Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Jean Atkin

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

How Time is in Fields MATT 2 ALTERNATIVE 72[31097]

Jean Atkin

Jean Atkin’s new collection ‘How Time is in Fields‘ is forthcoming from IDP in 2019. Previous publications include ‘Not Lost Since Last Time’ (Oversteps Books). Her poetry has been commissioned for Radio 4, and featured on ‘Best Scottish Poems’ by the Scottish Poetry Library. Recent work appears in The Rialto, The Interpreter’s House, Magma, Lighthouse, Agenda and Ambit. She works as a poet in education and community and is currently Troubadour of the Hills for Ledbury Poetry Festival. http://www.jeanatkin.com

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

As far back as I can remember, I loved words. I loved the look of them and the sound of them, and I noticed as a small child that many words have, for me, a physical-aural-visual quality which makes them uniquely themselves.  I used to ponder on the bristliness of ‘brush’ and how it held onto dust.  How ‘snow’ is slow, and deep.  Even the word sounds muffled.  That sort of thing.  Voracious public library visiting and reading led to writing, and by the age of eight I was making small books about all sorts of stuff.  My parents valued academic success higher than artistic, however, so I wrote poetry on my own, never mentioned it, and had no idea I might seek publication. But I was lit up by reading Seamus Heaney, Christina Rossetti, Ted Hughes, Wilfred Owen and others.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

My mother liked to read poetry, and I grew up among rhymes and the older, more traditional poets on the bookshelves.  But another thing my mother did was to show me how to read landscape, which has had a strong influence on my own poetry.

Later, much later, in my 40s (there was a long gap during which I worked as a classroom teacher, and reared young children) I at last joined a creative writing group in Scotland, and was immensely encouraged by Hugh McMillan, Hugh Bryden (Roncadora Press), Vivien Jones, Jackie Galley and Andrew Forster.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

Oh yes!  An early revelation that something else was going on was buying a copy of Grace Nicholls’ poems, and ‘In The Pink’, the brilliant 1980s anthology from The Raving Beauties.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

To be truthful, I don’t have one.  My work as a poet in education and projects and my own poetry fray into one another.  I usually have a poem or two on the go, and I go in and tweak them at rather random moments.  Or carry a poem I’m working on around with me, and stare at it now and then.  Then tweak it.  I always start writing a poem in pencil, though, in a plain notebook.

5. What motivates you to write?

It’s the thrill of making something I didn’t know was there.

6. What is your work ethic?

Strong! I’ve been self-employed for ten years – but you mean about the poetry?  I still work hard.  I always just want to be better, to keep learning.  I get so excited when I read someone’s work that fires me up, because then it’s showing me something new.  And I love working with people who don’t think of themselves as poets or writers, because they surprise themselves, and delight me, with what they do. I firmly believe we are a musical, word-loving species.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

Writers like Shelley, Keats, Drinkwater and Swinburne amazed and intoxicated me with words, rhyme and rhythm.  I still love strange new words, and foreign words, and that sense of exact and absolute inevitability in a good poem.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

The poets I go back to are Gillian Allnutt, Jen Hadfield, Imtiaz Dharker, David Morley, Liz Berry, Romalyn Ante, Les Murray, Roy McFarlane, Pauline Stainer, Helen Mort, Tom Pow, John Glenday, Stewart Conn, Jackie Kay, Hugh McMillan, Penelope Shuttle, John Greening, Philip Gross, and more.

Just now I’m so taken with ‘At or Below Sea Level’ by Elisabeth Sennitt Clough.  Elisabeth’s poems about the Fens feel truly haunted, and are so beautifully made.   Sasha Dugdale’s ‘Joy’ is an amazing collection.  The title poem is utterly engrossing, how central love is to living.  A really rich book.

9. Why do you write?

For me, writing is an essential way to process thought and feeling.  That is, it helps me find out what I think and feel.  Then the challenge and pleasure of crafting something that expresses it as perfectly as I can.  To start with, I never quite know what is coming, there is a mystery involved.  Once you’ve captured the creature, you begin to make it, in a way and at a pace that suits both you and it.  It’s like horse-breaking (which I have written about!).  You learn on the job, which is never quite the same twice.  It’s fascinating, and feels central to who I am.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I work a lot in schools, and with young people, and they do ask me this.  I say, “Believe you can do it.  Read a lot, then write, it will make you better.  Persistence will take you a long way.  Expect disappointment and that you won’t make money!  Find your writing community, treasure it, help it along, enjoy it.  Once you can give something back, then do it.”

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I’m currently Troubadour of the Hills for Ledbury Poetry Festival.  This is a lovely project devised by Ledbury Poetry Festival and Malvern Hills AONB.   I’ve already done some schools work, taking local children into the woods under the Malverns to make poetry – and there are more walks and workshops coming up before Ledbury Poetry Festival in July. Plus – you are all invited to join in with the Troubadour project by uploading your own poem about hills (any hills!) to Ledbury Poetry Festival’s website – link here.(https://www.poetry-festival.co.uk/the-malvern-hills/)

There are some great poems up there already.  I’ve also written my first commissioned poem for the project.  It’s based on a 7 mile circular walk, which you can plot on the map by following the poem.  Then, wonderfully, Radio 4’s Ramblings programme picked up the project, and asked me to take a walk with Clare Balding, on a beautiful day in January.  The programme, ‘Walking a Poem on the Malverns’ aired in March, and is still available to listen to – link here.(https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006xrr2/episodes/player)

For the last 18 months I’ve been working with Shropshire-based eclectic folk band, Whalebone, writing a group of poems to explore the new lore of the county – the stories just within – and just outside of – living memory.   Whalebone have composed music to weave through the poems. This is a performance project we’ve called ‘Understories’, and it has now attracted Arts Council funding.  Whalebone have published a CD and pamphlet containing the poems, and we are now touring the show around ten of Shropshire’s libraries (thank you ACE), until July.  Part of the project is gathering new ‘understories’ from the audiences.  This is going wonderfully (eg. the Telford maggot farm – ‘Johnny’s Cooking Tonight’; The rabbit-skinner of Woore etc) – and we will be using them to write further new material.  Links are here (https://www.whalebone-music.com/understories/) on Whalebone’s site, and here (https://jeanatkin.com/2019/03/06/understories-with-whalebone/) on my blog http://www.jeanatkin.com

And my second full collection, ‘How Time is in Fields’ is published by Indigo Dreams Press in May 2019 and launched at Cheltenham Poetry Festival.  In this collection, I have explored the way place contains all times, as well as traces of our recognisable predecessors.  There’s a lot of walking in this book, a lot of being close to the ground and of sharing space with other creatures, other lives, other centuries.  The round of the year is divided into the Old English months, reflecting shifts of folklore, season and state of mind.

I’m in the throes of seeking readings for ‘How Time is in Fields’, so please do ask me!

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