Priscilla Atkins, born in central Illinois, was educated at Smith College and the University of Hawaii. She earned her MFA at Spalding University in 2008. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Shenandoah, Poetry London and other journals. Her first full-length collection, The Café of Our Departure, is available from Sibling Rivalry Press. She has worked as a librarian, professor and poet-in-the-schools. She lives in Michigan with two small dogs and a tall man.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a writer?
Priscilla Atkins: I think I’m still becoming a writer.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?
Priscilla Atkins: In sixth grade, I wrote an impassioned poem about “great men” who had been assassinated and also about civil rights. In 1963, I was in first grade. In the spring of 1968, I was in fifth grade. The assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK made a big impression on me; as did the civil rights marches, freedom rides and Vietnam war protests.
Geosi Gyasi: Does your family approve of your writing?
Priscilla Atkins: This is a great question. My parents were proud of my writing. My father was a scientist and read all kinds of books. My mother was a nurse practitioner and was also a great reader. So, someone writing is a fine thing. I loved my mother’s honesty. One time she said, “I think I need to take a class in how to read poetry.” They are both dead, which leaves two older brothers and two older sisters, and my husband and “found family” (close friends). I’d say everyone is fine with it. My recent book is dedicated to my oldest sister and her partner. They were quite honored. My friend Mike was a great fan of my poetry and a sweet reader. He loved that he was an inspiration for some of my poems.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your subject areas as a writer?
Priscilla Atkins: My subject area is whatever’s going on in my head. (Maybe a third party would be better able to “name” what my poems are about.) Most of my poems seem like love poems. Love of particulars: people, dogs, bagels––life. Some of my poems are directly or indirectly about solitude. For a while many of my poems were inspired by my non-fiction reading.
Geosi Gyasi: Where did you get the idea to write your poem, “Belle-Île-en-Mer”?
Priscilla Atkins: The French language enchants me. This isn’t very original of me, but c’est la vérité. Some years ago I read the Jean-Yves Tadié biography of Marcel Proust. I imagine that was the first place I stumbled on the island. It turns out a lot of artists, in addition to Proust, went there. “Belle-Île-en-Mer” is something I wrote a long time ago.
Geosi Gyasi: How long does it take you to write a single poem?
Priscilla Atkins: Anywhere from fifteen minutes to fifteen years.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that poetry is difficult to indulge in?
Priscilla Atkins: I’m not sure what you mean. Perhaps, you’re asking if I think poetry is difficult to access. For me, some poetry is difficult to access. If you’re asking if it is a bit of a grind to sit down to read poetry, I would say No. For me, poetry is as difficult to indulge in as chocolate mousse.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any special reason why you decided to write about a straight girl and a gay boy in your book, “The Café of Our Departure”?
Priscilla Atkins: “The Café of Our Departure” is my only book. The poems are about one of the most special relationships of my life. I did not sit down to write a book. I write poems. So, the poems as they appear in the book were not written in chronological order, or anything like that. At one point, I had another manuscript going that included many of the poems in Café, but also had poems not directly related–for instance, poems about my family. Someone read the less-focused manuscript and said “Give him [your friend Mike] a book.”
Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write, “The Café of Our Departure”?
Priscilla Atkins: For the most part, the poems that are in “Café” were written off and on for a decade. I wrote many other poems (about many other things) in addition to the poems that eventually found their way into “Café.” (This reminds me: one of the poems is a tribute to Marcel Proust.) Several people helped me in the ordering. In putting the book together, I wrote four or five additional poems. The book has a narrative arc, and to complete the arc (or come as close as I could at the time), I wrote poems specifically to give the reader a fuller picture. I thought this would feel so weird and contrived––but these poems are among my favorite in the book.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you find a publisher for “The Café of Our Departure”?
Priscilla Atkins: A friend who had read “Café” in draft form said, “I think the editor at Sibling Rivalry Press would really like this book.” And he was right. BTW: The Library of Congress selected SRP’s entire print collection to be housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections vault of the Library. The ceremony celebrating this event was last week (June 18, 2015). Sibling Rivalry Press was a dream come true for me. I could not have asked for better, sweeter, smarter, more caring editors than Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you do lots of edits?
Priscilla Atkins: Yes, I do lots and lots of edits. Some of them very small; some huge. Every once in a while I get a gift poem––no edits needed. This is very rare. I enjoy revision.
Geosi Gyasi: How often do you engage in poetry readings?
Priscilla Atkins: Because “The Café of Our Departure” just came out, I am actively pursuing readings. In general, though, I don’t pursue readings.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you give me a bite of your essay on Cathleen Calbert’s poetry?
Priscilla Atkins: From the end of the first paragraph of the Calbert essay, there is this description of Calbert’s poetry: “Calbert’s form of ‘funny’ is expressed via a witty persona who is both ironic and honest, a persona that blurs with the situation of the poetry in such a way that the poet’s voice, vulnerability, and character show through. For all their truth-telling and dry, self-mocking humor, these poems, set in the late-twentieth century, never slide into overbearing pedantry, or bardic oratory.” The title of the Calbert essay is “Vampire Babies and Chocolate Martinis: Habits of Wit in Cathleen Calbert’s Poetry.” I recommend Calbert’s book “Bad Judgment.” One of my all-time favorite collections. The essay about Calbert began as my extended critical essay for my Master of Fine Arts degree at Spalding University. I was pleased when Studies in American Humor published it.
Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?
Priscilla Atkins: Here is a short list of some of the writers I greatly admire: Elizabeth Bishop, James Joyce, James Schuyler, Apollinaire, Cathy Song, Cathleen Calbert. Someone once said of my poems: “She writes straight out of the tradition of Whitman and Dickinson, all ‘me-me-me-me.’” Remembering this always makes me smile. This woman didn’t say it in a mean way. As far as direct influence, James Schuyler has had influence on many of my more recent poems.
Geosi Gyasi: I read from online that in your past life you shipped a small car to Hawaii and stayed there for ten years? What actually took you to Hawaii?
Priscilla Atkins: Love.
Geosi Gyasi: Where did you get the inspiration to write, “Cut”?
Priscilla Atkins: Hard to say now: a random memory and trying to be dramatic (in general I do not think of myself as dramatic).
Geosi Gyasi: What do you regard as your greatest achievement as a writer?
Priscilla Atkins: Remembering that it’s not about achievement. -:)
Geosi Gyasi: What do you often do in your spare time?
Priscilla Atkins: Sit and stare out a window. My writing room looks out into beech trees. I also sit at the dining room table. I think about whether or not I will have trouble falling asleep.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about the people you write for?
Priscilla Atkins: I care about this world.