Polly Atkin

shadow dispatches


In the next few months I have work coming out in two shiny new mixed-genre anthologies, and a new poetry pamphlet.

The first of the anthologies is Gush: Menstrual Manifestos for our Times, which is edited by Ariel Gordon, Tanis MacDonald, and Rosanna Deerchild, and published by Frontenac House in Calgary. My contribution is a couple of venesection poems, from a sequence called ‘v/s’ (the shorthand for venesection) which I began writing back in January 2016 when I started treatment. One of the things that delayed my diagnosis with Haemochromatosis (genetic iron-overload) is the misconception that women don’t begin to load iron until after the menopause, because menstruation manages it. It should be needless to say that not all women menstruate (regularly, much, or at all) for a variety of reasons – one of which, ironically enough, is iron-overload – so it’s particularly frustrating to me that many medical professionals keep hanging onto this outdated belief. The anthology includes prose, poetry, flash, non-fiction, graphic memoir and more. And it looks like this, which is amazing:


The second anthology is similarly multi-genre, and will be published by Vertebrate in the autumn. Waymaking: an anthology of women’s adventure writing and art seeks to redress the gender imbalance in published nature and adventure writing. There is a domination of the field by able-bodied white men, and there is a lot of work to do in bringing more voices forward. The poem of mine that is included comes from a really bad time pre-diagnosis, when my world had shrunk and shrunk down to the house and a few metres around it that I could just about get to and from.


I find the ableism implicit in a lot of outdoor and landscape writing really excluding. When it does address health issues or disability, it tends to do so from a ‘nature-cure’ angle, which is as problematic as the focus on ‘summiting’ and extreme activities. It’s great to celebrate the achievements of the body, and particularly to re-centre some women’s ability and drive to push their bodies to excel, but it’s also really important to remember that some bodies are being pushed to and beyond their limits by really basic things, like making a drink, or going to the toilet. I don’t need any more challenge, thank you very much. I’d like to just lie on a squishy mossy knoll in the sun, and listen to the birds.  To me it’s really important that in addressing the gender imbalance in outdoor writing we don’t just recreate the same imbalances, but with women too.  The full list of contributors gives a hint of the variety of perspectives and approaches that will be included in Waymaking, and I hope it will go towards helping to widen the field: 

Jean Atkin | Polly Atkin | Camilla Barnard | Hazel Barnard | Sandy Bennett-Haber | Jen Benson | Judith Brown | Claire Carter | Genevieve Carver | Imogen Cassels | Maria Coffey | Lee Craigie | Joanna Croston | Lizzy Dalton | Nick Davies | Heather Dawe | Cath Drake | Paula Dunn | Lily Dyu | Caroline Eustace | Hazel Findlay | Paula Flach | Anna Fleming | Nikki Frumkin | Claire Giordano | Alison Grant | Geraldine Green | Lilace Mellin Guignard | Alyson Hallett | Melissa Harrison | Leslie Hsu Oh | Kathryn Hummel | Katie Ives | Kathleen Jones | Mab Jones | Solana Joy | Dr Judy Kendall | Anja Konig | Tami Knight | Tara Kramer | Dr Alexandra Lewis | Tessa Lyons | Bernadette McDonald | Anna McNuff | Helen Mort | Evelyn O’Malley | Sarah Outen | Kari Nielsen | Libby Peter | Jen Randall | Penelope Shuttle | Ruth Wiggins | Allison Williams | Pam Williamson | Deziree Wilson | Krystle Wright

There is a kickstarter for Waymaking through which you can support the project, and all royalties will be split between the John Muir Trust and Rape Crisis.

I’m aware all of this looks like I’ve been really busy, and in some ways I have: I’ve been doing a lot of readings, and I’ve been working on new poems for a second collection (which I hope won’t take too long to emerge into the world) and on the non-fiction book I am being mentored for through WriteNow. I almost forgot to mention one of the really fun things  I’ve done over the last few months – visiting Aberdeen University Swing Dance Society to write a poem about why they dance and what it means to them for My Time – a project devised by Voluntary Arts Scotland with poets from St. Mungo’s Mirrorball. I was really nervous about visiting the group, for many reasons, largely to do with my own complicated history with dance and disability, but they were so welcoming, and so enthusiastic. I learnt a lot, and not just dance steps. All the poems from the project have been put together in a pamphlet and will be shown in exhibitions around Scotland this year.


