In Orlam, the surrealistic new novel written in poetic verse by alt-rock firebrand Polly Jean Harvey, a nine-year-old girl named Ira-Abel, in England’s Dorset region, swoons over ghosts and encounters real-life villains, all as foretold by her village’s oracle, Orlam, the eviscerated eye of Ira’s pet lamb. Harvey, who was once a nine-year-old Dorset girl herself, wrote the entire work in the region’s dialect — rendering words like “grievance” as “engripement” and “hot” as “hetful” — which makes the whole story even more delightfully strange. (She also included a standard-English translation of the book, which comes out in the U.S. on Aug. 1.)
Although she previously published another book of poetry, The Hollow of the Hand, in 2015, Harvey has since honed her skills under the mentorship of Scottish poet Don Paterson for a period of three years, during which she developed many of the ideas in Orlam. “Learning the craft of poetry writing seemed to be a very natural progression for me after having been a songwriter for a long time,” she says.
When she hasn’t been working on poetry, she has been recording a new album, due out next summer. “I’m very pleased with it,” she says of the music. “It took a long time to write to get right, but at last I feel very happy with it.” Here, in a rare interview, Harvey explains how Orlam originated and reflects on her music career.
Your last few projects have looked at the world at large. Why did you decide to localize this one?
With [my 2011 album] Let England Shake, I was so absorbed with reading war poets — not just First World War, but across all wars — and I found the need to put very ugly things into beautiful language. Quite often poems of great beauty are describing something very violent or very ugly. This was really intriguing to me. So I wanted to try and create lyrics of great beauty to describe these terrible, terrible things that were happening, in the way that poets had done for centuries. And that was what began to really get me interested in wanting to become a better poet.
So through Let England Shake and then [2016’s] Hope Six [Demolition Project], I was looking outward, looking at war, looking at the political landscape, looking at what was happening to all sorts of places in the world. I think I’ve always just followed my instinct as a writer, and my instinct was telling me I needed to change the scale to come back down to a small scale. One person, one village, one wood, and almost needed to as a resting place, if you like, or somewhere to sort of gather my energies again.
Which poets inspired you most while writing Orlam and in general?
As I’ve begun to appreciate the formal skills of poets and of poetry writing, I’ve found that I’m more drawn to different poets now than I was when I was younger. I think some of the greatest poets for me, particularly — and also poets that had a great influence on me whilst writing Orlam — would’ve been William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote an amazing book called A Child’s Garden of Verses that was written all from the child’s point of view.
There’s an incredible poet from the Orkney Islands, who is not known as well as he should be, named George Mackay Brown. I studied his entire works because he has an astonishing use of very concise language, the art of autonomy, an almost a runic style where he really condenses the language into as few words as possible. It relies on your associations to work, and I thought that was thrilling. I’ve read Seamus Heaney throughout my whole life, but the older I get, the more I am just in awe of him.
Another poet — I didn’t like all of his work, but a particular book really knocked me sideways and had a big influence on me — was called Mercian Hymns by Geoffrey Hill. In this book, he takes the myth of King Offa of Mercia, and he basically reappropriates the myth and sort of collapses the history of what it actually was and makes it his own. He deals in a lot of shifting perspectives and shifting time, so you’re never quite sure if you’re in the past or the present or the future, shifting narrators so it’s not always one person speaking. He was a great influence on me. I could go on and on and on.
The poet I thought you would name is William Barnes, since he wrote in the Dorset dialect.
William Barnes, I grew to love, but I came to William Barnes after I’d started writing the book. When I realized, “OK, I want to write this book in dialect,” I discovered that William Barnes had pretty much been at the forefront of collecting the Dorset dialect. He had also created his own dictionary and glossary of it. It’s out of print, but it’s one of those rare books that you could order. So I ordered it and had it printed, and then I used that as my source for all of the dialect and for the glossary in the back.
There were other sources of dialect as well, but I tried to stick as much as possible to William Barnes. And then I also then started to read William Barnes’ entire works. And the beauty of it was, I mean, I knew a little of the dialect from my early childhood; I can remember some of the elders in the village speaking it. So some of those words were already on my tongue. But then as I was writing the book, I learned the dialect like you’d learn a foreign language, until I was almost thinking in it. So when I actually came to read Barnes, I didn’t even need to translate. I just knew exactly what he was writing.
Did you grow up speaking Dorset in the Seventies and Eighties?
There were certain phrases that you’d hear. A phrase I remember that I used in the book was “Seeming I.” We would say, “Well, it seems to me that this person is …” But instead of saying “It seems to me,” they go, “Seeming I.” And I remember things like “cram-it”; that’s your afternoon lunch. I remember hearing people going, “We’re to go for cram-it.”
