An interview with Tiffany Atkinson

Tiffany Atkinson

To mark Poetry Wales‘s historic 50th volume we’ll be posting a series of interviews, poems, articles and reviews here on the PW blog over the coming months. Here PW editor Nia Davies speaks to Tiffany Atkinson whose third collection So Many Moving Parts was published earlier this year by Bloodaxe. She’ll be reading at our 50th Volume launch at Poetry International on Sunday 20th July at 6pm at London’s South Bank Centre. To begin the interview, here’s a poem from Tiffany’s So Many Moving Parts.

 

 

Paternoster

God is big between the fingers,
bevelled like a cherry seed. First
it goes Mary / space / Mary / space/
Mary / space / Mary / space / Mary /space /

GOD, and when you touch this bead
a flash in his eye pulls you in
and you drift like a spaceman.
Either side Our Lady listens softly

growing lilies from her sad eyes. So
I put up my hand and said God is a mineral
Mary is vegetable and Jesus the Lamb
which is all of things, and a scientific

way to think of it, but Sister Joan
said not exactly, child. I didn’t say
the paternoster is a diamond though, it
sizzles in your fingers like a diamond

feeling fiercer than it wants, or Mary
has flowers for eyes and Jesus well Jesus
did nothing but bleed his whole life; or
the space between each bead is where

you feel your hand, your weird hand
reaching in the dark like something not
yours but applied to you like names
or school reports, and sometimes

from chapel you meet yourself going
back in, a repetitive self like a little bead
pulled by the weight of the rest
asking what am I, what am I, that my

breath moves slowly in the soft dark
and I wait for god to choose, to give me
weight, the mineral pureness that’ll
turn my many sides to him and dazzle.

 

Nia Davies: Your personal iconography seems to be rich in hands and chickens. In this new book So Many Moving Parts you give us a hen extravaganza in ‘La Poulette Grise’. And you ironically name this ‘an IVF lullaby’. There are also a number poems featuring hands. What is it about hens and hands? Have you worked out why they fascinate you?

Tiffany Atkinson: Yes, this has been brought to my attention! I think the chickens in La Poulette Grise are the only ones in SMMP: La Poulet Gris really is the name of a French lullaby – someone sent an arrangement of it to me and it was such a haunting little song. I borrowed the structure of the poem from it; it seems to be describing natural cycles, and fertility was much on my mind at the time, and hens are obvious symbols for that. I wanted to allude to that cyclical pattern and its hopes and fears, with the final stanza which implies the bombshell of conception. It’s rather obvious probably, but I was happy to be up front about that.

Hands are a bit of an obsession and they naturally crop up quite frequently in my writing: I should probably watch that now that I am aware of it. They are a ready metonym for writers to use aren’t they? But I am genuinely fascinated by their expressiveness and ingenuity, and by hands as a point of connection between people.

 

ND: Aberystwyth is one of a few strong backdrops in this book (another is Paris) – students, farmers, rain, etc – it’s a unusual place isn’t it? How has it shaped you and your writing?

TA: So Many Moving Parts contains a lot of fairly straightforwardly observational poems so they reflect the places I spent most time in while writing. I especially enjoyed the contrasts between rural Aberystwyth and Paris, and the sense of estrangement the latter gave me. Aberystwyth has an interesting population – students and academics, farmers, artists, tourists, people seeking rural peace, and quite an active alternative community; and all in a small town which feels quite remote from any urban centre. I am affectionate towards and frustrated by this in equal measure! I expect this comes through in my writing, since local detail is so important to me.

 

ND: Many of your poems across all three of your books are funny. They seem to laugh at poetry and the self – recgonising the absurdity of these things. Our hands, for example, when we start to look at them as if they aren’t our own become strange wiggling things, but they essential for everything. I find this inversion of seriousness in your poetry actually very reinvigorating as I think it unearths an emotional life flowing under or within the current of language. Somehow by not taking poetry seriously it becomes even more important. Do you think that you have to loose the serious ernest belief in poetry in order to make it comic, and thus more serious and essential?

TA: That’s interesting. I don’t set out to be comic but I like that you find some of the poems funny. I do take poetry seriously but I try not to take myself too seriously in it. Or something about writing a poem has this effect, revealing just how silly and absurd the self can be.  I also think there is something to be taken seriously about comedy, especially the uncomfortable, embarrassing kind – a point that Freud of course made much better.

 

ND: You once said you tied yourself to the desk to write much of SMMP. Why do you think this process works for you?

TA: Ah that is because I am so very easily distracted, and very fidgety. Actually tying myself to my chair reminds me that I need to sit there for more than five minutes without making a cup of tea or checking email or doing some photocopying or whatever. It was a desperate measure but it did work, to a degree. I am not proud of this! But I find writing quite hard. Satisfying and sometimes thrilling, but hard.

 

ND: How was writing your third book? How does it compare to your earlier work, what do you think has changed and why?

TA: After my second collection (Catulla et al) I found it hard to let go of the quite flamboyant Catulla persona that made up most of it, which is maybe why the poems in SMMP mostly avoid thrown voices and have, by comparison, an undramatic or quiet quality. Oddly, this too felt experimental, although it probably doesn’t appear so. I deliberately tried not to dramatise everything, because I had got into that habit by thinking like Catulla. I do feel that it’s important to have a change of gear between books in case you end up getting too comfortable, and certain sets of habits do start to emerge in collections.  Discomfort (see above!) seems to be an important part of my writing process.

 

ND:  What’s your favourite run in and around Aberystwyth?

TA: What a lovely question! Anything coastal and hilly, especially in dramatic weather, is fantastic. But there is also a quieter, and flatter, long route out along the river and bridle path to Tregaron which is so beautiful at this time of year. Next time you are in Aber we could run it together!

So Many Moving Parts is reviewed by Sarah Howe in the Summer 2014 issue of Poetry Wales.

The book is published by Bloodaxe. You can order a copy via the Bloodaxe website.

COMMENTS

2 Comments

  • David Hamilton

    I thoroughly enjoyed this review and the poem Paternoster very much. This was a pleasant surprise because I regard most modern poetry as unpoetic. I have Tiff’s Kink and Particle and am about to order more beginning with the Catullus collection and working forwards.

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