Photo by Adam MacMaster

The two above anthologies have both taken much longer than initially expected to come together, and it’s a coincidence that they’re coming out within a few months of each other. My new pamphlet, on the other hand, has happened at superspeed as far as most things in poetry go, accelerating from first talks in February to launching next month.

With Invisible Rain is being published by New Walk Press, in parallel with a new pamphlet from Alan Jenkins. We’re having a launch at Five Leaves Books in Nottingham on May 22nd, so do come along if you’re in the area.

I’m especially delighted to have a cover image by Kim Tillyer, whose cyanotypes using the Lake district landscape, light and foliage seem particularly appropriate. There is a lot of found work in the pamphlet, equals parts Lake District rain to bodily pain, a few deer, and some blood.


Meanwhile, people have been asking me questions, and I’ve been trying to come up with coherent and useful answers. Arusa Qureshi interviewed me amongst a cohort of amazing female poets involved with this year’s StAnza; Richard Smyth asked me some questions about nature writing ahead of the Wildlines festival in Leeds for The State of the Arts, and Chrissy Williams included me in a fascinating series of interviews about first collections.

One of the features of having memory problems that I really hate is not being able to think of the names of things/people on the spot, no matter how much they matter to me, so it was good to be able to spend a bit of slow time thinking about the answers to these, especially the ‘who are you reading now’ type questions. In live-time, my mind goes completely blank when someone asks me this, as I was reminded in both a job interview and a poetry reading recently.

As the year goes on I’ll be doing more readings both from Basic Nest Architecture, and from With Invisible Rain, and talking about different aspects of writing, the Lake District and Chronic Illness at a couple of conferences. In May, I’m talking on ‘We Must Learn to Speak of What we are Made Of: Writing at the Intersection of Pathography and Place’ at Orientations in Nottingham, and in June at ALECC 2018 in Victoria, Vancouver Island, I’ll be talking on ‘Dorothy’s Rain: Findings in Dorothy Wordsworth’s Unpublished ‘Late’ Journals’, which links directly to With Invisible Rain.

After the summer I don’t have much planned though, and I’m open to suggestion …



Keep on discovering poetry all through the year …

For poetry-lovers and the poetry curious in and around the Lakes, the good news is that the Discover Poetry reading group I’ve been facilitating at the Wordsworth Trust since the autumn has been given the green light to continue. Thanks to everyone who has come along, whether for a single session when you’ve been visiting the area or for as many as you could make – it’s your enthusiasm which is allowing us to continue.

The sessions are free, and take place in Dove Cottage by the fireside on the first Thursday of every month. In March we even had a canine attendee, who was pleased to find a portrait of a distant relative on the wall.


As – hopefully – we come out of the snowy season, we may even hold some sessions in the cottage garden. That seems a distant dream on a dreich day like today, but I’m assured that Spring can’t be that far behind all this Winter.

The bad news is that by the time we got the go-ahead, I was already booked up for a Read Regional event which clashes with the April session. The good news is that Eileen Pun has agreed to stand in this month as a special guest, so if you can come along on Thursday April 5th you get the double joy of Aprilish poems and Eileen.

Amongst many other accolades, Eileen is a fellow of The Complete Works, won a Northern Writer’s Award in 2015, and is also an accomplished martial artist and maker. Local people may have attended some of her fantastic Taiji and Journalling workshops at The Wordsworth Trust in Summer 2017.

You can find out more about Eileen and her work here and here.

You can find out more about Discover Poetry and read the poems month by month here.


Happy Birthday, little book.

Basic Nest Architecture is one year old today, or hereabouts. Hasn’t it grown? And what a lot of teeth.

Way back before I ever held it in my arms, I said I’d share my BNA playlist, so I thought it was about time.

