I met Maggie Sawkins at a poetry workshop in November 2017. At the end of a hard day of activities in an unbearably hot room and with the bar beckoning, Maggie agreed to finish the session by reading us the eponymous poem from her collection, Zones of Avoidance, an intensely personal piece, which explores the effects of addiction on the lives of addicts and their loved ones. When she finished reading, unusually there was no polite, ritual applause and no one moved. There was just silence: the silence of a group of aspiring poets, deeply moved, who ironically could not find words (or any other appropriate vehicle) to express what they were feeling. At that moment I understood what Emily Dickinson meant when she said: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.”
Maggie’s work is frequently anthologised and she has published three poetry collections: Charcot’s Pet (Flarestack, 2003); The Zig Zag Woman (Two Ravens Press, 2007) and Zones of Avoidance (Cinnamon Press, 2015). The publication of her new chapbook, Many Skies have Fallen, is due at the time of writing and will be published by Wild Mouse Press. https://www.joneveritt.net/product-page/many-skies-have-fallen. Her poems often explore painful, human situations in an uncompromising and authentic way. However, at the heart of her work is an empathetic, profoundly humane perspective that makes her poetry consistently optimistic no matter how bleak the subject matter.
I caught up with Maggie a year later to find out a little more about her writing.
Can you remember your first poem? What was it about?
I’d been writing poems since I was about nine years old but my first attempt at writing something serious was when I was thirteen. It was called The Roses and included words that I’d found while reading the dictionary — the only interesting book we had in our house. It went something like: ‘The red roses stand against the azure sky/their ethereal beauty suffocates the summer …’
Feeling quite pleased with my efforts I took the poem into school to show my English teacher but unfortunately, he didn’t believe that I’d written it. I had an inkling I might be onto something after that.
Poetry is something that I’ve been attracted to from a young age. It probably began with an enjoyment of nursery rhymes and TV adverts and progressed from there. I’ve always loved reading which has fed into the type of poetry that I write. I guess I learnt from an early age that poetry was something I could do on my own, and it was free.
When I read some of your poems I think of Wordsworth’ definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Would that be a fair reflection of the content and process of your poems?
I don’t recognise myself as a person who “spontaneously overflows with powerful feelings” in the way I conduct myself normally. I probably turned to writing in the first place more to get in touch with how I feel. Writing a poem for me is a process of digging. You have to keep scribbling through the false-starts, falsehoods, inanities, before you get anywhere near to the nub of truth. When you’ve hit that place, you know it because it has the power to move you. As Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” As an antidote I sometimes turn to the OuLiPo school of writing which rejects spontaneous chance and the subconscious as sources of literary creativity. However, I tend to keep these poems to myself. I don’t think they would be of much value to a reader because they lack emotion.
When you write, do you have an ‘ideal audience’ in mind?
When I’m involved in the process of writing the only reader I’m conscious of is myself. I’m constantly reading and revising as I go along. If what I’ve written excites me or moves me, or ideally both, then I’ll take a chance on sending it out into the publishing world.
I’m often intrigued by your choice of titles, such as ‘Poem Composed While Doing a Headstand’, ‘Antartica to Tamazipan’ and, of course, ‘The Zig-Zag Woman’. Can you talk a little about the importance of titles and what makes a good title?
I think it’s wise to be wary of the first title that pops into your head. Sometimes however, especially if you’ve been living with your poem for a while, a brilliant title pushes its way up from your sub-conscious.
A poor title is one where it’s obvious that the writer hasn’t given any thought to it, one which relies on cliché, or is trite. Long titles have been trendy for a while and can be interesting, but there’s the danger of appearing gimmicky.
The title of my second collection, The Zig Zag Woman was inspired by the magic trick where a woman is divided into thirds so that her middle appears to be displaced to one side. The trick symbolised a point in my life where I felt I had displaced my heart in order to survive. I rarely think of a title first. An exception is Bronzefield, a poem in which I meditate on the origins of the name of a prison, a place where my daughter spent some time for drug related offences.
The poet Kathryn Simmonds has a very good essay on titles in the Magma poetry magazine.https://magmapoetry.com/archive/magma-51/articles/working-titles/
Many poetry readers will associate you with the poem, ‘Zones of Avoidance’, for which you won the ‘Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry 2013’. Can you tell us a little about the poem?
I’d been reading about walls, searching for a metaphor for what I’d become. The largest known superstructure in the universe, I discovered, is the ‘Coma Wall’, situated 200 million light years away and stretching beyond the ‘Zone of Avoidance’. When you’re affected by someone in the grip of addiction there seems to be only two options – one, the most natural is to try and rescue; the other is to cut yourself off, demonise the person you love, transform yourself into a wall.
