Polly Atkin

shadow dispatches

Tag: Blackpool

The Old Year is Dead

IMG_65722014 seems to have been a year of upheaval and uprising, of extreme highs and lows, tragedies and atrocities, of revelations great and terrible. Natural and/or man-made disasters dominated local and global news. Planes fell from the skies, flood-waters rose, diseases flourished, people around the world were killed for being who they were where they were (students; black men; female; indigenous women; transexual; disabled …). Governments and government agencies were revealed as complicit in crimes against their own people, as well as others. Those in power were revealed as abusing that power. It sometimes seems that each year brings an escalation of violence and intolerance. Does it end? Is this sense of escalation an illusion? Is this how it has always been and always will be? Does it come to a head and subside? Do we learn to live better, with the world, and each other?

My own year has been a peculiar mix of surprising successes, big changes and ongoing difficulties.

Looking at it in terms of what might be termed ‘worldly success’, this has been the best year I’ve ever had.

I started my first full-time academic job in September.
I was granted funding for a Knowledge Exchange project.
I had a great time judging the first Wordpool Poetry Competition, and was delighted to see the winning poem turned into an animation in the Blackpool illuminations.
I won the Wigtown Poetry Prize (with ‘A Short History of the Moon’), the Andrew Waterhouse Prize for Poetry in the Northern Writers’ Awards, third prize in the Poets and Players Competition (for ‘Causeway’), third prize in the Battered Moons Competition (for ‘Heron/Snow’), and was commended in the Hippocrates Prize (for ‘The Test’).
My pamphlet was shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of the Year.

At times this has seemed implausible to me. When I had to turn down appearing at the Battered Moons Awards event at the Swindon Poetry Festival, because it was on the same day as the Wigtown Festival Awards Event, which I had already agreed to be at, I really started to question how this had all arrived at once. I’ve been struggling so much for so long, in so many areas of my life, I didn’t really know how to stop struggling and bask in these moments.

Behind each of these public successes are the picked-over bones of countless private failures. This should go without saying, but it seems too easy to forget how much we don’t see of each others’ lives in this age of social media. There were dozens of jobs I didn’t get; schemes I was rejected for; poems nobody seems to have wanted. I’ve been thinking a lot about this this year, and what it means to really succeed on one’s own terms. Sometimes rejections arrive at the same time as acceptances, and you don’t know how to feel. Sometimes all the seeming successes in the world don’t appear to move you forward, and you can’t work out what is blocking your progression or how you could do anything differently. Sometimes it seems that just being you is what is blocking your progression. Sometimes you may convince yourself that there is One Thing that will change your stars. Eileen Pun and I call this the Monkey Island Hypothesis – that you can do all that is necessary in any order, but if you miss one vital component you will never get to the next level. It’s hard to escape that feeling that you’re falling behind, or under.

As I’ve written before, whenever I feel like that, I remind myself that the work itself is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter if – like some of the poems that have done well for me this year – no one else appreciates that work for years. There’s a kind of pact you make with the work you do.


The last few years have been very hard for me, in various ways. I’ve had very little income, and what I have had has been very insecure. I have suffered a lot with poor health. I’ve been in constant pain. I’ve been perpetually exhausted, in a way which is hard to explain to a healthy person.

In April I finally discovered that the devastating abdominal pain I’d been living with since November 2012 was a mixture of inflammation of my rib cage, and a broken rib. Through my own persistence, and the persistence and support of my GP and local physiotherapist, I was diagnosed, in October, with Ehlers Danlos Sydrome (EDS). I was also diagnosed with Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS), which is secondary to the Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, and elements of Marfanoid body habitus. Life in my body, my peculiar body, is beginning to make sense in a way it never has before.

I had to travel down to London and pay to see an expert to get this diagnosis (which effects not only me, but my whole family, as EDS is hereditary). I’m now waiting to go to various clinics which should help me manage some of the symptoms. The diagnosis is both a tremendous relief (to know what it is, and what it is not; to know better how to help and what harms) and a peculiar burden (it is me, or I am it). I am still adjusting to knowing that I have to accept this difference, and its permanence, and all the consequences of that. ‘Normal’ is a lost concept. I will probably always be in some degree of pain. I will injure myself doing ‘ordinary’ things. I will always get more tired than an ‘ordinary’ person does from the same activities. I might never be able to stand still for more than a few moments without getting dizzy and numb and sick, as all the blood in my body sinks away from my head and my brain, and can’t pump itself back up through my too-elastic vessels. My main task for 2015 will be to learn to live with this, in and with my body, now we can see each other for what we are.

