The Five-Minute Interview: Professor and Poet Jennifer Atkinson

Posted: February 7, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Art Taylor

Drift Ice book cover

Mason English professor and poet Jennifer Atkinson won the University of Alabama Poetry Prize for her first book of poems, “The Dogwood Tree” (1990), and the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize for her second collection, “The Drowned City” (2000). This spring, Etruscan Press will release a third volume of her poetry, “Drift Ice.” Atkinson recently talked about the new book.

How are the poems here different from those in previous collections? And how have you changed as a poet since the last collection?

I’ve gotten older, for one thing. I turned 50 without even trying, and the sense of half a century gone does shadow the book, I hope not with sadness but with something like the responsibility to try to make some kind of sense of things. The poems in “Drift Ice” are also consciously different from those in “The Drowned City.” I wrote several poems after “The Drowned City” that felt quite similar in form or in spirit to that book, but I weeded them out of the final manuscript in an effort to give this book a more avowedly ecopoetical grounding. For example, “Drift Ice” includes a sequence of poems set in Prince Edward Sound, Alaska, 15 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill that devastated the sound, its shores, its ecological balance. Other poems are set on and beside Long Island Sound, whose ecobalance is strained by the constant frictions of its urban and suburban context. Another group of poems are set in Sri Lanka, before and, in one case, after the 2004 tsunami. The poems investigate how ecosystems adapt and evolve. And, I hope, they posit poems as delicate ecosystems of their own in which any change in one line affects every other.

How does drift ice serve as an overarching metaphor for or key image of the collection?

To be honest, the title I really wanted for the collection was “Drift,” but another recent book of poetry has that very title. But “Drift Ice” is pretty close. The title is meant to recall what Andre Breton has called “the power of drift,” that improvisational force by which poems are written, as well as the image of arctic ice melting and adrift. The speaker of the poems is often at sea, afloat, on the way to the way, seeking by the power of drift answers to her spiritual questions. And the image of drifting icebergs, what is seen and what is unseen, known and unknown, melting and freezing in constantly changing forms recurs throughout the book in related image motifs: ice sheets, hailstones, quartz geodes, a white-washed Buddhist stupa. I think of all these related images as rhyming with the drift ice of the title.

An interest in nature and the environment and man’s place in the natural world permeate these poems. Do you see these poems as offering commentary — explicit or implicit — about our relationship with and responsibility toward nature?

Yes, both explicit and implicit. I don’t have advice for solving global warming or anything, and the poems aren’t overtly political in that sense. No diatribes against polluters or exhortations to turn down thermostats. The poems give their attention to grasses and lichens and kittiwakes and possums as well as humans — all those interwoven lives.

How have your travels fed your poetry?

I love to go places — even a trip to Old Town Alexandria [Va.] excites me. Anywhere that takes me outside of my habitual paths from home to school to Trader Joe’s and back. Traveling to Alaska was even better than traveling to Old Town. I had been dreaming of icebergs, and to see them close up, hear them clanking against the bow of the boat, feel the cold wind blowing off them was really exciting for me. The newness woke me up, made me feel totally engaged, physically, spiritually and intellectually alive. I hardly slept for watching the sea and the drift ice: the blues and purples, clear whites, deep greens. I hope something of that alive attentiveness comes through in the poems.

Which writers are you reading now? And which writers are you urging on young poets?

I’m reading Peter Gizzi at the moment since he’s coming to read at Mason this spring. And I’m glad to be rereading poems as gorgeous and honest as his. I read a lot of Mark Doty with my students last fall and just loved it. I’m always reading the poetry of Charles Wright, Bridget Kelly, G. M. Hopkins, Elizabeth Bishop and Eugenio Montale. I’ve been rereading my colleague Susan Tichy’s new book, “Bone Pagoda,” and learning a lot from its textured surfaces. I’m also reading lots of natural history.

Students do more urging on me than I do of them! I love being influenced by their new discoveries, whether it’s Walt Whitman or the latest small press poet from East Nowhere. That’s what makes this the best job in America.

This interview originally appeared in the English Department newsletter, Between the Lines, in a slightly different form.

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