JEAN ATKIN – THE UNCHAINED POET
This month I’m very excited to catch up (at a run!) with Jean Atkin, a poet I’ve always admired for her energy, optimism and unique way of looking at the world. For Jean, writing is not about sitting at a desk, it’s about engagement with the external environment in profound and far-reaching ways. Jean lives in a beautiful area of the UK and our conversation brought me a welcome breath of different country air (I live on the opposite side of the UK) in these locked down times where travel has become taboo.
Jean, I always associate you with quite quirky projects! I remember at a conference doing a falconry handling session followed by a poetry workshop on the experience with you. What is the most unusual workshop you have run to date?
I do love a bit of quirk, and I definitely remember the falconry experience! Nothing is quite like the thump of an owl landing on your writing arm. In the past, I’ve run a workshop on a beach and learned from some kids there how to creep up on a limpet; made and performed site-specific poetry to particular Shropshire trees; and made poems with a village community high on their local Iron Age hillfort. One of the weirdest and most curious was a series of public workshops I led in Ludlow Museum Resources Centre. I called it ‘Writing in the Museum Vaults’ and it involved unlocking, then exploring, the catalogued, bottled, and taxidermied past, all housed in padlocked basement climate-controlled stores. Perhaps the strangest and most downright unnerving was writing in the eerie Fluids Room, where pale creatures float in alcohol in glass jars in the half-light.
One of your recent roles was Troubadour of the Hills, a Poet-in-Residence role. Could you talk a bit more about what the role entailed and what kind of writing it led to? I believe you’ve had quite a few residencies over the years. What were the highlights for you and do you have any tips for writers on how to secure interesting residencies? Residencies are very much two-way processes, aren’t they? Do you have any thoughts on their mutual benefits?
Troubadour of the Hills was a really exciting residence for me. It was a project for Ledbury Poetry Festival and Malvern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and aspired to bring the whole Malverns AONB to the attention of poets both young and old. So I ran workshops for local primary schools as well as for adults. We climbed up the Malvern Hills to write, but also had access to less-travelled places, so we workshopped under a vast cloud hedge in the grounds of a tucked-away Georgian mansion, and inside the floury clatter of a restored and working water mill. Part of the residency was a commission to write a poem for the project, and I tackled this by going for a walk – a long walk below and then up and along the high ridge of the Malverns. The resulting poem is ‘One uncertain history of the Malverns’ – you can read it here. And then a chance meeting led to this poem featuring on BBC Radio 4’s Ramblings with Clare Balding – ‘Walking a Poem on the Malverns’. So I got to meet Clare, and her lovely producer Karen Gregor, and managed to lose them both (just slightly) on a very cold January day in the woods below Raggedstone Hill. This residency also gave me the chance to work closely with Ledbury Poetry Festival, who were immensely supportive and inventive, so I found myself much involved with the Festival too. My Malverns poem is published in my second collection, ‘How Time is in Fields’ (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2019).
I’ve been lucky enough to undertake several residencies, and yes, I agree they really are two-way processes. I’ve learned to think clearly about what the collaborating site/organisation needs from a residency, as well as what I might hope to gain from it. Fortunately, I think these things usually overlap creatively. So I’ve made lots of poems with visitors, to help them to engage with places. I’ve found ways to display their work, for example on a Poet Tree at Logan Botanic Gardens in Scotland, and on a Poetry Fence at Acton Scott Historic Farm Museum. I’ve listened to lots of stories, helped people to write about them, and drawn my own inspirations from those experiences. A lot of it is finding ways to talk to people and give them confidence in their voice. Poetry is about joy, and finding it again even among sadness.
Finding residences is an imprecise art: I’ve applied for some (and not always successfully), and approached agencies with an idea for others, and then applied for the funding. This can be a very time-consuming process! But a residency can be a wonderful way of concentrating on work in a particular place, and growing new poetry – your own and other people’s.
Your latest project is #lastcall which celebrates the run-down and abandoned red phone boxes which were once such a key part of our lives in the UK. Could you explain how you created this project and what the outcome will be? I’ve noticed lots of people posting photos of these phone-boxes on your Facebook feed with stories of what they have become (a toilet, a tiramisu vending machine, the smallest bookshop/bookswap).
For many years I’ve been photographing red phone boxes – in varying states of decay or resurrection. I happened to meet with Estelle Van Warmelo, director at Feral Productions in Herefordshire, and somehow regaled her with my red phone box obsession, and the belief that there had to be a project in there somewhere. And then Estelle, who is quite brilliant, managed to find a way to make it happen. We’ve both been scouting for the right phone boxes (all in Herefordshire) and now I’m writing nine poems, one for each. So I visited each box, tugged open its door and struggled in (through the ivy in some cases). Then I wrote inside each box. I’ve also asked for stories and we’ve had a wonderful response. The poems attempt to put much of this richness together. Next, sound-artist Sophie Cooper will work on the poems and the boxes to create unique soundscapes (I have even been recording dialling tones for her on my phone). And finally, by this summer, Estelle will create micro-theatre productions for each box, which will be performed on site, to whatever audience happens along. Finally, these will be filmed and shared online too. So you can see the main thing is our devotion to the idea of a very particular, site-specific, cross-arts project!
