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A budding ‘pomance’: an interview with Jacqueline Saphra

Jacqueline Saphra, one of The Poetry School’s new tutors, talks to us about her new course, ‘Training the Poem’ and takes us through some of her work and methods.

Hi Jacqueline! Your seminar group, starting in May, will be the first you’ve run with us – what are you looking forward to about it?

Oh, where do I start? First of all, I’m looking forward to meeting the students. My experience with Poetry School students is that they’re always lively and engaged and work incredibly hard. They come from many different backgrounds and are all ages, so I always find the life experience they bring to poetry is varied and constantly surprising. It will be great to work intensively with a small group, with a month between sessions for them to get stuck into their poems?

What can students expect from the seminar sessions?

Because the group is small, there will be time for myself and the participants to build trust and really get to know each others’ work – quirks, tics and foibles, strengths and weaknesses. It’ll be a chance to look in depth at each person’s overall output, not just individual poems. Hopefully there’ll be an opportunity to close read more than one poem by each person in some sessions, so we can see how the poems work together. There will always be biscuits. I never teach without biscuits.

Similarly, would you have expectations of your students in terms of where they are with their poetry?

As long as they’re enthusiastic and keep writing, as long as they’re open to the feedback they’re given in the seminars, as long as they can be respectful and supportive and offer helpful criticism to each other, that’s enough for me. The group will be as good as its participants.

Your three term London course with us ‘Training the Poem’ will be in its third term in the summer – what’s the course about, and what led you to teaching this aspect of poetry writing?


It’s described as an intermediate course, but there is quite a range of levels of experience. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy teaching it! I got the title from the American poet Terrance Hayes. He says ‘… a stork brings the poems. They are little creatures I have to train and send out into the world’. I really resonated with him there, because I believe that writing, and especially writing poetry, is a balancing act between the conscious and unconscious. I also believe that the poet must make some sort of discovery in the course of writing the poem. As Robert Frost put it ‘No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader’. Some of the process must be totally free. Once you have your raw material, or your fledgling poem, then you can start ‘training’ it, so it’s strong and healthy by the time you send it out into the world.

We’ve spent some time on basics: rhyme and metre, moving on to familiar forms and various imported ones. The final term will be looser: more about voice, angle and approach, looking at things like odes and elegies, narrative poems, short poems, epistolary and ekphrastic poems. I always discuss with the students the shape of the term and don’t firm it up until after the first session, so they can also have some input.


Your seminar group will be based from your home in East London. Does the area inspire your writing?


When I moved here about three years ago, I thought I’d write about nothing but water, as I do have a fantastic view of the river and watching the tides is a big part of my day. Of course this hasn’t happened – my poetry never does what I expect – but water has seeped into my poems in all kinds of unexpected ways. I’m writing about the same things I often do, but often the approach includes H2O one way or another. We will have that view of the river during our seminars. I strongly suspect it may flow into some of the group’s poems too.

Your recent collection, If I Lay on my Back I Saw Nothing But Naked Women, was beautifully illustrated – what was it like collaborating with a visual artist? Do you plan on doing more multimedia work in the future?

My background is in theatre, and I really miss collaboration. Maybe that’s part of the reason I enjoy teaching so much. Collaborating with Mark Andrew Webber, the artist, was a brilliant experience. But I had already written the poems. Another time it would be great to work with a visual artist from scratch, creating something together.  I also worked with Benjamin Tassie, a composer, who wrote a soundscape of haunting miniatures for cello and piano to go with the poems. We plan some live performances of that in the future and are making a little video soon. This does take me back to my time as a playwright and I enjoy the performative aspects of the work.

Jacqueline Saphra teaches at The Poetry School, Morley College and Word for Word. Her first full collection, The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions (Flipped Eye, 2011) was nominated for the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. Jacqueline’s second collection If I Lay On My Back I Saw Nothing But Naked Women (Emma Press, 2014) is an illustrated book of prose poems.

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