As with all my playlists, the basic rules are just that they have to be made from songs I already have. Some of the songs here actually appear in some way or other in the poems, but some are quite oblique connections that probably only really make sense to me. There’s a couple where I couldn’t choose one song over another eg. ‘Strength in Winter’ has Basia Bulat’s ‘Once more for the dollshouse’, which was instrumental (boom boom) in the writing of it, and used to give it its epigraph until it got squished off the page, but also ‘Lion with me’, which I can’t separate from it since Jenn played it at the book launch. Some are cheating slightly: two of the rabbit poems have a variant mix of one song, not because I don’t have other rabbity songs in my music banks, but because that song and those poems are really wrapped around each other for me.

There are a lot of repeats of artists here, just like there a lot of people I listen to a lot, and were listening to a lot during the writing of the book, who don’t appear. I had difficult decisions to make over for eg. which songs I love that feature deer to choose. It probably says something about the collection and/or how I think about it that the playlist is strummy and a bit melancholy on the whole.


Colony Collapse Disorder – To the Country, Laura Veirs

Buzz Pollination  – Honey, Tori Amos

The New Path  – The Wrong Side, Thea Gilmore

Jack Daw –  Magpie to the Morning, Neko Case

A short history of the moon  –  Calling the Moon, Dar Williams

Heron/Snow  – Follow the Heron, Karine Polwart

Kindling – Cloud on my tongue, Tori Amos

Stay Apparatus – White Horses, Jenn Grant

Roadkill Season – Pheasant feather, Josh Rouse

Miracles of Light – Woman King, Iron & Wine

Lake Fever – Lake Fever, The Tragically Hip

When I lived alone  – Sound and Vision, David Bowie

Sister, Running – Run, Basia Bulat

Rabbit in morning – Rabbit Heart, Florence + The Machine

Athena Glaukopis  –  This Tornado Loves You, Neko Case

Illustrations of Grasmere Church  – The Bell, First Aid Kit

Potnia Theron  – Crystal Creek, Dar Williams

Waking the Well – Cool water, Laura Veirs

A history of flooding  – The Water, Feist  // Flood, Rae Spoon

In the city I was born in – Field Below, Regina Spektor

Moon Salutation – I wish I was the Moon, Neko Case

Strength in Winter – Lion with Me, Jenn Grant // Once More for the Dollshouse, Basia Bulat

Moving – If it Rains, Basia Bulat

Dreams – In My Dreams, Jenn Grant

Tiny Glass Horses – Tiny Glass Houses, Amelia Curran

Rabbit in Twilight – Evening, Wilderness of Manitoba

Other People Dream of Foxes – Portions for Foxes, Rilo Kiley

 Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Neko Case

Fox in the Snow, Belle and Sebastian

Foxes Mate for Life, Born Ruffians

Doll Parts –  Doll Parts, Hole

Perihelion – Night Still Comes, Neko Case

Dreaming the Organ – Playing to the Firmament, Dar Williams

Gloria – Paradise Mountain, Jenn Grant

Sky, falling – Heavy Ceiling, Said The Whale

Solistitial – Summer Fires, Wilderness of Manitoba

Begin – In the Blue Moonlight, Joel Plaskett

The Centre – Mtn Song, Evening Hymns

Rabbit in hiding – Rabbit Heart (Jamie T and Ben Bones remix)

Cannulation – Adventures in Solitude, The New Pornographers

Causeway – On My Way Back, Tony Dekker

Imaging – Heavy Ghost, Kashka

Fog/Fox  – Red Fox, The Choir Practice

The Glorious Fellowship of Migraineurs – Pray Headaches away, Diane Cluck

Free Night – Galaxies, Jenn Grant

The Test – When Under Ether, PJ Harvey

With Feathers – Heart of my own, Basia Bulat

The Canon of Proportions – Man, Neko Case

The Invisible – Leave My Body, Florence + The Machine

Untethering – The Fighter, Jenn Grant

Hope Cove – The Cape, Martha Tilston

Basic Nest Architecture – Wasps of Rain, Laura Veirs

Year of Libraries

2018 seems to be panning out as a year of libraries for me. I’m gearing up for my month at Gladstone’s Library in February, and can now reveal that Basic Nest Architecture was chosen as one of New Writing North’s Read Regional books for 2018. The Read Regional scheme pays for writers to do events in libraries around the North, bringing talks and workshops into communities.