#LastCall is all about the human need to communicate, and the distance between us. It’s about the last voice on the line in a rusting rural phone box before disconnection. It turns out to have a lot of resonance in this awful, distanced year. We’ve found so much affection for the iconic red phone box, beautiful when freshly painted, still beautiful in dereliction.
Just possibly, by July, we may manage to invite a real (socially distanced, masked and more or less vaccinated) audience out to hear poems, watch films, eat cake and generally revel in Britain’s red phone boxes!
I know you often work on collaborative projects. What has been your favourite to date and what kind of work did it inspire?
Over the last year, I’ve been working on a personal project inspired by a rare and strange book, ‘The Shropshire Word Book’, published in 1879 and only available in an obscure facsimile edition. It’s packed with dialect words and phrases collected in Shropshire in the 1870s. I love words. I took a selection of them and wrote a dozen poems, and as they came together, I realised this was a pamphlet that needed a really excellent Shropshire-based artist too. So I’ve been collaborating with Katy Alston, whose illustrations perfectly capture another century, its folklore and its common experiences. Her work has helped bring the world of words like ‘mommets’, ‘buts and feerings’, ‘shalligonaked’ and ‘fan-peckled’ to life. Truly, we’ve had an absolute ball.
The pamphlet ‘Fan-peckled’, is published by Shropshire-based Fair Acre Press on 2 April 2021.
‘Fan-peckled’ is truly gorgeous, my copy has just arrived and I’m revelling in it!
Jean, when I read your work, I tend to think of you as a nature poet, would you think of yourself in this way? How has your poetry changed over the years?
Well, I can see why you think of me as a nature poet: much of my work is set in the natural world, or draws on it. It’s what I know best – I grew up in rural south Cumbria, and have mostly lived in rural places since. However, I think I’m rather more a poet of place, because what really draws me is the sense of connection we have to places, across time and sometimes, across species. So I find I’m excited to write about the residues of other lives in place, and perceived/found/imagined fragments of other thoughts and emotions. I’ve written about farms, factories, paths, patios and badger setts. And I write about people too, their stories, the decisions they make. What is real to us, and what’s not. And at the moment I’m writing about those red phone boxes! I’m intrigued by how we, now, make contact with the past and its people and places. It’s about listening, and empathy, and imagination. I think it’s important, because place, and the past, is where we’ve all come from, and if we know that, and have a feel for it, we can change the future. Change is very interesting in poetry, and poetry can be a voice for change.
I think that when I’m writing now, I’m quicker to discard things than I was fifteen years ago. Just occasionally, I manage to recycle good bits into something else – but I’ve made my peace with sometimes just abandoning something which is rather good, but not useful where it is. And I think my pleasure in rhyme is increasing, and becoming more subtle, as time goes on.
That’s interesting, I really like your thoughts on what it means to be a poet of place.
I’ve so enjoyed this conversation, Jean! To conclude, what advice would you give to poets who want to celebrate their local environment? How can they give their poetry a different spin?
Get out there and explore it! Be obsessed. Take a little notebook and pencil and write down without judgement whatever occurs to you at the time. Also, listen to people, seek out stories, do some research. Find old photographs. Read novels. Read poems. Draw maps. Draw. Find something that fascinates you and focus on it.
I think I like little projects that end in a pamphlet best. Imagine new ways to lead the reader into your project and your environment – words, maps, paths, tales. Consider collaborating with someone – a photographer, an artist, another writer. Enjoy yourself.
That’s brilliant advice Jean, thank you! What’s next for you in terms of books and projects?
I have a busy year ahead, with ‘Fan-peckled’ coming out from Fair Acre Press in April, and then later on, in September, another pamphlet which will be published by Indigo Dreams. This one is ‘The Bicycles of Ice and Salt’, and tells of long journeys I made by bicycle in winter, nearly 40 years ago.
Beyond those, I’m working towards my third collection. I’m also mentoring emerging poets, and leading online poetry courses on The Poetry Wire, which I created so course participants can share their work and responses with me and each other.
Jean Atkin’s latest book is ‘Fan-peckled’, a collaborative pamphlet with artist/illustrator Katy Alston, published by Fair Acre Press. ‘Fan-peckled’ is based on the lost old words of Shropshire. Jean’s 2019 collection ‘How Time is in Fields’ (IDP) has been widely and warmly reviewed. Also in 2019 she was Troubadour of the Hills for Ledbury Poetry Festival, and BBC National Poetry Day Poet for Shropshire. Her poetry has featured on BBC Radio 4, and recent work in Agenda, The Moth and The Rialto. Another pamphlet ‘The Bicycles of Ice and Salt’ is forthcoming from Indigo Dreams Publishing in late 2021. www.jeanatkin.com
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Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK. She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University. Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet. She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris. This became her debut pamphlet, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press. Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News. She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic. Her latest pamphlet, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press. More information at www.sueburge.uk