Polly Atkin

shadow dispatches

Category: Uncategorized

Mid-mid, most inclined

It’s the year’s midpoint; midsummer’s day. In Cumbria the longest day seems to be marking the end of a small but impressive heatwave: the storm arrived around the solstice hour itself. Today has been a mixture of warm rain and steaming sun.

Avoiding even touching on the state of the nation(s), it’s been an interesting few months.

One of the highlights of this Spring for me was reading with Emily Blewitt, Siobhan Campbell and Rhiannon Hooson at the Seren Poetry Gala at Hay Festival.

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Amy Wack, Siobhan Campbell, Me, Emily Blewitt, Rhiannon Hooson

At home in Grasmere, we celebrated the launch of Basic Nest Architecture, with featured poets Mark Ward and Megan Beech, and a magnificent performance from Jenn Grant and her band. This still seems like a particularly unlikely dream.

 

Last week I travelled down to Cambridge for the Rialto Nature and Place Prize reading, which was a warm and inspiring event, championing the capacity for poetry to forge connections between humans and the non-human world.

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A Midsummer Night’s Frog

From August onwards, I’m going freelance. I’m really looking forward to it, though not to the return of financial insecurity: it is a truth universally acknowledged that you can have time, or money, but not both. I’m hoping to use some of my time taking the book to exciting places, as well as working on various new writing projects. The rest of 2017 is already dotted with events near and far, including:

  • Guest Poet reading at The Garsdale Retreat, on ‘Writing The Land: Crafting Poems from Inspired Communion’ with Helen Moore, Sedbergh, Wednesday August 23rd 2017.
  • Reading for Caught by The River at The Good Life Experience, Hawarden Estate, Flintshire, Saturday September 16th, 2017.
  • Durham Book Festival ‘Northern Poets’ event, Saturday October 14th. Details tbc.
  • Reading at Kendal Mountain Festival. Details tbc.
  • Throughout the autumn and winter I’m also going to running a monthly Poetry Reading Group in Dove Cottage for The Wordsworth Trust. It will be on the first Thursday of the month, October – March, 7.30-9pm (except January, when the cottage is closed). The poems will be picked to reflect the seasons, taking us from Autumn, through Midwinter and back out into Spring. No prior poetry reading experience necessary!

Here is a flashback to an earlier Summer Solstice, with less appropriate weather, and some things that may or may not have happened outside the poem.

Solstitial

from Basic Nest Architecture

 

We are drawn by a map of sweet ash winding

through the twilit streets. There should be three fires:

one of clean bones, one wood, one both.

 

We have only split logs and white wax to offer

and a tithe of furred moths, and a swan’s egg washed

to the shore in a flood, two days earlier.

 

We pass the sloshing oval from palm

to palm, cold as stone, full

of things that will not happen. We float

 

wreaths from the candle-lit jetty to the dark

fretful heart of deepest water;

bunches of foxgloves and elderflowers;

 

give ourselves to the lake to slake

the calamitous storms of the future; muttering

moonshine, mid-mid, most inclined,

 

axial tilt. We drink. We burn

the sickly half-year, leap the flames

solemn, hallooing. Our voices spin

 

round the dish of the vale, which is also a crater,

which is also a wheel. We want to sing

through the centre but the night is too light here, cloud

 

confusing the jagged horizon. We try

to feel it. 23.09. Maximum

cant. The exactness anachronistic.

 

Mid-mid most-inclined we chant

like a hymn or something older.

We will wash our faces with cold grey dew.

 

We will sleep with flowers pressed under our pillows.

We will run the streets naked at three in the morning,

the sun almost starting to rise.

 

 

 

It’s a book!

Today is the official publication date for Basic Nest Architecture. If you’ve pre-ordered copies, they should be winging their way towards you forthwith (one friend suggested a Raven delivery system, but I think most of them will just be Royal Mail, due to the birds’ tendency to re-purpose them as nest material – apt enough but not helpful for readers).

PA BNA_front_cover.jpgIf you’d rather buy a copy in person and get it signed, I’ll be trotting round with a load and a good pen at StAnza Poetry Festival this coming weekend, and I’ve got a few events coming up to take it for a spin:

  • Reading at Vespers, The Serenity Cafe, Edinburgh, Tuesday March 14th 2017.
  • Launch  at Lancaster Litfest, 1pm, Saturday March 25th 2017.
  • Reading at St. Mungo’s Mirrorball, The CCA, Glasgow, Thursday May 4th, 2017.
  • Vanguard Readings, The Peckham Pelican, London, Thursday May 18th, 2017.

