Born in Ottawa, Ontario, Margaret Atwood is the author of more than 50 books of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is a Trustee of the Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry. She has won numerous awards and prizes, including the Man Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Award.
Did you read poetry when you were in high school? Is there a particular poem that you loved when you were a teenager that you remember well?
I read a lot of poetry in high school. It was on the curriculum, beginning with a collection called Poems Chiefly Narrative in Grade Nine and continuing on through a hefty dose of English classics (Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Tennyson, Browning, Christina Rossetti, Houseman, etc.) and a few Americans (Dickinson, Frost, etc.); and even a few Canadians (E.J. Pratt, Lampman). And Chaucer, in Middle English, in the final year.
I also wrote poetry in high school. Which may be why I read it, outside the curriculum.
Hard to pick one in particular. Maybe Shakespeare Sonnet 116. Maybe Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” Maybe “Kubla Khan.”
When did you first start writing poetry? And then when did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?
- 1956, on the football field as I was walking home from school.
- Almost immediately.
What do you think a poet’s “job” is?
Poets don’t have jobs. Jobs have to do with fulfilling the requirements of others, for pay. Poets have vocations. Their task is to listen and set down. Then of course they can diddle around with what they’ve set down. “Revision,” I think it’s called: make it sound better.
What inspired you to write “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”?
It’s from The Journals of Susanna Moodie. Something she writes about, a thing that really happened to her — one of her children did drown — and then she wrote that she didn’t really feel part of Canada until she had buried one of her children in its soil. Kind of a high price to pay for emotional citizenship, wouldn’t you say? I suppose it was a way of handling loss and grief.
If you had to choose one poem to memorize from our anthology, which one would it be?
It’s an interesting selection. I was happy to see many old friends, both people and poems. I’d probably choose “Kubla Khan” because I memorized it once before, and at my age that’s a help.