Still in use would be words like “t’other,” for “the other” and “b’aint”; instead of saying, “he isn’t” or “it isn’t,” you’d go, “b’aint.” Meaning that “it ain’t” — it “be ain’t” — if you see what I’m mean.
I appreciated the dirty words in the Dorset dialect in Orlam, too, like “munter,” which you wrote in a footnote meant “fugly.”
Yeah [laughs]. I had a lot of fun writing this book. I really wanted it to be not only a book of a lot of dark and very sensitive and emotional things, but also of great humor. As you can see, I used the language to my advantage in doing that.
What attracts you to writing about “dark things,” as you put it?
It’s just a natural inclination to look under the surface. I’d be the person that would want to pick up the stone and see what was underneath it — not look at the beautiful stone on the surface. I’ve always had that curiosity. I guess not everyone has that desire. It doesn’t feel dark to me.
There are some graphic scenes in Orlam of assault and bestiality, which were surprising. But at the same time, it’s not too different from reading a Flannery O’Connor story, looking at the darkness through a different lens.
Yeah. It’s wonderful to hear you mention Flannery O’Connor, because in my teens, my late teens, that canon of work had a huge effect on me. And the way of storytelling, the narration, and I’m sure, like I was saying earlier, those things you absorb, they come out at a later date.
Where do you see Orlam reflecting your own childhood in Dorset? There are lots of references to things in the Seventies.
I was referencing earlier that book by Geoffrey Hill called Mercian Hymns. The way that he collapsed history and he collapsed the facts and reinvented them as his own, I feel like I was doing the same. Like you just pointed out, sometimes there seem to be references to the Seventies, which would indeed have been my childhood. But then the names are ancient. The names are from, like, the 1800s, the folkloric material is from hundreds and hundreds of years ago. So again, there is this collapsing of era, and that really interested me. I didn’t want it to be of a specific era, but you’re not quite sure if you’re looking to the future or in the present or looking at the past. And a lot of the names, you’re not sure if they’re male or female.
And a lot of the [characters] have two names, so it’s like a dual personality. I was very interested in that blurring of reality and fiction, imagination and inventing things or actually using real sources. It’s all mixed up. And in fact, I think that as a creative artist, no matter what media you work in, we sort of absorb everything one’s ever seen, felt, dreamt, read, or seen. It goes into your being and is absorbed and swishes around and mixes with your real memories and your real experience and gets churned up. And it’s sort of remade and comes out of you in a new form. So I don’t really distinguish between the fact and the imagination because they’re all as real to me.
You grew up on a farm that had lambs, like Ira-Abel in the book. Did you form attachments to them?
If there were cade lambs — a cade lamb is an orphan lamb — you would then hand-rear them. If it was that situation, it was difficult to not become attached to them. Although we try not to because ultimately a farm is a working business, and at some point those lambs, when they’re older, are going to have to go for meat.
A lot of the knowledge about lambs in the book is firsthand. Very often lambs die, whether they’ve been born with a weakness or were cade lambs, and one of the first things that happens is that the rooks [scavenger birds] will come and take the easiest part to take, which would be an eyeball. I’m sure it’s very tasty. So that is how you would find the lambs often, already half eaten. Growing up on a farm, and I think for any child that grows up in those surroundings, you learn about the life and death cycle very early on. I think that actually was a wonderful knowledge to have at that early age, and readies you for all sorts of things that happen in later life.
There’s a lot of folklore in this book — like, “You should not eat blackberries after September.” Are you superstitious yourself?
I studied the folklore month by month, and I wrote the poems month by month. A lot of those superstitions do lodge themselves inside you, don’t they? I don’t know about you, but I still feel a bit worried about walking under a ladder and breaking a mirror. All of these superstitions that grew thousands of years ago, maybe as a warning to take care.
Often, the Dorset folklore had to do with farming. There’s one [piece of folklore] in the poem where, if a cow calves too early, and the calf dies, you take that calf and you put it in a maiden ash tree, a very young ash tree, facing east. And that’s supposed to stop the rest of the cattle from calving too early. Maybe it was just something to hang onto, to feel like you were protecting yourself — more in the way that some people might pray in times of need as a way of protection, or a way of feeling safer.
The book has a character named Wyman-Elvis who sings “Love Me Tender.” What does Elvis Presley mean to you?
Well, I loved Elvis, as a lot of children of my era did, and I still love Elvis. I love everything about him. I could lose myself in that voice, but not only that, the way he looked as well. He is almost a godlike figure in Orlam.
I didn’t realize you were such a fan. You’ve never recorded Elvis covers.
Oh, I do meditate on Elvis songs to myself. I very often play his work at the piano.
What music has been inspiring you lately?
