In early 2017 I had the good fortune to come back to the UK to undertake a Clarissa Luard Award Residency at The Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. While there I spent most of my time reading books, none more so than the poems of four amazing contemporary poets: Polly Atkin, John McCullough, Caroline Smith and Daniel Sluman.
When The Poetry Business invited me to take part in this online residency I contacted each poet to ask if I could interview them about their work, and use one poem from each poet as a writing exercise for readers. Each poet very generously agreed!
The first poet I interviewed was Polly Atkin, whose book Basic Nest Architecture was published in 2017 by Seren Books. The poems, that “stand out for the reach of the imagination and the power of the language” (Jo Shapcott) are mainly located in the English Lake District, in Grasmere and the surrounding environment.
Reading the poems in that landscape felt particularly special, and I was stunned (and a tad jealous, who wouldn’t be?) by Atkin’s ability to conjure animals and light and land so vividly and freshly.
Thanks very much to Polly for agreeing to be interviewed, and for allowing her poem “Jack Daw” to form the basis of a writing exercise.
Interview with Polly Atkin
D: I was very fortunate to obtain a copy of your book while staying in Grasmere earlier this year, and read the poems slowly, noticing the herons and jackdaws of the village appearing in your poems as well as the landmarks. I wonder if you could talk a little about what Grasmere means to you, and how living there has impacted your poetry.
P: Grasmere is the first place I’ve ever lived in that I felt really at home in. It wasn’t something I thought was particularly missing in my life beforehand, but it was a revelation. Living in a place I loved changed the way I related to the things around me, and added a kind of hyper-intensity to the everyday. I often say I moved to the Lake District ‘by accident’, with a nod to Withnail and I: I didn’t exactly choose to move here, but came part of my doctoral research. I spent my first year in Grasmere feeling very much like I’d split a timeline: that there was a me still living her city-life in East London, the only adult life I’d known, who was completely different now to the version of me living by mud, starlight and coaldust through her first Grasmere winter.
Meanwhile those non-human residents of the vale became my neighbours, and started to appear in my poems just like the magpies and urban foxes had when I lived in Mile End. I struggled with this for a long time after my move, partly because ‘rural’ poetry was so unfashionable: no one seemed to want to hear about my life with deer, or my life with moss. I could, of course, have been writing poems about rural bin collection rotas, or the fact we can’t get doctors at our local health practice, but that requires a kind of satirical sharpness that hasn’t been at the centre of how I write a poem. Yet.
The other aspect I have to mention about living in Grasmere was the influence of the Wordsworth Trust Contemporary Literature Programme. For the first eight years I was living here, there were poetry readings every fortnight from May to October, bringing outstanding poets to the village, as well as workshops, festivals, artists- and poets-in-residence and a general creative atmosphere. I can’t overstate the importance of that – of being able to hear and talk to all those amazing creative people – on my own creative development.
“I spent my first year in Grasmere feeling very much like I’d split a timeline: that there was a me still living her city-life in East London, the only adult life I’d known, who was completely different now to the version of me living by mud, starlight and coaldust through her first Grasmere winter.”Polly Atkin
D: One of the things I enjoy about the book is your skillful juxtaposition of different elements. I enjoy the direct heron/snow fog/fox juxtapositions but also the dual references to city life / country life and the change brought on by times of day and the coming of night fall. What is it that inspires you to write about such juxtapositions / changes?
P: This is a very good question but also hard to answer, as I’m not quite sure why. I’m very aware of changes in state and status – part of the side-effect of hypersensitivity, of being a bit of a human barometer – but I think part of my interest in those juxtapositions and those liminal moments is to do with not really believing in the separation of things. Where does day become night, winter become spring, or urban become rural? I’m interested in “betweeness”, and entanglement, and how they might collapse categories and binaries. I think a lot of my writing stems from that.
I also have a combination of quite a tactile and visual imagination, so qualities of light and shifts in weather are very important to me in fixing a sense of place, or of a moment. I’ve never grown out of the suspicion that magical things might happen in those in between spaces and times.
D: Basic Nest Architecture is praised by Helen Mort for its ability to “listen for the barely perceptible sounds and rhythms that run beneath our built worlds” – I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how sound functions within your poetry.
P: I have to answer this partly through the Wordsworths (with Bowie’s ‘Sound and Vision’ playing the background) so I hope readers will bear with me. William Wordsworth writes in The Prelude about listening to the ‘ghostly language of the ancient earth’, and argues that what makes poets poets is their ability to ‘perceive/Something unseen before’. When William says Dorothy taught him to perceive like a poet, he doesn’t just write ‘she gave me eyes’, but also ‘she gave me ears’. It is the ‘inevitable ear’, as well as the ‘finer eye’, of his brother John that leads William to dub him ‘a silent poet’ in ‘When First I Journeyed Hither’. John has ‘a heart more wakeful’; a heart open and alive to the potentiality of the natural world. Listening was a large part of the poetic process for Wordsworth; part of a process of being deeply attentive to the things around you, of perceiving things unseen before. But I don’t think this ‘listening’ is literally about ‘sounds’, any more than ‘seeing’ is about objects. It’s the wakeful heart that’s the key.
For me, a lot of the power of a poem is in transferring that perception – perception in the broadest sense, as a three (or more?) dimensional experience – to the reader.. I also think that in a time of climate crisis and social and political crises we need to more attentive to the world around us than ever.
There are other ways I could answer this question which are more to do with the form and structure of the poems, and what might be called ‘musicality’, but I feel underqualified to comment on that in my own work.
