The House Where Courage Lives: A Q&A with Maggie Sawkins on her newest poetry collection
Maggie Sawkins is an accomplished poet and creative writing tutor based on the Isle of Wight, who has – over the years – done much work to enrich the Portsmouth poetry scene. Many of our local poets know her, if not personally then by her reputation. In 2003, she set up the Portsmouth poetry and music club Tongues & Grooves, which has become an enormous success. She has also delivered numerous workshops and performances across the city. In 2013, she was chosen by the Poetry Book Society to represent Portsmouth on the T S Eliot Poetry Prize Tour. The same year, she won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry for her live literature production, ‘Zones of Avoidance’.
The House Where Courage Lives is Sawkins’ newest poetry collection, following on from Many Skies Have Fallen, released in 2018. She has kindly agreed to chat with us about it here.
Q: When working on a new collection, where do you like to begin?
I don’t consciously work with a new collection in mind, however I do write with the hope of being published. My first pamphlet, Charcot’s Pet, contained poems that had received peer validation after previously being accepted for publication in magazines, along with others that I’d written while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University. There’s usually a long gap between collections because I wait until I have a number of poems that have been published individually in reputable places. The poetry world is really competitive so in order to get a foot in the door, you need to build up a track record before a publisher will consider publishing a full collection.
Q: What inspiration kickstarted the development of The House Where Courage Lives? – was there a particular theme you sought to examine or explore?
I’ve been fascinated by the notion of fear for some time – I think it drives much of the actions and decisions we make in life. I guess this preoccupation fed into much of my latest work. However, the theme only became apparent while I was revisiting the poems and deciding which ones to include in the new collection. The title comes from a photograph of a door in Dorset which has a plaque with the word ‘Courage’ above it.
Q: What is your writing process like? Does it take you long to craft a poem?
I read more than I write – anything from poetry magazines and books to novels, essays and current affairs. Reading feeds into your imagination – recently I realised that the poem ‘Sentience’ from my new collection was influenced by ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus, a book I’d read more than twenty years ago! The protagonist, Mersault, who is condemned because of his refusal to lie about his seeming indifference to his mother’s death, resonates with my own reaction to my parents’ deaths.
When I think about how I lose myself in the making
of a meal, I begin to love
my parents whose passing I did not mourn.
Lately I’ve pondered on the things they taught me –
the safest way of separating
the yolk from the white,
how to cool soup by blowing into the steam,
why, if you put a lid on the pot,
the water boils faster.
I guess they loved me, their insular daughter.
My orphan parents, you’ll never know
how I spent my childhood grieving.
I usually have a journal on the go where I allow my imagination free reign. Sometimes a poem comes out of this, usually in the form of a promising first line. One early decision would be what form to follow – free verse, sestina, prose poem etc. After that the poem is constructed word by word, sentence by sentence, following the idea, capturing the essence, discovering (if I’m lucky) what it is I’m trying to say. Then there’s reading aloud to check the metre and rhythm, making decisions on line breaks and spacing, always with an eye to how the poem will look on the page.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring poets around the city, what would it be?
I’m not sure what an aspiring poet is to be honest, or even a poet for that matter! It’s a strange concept isn’t it? I prefer to think of myself as someone who writes poems. I enjoyed reading and listening to anything from nursery rhymes to advertising jingles as a kid, and when I was nine I tried my hand at writing a poem. I only tentatively started calling myself a ‘poet’ after I’d had my first collection published later in life. Once you’ve bestowed the title upon yourself you have something to live up to! I believe if you have a passion for something you will follow it, no matter what. Your own truth is the best counsel.
What I can say is that higher education helped me to develop my writing. I’d always loved English at school but didn’t have an opportunity to study at A level until I was thirty. I went on to do an English Literature degree, followed by an MA in Creative Writing. That introduced me to a variety of genres and writers from different cultures while enabling me to hone my own writing. Having an education gave me the confidence to mix with people from the wider poetry scene which, at the time, was quite middle class and academic. If you aspire to have your work published, or if you wish to perform, you need to work at it, and it definitely helps to make connections. Here in Portsmouth there are plenty of opportunities to hone your performance skills with groups such as The Front Room and Trash Arts.
Q: We’ve heard that you’ll be talking soon with Radio 4 on dialect poetry in Portsmouth. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Ah yes! I was contacted a while ago by Catherine Harvey, a producer for Tongues and
Talk, a series exploring dialect poetry in different parts of the UK, who thought that Portsmouth would be an interesting subject. After the pitch was accepted I was asked if I would like to host the programme myself! So for the past few months I’ve been busy
researching Portsmouth dialect and identifying local poets who use dialect in their writing. We spent two days recording and a further three days editing and the programme will be broadcast live on 24 th July 2022 at 4.30pm. You can read a bit about it here.
Q: Finally – you’ve told us you read a lot. I imagine you must read a lot of poetry. Do you have any favourite collections, or individual poems, that you would like to recommend?
‘My Darling Camel’ by Selima Hill, ‘Seeing Stars’ by Simon Armitage, and ‘The Collected Poems’ of D.H. Lawrence are three of my favourite collections but there are plenty of others. Lawrence’s poem ‘Bavarian Gentians’ by D H Lawrence would definitely be on my Desert Island list.
I’d recommend reading any of the anthologies in Bloodaxe’s Staying Alive series – it’s a brilliant way of discovering a number of poets that might appeal to you. Here’s what the publishers have to say:
Staying Human is the latest addition to Bloodaxe’s Staying Alive series of world poetry anthologies which have introduced many thousands of new readers to contemporary poetry. This fourth volume in the series offers poetry lovers an even broader, international selection of 500 more ‘real poems for unreal times.
If you are interested in looking into more of Maggie’s work, you can find all of the relevant information on her website or you can reach her via twitter: @SawkinsMaggie.
Holly Kybett Smith is a research assistant at the Portsmouth Literature Map. She writes Gothic stories and more of her articles can be found on tor.com.