Maggie Sawkins won the 2013 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry for her live literature performance Zones of Avoidance. She lives in Portsmouth, where she delivers creative writing projects in community and healthcare settings. Lauren Jones recently caught up with her.
Maggie will be well known to many readers, having established the Tongues and Grooves local spoken word event in 2003. Since that time performance poetry has blossomed as an art form across the UK, and its current popularity in Portsmouth is evident from recent events. ‘The Blood Jet of Poetry last month,’ Maggie told me, ‘was packed out.’ As part of the South Downs Poetry Festival, it featured a dozen published poets.
Maggie’s new poetry collections, Many Skies Have Fallen, is deeply personal. In the introduction to the book she calls it ‘a response to the tragic death of my daughter’s partner, Janusz Jasicki, who drowned in the River Shannon in October 2017. Other [poems] written while Janusz was still alive, are included [in the book] because they relate to my Irish heritage or because they seem to contain a presentiment not apparent at the time of writing. In one of my last memories of Janusz we are playing chess (again) in a holiday cottage on Donegal’s Wild Atlantic Way. I never managed to beat him.’
In addition to commemorating the loss of Janusz, all proceeds raised by sales of Many Skies Have Fallen will be donated to the Lough Ree Sub Aqua Club who found Janusz’s body that fateful day.
Maggie has run various workshops over the years for, amongst others, mental health charity MIND and for the benefit of deprived and marginalised local people. At the International Journeys Festival (supported by Portsmouth University), Maggie delivered six workshops for asylum seekers which culminated in a performance of their work at St Mary’s Church.
Maggie was impressed with the results. ‘Iranian asylum seekers seemingly have a natural aptitude or understanding of poetry. There was a natural musicality in what they produced.’ The project took, she adds, an ‘upbeat approach’, celebrating the journeys taken by individuals as well as honouring the cultures of their home cities and countries. One vivid example was an Afghan refugee ‘who wrote a piece celebrating Kabul’, Maggie explained.
Urban stories are at the heart of another project Maggie is involved in: Dark Side Port Side. It’s an exciting opportunity for local writers and filmmakers to engage with fourteen locations in Portsmouth with a ‘dark history’. Maggie’s piece, ‘The Unfortunates’, is the product of ‘much research into the area as well as authentic language’ and concerns the brothels that used to occupy Southampton Row. An instance of this authentic language is Maggie’s use of ‘snooze case’ instead of pillowcase to give her poem an historical grounding, even though the narrative voice feels fresh and highly relevant to modern readers.
When I asked Maggie if the characters are based on real people, she said, ‘Some figures are historical i.e. Mr Bright, but the voice of the poem is an amalgamation of various girls and women who found themselves working in Southampton Row and were given the collective noun “the unfortunates.”‘
Given that Maggie has recorded the words over evocative moving images, did she face challenges to collaborating with a filmmaker? ‘The video should not just illustrate the piece but also interpret the language and themes,’ she said.
Finally, I wanted to know from Maggie what inspiration and opportunities the city can offer aspiring writers. Her response was enthusiastic: ‘The sea! Portsmouth has plenty to offer young writers i.e. the Writers’ Hub as well as Star & Crescent [a local news, culture and creative writing website].’ Her advice to writers of all genres is, ‘Think about your audience without dumbing down. Start your own projects. Subscribe to journals and enter competitions. Test your work by taking part in peer led workshops for honest feedback. Start sending your work out to test if you have what it takes to compete with what’s published.
‘If you want to be a writer, you have to read,’ she concluded, echoing Stephen King’s famous comment: ‘If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.’
Following both pieces of advice, the first book in my reading list is the touching and vivid poems in Many Skies Have Fallen. The launch event for the collection is on Monday 26th November from 6:30pm at the Square Tower, Broad Street.
Image courtesy of Maggie Sawkins.