Margaret Atwood on alien invasions, rare curse words, and why reading poetry isn’t like eating Cracker Jack –

Posted: November 11, 2020 at 2:54 am

Margaret Atwood is a titan of Canadian literature, and the novelist behind titles such as The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments, The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace and Oryx and Crake.

Over the course of her 60-year career, Atwood has published 16 novels, 10 non-fiction books, eight collections of short fiction, eight children's books, one graphic novel and other titles.

But she is also one of Canada's most renowned poets, and has released 18 collections of poetry.

Her latest is calledDearly, and q host Tom Power reached Atwood to talk about it.

In a charming interview, which you can hear in full above,Atwood talks about alien invasions, the best curse words, how time shifts with age, and why reading poetry isn't like eating Cracker Jack.

Here is some of their conversation.

Last time we talked, we were all justsettling into the idea of the pandemic and thinking it would only be a few months. If only we knew it would be a fair bit longer, you know?

Well, we would have gotten more toilet paper, wouldn't we?

Yes, I would have baked far less bread. You were telling me you were making masks with your sister.

Yes, well everybody seems to be well supplied with those. And we also did something for BBC Front Row, which was a reenactment of The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe using nothing but tableware.

Any other obsessions that havebeen getting you through?

Well, it's been spring, summer and fall, so a lot of gardening going on. And it seems that I'm not alone, because periodically you find shortages of this and that. So other people have been doing it too.

It's nice to read poetry from you. What made you start wanting to write poetry in the first place?

Oh, I don't think it was a choice. It was just something that happened to me when I was in high school. Up until that time, I'd had various career choices: I was going to be a painter and then I wasn't going to be a painter anymore; I was going to be a designer and then I wasn't going to be that anymore.I was going to be a home economist, and then I was going to be a biologist. And then I started writing.

You make it sound like it was divine intervention.

Well, I don't think that it was. A lot of kids write poetry in high school, do they not? I bet you did.

Sure. I wrote bad song lyrics in high school.

Yeah, well I wrote bad poetry, so sort of the same idea.

When did you realize you might be half decent at it?

Well, you have to believe you're half decent at the beginning, or else you wouldn't keep on doing it. But when you go back and look at what you were actually writing you realize it was pretty juvenile. But why would it not be when you were 16? So I don't think I wrote anything that I would really stand behind now until I was about 25.

Does it crystallize your thoughts? Does it give you some therapeutic feelings? What does it do to you?

I never really think about that. I think it's something that human beings have always done as far as we know. It's an offshoot of language, and probably closer in the brain to music than novels are. So I just consider that I'm exercising one of my capabilities as a human being.

Is it a cathartic feeling when you're done? When you put the final period on the on the end of the poem?

No, not particularly. It may be why some people do it. But it is a mystery, Tom, and we will never get to the end of it because unfortunately we can't wire up poets' brains when they're writing poems, because we never know when they're going to do it. So I would like to be able to wire them up, and then I could say definitively, "Well, it's this part of the brain and it's kicked off by too many hamburgers or too many beers" or something like that. But alas, we can't do that.

When we sat down to talk about your 80th birthday, we talked a little bit about doing readings at the Bohemian Embassy coffeehouse in Toronto and doing your first poetry readings there. Do you remember your first reading?

Probably it was so traumatic, I've repressed it. But let us say that I've condensed them all into one catastrophic reading. So the Bohemian Embassy was one of those coffee houses that sprang up around the turn of the '50s into the '60s. And typically you would have a microphone on a stand and you'd have some sort of little stage or stool, a high bar stool or something. And you would have little round tables with checkered tablecloths on them and candles in Chiantibottles and liquor bottles under the table because it wasn't licensed. And you would have a folk singing night and you'd have a jazz night and you would have a poetry night.

The poetry nights were run by John Robert Colombo, and it couldbe quite a mix: Milton Acorn, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Al Purdy. People from the States would go by, like Diane Wakowski was there. And you would just get up and read your set of three poems or so. There was an espresso machine nobody had ever seen one of those before in Toronto and that would go off when you were in mid-poem, and there was a washroom and somebody would flush the toilet and open the door while you were reading.