As well as the formal launch at Litfest, we’re having a less formal book celebration party – a book christening? – with drinks, nibbles, guest readers and music at Grasmere Tithe Barn,  May 20th 2017, 7.30-10pm.

Jack Nicholls will be reading from his Emma Press pamphlet Meat Songs, Megan Beech will pre previewing her forthcoming Burning Eye pamphlet and we’ve managed to divert Jenn Grant and her band to Grasmere on her UK tour for her new album Paradise, out March 3rd, for the night, which will be a real treat.

RSVP and more info here.

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A song with a rock in it

It is ten days until the official publication date for my first collection, Basic Nest Architecture. 

As a taster, I’ve put together a playlist on soundcloud of six poems from the book: three new recordings and three I made for The Lonely Crowd last Spring.

The other playlist I have made for Basic Nest Architecture is a list of songs: one for each of the poems. I started this last year to help me think about what absolutely needed to be included and what might be let go out of the collection as we shrunk it down to fit. One thing I found curious is that the choices for most of the poems were really obvious (to me: but I have a rolling playlist in my head at most times anyway and some of the poems are named after or quote songs) except for the poems which deal explicitly with hospital experiences. I have odd rules about my themed playlists: I have to make them from songs I already have, no buying songs that are missing from my collection to fill the gap. So my questions is this: do I not have the right songs, or do they not exist?

When I’ve fixed on my favoured version of that playlist I’ll put the song list up here. At the moment, like most things, it’s still a little in flux.

The version of ‘Strength in Winter’ in the book is slightly different to the version on soundcloud. The long lines were falling off the right edge of the page, and I had to do a last minute re-write, being careful that it didn’t spill over onto a second page. The line-length was a problem with The Lonely Crowd too, but then a two-page solution seemed best. This means the version of ‘Strength in Winter’ in Basic Nest Architecture is the third published version, as it started life in the third Beautiful Dragons anthology Heavenly Bodies. 

‘Strength in Winter’ is not the only poem in the book that exists in several versions. I like the idea of this in a way that probably really annoys some people.¹ I wrote a little about this idea in notes I wrote for The Lonely Crowd. In classes I often use a poem by Erin Mouré from her 1988 collection Furious called ‘Three Versions’ to discuss editing, and the choices we make when we edit our work. Particularly to think about what seemingly un-politicised ideas about style have to do with larger ideological constructs. What are we calling on when we’re asking a poem to be ‘tighter’, ‘more succinct’, to be ‘clearer’ or less obtuse, or to cut anything that isn’t entirely necessary.² What is necessary in a poem? ‘Three Versions’ has an epigraph from another writer, Gail Scott: ‘why do you have to choose/a definitive version?’ This is a question that troubles me a lot, especially when tacked to the question of the versions: how you tell ‘if the poet has written with/or without discipline’.

What does discipline in a poem mean? How does it relate to the other images of the poem: the bird with its ‘wings beaten shut’; its ‘chest eaten/sucked in’?

I come back again and again to this poem, to its unanswerable questions about what a poem is and needs.

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  1. Though it might seem contrary, I disapprove of writers editing much much earlier work later in their careers when eg. putting together a ‘selected’. Retrospectives need to acknowledge the decisions of that earlier time and earlier writer. If the work is being entirely repurposed, that’s probably different. But we shouldn’t always dismiss the impulses of our younger selves, just because we think we’re wiser, older. Yes, Wm. Wordsworth, I’m looking at you, as usual.
  2. Once an editorial email asked me to cut whatever ‘isn’t entirely necessary’ from the poem in question, only a typo meant they actually asked me to cut what ‘is entirely necessary’. I think about this a lot too.

 

The Rabbits Are Us: thoughts on 2016

 

 

IV

our touching hearts slenderly comprehend
(clinging as fingers,loving one another
gradually into hands)and bend
into the huge disaster of the year:

like this most early single star which tugs

weakly at twilight,caught in thickening fear
our slightly fingering spirits starve and smother;
until autum abruptly wholly hugs

our dying silent minds,which hand in hand
at some window try to understand
the
(through pale miles of perishing air,haunted
with huddling infinite wishless melancholy,
suddenly looming)accurate undaunted

moon’s bright third tumbling slowly

eecummings

 

Perhaps we should have known, when the January opened with the death of David Bowie, swiftly followed by the death of Alan Rickman, that this year was going to test faith in heroes and in possibility. Like the dolphins fleeing the doomed Earth in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, they were the canaries in the collapsing mine of 2016.¹ In April they were joined by Prince, and people blamed the year itself, as though it were sentient, and angry with us for some unknown reason. As though we had messed it up.

