'Learning English at Friendship House' by Maggie Sawkins: Poem of the Month, July 2021
In June, Writing Literary Portsmouth launched our Poem of the Month feature with Stephanie Norgate’s ‘Ferries at Southsea’. We’re excited by the opportunity to place a different verse in front of you every month, so that together we can explore this city’s amazing poetic scene.
We are particularly interested in poems that give a strong flavour of the city, its urban spaces and unique natural landscapes – but just as much in those that explore the lives of its inhabitants and communities. Whether the poems we select are funny, moving, heartbreaking, or inspiring, we hope you will enjoy taking a poetic journey with us – meandering through Portsmouth’s fascinating past, present, and future – and using this most mercurial and vivid of literary forms to explore the city’s many, varied, and vibrant identities.
Writing Literary Portsmouth is the vehicle of the Portsmouth Literary Map, a project devoted to mapping, exploring, sharing, and celebrating our city’s remarkable literary energies. See our introductory blog, Welcome to Writing Literary Portsmouth to find out more about everything that we are doing.
Maggie Sawkins spent her childhood in Leigh Park, a large council estate north of Portsmouth. A poet from the age of nine, she won the 2013 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry for Zones of Avoidance. Her other collections include Charcot’s Pet, The Zig Zag Woman, and Many Skies Have Fallen. She has performed her award-winning live literature production, Zones of Avoidance, at literature festivals and theatres throughout the country. Maggie is the founder of Tongues&Grooves in the Community and regularly hosts poetry workshops and music events in Portsmouth, working regularly with and for people affected by substance misuse, mental ill health, and/or homelessness.
Recent projects include the Penned-Up Literature Festival at HMP Downview, and Community Conversations for the refugee and asylum seeker community in Portsmouth. She recently collaborated on a project with the Good Mental Health Co-operative enabling people to take part in a ‘From the Heart’ poetry recital for Bookfest 2020. Maggie holds an MA with distinction in Creative Writing. We are proud to feature her on the Portsmouth Literary Map and to celebrate her work here.
‘Learning English at Friendship House’ was included in her collection The Zig Zag Woman (2007), and the anthology, This Island City: Portsmouth in Poetry (2010), and you can find it on the Portsmouth Literary Map, on the junction of Elm Grove and Grove Road South. It resonates with 'Ferries at Portsmouth, Stephanie Norgate's Poem of the Month for June. Both poets attended writing workshops hosted by George Marsh from his home in Southsea.
Like ‘Cold Harbour’, another of Sawkins’ poems that features on the Portsmouth Literary Map, ‘Learning English at Friendship House’ centres around the experiences of a language teacher and a refugee in Portsmouth. It relates to a particular moment in the city’s history, and the poem is also a reflection of a formative time in the poet’s life:
Teaching English to speakers of other languages, many of whom are from the refugee and asylum seeker community, is a humbling experience. Around the time of this poem (2007), one hundred failed asylum seekers were moved out of Portsmouth to other parts of the country before being deported.
Like ‘Cold Harbour’, the poem subtly plays with ideas of understanding and misunderstanding between cultures. It touches – in sympathetic and moving ways – upon the often-harrowing circumstances of those who are motivated to seek a new life in the U.K. This is not a polemical poem, but its politics are all the more powerful for the way in which its humanitarian message is rooted in the task of trying to simply empathise with and understand another person regardless of differences, barriers, and difficulties.
‘Learning English at Friendship House’
Although he came from the mountains
(this much I learnt)
he didn’t understand
my words for snow.
I fluttered my fingers
in front of him
but he only saw
the wings of birds.
I led him to the window
wrapped myself in my arms
at the shivering sky
but he only stared.
It was slow and involved
of sun, wind and rain
but we got there.
Sometimes I think of him
back at the border
I imagine his mountains
their fingers of shadow
the stutter of gunfire
the quietness of snow.
The beautiful simplicity with which this cultural coming-together is described is breathtaking and moving. Sawkins’ motivation for writing is rooted in what the experience of teaching English taught her about the lives and difficulties of refugees and asylum seekers:
I remember this session well for bringing home to me how difficult it must be to fight your case when your grasp of the host language is so limited. In this particular lesson, where we were discussing the great British subject of the weather, it was a struggle for me as a teacher to make myself understood. But as I say in the poem “we got there”. And then he didn’t come back. I’ve always wondered what happened to him.
This poem speaks richly of the rewards of the act of reaching out to another human being, but Sawkins reflections show just how bittersweet these often temporary and disrupted moments of connection can be, and how fragile and vulnerable are the lives of many of those reaching our shores.
If you have any thoughts that you would like to share about this particular poem and the issues the poem raises, do get in touch:
And get in touch, too, if you have suggestions for a future Poem of the Month. Remember it has to be poetic and it has to have something to do with Portsmouth. Our selections are taken from published works.