First Collection Interview - Polly Atkin

Over the last couple of days I've been posting interviews with a handful of poets who also had first collections out last year - two so far, both quite different, with Joey Connolly and Khairani Barokka. I think it's really interesting to see how different people navigate the experience of publication - I don't think we always talk about this side of things enough, the opposite-of-actually-writing-poems side. 

Today's interview and poem come from Polly Atkin, whose replies I'm really grateful for, especially where she talks about prizes, and about which poets are currently inspiring her - thank you, Polly. 

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Polly Atkin grew up in Nottingham, then lived in East London for seven years before moving to the Lake District in 2006 by mistake. Luckily, or unluckily, she fell in love with it and has managed to live there most of the time since. She currently lives in a ‘tiny’ cottage in Grasmere with a lot of books, a bookseller/academic, and a cat who decided she wanted to move in with them, as well as a shifting population of bank voles, wood mice, frogs and toads.[1] She is mostly amphibious, which is why she needs to live close to a lake, but also cold-blooded, so only moves in sunshine. She has taught English and Creative Writing at QMUL, Lancaster University, and the Universities of Cumbria and Strathclyde, but is now a freelancer. She was recently diagnosed with Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and Genetic Haemochromatosis, after decades of unexplained health problems, and is working on a non-fiction book on living with chronic illness, as well as poetry that explores ways of articulating pain.

[1] Jack Atkin (aged 6), anecdotal, 2017.

Her first full collection Basic Nest Architecture was published last year by Seren Books.

White cover showing a photograph of the carefully arranged detritus of various nests, including eggs and wings, colourful. A quote is at the bottom of the cover from Jo Shapcott that reads: "Poems that stand out for the reach of the imagination, and the power of language."


1) How long did it take you to put the manuscript together for Basic Nest Architecture?

It built up over the course of a decade, really. I had the title and the shape of it, and an idea in my head of what it was saying and doing by 2011, but the exact mix of poems that ended up in it was quite different by the time it was finalized in late 2016, as some got shunted out and replaced.

2) How much did the manuscript change after it was formally accepted by the publisher?

Not very much. I got my contract quite late on in the process, and the collection was pretty well formed by then. I’d sent more poems to my editor, Amy Wack, at Seren, than I knew we could use, so there was some whittling down. The biggest change was re-shaping some poems with long lines to fit them on the page. This happened at quite a late stage, and though I’m not exactly dissatisfied with the results, one in particular just looks a bit off to me. Most of the other changes were just punctuation, typos etc. I’m dyslexic so I find it quite hard to spot errors, no matter how many times I read something over.

3) And how do you feel about the book now, one year on?

It’s a funny thing to think about isn’t it? I still feel a bit baffled that other people are reading it and finding things they appreciate in it. That still feels very new, and I don’t think I’ve got any better at knowing what to say to people about it. It still feels newly-hatched to me, although my own reading copy is starting to look like something dug up out of an ancient rubbish pit. It took such a long time to get out there, that even a year on it hasn’t sunk in that it’s out in the world on its own. I love the way it looks, and I still get a bit of a thrill every time I see the cover image, which feels a bit like being excessively vain about your beautiful baby. I’m mostly just glad it’s out there, and finding some readers.

4) How have readers responded to the book?

I’ve had a lot of people say really nice things about it to me, in person. One of the most lovely things has been to see people sharing poems they particularly liked on social media. It’s a way of connecting with readers and a really immediate way to get a feel for what people are taking from the book. No one has, in person or, as far as I know, in print or online said anything really horrible about it (this is not a request).

I’ve done quite a lot of readings from it this year, and I love the way readings give you a space to hear how the poems connect with an audience really directly. I’ve been bolder in talking about living with invisible disabilities and genetic conditions in my readings, and I’ve been really moved by some of the conversations I’ve had with people afterwards. I want these poems to be part of a conversation, and to be useful in helping people start conversations that might be difficult, and they seem to be working that way.

5) How has the broader poetry community responded to the book (and do you track such things, or does the publisher, or how does that work for you?)?

I didn’t know if it would get picked up for reviewing, as I’m not a known name to many people, and Seren books don’t always get picked up in the English media. So I’ve been really delighted to see it getting reviews, which have all been insightful and really positive in different ways. Seren do try and keep track of reviews and they put a digest of them up on the online shop, on the book’s page, which I think is a useful thing to do. A lot of the time I’ve found out about reviews because a friend who is more on top of their reading than me has seen it, and emailed or messaged me to tell me about it.
The first full review was by Charanpreet Khaira in The Poetry Review and I could’ve cried, because she just got what the poems are trying to do. My subscription was lapsed at the time, and I was on tenterhooks trying to work out how to see it, before Kathleen Jones scanned it and sent it to me. I was also really chuffed to get a write-up in the TLS by Suzannah V. Evans, because it's so mainstream, right? But I’ve really appreciated the careful reading all the reviews show. I always see publishers moaning that reviews don’t sell books, but whether that’s true or not, they can mean a great deal to the writer.

