BLOG Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 108

Tiffany Atkinson’s So Many Moving Parts

Tiffany Atkinson’s So Many Moving Parts is not the book she set out to write. That book was ‘a collection about bodies’ she says, but then admits: ‘As soon as you try to write to an agenda it doesn’t work. There is a tendency now to feel that you have to write a collection that makes sense at some overall thematic level, and I think I resisted that. Or perhaps I made a virtue of necessity.’ Atkinson’s rebelliousness might be seen as wilfully perverse, but – as she suggests – her risk-taking is driven as much by necessity as her resistance to trends.

Kink and Particle (2006), Atkinson’s first collection, was jammed with exclamations, swearing, sex and intellectual swagger. She treated the nuts and bolts of ordinary experience with a frankness as flippant as it was cerebral. Her second book, Catulla et al (2011), reimagined the work of the Latin poet Catullus using a contemporary voice, and set the action in mid Wales. The sassy, self-aware tone of her female Catulla was, she says, ‘quite seductive and strident – which was great, but you can’t do that forever.’ She describes the Catulla poems as ‘very much engaging with an inner world and a past world and a fantasy world’ and says it was difficult to pull herself out of the Catulla mindset, having been ‘immersed in Catullus for quite a long time’. The original Catullus poems also provided Atkinson with ‘a kind of go-to structure’.

By contrast, the new poems came to her as ‘fragmentary impressions rather than as a connected series’. And the fragmentary form of the poems mirrors Atkinson’s current concern with language as ‘incomplete and slightly hobbled’. But, she says, ‘I like it for that. Unfinishedness is interesting to me at the moment, and the question of whether unfinishedness is OK; whether unfinishedness can be a structuring principle in itself.’

So Many Moving Parts, Atkinson’s third collection, no longer trades on the slick irony which characterised Kink and Particle – and Catulla’s brash, self-styling wit has fallen by the wayside. What emerges from those tough, no-nonsense voices – both bawdy and provocative – is a new desire ‘to engage with the outside world’; a desire which Atkinson has channelled into ‘documentary-’ or ‘portrait-poems’. ‘I think these are generally more outward-looking poems,’ she says, ‘and there’s a kind of shyness about that. I have just gone around staring and doing little portraits of people.

‘One of the things I’ve tried to do in this collection, which was risky, is to return to the lyric “I” which my first collection was full of. But I wanted to make it more flat-footed somehow. I wanted to break some rules,’ Atkinson says. She achieves this ‘flat-footedness’ by drawing on real moments which previously she would have fictionalised. She describes ‘actual encounters’ as being ‘quite awkward and flat-footed. I mean, embarrassment and awkwardness are a large part of my life. They’re a large part of my emotional register. But I think they’re interesting to probe because they’re kind of frictions aren’t they? They’re kind of benign frictions. And I’m interested in communication that doesn’t quite work.’

Embarrassment was one of the big themes of Catulla et al – but Atkinson deals with embarrassment in So Many Moving Parts, by risking direct address to the reader. ‘I wanted to see if you can get away with a clumsy question,’ she says, ‘there are a lot of clumsy questions in these poems, and they’re deliberately clumsy. Because they’re real questions and I don’t know the answers.’

This openness to the clumsy question has resulted in speculative poems with an awkward, anticipatory air – one which generates a totally different atmosphere to her previous books. Lines like ‘What class of passenger are we, no more / solid than the wind?’ or ‘Oh, Ira, what does the world want?’ feel brave, vulnerable and honest. Atkinson says there is ‘a resistance to exposing the self’ in contemporary lyric poetry, and argues against poetry’s ‘mask-like’ quality. Poetry, she feels, doesn’t always accommodate ‘the messiness of communicative life’, but it is precisely the messiness of life which interests her.

Born into an army family in 1972, Atkinson had ‘a fairly intensive Catholic schooling’ until she was thirteen. ‘When I was at the convent boarding school I used to pray for a vocation and then grew out of that. […] Then I became an agnostic and then an atheist. I think I’ve spent most of my adult life debunking the idea of a meta-story,’ she says. As an adolescent, she had ‘the sense that any minute now life is going to start’, but says, ‘I’m still waiting for it to happen.’

So Many Moving Parts explores the realms of childhood, adolescence and religion. Perhaps, she muses, ‘this is an age thing: I’ve become more tolerant of things I don’t really know about. And I don’t think that human experience can be boiled down to empirical reasoning.’ The questions in the poems arise from a ‘curiosity that doesn’t necessarily resolve itself’ and she is keen to accommodate ‘that sense of a revelation yet to come. It’s mystery, you know – not in a mystical sense – but it’s a tolerance of mystery.’

She goes on to suggest that her concern with open-endedness comes from a reaction against creative writing in the academy, which ‘can be very po-faced and academic and intellectualised’. Having taught English and creative writing for over ten years, Atkinson is alert to the way writing classes can potentially crush a student’s openness. ‘I’m not sure if we’re allowing people to be the most interesting writers they can be,’ she argues. ‘Quite often what we seem to be doing in universities is teaching people to write things so they don’t embarrass themselves. But part of me thinks that we should tolerate embarrassment.’

This enduring preoccupation with embarrassment – which ‘isn’t seen as a serious matter’ – has driven her poetry into new and exciting areas. Moments of embarrassment, she suggests, reveal society’s ‘norms and how easy it is to transgress them’. In this spirit, Atkinson is increasingly taking risks with what she calls her ‘nonsensy babbly language’. She says: ‘Songiness is fun to write, and the sounds of poems are very important to me – poems either sound right or they don’t. Babble is another kind of embarrassment. It’s comical; it’s more like music. On the page it looks daft.’ This play with language has come about, she speculates, as a result of her realisation that ‘poems aren’t really communicative. Not in a straightforward way. I used to think they were but I don’t think that anymore.’

Her change in attitude toward the function of poetry has aided a breakthrough in her approach to writing: it’s now more open-ended. ‘It is tempting to come to some kind of provisional answer or revelation or epiphany that seems to tie everything up. But I think there’s something about tolerating uncertainty...” Atkinson trails off. ‘I feel quite unconfident about these poems. They are provisional,’ she says: ‘I suppose I’m trying to find ways of accommodating that sense of a revelation yet to come.’

Amy McCauley’s poetry has appeared widely in magazines, including Ink Sweat & Tears, New Welsh Review, The North, The Rialto, The Stinging Fly and Tears in the Fence. Her poem, ‘Municipal Ambition’, appeared in the 2014 Viking anthology The Poetry of Sex. She has recently written a play called My Baby Girl and a verse drama based on Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.




       


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