by Lou Mancinelli
For the past seven years award-winning poet Iain Haley Pollock has balanced his wonderful craft and teaching English at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH).
“I just want kids to know that there is a path forward,” said Pollock during a recent interview, about his goals as a teacher. “[I want them to know] there is a way to be a writer in a world that is not completely alienating.”
You don’t have to live in New York or some glamorous city, dress in black and smoke incessantly, Pollock maintains. “I didn’t realize you could kind of cobble together a middle class existence as a poet,” he said.
On April 4 Pollock read some of his poetry at Musehouse: A Center for Literary Arts at 7924 Germantown Ave. Before Musehouse, SCH and “Spit Back a Boy” (University of Georgia, 2011), his first book of poetry, earned him a Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2010, and catapulted him onto the Philadelphia literary scene, Pollock worked for four years at an unsatisfying corporate job for a public relations firm in Boston.
“I’d always thought getting out of college that it was my job to make as much [money] as I could … I think I underestimated how much money you needed to survive.”
Pollock felt stifled at the PR firm. He was in his early 20s, and he started reading William Faulkner because he thought that “reading Faulkner would save my soul.” The reading inspired in him the desire to start writing. It was a way to channel the frustration he felt in the corporate world.
Though Pollock studied English as an undergrad at Haverford College (’00), he had never before considered becoming a writer. The visions of writers that danced in his head were of wealthy people with lots of free time. The son of two professors, raised mostly in upstate New York, but also in Washington D.C. and southern California, Pollock did start writing some poems.
Then, encouraged by a few friends “who knew nothing about poetry” but who thought his poems were good, he applied to a number of MFA programs and ended up getting full funding to Syracuse University.
His evolution as a poet has surprised him. Pollock joked that he’s afraid now to read those poems he submitted with his application. “I came in pretty terrible,” he said, although his mentor said at graduation that Pollock had grown more than any other poet the mentor had known.
“Poetry has the ability to pick that one detail that speaks volumes,” said Pollock, 36, who lives in the Brewerytown section of the city with his wife, Naomi, and two-year-old son, Asa.
Many of his writings include hip-hop or funk lyrics, references to jazz musician Charles Mingus and the blues. Pollock’s poetry is a free-verse place where music meets character, and complex human emotions are painted with simple but heart-rending images.
When Pollock reads his work aloud, which he always does, the right sound starts to reveal itself the more he flirts with a line break and taking out a word here or there. For a writer who is concerned he may not be good enough at developing characters to write novels, the people in Pollock’s poems seem as real as people in a photograph.
“And all our sadness will be old Arkansas,” he writes in “Rattla cain’t hold me,” a poem from his first book. The title is taken from a line in a work song, “Judy,” recorded by Bruce Jackson in 1996. Later the poem continues: “We’ll miss / rain in autumn dousing the fire of the / wind writhing like a water moccasin. / Like convicts we’ll sing, Rattla cain’t hold me.”
Pollock’s interracial heritage also plays a major role in his writing. He was raised by an African-American mother and a white, English father whose roots go back to a town in England where slave ships were built. That dichotomy of ancestry, of feeling like an outsider on the inside, is a thread that runs throughout Pollock’s work.
Memory also plays a major part in the production of Pollock’s poetry. He is able to tell short stories in just a few lines. People often connect to stories about race because that feeling of being disconnected transcends race; it is a human emotion.
A great deal of his work is triggered by memory associations. He might be driving and hear a song that leads to a poem. Sometimes, when he arrives at school, he shuffles in quickly, shuts the door and writes.
For the past seven years, since graduating from Syracuse’s MFA program in creative writing in 2007, Pollock has taught kids at all grade levels at SCH, where he is the Cyrus H. Nathan ’30 Distinguished Faculty Chair for English. He’s developed a creative writing concentration and right now teaches mainly sophomores and juniors.
And just like the SCH community, Pollock says the Philadelphia poetry community has been welcoming. As soon as he got the job at SCH, he started receiving invitations to read. The Cave Canem poetry award he received is given to distinguished African-American writers.
Pollock described Philly as “a poetry town.” During the school year, there are numerous readings, and Pollock attends almost one a week. But the poet also finds himself busy at SCH with mentoring, teaching, grading and creating lesson plans. The summer is strictly for writing, though.
For more information, visit www.iainhaleypollock.com.