I could say this accounts for the terrible presentiment I had before the Brexit vote, and again before the American presidential election, that the shared rhetoric of hate and division would triumph. I had a funny feeling in my toe: a feeling of blood creeping over the fields. The rabbits are us

I don’t normally write a yearly review. Who wants to know what I thought about the year? But this year is exceptional. Many people seem to be finding the events of 2016 hard to process. I process things by writing about them, so forgive me if my thoughts are half-formed or reaching without conclusion.

Viewers of the US sitcom Community will be familiar with the terms darkest timeline and gas leak year.

 

Both scenarios – for very different reasons (parallel world/chaos theory and the sacking of the series creator as showrunner for season 4) – result in people acting out of character in horrible, humiliating, destructive ways, and in events running out of control as a consequence.

 

 

2016 seems a convergence of both gasleak and darkest timeline. After the American election, I saw a number of memes referring to the darkest timeline, and to the time-travel narratives being evoked by Community. I saw tweets that blamed Barry Allen (currently messing up his own Earth in season three of The Flash) or called on Keira Cameron of Continuum to try and correct things (which never goes well, I should say). Many referenced the capitalist dystopia of Back to the Future II, not least because Biff was based on Trump.

The week that Trump took the White House, the salt in the wound for many was the death of Leonard Cohen. Two men who couldn’t seem more averse. Like many, I have felt this year that we are losing our wisest elders: those who can point to the crack the light will still come through, when all we find is darkness, and the death hour rounding it.

The year closed has closed with another spate of losses – George Michael, Richard Adams, Carrie Fisher, and then her mother, Debbie Reynolds. People who seem to have taught generations how to think, feel, believe in themselves, express themselves.

Perhaps the folly is hanging so much on so few. We need new heroes; new cultural leaders to show us a model of an inclusive, nurturing world, in which people of all backgrounds, abilities, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations can thrive.

In the aftermath of Trump’s unthinkable triumph, people seemed to turn to the literary world,  particularly to poetry, to show them another way.  Two days after Trump was elected, we had our annual poetry month at Grasmere Book Group, and read, amongst others, the poem that opens this post. The group had chosen ‘love poems’ as a theme, to contrast with last years’ ‘war poems’, but as I tried to pick a selection for us to read I was finding it hard to think about celebrating love. The group helped remind me that this is one of the few things we can all do in times of darkness and hate: love well.

Meanwhile in the Canadian Literary world another darkest timeline was erupting, one in which authors normally associated with voicing the margins grouped together to support a creative writing professor over the students who had made complaints about his conduct. 

The writers involved claim only to be calling for ‘due process’ for the accused, but their letter, and the associated website, failed to mention the right of the complainants to due process, or a fair hearing, or for their experiences not to being automatically discounted by their seniors in the literary community. I was dismayed to read the names of many writers I admire deeply on that list; relieved to find some people reassessing their position and removing their names as the weeks went by; appalled to see some adding their names to the list instead. For writers – people who make their living and their lives not just out of words, but out of nuance and context and close reading – this letter showed at best a lack of attention to detail. Its language, tone and omissions wilfully misunderstood power dynamics and how words contribute to rape culture. It also made me think more highly of the role of editors in Canlit, if so many great writers could not see their own omissions and errors. Most of all, I was disappointed then horrified to see Margaret Atwood backing herself further and further into an untenable defensive position, in which she needlessly brought up the notion that ‘women lie’. 

Other responses from Canlit stalwarts were heartening, and show the kind of careful reading and thinking we expect of great writers (Maggie Helwig, Michael Redhill and Laurence Hill’s responses stood out for me in the first wave). As the year closes, the controversy is still raging, and has most recently evolved into a public questioning of Boyden’s claims to indigeneity, after Galloway’s  own apparent indigenous heritage was pulled out by his supporters to count in his favour. Boyden’s self-presentation as indigenous has been long queried by indigenous writers and communities, but I doubt this would have kicked off now if it were not for his part in the Galloway debacle, and what it revealed about how little he seems to understand gender relations and power dynamics on (or off) campus.

This call for justice gone horribly wrong played out in eerie parallel with Trump’s calls for apologies from the cast of Hamilton the same week.

These are times we all need to stop and ask ourselves if we’ve become our evil alteregos. If this is the darkest and most terrible timeline, and if so, if we are the baddies.

