Annette John-Hall: A poet writing from parallel perspectives

Iain Haley Pollock, Chestnut Hill Academy English teacher and winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize.
Iain Haley Pollock, Chestnut Hill Academy English teacher and winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize.
Posted: November 16, 2010

The Chestnut Hill Academy English teacher walks with a looping gait that fits his strapping frame. His blue eyes penetrate behind wire frames. His skin, the color of bleached almonds, is lighter than the khakis most of his seventh graders wear.

His kinky, ponytailed locks snake down his back, making him resemble a younger, hipper Kelsey Grammer.

He speaks with no hint of cultural affect that would give him away one way or the other.

Iain Haley Pollock is one of those racially ambiguous people we increasingly see more of every day, yet who the more curious among us still ask, "What are you?"

It's a question Pollock, 32, has heard all of his life. And while he's finally secure in his own racial identity, his poetry helped him grapple with not only how he sees himself, but the way in which others see him.

That's why Spit Back a Boy, Pollock's debut book of poetry and winner of the prestigious Cave Canem Poetry Prize - awarded to exceptional first books by African American poets - is particularly resonant in the era of Obama and a hoped-for post-racial society that, sadly, seems even more polarized.

Pollock's unique hue enables him to see how skin privilege plays out every day. When he was a teenager, he remembers being followed in a department store when he was with his Puerto Rican friends, but was left to roam when he was with his white pals.

And unlike President Obama, who once said he would have trouble getting a taxi, cabbies have no problem stopping for Pollock.

"I see when people of different races talk to each other, there is something unnatural in their carriages," he observes. "I think I have a greater comfort level talking about race with people of all different backgrounds."

Pollock's first visit to Philadelphia as a child inspired the collection's title poem. A woman on the street caught him staring at her and stuck her tongue out at him:

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.

Raised black

Like President Obama, Pollock is biracial. His mother, Shelley P. Haley, a professor of classics and Africana studies at Hamilton College in Upstate New York, is African American; his father, Adrian Pollock, a fifth-grade teacher, is a "ruddy-cheeked" white Englishman, Pollock says.

The Haverford graduate admits his caramel-colored mother "was surprised at how light I came out." Younger sister Caitlin, who lives in Harlem, is even fairer - she could probably pass for white, Pollock says.

All of this made for an interesting dynamic for parents intent on raising their children to know and be proud of their black heritage.

"I feel like I was raised black. Part of that probably was because my father was living outside of his culture," says Pollock, who lives near 30th and Girard with his wife, Naomi, who is white and Jewish. "I can't imagine living anywhere where there weren't any black people."

He remembers he and Caitlin grew up reading poetry by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks and listening to jazz masters, along with Dylan and Aretha - even while their mother was being mistaken for their nanny.

Poetry, Pollock, says, should convey many things. But more than anything, he tried to make the poems in his collection accessible.

"That's the challenge of poetry today. If somebody read my poetry 100 years from now, I think it should reflect the time. It has a responsibility to do that," Pollock says of Spit Back a Boy, due out in April.

His hope is that all people can relate to his pieces, which, despite its links to racial identity, focuses on the "emotional familiarity" of everyday life.

"I work with middle-school boys who are looking for their place in society," he says. "I think everybody tries to find a more universal humanity - or at least recognizes the frustration of wanting to belong."


Contact me at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com. Read my work: http://go.philly.com/annette. Follow me on Twitter @Annettejh

|
|
|
|
|