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Margaret Atwood Discusses Her New Poetry Collection, Dearly
Atwood sits down with Zoomer to talk poetry, the moment she knew she wanted to be a writer and her advice to those who find poetry intimidating. / BY Mike Crisolago / November 10th, 2020
“I really did have a cat with dementia and it really did wander around the house wondering what it was supposed to eat, because it had forgotten,” Margaret Atwood explains over the phone from her Toronto home. “You’d come down in the morning, there would be a tomato with a little bite taken out of it and you can just see it happening: ‘Is this, is this it? No, no. I guess not. No, no. Let’s try something else. How about this pear? No.’ So little teeth marks all over various food items that cats don’t eat.”
On the surface, cats with dementia might seem like a strange subject to bring up with one of Canada’s most revered literary masters. Yet, it all ties in with the 80-year-old’s latest poetry collection, Dearly. At once heart-warming and introspective, often hilarious and always engaging, this collection (Atwood’s first since 2007) ranges in themes from aging and memory and everyday experiences to the strange and wonderful — like aliens and werewolves and zombies and, yes, cats with dementia.
Then there are poems like “Blackberries” — which conjures images of the passing years and one’s hands becoming like those of their mother — that resonated with me at age 40 even though it’d likely ring more true to someone in their 60s or 70s.
“I think maybe it’s slightly more for them,” Atwood laughs, “unless there’s something really wrong with you, Mike.”
Still, as Atwood notes, there’s something to be said about how our perspectives on aging change as we get older.
“I wrote a short story when I was about 16 or so about this really, really old, really decrepit, falling apart, no hope left high school teacher,” she says. “And how old was she? 40.”
She laughs again. “So when I got to 40, I thought, ‘Boy, did I ever get that wrong?’ But that’s what you think.”
That’s the beauty of Dearly. Whether you’re 16 or 40 or 81 — which Atwood turns on Nov. 18 — everyone will find themes and poetic sentiments that resonate in some way.
And given Atwood’s surge to even greater popularity in recent years thanks in part to television adaptations of her novels like The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, and her 2019 Man Booker Prize-winning Handmaid’s Tale sequel The Testaments, it’s easy to forget that she officially started her writing career as a poet. Atwood self-published the poetry collection Double Persephone in 1961 and released four more poetry books — including the Governor General’s Award-winning The Circle Game (1964) — before her first novel, The Edible Woman, debuted in 1969.
The author, however, notes that it was simply easier to get poetry, rather than longer fiction, published in the 1960s in Canada — a time when poets like Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton and Al Purdy proved popular with readers. Plus, she adds, while a student or working a job, it’s much easier to write poetry than a novel.
Throughout the rest of the conversation, Atwood discussed Dearly, the moment she knew she wanted to be a writer and her advice to those who find poetry intimidating.
MIKE CRISOLAGO: I read that, in high school, you began writing a poem in your head as you walked across the football field. And then when you put the poem to paper, you decided that you wanted to be a writer.
MARGARET ATWOOD: That’s right. That really happened, except the poem was not a very good one. But you have to think that those poems that you’re writing at that age are good. You must think that.
MC: Did it matter to you that it was good?
MA: Oh, it totally mattered that it was good. I think that being a writer is not for the faint-hearted and I think a lot of people who have talent stop doing it because they lack confidence.
MC: If that young Margaret Atwood, crossing the football field, could see you today, what do you think she would think of everything that’s happened?
MA: ‘Well, we didn’t see that coming, did we?’ No, I wanted to be a writer, but I had no idea that I would be that kind of writer.
MC: Is there a different creative process for you when you’re writing poetry as opposed to when you’re writing fiction or nonfiction?
MA: Writing a novel is more like a job. So up in the morning, nine to five or some version of it. And I would say poetry probably takes a place in the part of the brain that is closer to music, whereas prose takes place in the part of the brain that is closer to ordinary conversations, storytelling, that kind of brain activity. Novels are always narrative. Lyric poetry — not epic poetry or narrative poetry — does not necessarily have a story.
MC: Are there particular poems in Dearly that are favourites of yours?
MA: I never say what my favourite novel is of mine that I’ve written because the others will get mad at you. And it’s the same as poetry — the poems will say, ‘Well, I spent all this time with you and is this how you repay me? I’m not your favourite? What?’ [Laughs] That goes for every time somebody says, ‘Name 10 books for Christmas.’ Oh boy, there’s now going to be a thousand people angry at me because I didn’t pick theirs.
MC: Well, there goes my next question.
MA: Yeah, right. [Laughs]
MC: Poetry’s experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, particularly with young poets like Canadian Rupi Kaur and others who use social media to share their work and grow their audience.
MA: That’s what people are telling me. And I don’t know what to say about that because I’m not the person who would know. But, I think there are, for instance, live events — or there were before COVID — so there are improvisation slam poetry events, that kind of thing. And I think that in any time of tumult and chaos, which we do seem to be living in one, poetry often has a resurgence because it connects directly with the emotions.
MC: Many people, though, find poetry intimidating, both to read and to write.
MA: Well, some poems are intimidating and sometimes you don’t get it. And I just want to tell everybody you’re not alone. [Laughs] It happens to me too. So in a way, my poetry is somewhat simple-minded in that respect.
MC: What would you tell someone who is shy about trying poetry?
MA: It’s the same kind of advice that I’m going to tell them if they’re shy about writing: nobody’s going to see you doing it unless you tell them … So plunge in, because it’s between you and the page. It is a private act. One of the few private acts that remains to us. I think a lot of people get put off in high school, and in our day certainly you were given the idea that the meaning of a poem was sort of stuffed into it the way you get a prize in a box of cereal. And your job as the students was to fish out the meaning, which just leads you to think, ‘Well, why did they put all those other words in? Why didn’t they just blurt it out? And why does it have to be a sonnet?’ [Laughs] But that’s really the wrong way of going about it, because it isn’t a question of extracting the meaning, the way you’d take a bullet out of somebody. The poem itself is the experience.
MC: I wanted to pivot a bit and touch on the idea of healthy aging—
MA: Okay. I’m going to recommend two books to you that your readers would like. One is by Emily Urquhart and it’s called the [The Age of Creativity: Art, Memory, My Father, and Me]. It’s about her dad, Tony Urquhart and what he’s doing as an artist now that he’s quite o-l-d. And your readers would find that really interesting because she says it’s not true that people’s imaginations shut down when they’re older. In fact, they’re often released. And the other one that you would like is called An Alphabet for Joanna, and it’s by a poet called Damian Rogers … In both of them, the parent has dementia. But Joanna had premature dementia. So it’s about Damian coming to terms with that. And that will resonate with a lot of your readers as well.
MC: Any tips for us so that we can stay as healthy and active as you as we age?
MA: Get enough sleep. Drink lots of water. Good tips. But apart from that it depends whether they’re readers or not, and it depends on their interests. So I do a lot of gardening, which is a full physical workout. And I do a lot of walking.
MC: Is there anything that we didn’t cover about Dearly that you would like to add?
MA: Poetry is really hard to talk about, so good luck with it. [Laughs] It depends on people’s interests. If they’re interested in werewolves or if they’re interested in mushrooms. Or cats with dementia. Something for everyone.
Dearly is available in stores and online now.