Last week Widener was visited by the New York-based poet Iain Haley Pollock, who spent much of his youth in Philadelphia. His time in Philadelphia inspired him to write his collection of poetry, “Spit Back a Boy.” I sat down with Pollock for about 16 minutes to ask him a few questions—some simple and some more personal.
As a youth, he had great English teachers, but as he got older he “didn’t have a creative outlet.” His parents are academics and he spent time on college campuses from when he was born until he was 22. His early studies built up the basis for his writing until after college when he took up the pen seriously. His tip for college students to become a writer is “to gain knowledge and experience—learn the types of trees and architecture even.” His opinion is “some people have a gift of language but don’t know how to express it,” so developing that skill is important through exposure.
Pollock stated that Philadelphia and New York have easy access to culture, and life in urban areas form the basis for movements like Pollock’s interest in social justice. Pollock’s other love is music, and early hip hop and rap artists helped establish his interest in language, because they “are conscious of how they sound.” As he got older, he was inspired by the lives of jazz musicians, which helped his take on free verse (the style of poetry he writes). However, he wouldn’t call his poetry “improv” because he tries to make it sound better in his own way. Jazz also helped him use “the way people speak, like on his block” for the dialect he uses in his poetry.
Getting to more personal questions, I asked how race has impacted his poetry. Pollock told me his father is white British and his mother is African American, so he felt “in-between cultures” and “doesn’t shy away from talking about race.” He took a step further saying, “I’m always upset when people emphasize race—like this is ‘white’ music and this is ‘black’ music,” which I found interesting. His family’s interracial marriage established his view on race and he “never understood mainstream white American culture” because of his family’s dynamics.
I asked about how much his family impacted him as a person and Pollock’s demeanor shifted from a typical conversation to deeply invested one. For much of his life his immediate family (he never spent too much time with his cousins or extended family in England) was the focus of his life, and he said, “I didn’t think my nuclear family’s influence came out specifically in my work.”
Pollock certainly does not fit an “archetype” as I asked, but is really unique as a writer. By this, I mean an “African-American writer,” a “mixed race writer,” an “academic writer.” He stands alone by his unique experience.
His final tip for college students is “don’t be so anxious about finding a job after college, but don’t shy away from careers in the Arts. The money is there, so follow your interests.” I don’t think truer words could have been stated about the Humanities in college! Iain Haley Pollock is a fun guy and has what I call a “cool cat, Jazz type” about him, so if you missed his poetry readings, I suggest you pick up his book “Spit Back a Boy,” which can be purchased at his website: iainhaleypollock.com/.
Photos by Jennifer Rohrbach ’18