BOOKS; WOMAN FOR ALL SEASONS

Best known for her novels, Margaret Atwood has written poetry since the age of 16. Here she talks about that most exacting medium, and the legacy of women poets.
SNOW; foxes; night; sadness; cold. Margaret Atwood's new book of poems, her first for over a decade, ranges from meditations on the ironies of success, wry looks at home life, to voices of women real and mythical and a sequence on the death of her father. But again and again the motifs of winter recur. It's hard to escape the feeling that's there something about darkness and cold that stimulates her poetical side, though Atwood shuns the romanticism of this idea. "It's the middle of May and where I am right now, on the south shore of the St Lawrence River in Quebec," she says with her trademark dryness, "I'm looking out of the window and there are still snowdrifts here. This is Canada. It's kind of famous for its winters."

Still, there must be something about glumness that prods her creativity. "Glumness? How many poets do you know?" she pounces. "And are they noted for being tearful all the time? No, I guess not. I think it's got more to do with the Zeitgeist," she goes on. "If you read Shelley nowadays, you think: 'There's a poet in the manic mode.' Or else he was on something! All that being swept away by the west wind, the revolution is coming; it would be very difficult to write like that today. I don't think it's so much to do with glumness in the poet as with glumness in the Zeitgeist. Everybody gets up, listens to the news and it's war, catastrophe, Bosnia... taking all that into account, I think I'm remarkably cheerful. Much more cheerful than I have a right to be!"

There are not many questions Atwood answers without first holding them up to the light, tapping them to release their hidden meanings, firing a question back. About the difference between writing novels and poems, for example; how it feels to write in a quick release of energy, compared to the slow burn of the novel; what the poem is trying to capture, an insight, a memory... "Are we talking poetic process here?" she interjects quickly. "Are we into How Do You Do It? If I really knew that I could put it in a book and make a lot of money."

Perhaps because she writes poetry quite intermittently and very fast, she seems reluctant to analyse it too much. Her verses are loose, colloquial and cumulative: they resist closure ("I don't like thumping last lines, as you may have noticed"), lead the reader on and on, as through a receding series of doors into the mind of the poet. Separate, they can seem incomplete or slight, but they build, interact and interlock. "It's interesting you should say that. A lot of the Victorian poets wrote sequences of poems, something I'm very keen on."

Formal playfulness is absent. Structure is unpremeditated. In their artful artlessness, and the sense that the message is what counts, not the form, they're reminiscent of Maya Angelou, Alice Walker: a kind of North American school, at its worst garrulous, at its best lyrical and unpretentious. "Oh, I went through the phase of writing short, snappy poems in the early '80s," she says airily, "but I found if you do that they just get shorter and shorter and you end up coming to a halt."

Some of the most entertaining pieces are the ones which ventriloquise for other women. "How much longer can I get away/ with being so fucking cute?" demands the strident voice in "Miss July Grows Older": "I hover six inches in the air/in my blazing swan-egg of light./You think I'm not a goddess?/Try me" says Helen of Troy. Cressida berates Troilus; Ava Gardner is reincarnated as a magnolia. Most startlingly, we hear the exultant voice of Mary Webster, a pre-Salem "witch" who survived a night strung up in a tree by a lynch mob and eventually outlived her accuser: "Having been hanged for something/I never said,/I can now say anything I can say" she cackles. The tale particularly intrigues Atwood, since her maternal grandmother was a Webster and, according to mood, would either assert or vehemently deny descent from the celebrated "witch".

"It's a real story, but like many real stories it resists pinning down. We could never find any evidence that Mary Webster had children," says Atwood, regretfully.

The witch, of course, has become an archetype of feminism; in "Her Kind" Anne Sexton wrote powerfully, and in a sense finally, about witches 35 years ago. Atwood is instantly on the alert. "You're talking about Anne Sexton now, right? And a few moments ago you mentioned Sylvia Plath. Both writers from the early '60s who were responsible," she goes on heatedly, "for the idea that the only way to be an auth-entic woman poet is to kill yourself, which was current for a long time. For men of course it was drink: that came down through Dylan Thomas," she adds fairly. Atwood herself, the paradigm of the successful, long-living woman writer, has done much to overthrow such doomy cliches. This is the sort of cultural shift that gets her antennae twitching. "You know, in the 19th century it was men who were portrayed as the seducers; only later did it switch to women..."

From the snowy banks of the St Lawrence river, Atwood is keenly looking forward to her trip to the Hay festival, mostly, it seems, for sartorial reasons. "All those wonderful clothes you get to wear over there... like macs." Is she serious? "We only have two seasons here: you're either bundled into wraps or it's brilliant sunshine." If I see a figure wrapped in a mac, a hat rammed down over frizzy hair, striding out of a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, I think I'll run away.

! The collection of poems, 'Morning in the Burned House', is published by Virago at pounds 8.99. Margaret Atwood delivers the Waterstone's Lecture at the Hay Festival on Mon 29 May.

Morning in the Burned House

In the burned house I am eating breakfast.

You understand: there is no house, there is

no breakfast,

yet here I am.

The spoon which was melted scrapes against

the bowl which was melted also.

No one else is around.

Where have they gone to, brother and sister,

mother and father? Off along the shore,

perhaps. Their clothes are still on the hangers,

their dishes piled beside the sink,

which is beside the woodstove

with its grate and sooty kettle,

every detail clear,

tin cup and rippled mirror.

The day is bright and songless,

the lake is blue, the forest watchful.

In the east a bank of cloud

rises up silently like dark bread.

I can see the swirls in the oilcloth,

I can see the flaws in the glass,

those flares where the sun hits them.

I can't see my own arms and legs

or know if this is a trap or blessing,

finding myself back here, where everything

in this house has long been over,

kettle and mirror, spoon and bowl,

including my own body,

including the body I had then,

including the body I have now

as I sit at this morning table, alone and happy,

bare child's feet on the scorched floorboards

(I can almost see)

in my burning clothes, the thin green shorts

and grubby yellow T-shirt

holding my cindery, non-existent,

radiant flesh. Incandescent.

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