Atwood combines metafiction, sex, feminism, death, and the end of the world in her latest poetic masterpiece, Dearly (Ecco, Nov.).
When did you begin working on Dearly and what was the process like?
Poems accumulate in longhand, wherever I may happen to be, and sooner or later I type them up and work on them. These were written from 2007 to August 2019. Graeme [Atwood’s partner], to whom the book is dedicated, died in September.
You write in the collection’s title poem: “I miss the missing, those who left earlier./ I miss even those who are still here.” Does your sense of nostalgia inform your relationship to time and to writing?
In the Inuit language Inuktitut, there’s a word that means “missing or yearning for something that has not yet happened.” Writers of all kinds make things out of the past, and also out of the future. And, also, out of things that have never existed. Though I’m interested not only in what songs the Sirens sang, but what foods the Sirens ate. And where little Sirens come from. It would have to be eggs, don’t you think?
Are any of your poems inspired by your fiction? Or conversely, have any of your poems been specific catalysts for your fiction?
In general, the poems come first. Some of them can lead to novels. For instance, “The Journals of Susanna Moodie” gave rise—after 30 years or so—to Alias Grace. Some of the images in The Handmaid’s Tale were explored earlier in poems from the 1970s; specifically, the color red in relation to women, and the ability to use written words.
Disillusionment is a common theme in poetry. How do you see poetry wrestling with reality’s uncomfortable truths?
“Reality’s uncomfortable truths”—people close to you will die, other people have done terrible things, the innocent can suffer, love can be stupid and fleeting, we’re destroying the biosphere—seem to have been with me for a long time, born as I was two months after the outbreak of WWII into a family of biologists. It’s always been one of poetry’s jobs to explore—language, love, life, death—but poetry does not propose solutions. It creates, instead, evocations.