seeing the boys interact with one another. Overhearing how boys talk to one another, how
they misinterpret one another and adults, and their often sideways approach to
analyzing the world around them have have changed how I write about my own
boyhood. Take “Oya,” for example: I
wrote that poem during the summer at a Cave Canem workshop with a child
speaker. But when I came back to school
in the fall, I realized that my speaker had insight into and an awareness of
the world that most children are not capable of having. I ended up changing the narrator to an adult
narrator who is remembering a childhood experience. This speaks to one difficulty of the child
narrator: great writing demands levels of detail, nuance, and awareness that we
don’t develop, by and large, until our late teenage years or early twenties.
The title of your collection,
Spit Back a Boy, comes from a line in
“Oya,” and many poems in your collection deal with a person straddling two
worlds and looking for acceptance. Can
you explain a bit where this idea of being tossed back into the world as what the
people around you want to become comes from?
That thread comes from my experience of being bi-racial—my
mother is Black and American and my father is White and English. I was raised as Black and to be proud of the
social, cultural, and intellectual accomplishments of Black Americans, but
owing to my light skin, most folks assume I’m White. And in some senses, I’m proud of my English
heritage, particularly when it comes to English poetry, although I have trouble
accepting the brutal legacy of colonialism and slavery. I don’t feel trapped between these two worlds
but feel uncomfortable when either side of me isn’t properly recognized. But the speaker of “Oya” has some differences
from me; in the poem I’m toying with the archetype of the “tragic
mulatto.” It seems to me that tragic
mulattoes in literature tend to make a virtue of Whiteness, but in the poem the
“mulatto” speaker makes a virtue of Blackness.
In the poem, “Killadelphia” you once again capture the
sound of the city. Even though they are words on the page, the reader can hear,
as well as imagine, the poem unfolding. How did the poem come to you? Was it
through or did you see the poem first and then hear it?
“Killadelphia” was another poem that started at the Cave
Canem summer retreat. Before the retreat
I was reading Gerald Manley Hopkins, and this poem started as a weak and
unsuccessful pastiche of what I admire in Hopkins—that his sprung rhythm
creates a burst of speed in the line.
The poem was almost entirely a concatenation of sound. I’d woken
in the middle of the night to
the sound of gunshots and someone running up the street; I was trying to
represent that experience of darkness and sound. I couldn’t pull it off and added images to
help anchor the sounds and aid with the lyric development.
What is the
relationship between poet and reader? Is there something you specifically want
your reader to get from your poems or is it more like you are having a
conversation with your reader and whatever the reader gets from the poem,
that’s what is in the poem for them?
I don’t think the poet exists without the reader. I agree with Stephen Dobyns’ thoughts on the
reader in his book of essays Best Words,
Best Order. Readers complete the poem; that is, readers use their
imagination, intellect, empathy, and research to tease out the emotions, tones,
and meanings of a poem. In doing so they
finish the process that the poet begins in choosing images and distilling
language. But I think it is incumbent on
me as a poet to have a clear vision of the emotions, tones and meanings of a
poem. The best images are open images
that have room for interpretation but it’s not a free-for-all—the poet must
take pains to create the limits of interpretation.
After reading the poem
“My Stove’s in Good Condition,” I found a strong sense of Langston Hughes’ poem
“Weary Blues.” What poets have
influenced your writing as well as what types of music have influenced your
When I was a boy, my parents bought me an anthology of
African American poetry called I Am the
Darker Brother. Poets in that
volume—Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and most importantly Robert Hayden—influenced
my reading of poetry and my writing of poetry.
And I’m thankful to have had many and generous teachers at Syracuse:
Michael Burkard, Arthur Flowers, Brooks Haxton, Mary Karr, Chris Kennedy, and
Bruce Smith. Beyond that you’d have to
come check out my bookshelf to see what has influenced me. I read much more poetry than I write, and I
pick up something from each poet I read.
In one poem I might try to use adjectives as Elizabeth Bishop did, or
break the lines in another as Jericho Brown does. I’m also influenced by fiction writers—Toni
Morrison and Cormac McCarthy stand out for me.
Musically, hip hop gave me young Black intellectual role models when I
was coming up, but these days when music comes up in my poems it’s usually
jazz—Mingus, Miles Davis, hard bop—or the Blues, especially the early
The poem, “Shot &
Killed” is very short and haunting. How many drafts did this poem take? How did
you know when you achieved your goal in this poem and in any of your poems?
I don’t keep track of my drafts, so it’s difficult to say. I
will say that I’ve become a relentless tinkerer. Changing words. Breaking and re-breaking
lines. Adding new images only to cut
them. Often, the shorter a poem the more tinkering that’s required because each
word has to bear more pressure. I don’t
have a magic moment for when a poem is finished. I try to make each poem develop the best that
it can, but often as I’m reading another poet’s work, I’ll realize that they’re
making a move will help improve one of my poems. Also, before I set a poem in stone, I usually
show it to readers whom I trust to see how they’re reading a poem to make sure
it is consistent with my vision of the poem.