One of the greatest honours it’s had has to be being picked by John Clegg as LRB Bookshop’s favourite poetry debut of 2017. I’m really interested in what people pick out in reviews or as general readers that you might not particularly notice yourself. John Clegg called it ‘precise and assured and sad and superb’, and I keep thinking about that ‘sad’, because it is there, but I hadn’t really seen it that way.

Of course, I would’ve loved to be on some newspaper’s list of best books, but, realistically, I didn’t think that was going to happen.

I’m quite intrigued by the fact that all the readings I’ve been booked for so far have been in the North of England, Wales or Scotland, and that has something to do with reception by the broader poetry community, as well as visibility. I think England is really missing out on a lot of great poetry when it doesn’t even look at its own outer reaches, let alone the rest of the British Isles.

6) What do you think about prizes in this context?

Prizes, prizes … such double-tongued creatures.

In the current climate it’s undeniable that prizes can make a career. As with reviews, I see a lot of publishers complaining that prizes don’t increase sales. It’s undeniable though that winning or being shortlisted for a big book prize dramatically increases your visibility as a poet, even if it doesn’t increase sales dramatically (which I’m never quite convinced about – show me the figures!).
When used responsibly, prizes can bring an audience to something excellent and important they might not otherwise have found or paid due attention to. When used irresponsibly, they become an endless confirmation loop that only a particular kind of book or poetry is worth attention. I think the UK is beginning to shift toward the former, and without dismantling the whole system so that people don’t rely on prizes to a) make a living (as judges or as winners) and b) decide who is worth reading, we all need to make more effort to Prize Poetry Responsibly. Part of that is making sure prizes are accessible to small presses – something like the Costa, for example, is just far too expensive for most poetry presses to even contemplate submitting to.

I would have loved BNA to be picked up on a shortlist, and though I didn’t expect it in such a strong year for debuts, I would be lying outrageously if I tried to say I wasn’t still disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? I also have no steady income at the moment, so I couldn’t help dreaming of a share of a pot of prize gold. I’m very aware though that every time you get picked for something, there’s someone else, probably someone you know, someone you really admire, who hasn’t.

What I’d like to see most of all is people looking beyond the main prizes to decide what to read, what to publish, who to employ or ask to events. I found this particularly depressing when I’d turned 30 without a Gregory Award, and sat in several events that year listening to key taste-makers in UK poetry say that the best way to find new poets was through the Gregory Awards. Look further people! Otherwise you just end up with the same 13 poets going round and round.

7) Have you been writing poems since the book came out?

Yes. The glory of being mostly unemployed is having time and energy and head-space to write again.

I know some people get a real lull after their book comes out, but I think I was saved from that by the sense the book was such a long time coming, I’d already been through that and out the other side by the time it came out. I had a lot of fragments and half-finished pieces from the last couple of years which I’ve been working on, but also quite a bit of new work I’ve started on in the last few months.

8) What do you think are the different pressures on you now as someone who has “published a first collection”? (And what does that even mean?)

The benefit of not winning any book prizes is that the pressure to out-perform yourself for the ‘difficult second album’ is much less, I think. No one is chomping on the bit demanding a book from me at the moment, but I am aware of the difference between a first collection which, for me, like many, was the accumulation of many many years of work, and a second which might be more of a uniform project, but have less time to ferment. I think time to ferment is quite important. I’m wary of accidentally repeating myself, becoming a kind of self-parody, by not letting new work have the time to grow into what it could become.

Is it harder to get someone to take a second collection? Some people say so, that publishers are only interested in the thrill of the debut, which is sad, and also weird. I hope that’s not true.

9) How much do you need the validation of your work by others?

That’s a really huge question, and I’m not sure what an honest answer would really look like, like you’d have to scan my brain to be sure. Part of it depends what form validation takes. I think someone you trust saying ‘yes, this works, this does something’ is far more important in the long run than accolades or prizes, and more likely to help you towards creating your best work. But that trusted opinion doesn’t tend to pay the bills.

Validation from the wider community is more important in many ways for allowing a poet to live as a person – to work, to eat, have a roof over their head etc. – than allowing a poet to make poetry, which is more about the relationship between the poet and the work, and less about the relationship between the poet and the world. But if you have no validation at all, no ‘original response’ to use a phrase from Robert Frost, it’s easy to lose faith in the direction you’ve chosen.

