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The House Where Courage Lives: Maggie Sawkins, Waterloo Press

by Greg Freeman

Friday 11th November 2022 10:22 pm (first posted 3rd November 2022)

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Maggie Sawkins won the Ted Hughes award for innovation with her live literature production Zones of Avoidance in 2013. But although she is a widely published poet, and is also recognised for her work in facilitating creative writing in community and health care settings, reading her latest collection The House Where Courage Lives makes me conclude that she hasn’t yet received the full applause that her work deserves.

There is a spiritual quality to many of her poems, which always retain a cool intelligence as well. The opening one has a hypnotic incantation: “Let the house sleep” (‘When You’re Alone in Your Bed’). There is the ghostly atmosphere of ‘Old Room’; and the intimation of mortality in the prose poem ‘First Job’ (at an undertakers). ‘Parliament Street’ tells of another job, at a newspaper where the narrator was sometimes asked to deputise for the crossword compiler: “But my clues, I was told, were either too cryptic or not cryptic enough.” Verdicts that might easily be applied to some others’ poetic output; but not this poet’s.    

‘Poignant’ is a shorthand word that can be over-used when reviewing, and I am as guilty of doing it as most others. And ‘poignant’ is inadequate to describe a number of poems by Sawkins about family, on subjects that are deeply painful: a grandson ”taken away for safekeeping” (Zebra Finches’); a drowned young man (‘What is Written’, and a number of others); a mother’s story, including migration and memories of the Black & Tans; the visceral ‘Sheep’, written as a short fable; the lockdown prayer for a daughter, “to a god I barely believe in”; the welcoming of ghosts (‘Peel’). Often these poems look forward, as well as back.

Recently Sawkins moved from her home city of Portsmouth across the water to the Isle of Wight, where she now lives in a former stationmaster’s house. Her sestina about her new home records another family discovery:

     I’d never have imagined it – I’d end

     up here – in a house by an old station,   

     checking the time by the arrival of trains,

     and discovering that my father’s father

     (whom we never knew) was a porter

     with the Island Railway – bizarrely true,

She fantasises about him, with humour and a sense of fulfilment, too, as if she has reached some kind of “journey’s end” herself:

     I wonder whether he was a poet, my grandfather,

     and the two of us share this affair with

     words – now that would be some end

     to the story – poems inspired by trains –

     not that brilliant, I confess, that’s true –

     I have my limits – I know my station.

This settled tone is also reflected in ‘Why did you come? Why did you stay?’, which were questions asked of some monks at a monastery on the island:

     I stay because I no longer want to go. I stay

     because each day is better

            than the last.

The title poem is actually a short piece of prose that ends with bottle of tequila being tipped down the sink. The penultimate poem ‘Stone’ is quoted in full on the flyleaf of the book, as if it represents the poet’s credo:  

     Everything is rowing back

     to that first stark lake

     of unknowing. Even this

     stone, even this poem.

These poems are expertly crafted, in language that is clear yet often mysterious, too. There are no loose ends; they all appear completely finished. It is an admirable collection.

Maggie Sawkins, The House Where Courage Lives, Waterloo Press, £12

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Tongue and Talk: The Dialect Poets

What I’ve been up to!

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New Poetry 2022 at Lewes Live Lit

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March 26, 2022 · 12:50 pm

Poem of the Month

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Zones of Avoidance – read the poem online

Thanks to One Hand Clapping for publishing the long poem sequence from ‘Zones of Avoidance’.

Zones of Avoidance

The long poem  ‘Zones of Avoidance’ that provides the central spine to the live literature production was recently re-published by online magazine ‘1handclapping’.

Writer and publisher Simon Jenner comments:

“Breathtaking incandescent with loss and a zig zag recovery. Nothing I’ve read quite has its flying-crooked gift as Graves said of the Cabbage White. There’s a point where this takes off from the narrative and becomes a secular trip – without the religion of drugs. An imagination. I’ll need a while to come down. This is a wonderful gift out of a terrible one.”

Click here to read the poem »

The live literature production is still available for performances. Contact Maggie Sawkins via this website.

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One Hand Clapping

Thanks to Alan Humm for publishing my long poem sequence ‘Zones of Avoidance’ in the delightful One Hand Clapping. You can read the poem here:

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Journeys Festival International: Community Conversations

A great poetry project I’ve been working on since last September with the refugee and asylum seeker community in Portsmouth.

Poetry and Music in Portsmouth and Southsea

Join Tongues & Grooves in the Community and Journeys Festival International 18– 27 October 2019.

Community Conversations is a project which explores how poetry can facilitate conversations across communities. A selection of poems written by members of the refugee and asylum-seeking community will be touring to libraries around Portsmouth until September 2019. Keep an eye on our website for exhibition dates and free upcoming workshops.

Further information can be found here.

Lottery Logo Jan2018

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Review: Many Skies Have Fallen


Is this what happens? The soul,

after leaving the body,

wanders down alleyways searching

for something solid to inhabit,

even the heart of a howling dog

in a ruined city, even a leaf,

might do. Or it spends its time

staring into windows; waiting

for its shadow to appear.

Maybe it’s in a foreign room

listening for a hymn that’s yet

to be written. Perhaps it just leaves

traces, like notes in the margins

of a book that’s found its way

into the hands of someone

blessed with the task of translating.  

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Talking to Nigel Kent

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.  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.

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.

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