Tag Archives: poetry
by Maggie Sawkins
In the ring around a blackbird’s eyes, find me.
In a cup of ocean, a patch of sky, find me.
On this the shortest day of winter,
in the persistence of a seagull’s cry, find me.
In a blade of grass by a dusty roadside,
in the mating song of a harvest fly, find me.
In the huddle of trees outside your window,
in the moon’s gaze and the wind’s sigh, find me.
At the top of a sugar loaf mountain
imagine rainbow wings and fly, find me.
As you cast your breath, you’ll find the answer
in the place where dreams collide, find me.
I’m really getting into Maggie’s book Many Skies Have Fallen. And I was particularly affected by ‘Find Me’. What I find so good, and moving, about this poem is the way it manages to convey feeling through rhythm, and make the simple natural scenery feel simple because it is for the speaker a lost everyday easily taken for granted in life. And yet what it evokes is anything but ‘simple’.
The poem, formally, is a kind of ghazal, an Arabic, Persian, form originally, and a kind of poem/song. Formally Find Me follows the ghazal rhyme scheme with the repeated word at the end of each first line, and internal /ai/ rhymes – ‘sky’, ‘cry’, ‘fly’, ‘sigh’ ‘fly’, collide’ and the repeated second-like rhyme of ‘find me’. The first line rhyme is done rhythmically, with the stress-unstress of ‘find me’ taken up in ‘roadside’, ‘window’, ‘mountain’ and ‘answer’. There’s also a trace of a further trait of many ghazal’s, that is the rhyme of the ‘sky’, ‘cry’ sequence of rhymes with words in the line above them, such as ‘eyes’ in the first line, ‘day’ half-rhyming with ‘cry’, ‘fly’ half-rhyming with ‘dusty’, ‘sigh’ with ‘outside, ‘collide’ with ‘find’.
The rhythm – and the form overall – are wonderfully suited to the overall ‘plea’ tone of the poem, expressed in ‘find me’, which to me also draws finely on the tone of a kind of children’s playground rhyme. Here the ‘find me’ is not a joking taunt as it might be in a children’s rhyme, but an at first mysterious plea, command even, and corresponding with the listener’s longing. How can we find him in these places when he’s left all of them behind? But, of course, that’s the point. He has left them, yes, but yet he hasn’t. That’s what grief memory is all about.
The overall rhythm, and hence of the feeling expressed, is produced by the way the poet starts each couplet with a clause about a place or time, leaving the ‘find me’ clause to the end the sentence. That is, until the last stanza where a sort of ‘solution’ is mooted. Where is ‘the place where dreams collide’? How do dreams ‘collide’?
Rhythmically the poem doesn’t follow any conventional scheme such as iambic pentameter, but does make very effective use of what Pound called ‘cadence’. So in the first line there are two cadences, one half-cadence (as we might call it) ending on ‘eyes’, then a pause, and then the final cadence of ‘find me’. Throughout the cadences are like this and marked with comma and full stop respectively. The half cadence ends of a stressed syllable which as a slightly-rising level tone, and the full cadence ends of a high fall.
In the ring around the blackbird’s eyes, find me
There are some more complex cadences, or so it seems to me, where she uses ‘and’, as in ‘the moon’s gaze and the wind’s sigh’, or ‘as you cast your breath’. Here the same half-rise occurs on both ‘gaze’ and ‘sigh’ , ‘cast’ and ‘breath’, and then the closing fall on ‘find’ and ‘answer’.
The last couplet suggests an ‘answer’ rather than a place, as in all the other couplets, where the ghostly speaker might be found. The the finding is connected to casting breath. Casting as opposed to drawing and releasing. But casting has to do with finding, ‘casting about’ here and there in all the places mentioned, all except for the sugar loaf mountain and rainbow wings, which perhaps anticipate in their supernatural imagery of wings flying to him. And this last imaginary place seems to me to introduce a possible ‘answer’ to the conundrum of the last stanza. Where dreams collide, perhaps, is in the being alive and breathing, in the mind, the imagination, which in turn is so close to memory, in turn so close to self and the sense of being alive, including being alive as a memory and/or a spirit.
A further twist in reading would be to reconsider the whole poem as if it’s spoke not, as I’ve assumed, by the spirit of the dead person, but by the poet (in whom, in another sense it necessarily is, as an act of empathy and imagination in writing in another’s voice). We read the poem as if spoken by a spirit, but we know that it’s written by the poet who is imagination, is aware of, that spirit, and giving it voice.
I hope I’ve not overegged the ‘analysis’. It’s intended as appreciation. Too much cold practical crit would be inappropriate in a poem which, though it contains its mysteries, is admirably plain and unostentatious in its presentation of the difficult-to-conceive. But, liking it, I found myself going into it. I read a comment recently by Wendy Cope who quotes with approval a poet I don’t know, called RobWells: “I find it uncanny how, the more a poem seems to reduce itself to the mere resolution of a technical problem, the more unerringly it homes in on the truth I didn’t know was there to tell.” I think that’s true of reading in its own way, too. Though, alas, these days I find so few poems I really want to delve into, as I do Find Me.
Strange that I’m reading W S Merwin’s translation of Dante’s Purgatorio, which has so many pictures of the ordinary and everyday gestures and sights of people beyond any finding, and yet ‘found’ by the poet who is allowed to go through the boundary of life and death, as if poetic imagination were personified in him.