10) Which poems or poets are currently inspiring you?

I’m having a particular swell of feeling for female poets also writing about and through disability and non-normative bodily experience, including Abi Palmer, Claire Trevien, Khairani Barokka, Hannah Hodgson, Cath Nichols and many more. This year I particularly enjoyed Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s Swims for its perfect articulation of the body in water.

I read quite a lot of Canadian poets who don’t get the readers and distribution in the UK they deserve. One of my favourites of 2017 was Then/Again by Michelle Elrick. I’m still marvelling over Sina Queryas’ last collection MxT but I haven’t yet got her latest, My Ariel. Liz Howard, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Sonnet Labbe, Jenna Bulter, and Johanna Skibsrud are some of the many ‘younger’ Canadian poets I’m surprised more people aren’t reading here, but there are also some well-established poets like Dionne Brand and Erin Moure, who I can’t imagine my poetry world without, who are barely known here.

There is a lot of great Scottish poetry being published that people in England don’t seem to be very aware of. J. L. Williams’s After Economy is high on my ‘to read’ list, and I thoroughly enjoyed Glasgow Makar Jim Carruth’s Black Cart.

I think Pavillion are publishing some really interesting stuff, and I’d recommend any of their collections, and anything by their editor Deryn Rees Jones, but I’m particularly looking forward to the first collection by Emily Hasler that they’re publishing this spring, called The Built Environment.

I love the way social media has opened up global poetries to the quite closed UK poetry world, and I’ve been devouring Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akhbar (plus all his recommendations on twitter), Danez Smith’s Don’t Call us Dead, and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. I’m also eagerly awaiting a new collection by Megan Fernandes after reading some amazing post-first collection poems by her online, and possibly the thing I’m most excited for is Annie Rutherford’s translation of Nora Gomringer’s poetry Hydra’s Heads.

I’ve been re-reading Jane Cooper for a talk at StAnza, and blown away by her work all over again.

My reading tends to be a bit transatlantic and Anglophone so I want to make sure I read more global poetry and poetry in translation this year.

11) What advice would you give to someone about to publish their first collection?

Make your own opportunities – if there’s a festival you really want to read at, or someone you want to work with – get in touch (unless you’re 100% sure your press is doing this for you).

Stick to the light side of the force. Don’t let envy or bitterness get the better of you. Other people’s success is not your loss. Concentrate on your work, and it will work for you.

Celebrate your book, in whatever way works for you. You’ve made a real living book! How amazing is that? Enjoy it, and don’t worry too much about what you can’t control.

Be kind to people (unless they’re terrible and don’t deserve it, in which case, avoid them). Poetry is a small world, and a little goodwill goes a long way. If someone does something good for you, do something good for someone else. Pass it on.

Be patient. Your readers will find you.

12) What is ultimately the point, for you, of writing and publishing poems?

To understand, and to be understood. To communicate. To make something good.

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Colony Collapse Disorder

When I lived in the city I knew where I was,
what being there was. I knew I breathed
under a film of constant light,
that electricity was life. It moved
in my body, which I knew was an atom of the city,
and kept us twitching in unity. I felt
information bloom in my blood. It sang
in my cells as though it had always been there.
I knew without it I had no structure.

To leave the city was to leave one’s memory.
Outside was a garden gone wild. Stars
were night-flowers in a mossy dome, opening
their dazzling mouths to amaze, spreading
exponentially the further from the city I went.
I knew nothing. What nothing meant. I feared
the dark and the space between things: space
needs filling. I’d cry for the city, its order.
To be let back in was to regain the future.

Now I live elsewhere the system is reversed.
The city is a picture from a book I once read
and nothing to do with me. Life is a movement
between dirt and sky. I see this clearly.
The stars are generators. Without them we’d fail.
Going back to the city is to speed myself up
to a drawn out buzz that I know is killing me.
Going anywhere other than elsewhere is rehearsing
this end: the shut-down of travelling energy.

All those years living inside weakened me.
Taken away from elsewhere I dim.
Friends visit and tell me that elsewhere is death
and the sky cannot feed me. Not indefinitely.
Their eyes are blown bulbs. They rattle. I smell
honey on their skin and know how it is.
When they move I hear humming like a swarm at a distance.
When they speak I hear their voices, and under
the city quietly droning. 



This poem is reproduced from Basic Nest Architecture by permission of Polly Atkin and Seren Books.


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Update: the next interview is now online too, with Rishi Dastidar talking about Ticker-tape. The fifth interview is with Elizabeth-Jane Burnett talking about Swims. The sixth interview is with Emily Blewitt talking about This Is Not A Rescue.


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