I’ll be doing several events, mostly with this year’s other Read Regional poet, Anthony Dunn:

Hebden Bridge Library, Cheetham Street, Hebden Bridge, HX7 8EP
Thursday 29 March, 7.30pm (Exploring Poetry Workshop at 6.30pm)

Community Hub Central, 124 York Road, Hartlepool, TS26 9DE
Thursday 5 April, 5.30pm (Exploring Poetry Workshop at 4pm)

Robinson-Gay Art Gallery, 3A Market Street, Hexham, NE46 3NS
Wednesday 2 May, 1pm (Part of Hexham Book Festival)

Keighley Library, North Street, Keighley, Bradford, BD21 3SX
Saturday 2 June, 3pm (Exploring Poetry Workshop at 2pm)

The range of books chosen is fantastic, and I really enjoyed hearing about them when we all met up in the Autumn: from crime to historical fiction, nature writing, innovative children’s fiction, a superb feminist picture book, and poetry of course. I’d highly recommend getting to some of the events if you can. Sadly, the fabulous Jenn Ashworth couldn’t be there on the day we all gathered at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle. I think someone should photoshop her into this group shot.

Group picture.jpeg

I’m also doing an event in Leeds Library on March 17th, as part of Wildlines @ Leeds Library. Though Wildlines is not directly to do with Read Regional, its linked by association, as it’s being organised and hosted by one of my fellow Read Regional authors, Richard Smyth. I’ll be reading with Zaffar Kunial on the Saturday evening, but the whole three days of events looks fantastic, asking questions like ‘Who gets to write about nature, and why? Is there a place for politics in nature writing? Does the North have the nature-writing it deserves? And why does nature writing matter?’





I’m not sure how to reflect on 2017. Personally, as politically, its events will be sending out after-shocks and having knock-on effects for longer, and in stranger ways, than I can begin to imagine.

At the very end of February, my first poetry collection was published, something I’d been aiming for for so long, that I still keep half-forgetting it’s actually real now. It did a lot to change the course of my year, carrying me to some joyful readings and festivals, and enabling some other things to be set into motion. Most of all, it emboldened me to stick to my decision not to apply for full-time work when my post at Strathclyde came to an end in August, and to focus on writing instead.

Partly this move was born from exhaustion and a desperate need to look after myself and my own work for once. When people have asked me what I’m doing now, I’ve found myself referring to it as a gamble, as a deliberate speculation. I hear myself telling a story about how I made a choice, but really, there was no choice. It’s hard enough being a writer in academia at the best of times, trying to squeeze two lives which both want to dominate into your brain and body at all times, but when you’re trying to manage chronic illnesses too, you end up with nothing left for yourself, let alone anyone close to you. My time at Strathclyde coincided with life-changing diagnoses. I signed the contract as a person who had been told by several consultants that there was nothing wrong with them at all, and closed it with two genetic, chronic conditions that need constant management, and bring a trail of co-morbidities and complications with them. It became more important to me to live as well as I can, day by day, than to achieve the things I used to think important.

So 2017 has been the year I decided to become a dedicated refusenik, to turn away from the productivity drive. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to: the measly 3 weeks of statutory redundancy pay tacked onto as much of my salary as I could save up has given me a bit of cushion to prop me up this Autumn. I’ve been lucky to have had more paid readings with the book, and a few other little bits of paid writing work. Most of all though, committing to not committing to full-time work has enabled me to apply for opportunities I wouldn’t have been able to in previous years, and some of them have come through shining.

They are the tip of the submission iceberg, of course: I’ve had as many rejections and disappointments as any other year (which are manifold, and wondrous in their variousness). What has amazed me is that I’ve also had some very exciting acceptances which are making 2018 seem both fantastical and terrifying as a prospect.