“…qualities of light and shifts in weather are very important to me in fixing a sense of place, or of moment. I’ve never grown out of the suspicion that magical things might happen in those in between spaces and times.”Polly Atkin
D: One of the things that I love about your book is the freshness with which you tackle and describe animals, economically but precisely, particularly in terms of their actions. “Fox lopes in, solid and bright in her frame” “your shaking body bunched in a sphere”, “diving silently upwards into the tumbling white” – I wonder if you could tell us a little about how you approach an animal poem, how do you avoid the obvious choices when describing them and ensure the poem does something new?
P: Firstly, I’m delighted you do think they’re doing something new – the fear is always that you’re avoiding one hole and falling into another. I often feel caught between an intention to describe non-human things ‘as they really are’ – the thing-in-itself – and an awareness of my inability to escape my human gaze and language, in all its particularity. Years ago I went to a workshop at which the workshop leader said “I don’t want a poem about a tree; I want the poem to be a tree.” But a poem isn’t a tree. A poem does something different to a tree. I try to write about animals and other living things with that in mind: I know I can’t write a heron, only a poem with a heron in it, but I can try my best to impart something particularly herony in that poem.
I try to balance a keen eye on what I think I see – challenging my assumptions – with acceptance that anything I write will have certain biases woven through it. I try to work with them, I suppose. I’m very guilty of the kind of magical thinking that is denigrated in a lot of ecopoetry and animal studies arenas, but it’s how I think, and I want to be honest about that in the poems.
“I often feel caught between an intention to describe non-human things ‘as they really are’ – the thing-in-itself – and an awareness of my inability to escape my human gaze and language, in all its particularity.”Polly Atkin
D: On a similar note, Id like to ask you about your characterful poem ‘Jack Daw’, and thank you for letting us feature it here as an exercise poem. How did the poem come to be written? I ask this entirely vicariously, as I wish I could come up with a line as good as “love of the shine”.
P: I wrote ‘Jack Daw’ for Sidekick Books’ Birdbook project; an ‘alternative orthopedia’ which assigned each of the birds of the British Isles a poem and an illustration. One of my dear friends, Emily Hasler, had a poem in the first book, and I was overjoyed to get to sign up for the third (Farmland, Heathland, Mountain and Moorland).
When I moved to Grasmere I was struck by how it has gangs of jackdaws like other places have gangs of pigeons. I was taken with their quirky intelligence, and their comedic aspects: the funny noises they make, and the way they will hop up to you if they want something and cock their heads at you. They’d already appeared as extras in a few of my poems, so when I saw jackdaw on the Birdbook list I leapt at it.
Often when I take on a commission I’ll begin with research, which is what I did with ‘Jack Daw’. Most of the poems I’ve written for specific projects like this are on subjects I’ve already had thoughts about, but just haven’t found the impetus to write yet. So I begin by sketching out my vague assumptions or anecdotal thoughts on the subject, then look up everything I can find out about them, and use that research to challenge and augment my initial thoughts. I’m very interested in folk knowledge, and how that that is reflected often in the naming of things, which is where I ended up started with ‘Jack Daw’: the various names for them in different languages; how those names echoed jackdaw habits and showed shared observations and beliefs across cultures and language barriers. I also wanted to interweave those with scientific observations which struck me as belonging, in some way, to the same field study.
So I put all the snippets of information that appealed to me into a word doc and began reforming it into a poem. It went through a lot of drafts before it reached the form it is in the book, a lot of which was to do with rearranging phrases and whittling down. As editor of Birdbook III Kirsten Irving had some editorial input too.
D: Finally, I wonder if you could share a few recommendations for readers – books and poems you have most enjoyed in the past few years?
I’ve been enjoying Kayo Chingonyi’s excellent debut Kumukanda; Karen McCarthy Woolf’s second collection Seasonal Disturbances (I loved her first collection An Aviary of Small Birds); Tania Hershman’s Terms and Conditions; Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds (who hasn’t?); Thomas A Clark’s A farm by the shore; Seren stablemates Siobhan Campell’s Heat Signature, Rhiannon Hooson’s The Other City and Emily Blewitt’s This is Not a Rescue,and pamphlets from Katie Hale, Pauline Yarwood and Rhian Edwards.
I think Pavillion are publishing some really interesting stuff, and I’d recommend any of their collections, and anything by their editor Deryn Rees Jones.
There is also a lot of great Scottish poetry being published that people in England don’t seem to be very aware of. J. L. William’s After Economy is high on my ‘to read’ list, and I thoroughly enjoyed Glasgow Makar Jim Carruth’s Black Cart.
Liz Berry’s Black Country, Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade, and Eireann Lorsung’s Her Book are going to stay in my favourites pile for a long time, and I keep coming back to Helen Mort’s second collection No Map Could Show Them.
I read a lot of Canadian poetry and particular favourites are Erin Moure, Karen Solie, Leanne Simpson, Damian Rogers, Don McKay, Sina Queyras, Anne Michaels, Johanna Skibsrudand Michael DeBeyer (whose first collection Rural Night Catalogue, I’ve lost, and am very sad about). My partner has been sent Then/Again by Michelle Elrick for review, and it’s one of those books that feels like it was written just for me. I’m definitely stealing that for my read and re-read pile.
Polly Atkin lives in the English Lake District. Her first collection, Basic Nest Architecture, was published by Seren in February 2017. Her pamphlet bone song (Aussteiger, 2008) was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Pamphlet Award, 2009, and Shadow Dispatches (Seren, 2013), won the Mslexia Pamphlet Prize, 2012.