So I consider it baptism by fire, or baptism by water in that case, and coffee. And once you'd done that, you were kind of ready for everything.

I really romanticize those days. Was it as cool as I think it is?

Nothing is as cool as you think it is while it's actually happening. There are going to be people in the future who will say, "Oh, I feel so nostalgic for those days of COVID, they were so great. You didn't have to go to school, those lucky, lucky people. And everyone was so inventive in the ways they dealt with it and people were so cozy." There's going to be a lot of that. In fact, I know a child right now who has put up a big sign in her house saying "Long Live COVID" because she doesn't have to go to school.

I read a quote the other day that said, "I wish there was a way we could know we were living in the good old days while we were still in them."

There is no way that you can, because you're always living in them in the present tense, and as the past recedes, it either becomes greater or worse than you thought it was at the time.

Speaking of the past and present tense, about this collection of poetry Dearly: when you look back, was there a thread when you started writing the poems?

I think it's a question of things accumulating. So they accumulate over a period of time, and when they've accumulated enough, you either have to throw them all out or do something with them.

So you saw that you had this collection of poems, and you said

I saw that I had a heap of paper.

How dare I say"collection"? Of course, it was a heap.

It was a heap. [Laughs] I think I thought if I don't do something with this, I'm going to have to get another bureau drawer, because this one is full.

I read them as you reflecting over parts of your own life and on things you're curious about about high school health class, about your family, about life after the war, about having access to coconuts. I wanted to talk about Blizzard; you're watching your mothersleep.

She was very, very old. She lived until 97, and the last couple of yearsshe was in bed all the time. And that's just what it is: it's a poem about watching my mother sleeping. And what is she doing in her sleep life?

Tell me something about your mom.

She was very athletic in her life up until she was basically 90. And she was an early speed skater. She was a horseback rider. She was from rural Nova Scotia. She became a great canoeist when she was married to my dad. And she was an all-around outdoorsperson. She much preferred being outdoors to being indoors. She was great; anybody who knew her will tell you.

Did you write that in the moment when you were watching her sleep?

No, of course not.

I didn't know if you'd stepped away.

I'm writing a poem right now about you, Tom, even as we speak.

Listen, I don't know what rhymes with "handsome Newfoundlander" but I'll get out the rhyming dictionary for you.

We could go into what rhymes with Powers.

Flowers, showers.

Hours and hours.

My guess is glowers at this moment. There's a line in your poemDearly that really stuck with me. "I make my way along the sidewalk mindfully because of my wrecked knees about which I give less of a shit." You seem very at peace with getting older there. Where does that come from? Is it something you had to work at? Is itsomething that happened naturally?

Wait for it, Tom. How old are you?


Oh such a baby, so cute. Well when we're young we're looking from the outside. I wrote a story when I was in high school or early college about a really, really, really, really, really, really old past it, withered, dried up, no-hope person. And how old was she?

I bet she was 40.

She was exactly 40 which I thought at that time was just the end. So when you were 30 you probably thought, "My youth, it is gone." But guess what? You were wrong.

I wonder why we have existential crises when we're in our 30s, and less in our 70s and 80s.

There's more to have an existential crisis about. When you're in your 70sand 80s, you more or less know the plot. You know what you've done, you know what you haven't done. And when you're in your 30s, there's a lot of time in your head that has not yet been filled, so time is more of a challenge for you. What am I going to put into this time? What shall I accomplish? Will I ever accomplish anything? Will I waste my time? Will I run out of it? How old am I actually, anyway? Am I young or old? So you have all those thoughts, but you've made it past 32, which is a really difficult year.

Isn't this the year that Christ died?

Exactly. That's why we call it the crucifixion year.

So after this, it's clear sailing.

Not exactly, but at least you've made it past 32.

I interviewed Billy Collins recently, former poet laureate of the United States, and he said, "I like to think that during the pandemic, life has slowed down to the speed of poetry." Do you think poetry can offer us something specifically during this time?

I don't know about specifically during this time, but you'll notice that at weddings and funerals people don't read long chapters out of novels. They read poems, because they are condensed. They're condensed little nuggets of language. And they don't necessarily depend on plot.

And we can also transmit an idea in only two or three lines.

