Iain Haley Pollock ’00 Wins Cave Canem Poetry Prize
Iain Haley Pollock, ’00, was just a child when he visited Philadelphia for the first time, and one particular incident left an indelible impression. A woman on the street caught him staring at her and promptly stuck her tongue out at him. “That has always shaded my perception of Philly,” recalls Pollock, 32.
He captured the moment in a poem, which in turn inspired the title of his forthcoming first book of poetry, Spit Back a Boy. The Cave Canem Foundation Inc. awarded Pollock’s book the prestigious 2010 Cave Canem Poetry Prize in September.
Founded in 1996, Cave Canem cultivates the artistic and professional growth of African-American poets. The prize goes to exceptional first books by African-American poets. “To be able to represent the group through the prize is a great honor,” says Pollock, who is also a Cave Canem fellow. Elizabeth Alexander, a Cave Canem faculty member who was selected by President Obama to compose a poem for his inauguration, chose Spit Back a Boy for the award.
The collection of poems, to be published in spring 2011 by the University of Georgia Press, focuses on the “emotional familiarity” of everyday life and links themes of racial identity, romance, and mortality, he says. Pollock, whose mother is African-American and father is Caucasian, says he wished growing up that he had a darker, less ambiguous, complexion. Time and imagination transformed the memory of his first Philadelphia experience, turning it into a touchstone for racial identity in the poem, “Oya in Old City.”
I flung my almost white self
into my mother’s embrace—that brown
embrace I hoped would swallow me whole
and spit back a boy four shades darker—
while the woman chuntered away, her cart
rattling over cobbles worn by centuries of traffic.
Poetry seemed to be an unlikely future for Pollock. After graduating from Haverford with an English degree, he went into corporate public relations. “I felt this pressure, as my parents’ oldest child, not to be a financial burden to them,” Pollock explains. “It wasn’t my intent to become a poet.” But friends from Haverford who worked in the non-profit world encouraged his eventual decision to try another path. Pollock’s poetry began appearing in literary publications and he moved into teaching. He is now in his fourth year at Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia, where he teaches seventh and eighth grade English.
Pollock says his poems serve as a witness to his times. “I didn’t write in a serious way at Haverford,” he admits. “[But] I believe poets should be aware of their time. Haverford was important in my understanding of that.”