Tim Atkins is the author of many books of poetry, including 25 Sonnets (The Figures), Horace (O Books), Petrarch (Book Thug), Folklore (Salt), Petrarch (Barque), 1000 Sonnets (if p then q), and Honda Ode (Oystercatcher). The 500-page Petrarch Collected Atkins came out from Crater in July 2014 (http://www.craterpress.co.uk). The World’s Furious Song Flows Through My Skirt (a Poets Theatre play) was published by Stoma in May 2014. His ongoing long verse-novel On Fathers > On Daughtyrs continues to appear with various presses. A section is available at: http://www.countrymusicpoetry.org/Issue_6_Contents.php He is editor of the long-running online poetry journal, onedit, (publishing Clark Coolidge, Deanna Ferguson, Jackson Mac Low, Lisa Jarnot, Alice Notley, and many younger British poets) and London correspondent for NYC's Lungfull! magazine.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook—Folklore 1-25—published by Laird Hunt’s Heart Hammer Press in 1995 in Boulder & Paris (!) indicated that my life had changed. Up to that point I had been writing in isolation, avoiding the UK poetry scene (about which I knew next to nothing, in many ways) & dreaming of being a poet in an imagined & unchronological French, North American, Brazilian, & Japanese world of poetry & art.
Folklore came about through friendships that I made in San Francisco in the early 1990s, & indicated that I’d found friends, contemporaries, & some kind of way of saying things in a way that I’d always hoped. I met Laird the day that he had picked up Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press letterpress & was about to drive it back to The Jack Kerouac School in Boulder. It’s a very happy memory. Laird & Eleni Sikelianos (who I met at Carla Harryman’s Poets Theatre) are, to this day, the friends & writers whose works inspire & excite me most.
Laird sent Folklore to various people & received friendly & positive responses. I remember a really nice letter from Michael Palmer. Before Folklore, my writing had been read by various old English establishment figures (Caroline Blackwood-Lowell & Peter Levi were positive & interested in my very early twenties) but I didn’t have any sense of community or conversation. Laird’s vote of confidence in my writing suddenly made the world a happy & expansive place. It continues to feel like that to this day. I was a guest at Naropa University this last summer and that felt like the happiest (and most surprising—I’m from the UK) place I could ever find myself as a poet. All as a result of the friendships that began with Folklore.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I read—completely by chance—some Chinese poetry in the library at school when I was 13. That was it. I had no idea what I was reading, somehow, but I knew that it was the most exciting thing I had ever read. I don’t really understand how these things happen, but there was something in me which felt like it recognized the importance of poetry in my life long before I consciously thought, felt, or really knew it. I remember being in the library (in Great Malvern) one summer day in the corner of a dark room looking at a book of Chinese poetry with text (Tu Fu, perhaps) & black & white photographs of misty mountains & thinking that this was the most moving & exciting thing I’d ever read. Not long after that I came to the fiction of Jack Kerouac & H.P. Lovecraft—& there’s enough poetry in that to keep you going, too. But, really, poetry was there right from the start, it seems—just waiting for me to stumble upon it.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I never make notes and I write very quickly. My new book, PetrarchCollectedAtkins was a finished (as in abandoned) manuscript of 600 poems. BookThug, Crater, & Barque all did selections & I left the remaining 500 to rot, whilst bragging about how many I’d written. Crater asked to do a Collected Poems & so I have spent the last 6 months making them all as fit as possible for publication. The poems are neither translations nor original poems. They started life by me buying a book of Petrarch’s poems in English & then writing through it, sometimes paying attention to the “source” poem & sometimes ignoring it. Some of the poems are close to translations, & others are translations only in the sense that I read the corresponding Petrarch poem before writing mine. & then I edited many of them into oblivion so that the finished poem is nothing like the original. So there are many different ways of making a poem in this book. Bernadette Mayer’s Writing Experiments, combined with my own list of translation methods, combined with the general urge to write a poem are what usually go into my poems. I feel uneasy when they are called translations if there is not some kind of understanding that they are also (often) original pieces as well.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I love books. Jack Spicer’s concept of thinking in books is how I have always done things. I always have about ten different books that I want to write.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. I always have. I have been really fortunate to have been asked to read all over the UK & North America, & I adore the chance to read my poems to friends & to strangers. The poems that I have been writing in recent years—funny, silly, political, personal ones—do help in that they aren’t in any way difficult & usually have enough pop culture, disgust at government, & happy children in them to strike a chord with most listeners. One’s bullshit detector is always on when one bungs a load of in-progress poems into a room, so that is always really helpful, too. –& the fact that I have read with so many great poets—that never ceases to amaze me.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I want a poetry that resists theory, really. The biggest question I am trying to answer is how to have fun with words, how to stave off boredom, & how to contribute to a conversation which has inspired & sustained me for the whole of my adult life. Theoretical concerns that foreground a particular world view seem absurdly narrowing. I’m a Buddhist & I guess this open / empty field zen-type thinking informs my world view & what I find attractive it, but one can argue that any theory can be made to fit any type of poetry if one tries hard enough. & that seems to be a long way from the point of it all. John Ashbery said somewhere that complete ignorance & an open mind were the best tools one could have, & I agree.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of the writer should be as various as there are various writers. It strikes me that one should always do one’s best to be good, generous, open, & compassionate, but to say that poets should be that more than, say, hairdressers seems to be delusional in some ways—& entirely reasonable in others. I’d like everyone to stop eating animals, but writing a poem about it is less likely to bring about change than stopping eating animals.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’m a small press poet. Editors avoid us. The editors who I have worked with (Leslie Scalapino, Geoff Young, Michael Gizzi—have been nothing but generous.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