I am already learning not to feel guilty about prioritising the things I need to do to do the things I’ve agreed to do (sleep as much as possible; swim as often as possible; don’t be afraid of the judgement of others at the times these are all you can do). Some of you may be familiar with ‘Spoon Theory’. Most days for me at the moment, there is no spoon. I am concentrating on bringing some into being.


So 2014 for me has been a year in which things have come to pass I hardly thought possible. People I’ve never met have read and enjoyed my poetry. People I greatly admire have read and rated my poetry. I have a steady income going forward for a reasonably steady period. Moreover, I have been given the key to unlocking central mysteries of my own life, and those of my family.

There’s a lot of things I feel I’ve been failing at though. I don’t see my friends enough. I don’t even contact my friends enough. I’m behind with all kinds of writing and behind with all kinds of reading. I don’t get to as many events as I’d like to, and I sleep through a lot of life. Most of the time, I’m barely keeping nose above surface.

I’m going into 2015 with some fear and trepidation (and a persistent chest infection), but also more genuine hope than I’ve been able to admit to for a long time. I’ll do what I can on my part – concentrate on what I believe matters most – and hope – keep hoping – that this concentration matters. I hope for the same for all of you. For your wishes and work to matter. For your wishes to work.

I wrote this poem, ‘Forecast’, on New Year’s Day 2013. In February last year it was engraved on a window of the Globe Inn in Dumfries, another fabulous event in my poetry year, that I have previously written about here. I knew when I wrote it something was shifting, but it took so long, so long to manifest as material change. This New Year’s Day, it hasn’t stopped raining, and all bodies in the house slept peacefully into the dark afternoon. Despite that, I think the forecast works as well today.


Last night the barometer predicted CHANGE
the stormy tail of the year passing over.
Midnight threw up stars and a 2/3
moon, scattered as hailstones after.

New year’s day sailed in as a fringe
of spring on a sculling cloud, word
from an unseen sun, blue displacing
blank, as from a vacuum chamber.

One swift shower. One magpie etching
spirals in the lightening air. Now
its partner, binary tail declaring
the arrow’s twitch to Fair.


The Old Year is dead. Long live the New Year.


Not ideas about the thing.

I’ve had a strange and wonderful few weeks, so strange and wonderful I hardly know what to write about it.

Last month I found out I’d won New Writing North’s Andrew Waterhouse Prize – a development prize awarded in the memory of the poet Andrew Waterhouse, for a selection of poems which ‘reflect a strong sense of place or the natural environment.’ I can’t overstate how much this means to me, both in terms of recognition and financial support. I still can’t quite believe it’s real.

The awards were announced at a dinner event at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle on May 17th, made extra special by the fact I knew five of the other six winning poets already – Andrew Forster, Andrew McMillan, Kim Moore, Phoebe Power, and Ben Wilkinson – through connections with the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere and Lancaster University. The sixth, Julian Turner, turned out to have been a frequent visitor to Grasmere when Paul Farley was in residence at the Wordsworth Trust.  Ben – who I had met only a few weeks beforehand, when he was launching his Smith/Doorstep Poetry Business Prize-winning pamphlet For Real at the Wordsworth Trust – brought previous Wordsworth Trust poet-in-residence Helen Mort as his guest. My partner and I had driven over with current Wordsworth Trust poet-in-residence Zaffar Kunial, who won a Northern Writer’s Award last year. Maybe hope really does rise up under Grasmere.

I was also delighted to recognise the winner of the Cuckoo Young Writer’s Prize, Jasmine Simms, and highly commended Ila Colley, from the shortlist of the Lancaster Writing Awards this year. Everyone seemed to be deeply impressed by Jasmine’s poems (read on a video message as she was busy revising for an A Level the next morning) and I only wish we could have heard more from the winning writers.