More importantly, even if we think we’re on the side of the good, are we doing enough to help those around us? Are we doing enough to protect the vulnerable in our communities? A positive result of this Canlit meltdown might be a much needed reassessment of some aspects of the teaching of writing, and of what is or is not acceptable behaviour in the mentor-guru focussed system we have. This is not, obviously, just a Canadian problem: anywhere we follow this model of ‘apprenticeship’ there is room for abuse, and far too much of it happening. As a teacher myself I am keenly aware of this, and of what my role may or may not be in preparing my students for the writing world outside university.

Some things much closer to home this year have also made me mull over how power is accumulated in the literary world, and how often this means hurting or exploiting others. It shouldn’t do, of course. And needn’t. This should go without saying, but some people seem to need it said over and over again, because they’re not listening. They think what their behaviour is fine because poetry demands it, or everyone else is doing it, or the same thing was done to them. The best writers I know are also the most generous, the most thoughtful, the kindest. It can be hard to be one’s better self in a world that can so easily descend into bitchy competitiveness, but we owe it to ourselves and each other to try.

Whenever I think of embittered, jealous, power-hungry writers, I think of them as having gone to the dark side of the force. Star Wars was one of the key texts of my childhood. I must have watched the original trilogy hundreds of times before the age of ten. As with Watership Down, I could quote huge chunks even now (anyone who knows how bad my memory is, knows how much that means).We collected Star Wars figures and toys, and spent many happy hours staging spaceship crashes and battles at the top of the garden.

Poets are much like Jedis – few people believe in them. The system of mentorship between Jedis forms a helpful parallel to that same model in creative writing, and a way for thinking about how we handle it from either direction. Those times I have found myself wavering towards the dark side – starting to resent other writers for their successes or blaming their successes for my failures – it is Star Wars that has kept me honest.

2016 has gone beyond satire, beyond science-fiction. If only there were a way to redo or unwrite the wrongs done, the wrong-turns taken, the misrepresentations, false steps, and time-line changing bad decisions. As yet, we cannot repilot life.

In the meantime, we have to learn to live better with what we have. Grieve for what you have lost, but don’t let grief turn you away from life. Be good to one another, and not just those you are already invested in and identify with. May the force be with you.

 

 

  1. I won’t go through the full list of cultural heroes who have died this year. I mention in this post those who mean the most to me personally, and this is no slight on those I do not mention. More importantly, this has also been a year of massive humanitarian disasters, and widespread loss of life, particularly during the ‘refugee crisis’ and in Syria. There is something gross about focussing on so few, relatively privileged people over so many, but I suppose it is about impact: we grieve for those we think we know. Maybe this means we need to do more to know more; to care more.
  2. I wrote the main part of this post at the end of November, and had no idea at the time that this mention of Watership Down, which is so often in my thoughts, would become so poignant.

Calling the moon

And if my smile seems straight as the Tropic of Cancer, it’s because
nature isn’t magic, it’s just a mystery to us …

case/lang/veirs
‘Supermoon’

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It’s a bit cloudy round here, which isn’t just a metaphor for the dark and stormy times we find ourselves in. I got some beautiful views of the waxing moon last week, but over the weekend it has been hidden behind a grim drizzle. Again, not just a metaphor. In lieu of an actual supermoon, for others who may not be able to see it, here is a poetrymoon:

 

Moon Salutation

 

This is what you came home for, you

and the mountain and the forest and the stars in the dark

 

and the moon, half a blink from full,

low, white and cool as the eye

 

of a jackdaw in the feathered night. You move

slowly at first, where the trees block the light.

 

The wood expands, contracts you down

the gallery of its ribs. Your breath is a tight

 

hiss in your ears, strange as the voices

you catch spilling up from the village, mixed

 

with hoots of an owl, the crunch of boots

on leafmeal and gravel. The open is silvered,

 

fixed in reverse – a daguerreotype portrait.

You stop at each curve of the path and stare.

 

The valleys drown under floods of fluorescing

cloud. The high ground glints and shifts.

 

Noises rise like sounds above surface

heard under water, distorted – a shout –

 

a motorbike’s revs as the church clock strikes

midnight. You count the chimes, climb

 

far out at sea, dreaming land

from the ghost of a ship’s bell tolling. Scared

 

of falling, but more of sinking. You keep

pushing uphill. Your bare arms shine

 

like armour. You are a crescent, waxing.

A few feet further, half an hour longer,

 

and you’ll be complete: a perfect mirror,

spheroid and luminous, reflecting everything,

 

unable to go back, ever.

 

 

From my forthcoming collection Basic Nest Architecture. An earlier version appeared in Flax 018: The Crowd Without.

 

And for those who prefer their moon singing, a few highlights from my ‘moon’ playlist:

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