In your Emma Press book If I lay on my back I saw nothing but naked women you collaborated with artist Mark Andrew Webber. Can you say a few words on how that collaboration worked and has it changed how you see those poems?
The poems were written before the illustrations were created. Mark is a responsive and talented artist – actually something of a visionary – and he entered the world of the poems and enlarged it. He chose to counterpoint or expand the poems rather than attempt to simply illustrate them. His approach gave the book an extra dimension beside the words, or perhaps I should say beyond the words. I am proud of the book and I’m always able to say, without sounding in the least self-centred, that it is a beautiful artefact. That’s because the beauty is a result of the artist’s vision and the editor’s design.
A few years ago you were involved in a residency with Transport for London in which you performed poems amongst commuters at Canary Wharf station, in order to improve people’s travelling etiquette. Can you say a little bit about how you approached that residency and how you felt the public responded?
Not sure if I can do that without being a bit rude. A number of poets, including myself, were let loose on busking spots at Tube stations by Saatchi (yes, the advertisers) for a nominal fee, to write and deliver poems to communicate some particular messages that were being peddled at the time. I stood at the bottom of escalator at Canary Wharf for four hours a day with my mini microphone and amp trying to get the attention of busy commuters. I wrote mostly in form; a couple of sonnets, some rhyming poems, and some performance pieces because I thought that would encourage people to listen. Most did not. One man said to me “Why don’t you do some Wordsworth instead of that other stuff?” But I met some lovely TFL staff who offered to broadcast my poems on their state-of-the-art loudspeaker – a big thrill – although I don’t think any of the commuters even noticed. On tube adverts you might have seen Saatchi’s copywriters’ own attempts at cautionary verse. Those were nothing to do with the real poets-in-residence. I will say no more.
You started writing poetry at the age of five. Do you remember what kind of poetry you were writing then?
Oh yes. Mostly formal, rhyming and much of it in blank verse that I absorbed aurally, through its music. My earliest poetic influences were Mother Goose, AA Milne, and the Oxford book of children’s poetry, which introduced me to William Blake, Christina Rossetti, Robert Louis Stevenson, the amazing and versatile Anon. and many other English greats. Early in my life I experienced the power of metre and rhyme. Now it’s in my blood.
Previously the question “How can poets write about subjects beyond their own experience?” was posted on the Magma website. You responded to this question beginning: “It is curious the way poets, probably more than writers in other media are generally assumed to be writing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and that it must have happened to them.” Do you think that point still stands and do you have an idea as to why poets may be perceived in this way?
Poetry is often written in the first person and frequently has a huge emotional undertow. It is frequently delivered out loud by the person who wrote it, so people often identify the voice of the poem with the experience of the poet. Obviously, the better the poem is, the more people are likely to believe it is true, which is a tribute to the writer. I regularly teach a session called ‘Truth and Lies’ (although perhaps it should be called ‘Truth and Imagination’ but I like to be a bit sensationalist!), because students often ask if it’s alright to ‘lie’ in a poem, or sometimes say, as if to justify the contents of a poem: ‘but it really happened’. If we poets wanted to aspire to literal truth in our writing (as if there is such a thing!) we would all become writers of ‘how to’ manuals, consider careers as journalists or write memoirs. But in any case we all know how unreliable and subjective memory can be. It’s my firm belief that the poet should be at the service of the poem. The emotional centre needs to spin centrifugally, and everything else – the facts and the unfacts, if you like, need to be caught in its vortex. Say whatever you want, invent what you like, use your imagination – that’s what writers do, for god’s sake – if it strengthens the poem.
You previously co-founded the site-specific poetry organisation Somewhere in Particular. What appeals to you about the concept of site-specific poetry?
I describe myself as a ‘poetry activist’ and the great thing about site-specific poetry is that it takes it out of small rooms in pubs and basements, out of cultural institutions and into the world where non-poets or non-literary audiences might go. I want to reach out to readers. I can’t tell you the number of times people have told me they’re afraid of poetry and it makes them feel stupid. Putting poetry in a different setting reframes the poem, makes it more accessible and gives it new life. It also allows audiences and performers look at the space from a new perspective.
Ahead of the 2011 Ledbury festival you were asked to pick out words or phrases which you found particularly worn-out, clichéd or annoying, and your responses then were “cock” and “synapses”. What would you say are the words that currently irritate you the most?
I think I had been editing Magma at the time and the theme was ’Profane and Sacred’. That seemed to encourage men to send in their (often atrociously bad) cock poems, which sometimes felt like a kind of assault. But that was in a very particular context. As I’ve developed my own writing and reading practice and expanded my horizons I’ve come to I believe that anything (unless racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted) is acceptable in a poem if you do it well. I don’t believe in lists of banned words or any rules of ‘The Poetry Police’, that imaginary regulatory body that patrols the pages of our poems. A couple of current of Poetry Police cautions that are trotted out regularly in workshops are ‘don’t repeat the same word, find a synonym’ (why?) and the other is ‘avoid adjectives and adverbs’. I can see where those warnings come from, but a strategically wielded adjective (or even many!) or the repeated use of a particular word in poetry can be very powerful and effective. It’s just that the poet has to know what they’re doing and the effect they’re creating and really mean it. But getting back to your original question, down with The Poetry Police! I’m certainly not one of them. I can’t think of a single word that, used in the right place in a poem, couldn’t surprise, disturb or delight me. And all of those are good.
Jacqueline Saphra’s poetry has been widely published and her plays performed on stage and television. She is a screenwriting graduate of the National Film School. She was on the editorial board of Magma Poetry magazine, has been Poet in Residence for Transport for London and for Good Housekeeping Magazine. She is a founder of The Shuffle, a regular poetry reading event at The Poetry Café in Covent Garden, and of Somewhere in Particular, a site-specific poetry events organisation.
Her first pamphlet, Rock’n’Roll Mamma was published by Flarestack in 2007 and her first full collection, The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions (flipped eye 2007) was developed with funding from Arts Council England and nominated for The Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. A book of illustrated prose poems, If I Lay on my Back I saw Nothing but Naked Women, was published by The Emma Press in November 2014 and won the Saboteur award for Best Collaborative Work 2015.
Her next collection, All My Mad Mothers, is due from Nine Arches Press in Spring 2017.