A good year for the poets of the North-West, it seems, in a prize that until last year only took entries from the North-East.

On Saturday 21st, I went down to Manchester to attend the Poets and Players awards reading. My poem ‘Causeway’ had been placed second by judge Vona Groake – another very welcome boost both to bank account and confidence. It was great to hear from the other winners, and from Vona, plus some amazing improv music from Corey Mwamba and David Kane. The winning and commended poems, with judge’s reports, are up on the website, including Kim Moore’s ‘How Wolves Change Rivers’. The event, including Vona’s reading, was filmed, and can be watched on the Poets and Players Youtube Channel. The Lancaster University Creative Writing MA Showcase was on that evening at the Gregson Centre, and I managed to catch some of my excellent ex-students doing their stuff before chasing the last of the long light evening home. I came away with a copy of the great MA anthology Lightsink, and issue 6 of Cake, to keep me busy.

The day before, I’d found out Shadow Dispatches has been shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of Year.

Just before all of this, I’d found out I’ve got a three year Lectureship in English and Creative Writing at Strathclyde, starting in September, and a Knowledge Exchange fellowship to cover a research trip to Canada in August. Those two bits of amazing news even came on the same day.

This week things have got back to normal, with a rejection from a literary development programme. I think it’s important to talk more openly about the things we don’t succeed with, the prizes we don’t win, the jobs we don’t get. I’ve been thinking about this a lot this year, after reading something by an accomplished poetry tutor which suggested they considered their students to be ‘failing’ in some way if they weren’t winning prizes with their work. This made me so sad – for the students, for the tutor, and for the poetry world. Is this really what things have come to? Is that really how we judge a poet’s worth – not on the work itself, but on the prestige of the prizes it bags?

Back in April, Jessica Maliphant, an old friend from my undergrad days, wrote a post on facebook about the #100daysofhappiness phenomenon, calling instead for #100daysofreality – for showing one another the full spectrum of daily disasters and little earthquakes that even the best bits of our lives are really made of. Her argument was that things like #100daysofhappiness – all those instagrammed meals and holiday shots – create a false performance of our lives as a string of perfected moments, and encourage us to place ourselves in competition with our peers, even our close friends, in some spurious contest to win the most likes for the best life. So a hundred days of happiness actually equates to a hundred days of judging oneself against a fictionalised version of our friends’ and acquaintances’ lives. More often than not, we will find ourself lacking, even as someone else is judging themselves against our lives and feeling the same. She has now co-authored a blog post exploring these tensions – ‘Sharenting: Raising a Footprint’ – with another old friend, Dr. Sarah Martindale, who is now a researcher in the area of Digital Economies.

In some ways I think these questions are even more pertinent for our professional lives. Does the humble-brag default mode of social media encourage us all to judge ourselves not against our own potential, but those partial glimpses of our peers’ successes?  I’d also been drawn to Uschi Gatward’s Mslexia Blog, in which she is keeping a public record of all her submissions, rejections and successes this year. I’m not brave enough to do that in public, though I’ve been doing it in private for years. Sometimes it’s demoralising flicking through page after page of struck through submissions, but I made a pact with a friend a long time ago to see every rejection as part of a movement forward. It’s hard to convince yourself of that sometimes. Just before all this good news came, I had spent a night in tears of frustration over missing out on a great opportunity. You can’t be successful with everything. I suspect most, if not all, of us go through phases in which it seems like we’re successful with nothing. The only thing that helps me, when I feel like that, is to concentrate on the one thing that I think really matters – the work itself. This might be a kind of magical thinking, but I still believe that if you keep developing, keep pushing yourself to make the best work you can, the work will make it’s own success. It might not look like an infinity pool, but it will be as real as anything you know.

Over the summer, I’ll be judging Blackpool Wordpool‘s first poetry competition. I’m reading at the festival on July 4th to launch the competition, the theme of which will be ‘Light’. The prize winning poem will be made into an illumination and turned on on National Poetry Day in October. Please do send in your luminous words. I’ll be reading every entry, and reading them alert to how much difference winning something can make to a writer, at any stage of their writing life.