Much With Body: Interview with Polly Atkin
Much With Body is the startlingly original second collection by poet and Northern Writers’ Award winner Polly Atkin. In this interview, we talk to Polly about her inspiration, research and hopes for this collection.
The first section of the collection feels closely entwined with weather, water, and your surroundings in Cumbria, especially in the context of lockdowns and social isolation. Is the natural world something which has always influenced or fuelled your writing? Or has this changed over time?
It definitely became more foundational to my writing when I moved to Cumbria in 2006/7. I lived in East London for seven years before that. I hadn’t thought of myself as disconnected from the earth or immune to the weather particularly when I lived in London, but when I moved I found the weather suddenly dominating and entirely unavoidable. Like many chronically ill people, I am a human barometer: I feel changes in weather and atmosphere very keenly and always have. I’d probably be better off in a warm dry place, but I fell in love with the Lakes and here I am still! I don’t have a very clear sense of separation between myself and the nonhuman world, which has probably manifested in my writing in different ways over the years.
The second section is a really fascinating insight into Dorothy Wordsworth’s experience of chronic illness. Could you talk a little bit about your research, and how her diaries led you to write these poems?
I’ve been fascinated for many years with the number of poets who repurpose Dorothy’s Grasmere Journals into poetry, in different ways. In 2017 I was asked to respond to an exhibition by writer Sarah Corbett and artist Zoe Benbow which drew on the Grasmere journals. By that point I’d been talking for years with a friend, Dr. Emily Stanback, about trying to make Dorothy’s later journals available to the reading public. These journals document years of illness and have never been published, though they will be later this decade. I realized that I could do things with the unpublished journals as a poet that I couldn’t do as an academic. I’ve since gone back those later journals to research Dorothy’s illness, which has lead to my first prose book, Recovering Dorothy: The Hidden Life of Dorothy Wordsworth (Saraband, 2021).
You often incorporate other people’s voices into your work, perhaps most memorably in ‘Dorothy’s Rain’ which seems to be compiled of her many descriptions of the wet Lake District weather in her diaries, but similar citations appear elsewhere in the book too. What inspired you to create poetry in this way?
There’s several different motivations behind using found texts in my poetry I think. One is that I get a lot out of repurposing texts that I find infuriating, for whatever reason – chopping them up to make them mean something else, or reveal the meaning I find there which is half-hidden in the original. I started doing this years ago but didn’t publish many of those poems – maybe because the arguments they were having with the original texts were a bit niche. But that is what is happening in some of the poems in this collection that use other texts – a kind of extended argument with the original, whilst trying to make something new from it. In the Dorothy poems I am more interested in parallels in the ways in which different people explain similar experiences, and how shared language can connect us across time. In ‘Dorothy’s Rain’ I wanted the accumulation of rain to mirror the accumulation of pain – pain on pain – that I recognised in Dorothy’s journals and in my own body.
The collection, particularly as we move into part three, directly addresses your own experience of pain and chronic illness. It’s a really powerful and unavoidable presence at times. Do you hope that people reading will take something from those poems, perhaps for the better?
I hope so! Partly I hope people who don’t have experience of chronic illness themselves come away with a better understanding of what it might be like, how relentless pain can be, for example, but also how disabled lives are as complex and various as any lives. Mostly I think it’s really important to have these experiences recorded as part of daily life. So much of living with chronic illness and non-apparent disability is to continually slam into other people’s disbelief. It can be very isolating, very demoralising. I know as a reader how validating it is for me when I find work that reflects my own experiences. We can find community and comfort in the words of others with shared experience. I hope people can find that in my work.
How have you found the journey – as a writer and also personally – from your first poetry collection, to winning awards and bursaries, to here, now, and your second collection??
Rocky, long and winding! When you’re an emerging writer it’s easy to look at goals like getting your first book published, and think of them as endowing security in some way, but it feels to me like you’re always beginning again. For example, in the background I’ve been querying agents for my nonfiction work for 3 years and getting nowhere. For a long time I wasn’t sure this second collection would even get published – winning a Northern Writers’ Award for part of it in 2020 was the first time I had any sense of certainty about it. But I’m more confident now that the iceberg of rejection always has a tip of acceptance. Whenever I lose hope I remind myself to focus on the work itself. Once you reach readers, the work takes on its own life, and I love that stage. Right now, I don’t know what’s happening next, which is both frightening and exciting.
And finally – do you really have a mass invasion of tiny frogs every summer?!
Yes, yes we do. If they’re not too quick, I take pictures, so check out my twitter or Instagram for proof of froglife! Luckily, I really love frogs. I have learnt to love toads.
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Polly Atkin lives in Cumbria. Her first poetry collection Basic Nest Architecture appeared in 2017 and was longlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. She is also the author of a number of pamphlets including Shadow Dispatches (Seren) which won the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet prize and a biography Recovering Dorothy: The Hidden Life of Dorothy Wordsworth (Saraband, 2021). She is working on a memoir exploring place, belonging and disability.