Margaret Atwood in conversation with Elaine Feeney

Elaine Feeney interviewed Margaret Atwood for The Poetry Review as Atwood’s latest poetry collection, Dearly, was published. Here, we reproduce an excerpt from their wide-ranging conversation
Portrait of Margaret Atwood, smiling, wearing black, against a pink background. Photo by Luis Mora.
Margaret Atwood. Photo © Luis Mora

I first met Margaret Atwood in Connemara, County Galway last March, when she had kindly agreed to visit my class of secondary-school boys to discuss their study of The Handmaid’s Tale. For this interview we met via Zoom to talk about her latest poetry collection Dearly, published in November by Chatto & Windus. Waiting for guests to appear in my Zoom room is a new phenomenon, bringing its own strange anticipation. MAtwood has entered the waiting room for this meeting was the most surreal moment in my surreal Zoom life to date. Atwood has published so many poetry collections that neither of us seemed able to add them up correctly, which didn’t matter to the writer, except that, as she chatted warmly, she rounded down my estimate.

Finding her warm and good-humoured during our interview, I noted a strong earring game, and despite my anxiety about crashing technology, there was an intimacy in the format, as I momentarily peered past her brightness into a study full of framed photographs, many books, and a large manila folder of handwritten poems on coloured papers, some heavily edited and annotated. For the briefest moment I was out of my head and forgot her enormous legacy and prolific genius as we laughed about chickens, slugs copulating, memory, and the bother and brilliance that is love. 

Elaine Feeney
[…] It’s really wonderful, your resilience in the publishing world. Where does that come from?

Margaret Atwood
Right, first take some weight off yourself. There’s too much pressure from the outside world. If you’re worrying about how people will respond to what you’re doing, remember, that’s not your job. Your job is to make your work. Then you can decide whether you want to publish it. But you don’t have to be thinking about that while you’re writing. During writing your responsibility is to what you’re writing, outside world be gone. You don’t have to think about it because nobody is seeing what you’re writing while you’re writing. About my resilience etc, it’s a question that is more pertinent when a person is younger because you’re looking at the prospect of “what’s my career?” or “my future life” etc. And so those questions, “which move I make next”, might be determinant in some way, but after a certain age, you know what the plot is. When you’re a certain age, the plot is everything that’s happened, of which there is quite a lot. When you’re young, you don’t have that. Instead you’re looking at a future which is quite long and a past, which is relatively short. So it’s a different perspective on time, but in order to get through it, to deal with it, you have to be able to push that pressure off. Your focus should be on what you’re writing.

EF
Yes, and I’m thinking as awful as the world has been with the pandemic, it did take people back into their huts, caves, into that space where I’ve felt the pressure is off. It has been something of a release valve.

MA
Right, you don’t have to do a lot of events. You don’t have to perform in the same way. You’re not for gathering in little groups of gossipy, paranoid other writers!

EF
Bolaño’s Savage Detectives?

MA
Right. Ireland is quite small physically and there is a writing community. It’s a force. Canada is more spread out. Until we formed the Writers’ Union in the seventies, a lot of writers didn’t know each other. In some cases, they didn’t even know each other’s work. There weren’t computers. Long-distance calls were expensive. You didn’t travel, it was expensive for a young writer. The poets, oddly enough, used to get around on long-distance buses. They would turn up at your door and ask, “Can I sleep on your carpet?”

EF
Poets are a sociable bunch.

MA
Penurious… and we were publishing things in our cellars and on mimeo machines…

EF
Less pressure?

MA
Of a certain kind, more of another. Like in Ireland, we’re always looking to publishers that reside in other countries. We need to get an agent in London and of course at that time we didn’t even know you could have an agent. We were much more benighted…

EF
I didn’t know you needed an agent for years, until I just eventually gave in and said, better find one! Well, I’ve taken up enough of your time, is there anything you’d like to add?

MA
Greetings to Galway.

EF
I hope we can have you back soon.

MA
Yes, this is not going to go on forever. And they seem to have a vaccine.

EF
Well, that’s the good news. As much as I like to be on my own, there’s something about being amongst people, you get reinvigorated, there’s an energy, a goodness to it. On that note, there’s a real goodness to your collection, and beauty. It really restored my faith, in, I suppose, in love.

MA
There’s something to be said for it, Elaine.

The front cover of The Poetry Review winter 2020 issue is a painting by Anna Jensen. It features images taken from poems in the issue: a petrol pump, a fire and a bison, as well as two dogs pulling a sled and a big blue tent.Margaret Atwood has won numerous awards and honors for her writing, including the Booker Prize (twice) and the National Book Critics and PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Awards. Her most recent poetry collection, Dearly, is published by Chatto & Windus (2020). Elaine Feeney is the author of four poetry collections and a novel, As You Were (Vintage, 2020).
This interview is published in full in The Poetry Review, 110:4, winter 2020. © The Poetry Review and the author.