Polly Atkin

shadow dispatches


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.

Autumn Happenings


It looks like this Autumn is going to be particularly eventful for me.

On Saturday September 16th I’m going to be borrowing a time-turner to do two events in one day. In the morning, I’ll be reading for Caught by The River at The Good Life Experience in Hawarden in Flintshire.

In the evening I’ll be back up in Grasmere for a reading and discussion to close Dorothy’s Colour, an exhibition of art and poetry by Zoe Benbow and Sarah Corbett, at The Wordsworth Trust. 

dwcolourposter copy


The following weekend I’ll be over in Newcastle for the Penguin Random House Write Now scheme, getting advice on a non-fiction project I’m working on. I’m so thankful to have been chosen for one of the writing days, and hope it will help me move forward with the book.

The weekend after that, I’m returning to Wigtown Book Festival, where I’ll be reading with Claire Askew. I’m very excited that this means we’ll be there for the festival ceilidh, and will try to have a) recovered from my last ceilidh injury by then, and b) acquired some ankle support. Will has been reading bits of Diary of a bookseller to me to get us in the frame. We were intrigued that the book covered the 2014 festival we were at, and relieved not to recognise ourselves in the pages.

A little over a week later, I’ll be in London for the launch of the 2018 Gladstone’s Library writers-in-residence programme, celebrated with an evening at the National Liberal Club on Monday October 9th. I’m going to be in residence in the library in February 2018, and will be posting details soon of the workshop and talk I’ll be doing as part of my residency.

The following weekend sees me crossing the North yet again for the Durham Book Festival Rich Seams Northern Poets event. I’m beginning to think I need a dragon, or to learn to travel by map. The other poets featured are Degna Stone, Kim Moore, Malika Booker, Mark Pajak, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Pippa Little, Ruby Robinson, Zaffar Kunial, Vidyan Ravinthiran and Seán Hewitt, and we’ll be introduced by Durham Book Festival Laureate Andrew McMillan. You can support the production of a special vinyl recording of this event through Unbound. Rewards include the chance to have a poem commissioned by whichever of the poets you choose, or to meet the poets backstage for a post-recording drink.

I’ve then got a little gap, before reading with Elizabeth-Jane Burnett at Kendal Mountain Festival, Saturday 18th November. I can’t wait to read Swims. There’s a great literature programme at KMF this year, with lots for everyone.

Lit Fest speakers digital_bodies of water and stone

Somewhere in between all this I’ll be making shiny jar-fulls of jelly, trying to keep swimming outdoors as long as I can hack it, running my poetry reading group at Dove Cottage each month and, oh, writing, of course.






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.


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.


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.


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.



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.

3 v1.jpg3v2.jpg3v3.jpg


  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.