John Ashbery’s “complete ignorance & an open mind” quote.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I have next to no interest in writing critical prose. I have a PhD (which I got for professional reasons) in which I wrote about creative methods of translation, but I feel that this fact is a burden rather than a boon. I think my skill likes in collecting & cataloguing stuff as opposed to analyzing or explaining something—in my PhD I divided contemporary translation methods into seven types & then listed as many examples as I could. I did not want to write something that told people how to read, see, or think. I feel a real antipathy to a great deal of critical prose (but by no means all). I love William Watkin’s writing about Kenneth Koch—like the aporia at the heart of O’Hara’s action writing and Personism, the trope of trying to go on must be undermined by the hermeneutic logic of decollation and its re-iterative forces of cataphoric re-inscription of anaphora. What does it mean? I have no idea! I have no interest. The beauty of poetry is that it is the most powerful descriptive tool that we have—& yet by its very nature it resists providing a single point of view about anything. I feel nauseous when I read (or read of) poets arguing over the correct reading of something. It seems absurd for there ever to be one reading of something. My old & dear friend Miles Champion always used to express contempt for the explainers & I always used to feel that he was too extreme in his views, but nowadays I’m inclined to agree with him. The UK is riddled with explainers who seem intent on finding a (tedious academic) position & defending it (aggressively). The idea that you cannot read or understand a poem without being party-line about Marx or Adorno (or whoever) is so scary that it is laughable. (It doesn’t preclude the possibility of a great poet writing great poems from this or any other perspective, though, too, of course.) I’m much more interested in a poetry which says that it doesn’t know & is excited about the journey. Perhaps that’s the difference between UK & North American poetry. In the UK it’s so often about telling you something, whereas in Japan, Canada, the USA…it’s about showing you something.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
It begins with taking my kids to school. I write in the evenings, when I feel like it. I write a lot & I keep very little. Writing has never been a problem for me. I can’t vouch for the quality of it, but I certainly have no problem with the quantity. Writing has always been a pure & uncomplicated joy. What can you do with words? Whatever you like! There are enough words & enough variations (& great poets to inspire me) to keep me busy for a lifetime.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’m in a constant state of happiness & excitation about poetry. I’ve always got far too many ideas to get down. I guess my Buddhism informs how I think about poetic inspiration: the more empty you are, the more space there is to be filled & the greater possibility there is for conversation & inspiration. My dreadful memory means that there’s never too much of substance going on in my head. I want it to be even emptier.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Damp books & the rotting vegetables that my kids have stuffed down the backs of chairs.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Nature filled my external world between the ages of 7 & 18. My book Folklore is all about that world. Punk rock changed my life—the DIY idea aligned to the idea that spirit is as important as proficiency. Marvel Comics were my first introduction to creativity that made me mad with excitement. The language of science & methods of Lee Perry were all over my book 1000 Sonnets. Dub reggae has been as important to the way I think about writing as Gertrude Stein—in fact, they aren’t that different.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Clark Coolidge, Jack Kerouac, Eleni Sikelianos, Lisa Jarnot, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Joanne Kyger, Gertrude Stein, Akiko Yosano, Paul Blackburn, Hilda Morley, Larry Eigner, Kenneth Koch, Issa, Miles Champion, bill bissett, Dogen, Lisa Robertson, Diane DiPrima, Jeff Hilson…
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a book that more than 10 / 100 / 1000 people read.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I am a teacher as well as a writer. I love the game of communicating ideas in an efficient, flexible, open, individual & exciting way. One job fantasy I have is one where I work clearing land mines from wherever they blight people’s lives—which I guess means everywhere. I get furious just thinking about the people who make them—& do nothing about it beyond writing angry poems. I wish I’d become a Buddhist monk when I lived in San Francisco—but then I wouldn’t have had kids, so have to say that I am happy with what I’ve got. I feel incredibly lucky to be earning a good living by talking about books that I love. Being able to feed my kids & buy books! There were a couple of years when I could do neither.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I couldn’t help myself. But I do plenty of other things too. The best thing that I do is hug my kids–& listen to “La Bamba”
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I think that Hilda Morley’s What are Winds & What are Waters is a remarkable book. I really do cry every time I read it. I bought it last year—but it came out in 1993. Films—I have just discovered Marie Menken’s work. I love everything that she’s done.
20 - What are you currently working on?
An ongoing long poem/novel about my two kids, called On Fathers < On Daughtyrs. Parts have come out in The Denver Quarterly & as a chapbook in Issue 6 of Country Music. It’s here: http://www.countrymusicpoetry.org/Issue_6_Contents.php. Men don’t write enough about their children. I’m on a mission to change that. Thing #1 & Thing #2 have their filthy fingers all over my poetry—& that’s how it should be. They are all over the doors, walls, & windows, too, a little less happily.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;