John Haynes: Winner of the Costa Award for Poetry, 2006 and the Troubadour Poetry Prize 2007, shortlisted for T S Eliot Prize, 2010
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.
A poem film commissioned for the Dark Side, Port Side project. https://vimeo.com/291387222
I was one of those –
when I washed up here in Southampton Row –
seventeen years old.
Though I suppose you could call me
a fortunate one – housed as I am
under the roof of the gentleman,
Mr Bright – to have a snooze-case for my head,
a flagon of ale to merry the senses.
How was I to know
I’d be sharing my bed? No-one said.
The one with the North Star tattooed on his chest –
he was the best.
My mother, harrowed soul, saw a crow
on the cradle the day I was born.
Betrothed to sorrow, I was – she said.
Nothing to do but turn your face
against these vile sea breezes,
the drunk Jack Tars, the grizzle-heads.
Tuesday I’ll go out with the girls and Mr Bright
to slaughter our pig in the yard.
Some days life’s not too hard.
(for Dark Side, Port Side – poem film and visitor trail project)
I’m running a free Poetry Workshop at Portsmouth Central Library on Saturday 24 March 10.30 – 1.30 pm.
A Poem to Remember is a national initiative launched by Prince William, encouraging people to write poems of hope over adversity to mark the end of the First World War.
In collaboration with BBC Get Creative and the Poetry Society.
Advance tickets available here:
May – July 2016
A pilot poetry project for people living with dementia, based at Newman Court Resource Centre in Basingstoke.
PEOPLE LIKE US
People like us we didn’t go abroad.
We went to the beach on a charabanc.
There were so many people you had to fight for space.
We sat with our clothes on. Chocker block.
They didn’t have tights in those days.
The deckchairs used to end up upside down.
Two bob for an hour. All day for a pound.
We used to buy a Mr Whippy in a wafer.
We were easily pleased.
My mum knitted me a two piece
and when I went for a swim —
the weight of the water made it drop!
You could hear the mums and dads shouting:
‘Don’t kick the sand over there!’
What pleasure was it really?
It was a big event to go down to the sea.
ANALYSING THE DISTINCTIVE VOICE
Before my voice disappeared
like a rabbit up a sleeve
I wanted to be a singer
in the Folies Bergère.
The doctor is a kind man
he keeps me warm,
he feeds me seed cake
and Assam tea.
But sometimes he makes me crawl.
Pick up the crumbs
my little goose.
At night I lie beside him
more silent than a blade of grass.
I allow his cold fingertips
to circle my heart.
Tomorrow, he says,
I must rehearse for the show
in the auditorium of the Saltpêtrière.
The doctors will love me.
He has made me a hat
of peacock feathers.
He has taught me to bark.
When he stares into my eyes
he can make me do anything
But he can’t make me sing.
That poem, written while studying for an MA in Creative Writing in Chichester, was an early attempt to write in another person’s voice. It became the title for my first small published collection.
The person in question was Blanche Wittman, a patient of Jean-Martin Charcot, the first of the great European theorists of hysteria. Blanche was among the main attractions at Charcot’s frequently staged events for members of his neurological service at the Saltpetriere Hospital.
A reviewer in Magma observed: ‘[Charcot’s] domineering personality is vividly evoked in the poem. Although I find it hard to square the poem’s purely submissive image of Blanche with other accounts – of a bossy, capricious woman who was nicknamed the queen of the hysterics – the poem, like the collection, succeeds beautifully on its own terms’.
However, perhaps the reviewer had missed the nuances contained in the last lines ‘he can make me do anything, but he can’t make me sing.’ Blanche Wittman, even under the hypnotic spell of the doctor, possesses the ultimate power.
Other reviewers described my voice as ‘beguiling’, ‘distinctive’, ‘brave and new’, although the voice that spoke to me, my own voice, had rarely felt that way. Meanwhile, I came to realise that the voice in the poem was not really that of Blanche Wittman, but my own. I had unwittingly tapped into my own psyche. Poetry had helped me to create a voice from the tension which hovered between between desire and fear.
In contrast then, here’s a relatively new poem which taps into the more defiant scale of my spectrum Continue reading
Maggie Sawkins will be launching her new collection, Zones of Avoidance, based on the live literature production that won last year’s Ted Hughes award, in Portsmouth on Saturday 28 March.
Ted Hughes award judge Denise Riley described Zones of Avoidance, which was directed by Mark C Hewitt, as “a challenging, painfully open account of a daughter’s addiction, yet it’s an account which also offers graceful good humour. Beautifully written and uncompromising, it’s a modern story that we felt the writer was compelled to tell; it acts as a vivid witness of harsh experiences which aren’t often described in poetry, and Maggie Sawkins’s illuminating descriptions will prove helpful for others to hear.”
In an interview with Write Out Loud last year, Maggie
said: “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 could have written the story as a memoir and perhaps made a lot of money. However, reading back through the drafts, I realised that the ‘truth’ could be told in relatively few words. I think all of us have the one tale to tell and there are different ways of telling it. Writing in poetry enabled me to tease out the terrible beauty from what, in reality, has been a much darker story.”
Music with Bernard MacDonagh and Claire Ward
ZONES OF AVOIDANCE
Winner of the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry
Written and performed by Maggie Sawkins
Directed by Mark C Hewitt with video sequences by Abigail Norris and music by Nick Evans
Thursday 30 October | 7.30pm
David Russell Theatre, Portsmouth Grammar School, High Street, Old Portsmouth
Tickets: £10 | £8 | £5 under sixteen