Here’s my 2017 a glance, both good and bad, and you can see how it’s weighing up just now:

Bad Things from 2017

  • Lots of EDS clumsiness, including smashing my favourite mug, ironing my stomach in May, breaking my toe crossing the room in October (just about healed now) and finishing the year with a great oven burn on my wrist. Thank goodness I had burn plasters left over from the iron incident.
  • Lots of the usual writing disappointments, topped by an unsuccessful job interview which cost me £300 in travel, accommodation, and changed plans.
  • Not being in control of my iron levels because Oh-Captain-My-Captain has been largely uncontactable for most of 2017.
  • The uncertainty and instability of having no guaranteed income.
  • Preparing for the winter solstice by having needles stuck in my thyroid.
  • Knowing I have to have more needles stuck in my thyroid in January.
  • The endless, planet-eating fatigue.
  • Not winning any money in the poetry lottery.
  • Winning a poetry prize, which ended up costing me more than the (non-monetary) prize was worth.
  • Not having students – I miss you!
  • Being really slow at getting on with my projects.
  • Burying a lot of mice, voles, and one juvenile rat.
  • The bad politics.
  • The bad things.
  • Not spending enough time with friends and family.
  • Did I mention the fatigue?

Good things from 2017

  • Dream readings, including Hay and Wigtown. If I had such a thing as a bucket list, there’d be some big ticks on it now.
  • I got a second niece.
  • Being picked as one of the four writers-in-residence at Gladstone’s Library for 2018, and everything that has followed (everyone is So Nice). This is my first residency, so a really big deal for me.
  • I got interviewed for some amazing positions I was honoured to be considered for, and had some lovely interview experiences.
  • My book is a real book! And lots of people seem to have liked it, and no one has [publicly, or in my sight] said it’s the worst thing ever yet either.
  • Spending more time with family and friends.
  • Spending more time with friends has meant spending more time on frivolously delicious essential things, like swimming in waterfalls with Emily Hasler.
  • Meeting new friends.
  • Being able to enjoy the autumn and the run up to Christmas without marking.
  • Reading. Actually finishing books.
  • Reading some really amazing books.
  • A truly magical book launch, thanks to so many people who helped make it happen, and who came along.
  • Winning a poetry prize which took me to a really heartening reading event, a chance to catch up with some old friends, and a remarkably nourishing residential course which brought new friends.
  •  The installation of a cat flap making it no longer in any way deniable that NotOurCat lodges here.
  • The good politics. Speaking about it.
  • Running the poetry reading group at Dove Cottage over the winter: such a pleasure to sit around the fire reading poetry, and so great to see such insightful readers.
  • Positive reactions to my book now it’s out in the world. I’ve been really touched by some mentions on social media, and a few really thoughtful reviews. A massive highlight of my year was Kim Tillyer drawing on ‘Jack Daw’ in a piece for a Cumbria Printmaker’s exhibition in Grasmere. Also overjoyed to see Jackie Morris tweeting about liking the book, because her work is just so magical. Also for the book to be named by John Clegg as an LRB Bookshop poetry debut of the year.
  • Making plans, and feeling hopeful about them.
  • Being picked as one of the 2018 Penguin Random House WriteNow Mentees. This has given me such an enormous boost, both in support of making the time and space for writing, making this ‘year of writing’ gambit seem almost sensible, and for the project. I’m getting increasingly anxious about the writing again now, in the lull before we start to work with editors, but it’s given me renewed faith in both the project of the book, and the project of the life.
  • Getting really good at catching live rodents by hand when NotOurCat releases them into the house.
  • Despite horrific late Summer/early Autumn weather, I kept swimming outdoors until the end of November. I missed out December, through ice and snow,and rain and just not feeling quite strong enough. Hopefully I’ll get back in in January.
  • Festival green rooms making me feel really fancy.
  • Winning a giant toy rabbit and a £50 voucher for naming a polar bear in a Christmas display. [edit: Will’s mum, who is tending said rabbit until we can get to Suffolk, begs to inform all readers it is only large, not giant]
  • The company of good-hearted poets.
  • Being braver, about all sorts of things. Saying what I need and don’t need. Working out what I can and can’t do, and communicating it. Going in the water, even when it’s cold and raining.
  • Writing.

My goals for 2018, if we can call them that, are much the same:

  • Refuse productivity for productivity’s sake.
  • Be kind to myself so I can be kind to others.
  • Swim!
  • Pace.
  • Spend time with loved ones and lovely ones.
  • Pass on the good things to others who need them.
  • Sleep.
  • Try not to break any bones or injure myself too badly.
  • Write.