Well I think that's kind of a misconception. We used to be taught poetry that way in high school, that the poet had taken this idea and stuffed it into this sonnet. Which just made you think, "Well, why did they bother?If it was an idea, why couldn't they just blurt it out? Why does it have to rhyme?"

Do you remember Cracker Jack? It was candy corn and there was always a prize in the box. We're taught that poetry is like that, that it's a box full of Cracker Jack, and there's a prize in there somewhere. You have to dig it out. But that isn't how I think of poetry.

How do you think of it?

It's the experience of the poem itself, so you're following somebody's thought process.

So when you read a poem, you just try to take it in face value, and try to think about what they're thinking about at the time. I remember when I first moved up here, and I started looking at painting and I went, "I don't get it." And a friend said to me, "You don't have to get it. You just had to figure out how you feel when you look at it."

Oh, who told you that?

My buddy Cora.

Good for Cora. There may be no "it" to get; there may be a lot of "its." Or maybe there isn't one.

Isn't that hopeful?

Wellyou would probably be very annoyed. I mean, "I've been looking for the Cracker Jackprize all these years and there is none?"

Yeah, but perhaps the gift, the true prize, is looking for it.

You got it. That's a very snazzy way of thinking about it. You just had a thought, Tom.

First time for everything. The thing I love about this book is that it deals withtopicslike climate change and loss and death. But it also has sirens and werewolves and zombies and aliens. Margaret, do you believe in aliens? Do you think they're out there?

There's no answer to that question because the universe is extremely large. And also, it's not a provable, or a disprovable statement. So let's say it's an open question.

What do you think? When it'slate in the night and you're thinking,"Geez, I wonder if there's anyone out there besides humans on the face of earth"?

I think everybody wonders that but I don't think they come to a supportable conclusion.

Where do you land on it, generally?

Where do I land on it? I'm a strict agnostic. So what does that mean? It means that belief and knowledge are two different things. So an opinion is not the same as a fact. And a wish is not the same as reality.

So what's your opinion?

My opinion is this: if there are aliens, and they make it to Earth, we should kind of hope they don't because they're bound to be so much smarter than we are that they'll think we're just kind oflike ants.

Yeah, the same way we might treat an old termite on the tree.

Like that, and we can especially hope that they're not carnivorous. Because we have read H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, have we not?

Well, you have.

And you're about to because I just told you about it.

I hope it's summarized in a Jughead comic is what I'm hoping for Margaret.You've been called one of the most successful writers in Canadian history, potentially the most successful poet in Canadian history. When you think about the word "success" and how it applies to your own life, what is success to you?

Oh, boy. Wellnone of us in the coffee house days set out to be a commercial success, because we didn't think that existed. So we set out to be good writers on the terms of the writing. That was our ambition. But of course, nothing is ever perfect, so you never actually achievethat ambition. Which is possibly, Tom, why you keep doing it. Maybe next time we'll be better. Or maybe it won't. You do not know.

So is success the quest?

For me it is because there is no "it." There isn't any "the success." So what would that consist of if you're not interested in big shiny material objects.

Before we go, your book title Dearly comes from a poem that mentions words that aren't often used anymore. So last question: Is there another word that you think doesn't get used often enough that we should bring back?

Oh, there are so many words that are not used very much. But I'm not sure you would necessarily bring them back because they're usually words for jobs that have become obsolete, like wheelwright. How many wheelwrights do you know? Milkman. There aren't any milkmen anymore.Farrier. There still are some farriers, but not a lot of them. So a lot of them are inthat category, or the category of objects. But if you're in the King James Version of the Bible, you'll find quite a lot of obsolete words.

I think mine is a phrase that I love to use, which "for to make" make, like "I got some lemons out for to make some lemonade."

Yes, well, the "for to" locution you find a lot of 19th century folk songs, and sea shanties, and ballads and things like that. I was going to London for to meet so and so. Yeah, that is a good example.

Any ones like that for you?

A lot of them are things that were substitutes for actual swear words that people don't use anymore because they use the actual swear words a lot more that they used to. So nobody says "jumping Jehosaphat" anymore, do they?

I think my mom actually still says "jumping Jehosaphat."

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Margaret Atwood on alien invasions, rare curse words, and why reading poetry isn't like eating Cracker Jack -

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