I’ve become more and more drawn to soundtrack work. I think because of my love of film and television, I so often become completely under the spell of a soundtrack. Some of the greatest soundtrack writers would be Jonny Greenwood, Mica Levi, Hildur Guðnadóttir, her Chernobyl soundtrack for example, Ryuichi Sakamoto.
So I very often am listening to instrumental music from films, but otherwise I think sort of contemporary music I’ve really loved Thom Yorke’s solo projects, but also his work with the Smile. Mica Levi’s bands, her work with Tirzah, her work with Micachu and the Shapes, Good Sad Happy Bad. Gosh, and I recently came across Anna von Hausswolff’s All Thoughts Fly, which knocked me sideways. I thought that was amazing. Bob Dylan, I mean “Murder Most Foul” was absolutely astonishing. And I find no greater pleasure than when I see an artist who I’ve admired all my life, doing their best work as their most recent work. I think, “Oh, wow.” That just fills me with such pleasure. And I felt that with Bob Dylan’s entire Rough and Rowdy Ways album.
Over the past few years, you have released the demos to every album you’ve put out so far. As you went through those, was there anything that made you clench your teeth like, “Do I want to put this out there?”
I think because a lot of time had passed since making those demos and now, it felt like a nice thing to do. To let people in, to see a little more of the process, how the songs first start. Also, I was very attached to the demos because they’re always the first incarnation of the songs. There’s something about the spirit of the song being caught in a way that it’s never quite captured again on the album.
Did releasing the demos make you hear any of your songs differently?
Yeah, it was interesting. It actually made me want to go back to demo’ing on my four-track again. This last album I’ve just done, I literally sang in the phone; I didn’t even demo it, because I didn’t want to get attached to the demo versions. But then I felt like I’d missed out on an important part of the process, so it made me want to start doing that again.
One of my favorite songs of yours, “Nina in Ecstasy,” didn’t make the cut with the demo albums because it’s a B-side, but you used to play it at concerts. I saw you perform it as your final encore in Denver shortly after 9/11, and it was very emotional. What’s the story behind that song?
Oh, I love that song, too. I find it very moving, and that’s precisely why we put it at the end of the set shortly after 9/11, when everything everyone did had a completely different resonance. It’s hard to remember where that song came from. It was, “I’ve got a feeling.” I sort of wanted to see the beauty and the fragility within a person under a title which implies something more like a porno movie, if that makes sense. There’s a person there and it’s fragile and it’s beautiful and it’s broken. And again, I think I was looking under the surface; I was looking under the stone.
In an interview circa Rid of Me, you said you thought you’d be in the music business another five years. What was your backup plan?
I very much thought I was going to go to art college, because that was what I was supposed to do. I had a place to study fine art as a degree at Saint Martin’s [School of Art] in London. I really wanted to do that. I’ve always painted and drawn. I still do. And I was set to do that course, but then I deferred it when I got offered a record deal for Dry. And then even at the time of Rid of Me, I thought, “Oh, well I’m allowed to make one more album.” But then I was able to just continue doing this.
You do so much of the artistic process, whether writing or making art, alone. Do you consider yourself an introvert? Do you feel introversion has its advantages?
I think I’m a mixture of introvert and extrovert. I mean, to get on the stage, I think a lot of performing artists are the same, actually. There is this dichotomy of this need to express oneself up on a stage in front of people, and a need for quietness and time to reflect and study. And I definitely have that. I mean, I don’t really feel I’m able to answer the question very well, but I need both in my life.
On your last tour, you sang Rid of Me’s “50ft Queenie.” How do those early songs, where you’re hollering, feel to you now?
I was in my late teens, early twenties when I’d written some of those songs. At that time, it was a type of expression I needed. And things change. You get older and you don’t need to express yourself in that same way and you need to find other ways of expression.
Do you feel a song like “50ft Queenie” differently when you perform it live now? It was a staple of your last tour.
I think I had to inhabit different parts of myself [for some songs]. Not all of the songs I feel able to play anymore, as much as I love them, because I feel that I’m now an older woman that couldn’t sing those words with any conviction. But “50ft Queenie” I can, because that’s a character that I can imagine and inhabit.
Recently, a Guardian profile of you described you as “one-time muse of Nick Cave.” Does that irk you after all these decades?
That’s happened all my life. It doesn’t upset me in any way. And it must be hard for Nick as well, but that’s just the way things are.
Finally, on the book cover, Orlam is credited to PJ Harvey and not Polly Jean Harvey. Why is that?
Well, I see my work throughout my life as all one body of work, really, I don’t differentiate between my poetry writing or my drawing or my songwriting. They’re all by me. And the name I have gone under forever is PJ Harvey. So it felt like this book should be under that name.