The long poem sequence ‘Zones of Avoidance’ is an integral part of a live literature production, a multi-media piece deploying film, voices, and sound. The sequence was written over a period of 18 months and was inspired by my personal and professional involvement with people in recovery from addiction. The production combines my own testimony with the voices of addicts in recovery.
The story is very personal. I’d been gathering draft material on the subject over a period of 20 years. Much of it was in the form of diary entries and some was in the form of unsent letters to my grandson, who’s been estranged from my daughter since the age of three. My motivation was to keep a record for him – when someone close to you is gripped by addiction you’re always expecting the knock on the door. I considered writing the story as a memoir. However, reading back through the drafts, I realised that the ‘truth’ could be told in relatively few words. Writing in poetry enabled me to tease out the terrible beauty from what, in reality, had been a much darker story.
The dramatic material provided by living in a battlefield is a gift for any writer. I couldn’t have made anything up that would have been as fascinating as the reality. I had qualms at first about making the personal so public, but once I found the courage to surrender to the story there was no turning back. My aim as a writer was to find a way of transforming the local into the universal. Including testimonies from recovering addicts and my research into psychoactive substances enabled me to achieve this.
The feedback after early performances was overwhelming. Obviously when you’ve been working on something for so long, you don’t know how audiences are going to react. I’m more than delighted that the performance appeals to ordinary people, as well as those already into poetry.
Although many of your poems are often deeply moving, there is also humour in your work. What part does humour play in your poems?
Life’s pretty absurd at times isn’t it? I wrote a poem once about how, in the space of one week, three members of my family phoned to tell me they intended to kill themselves (none of them did!). I wasn’t feeling too good myself at the time. Sometimes life’s grim. Seeing the funny side of things helps you to survive. I’ve always been attracted to existentialist writers, such as Camus, who thought that individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while continuing to explore and search for meaning.
I believe you have a new chapbook in production. What can we expect?
Yes, the chapbook is called ‘Many Skies Have Fallen’ which is from a quotation by D H Lawrence: “We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.” The book contains poems written as a response to the tragic death of my younger daughter’s partner, Janusz Jasicki, who drowned in the River Shannon in October 2017. Others, written while Janusz was still alive, are included because they relate to my Irish heritage or because they seem to contain a presentiment not apparent at the time of writing.
Finally, poets owe a debt to the other poets we have read. Who are your favourite poets and what are you reading at the moment?
After winning a book token for gaining the top CSE grade in English, I went along to our local bookshop in Havant and discovered that there were other poets out there. I came away with ‘Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson’, ‘Selected Poems of John Clare’ and Michael Horovitz’s ‘Children of Albion’ anthology. Emily Dickinson has stood the test of time; I didn’t get on so well with John Clare, though I gave it a good try. ‘Children of Albion’ was useful in that it introduced me to contemporary poetry – interestingly, I’ve only recently noticed that out of the 63 poets included, only 3 of them were women.
When I was thirty I took an A Level in English Literature and studied the metaphysical poets. I particularly liked John Donne — ‘Nocturnal on St Lucy’s Day’ is one of my favourite poems. Studying English at degree level introduced me to the world of contemporary women poets. I was particularly drawn to Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton.
I also love novels: stories that whisk you away to another country, especially those countries that I’ll probably never get the opportunity to visit. At the moment I’m into Rohinton Mistry. I’ve just finished reading ‘A Fine Balance’ and have now moved onto ‘Family Matters’. It’s set in Bombay and tells the story of an elderly Parsi widower who is beset with Parkinson’s disease. Mistry is a wonderfully humane writer. I’ve learnt so much about Indian history, its politics and its people from reading his novels.
Among poets that I enjoy reading now are Selima Hill, Anne Carson, Louise Gluck, Simon Armitage, W S Graham, Fred Voss, Carolyn Forche … I have a vast bookshelf! Lately I’ve been dipping into A River dies of Thirst, the last diary of Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish. I’ve had the book for a while but am revisiting it because I’m currently working on a poetry project with asylum seekers in Portsmouth. I wanted to read something that brought me closer to the experience of people who are estranged from their own country.
Thank you, Maggie.
Nigel Kent’s poetry has been published by a range of publishers including: Hedgehog Poetry Press, South Poetry Magazine, Acumen, and many others. His poetry conversation pamphlet, ‘A Hostile Environment’, written in collaboration with Sarah Thomson, was published by Hedgehog Poetry Press in January 2019. Hedgehog Poetry Press will also be publishing his chapbook later in the year.