Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Jacqueline Saphra

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.


Jacqueline Saphra

Jacqueline Saphra’s The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions (flipped eye 2011) was shortlisted for the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. If I Lay on my Back I Saw Nothing but Naked Women (The Emma Press 2014) won the Saboteur Award for Best Collaborative Work. A Bargain with the Light: Poems after Lee Miller was published by Hercules Editions in 2017. In the same year All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches Press) was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize. Her most recent play, The Noises, was produced at The Old Red Lion Theatre in April 2019. Her next collection, Dad , Remember you are Dead’ will be out from Nine Arches Press in September 2019. She lives in London and teaches at The Poetry School. http://www.jacquelinesaphra.com

The Interview

1. When and why did you begin to write poetry?

My favourite books as a child were poetry books. The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse, Mother Goose, Now We are Six and When We were Very Young were big influences. I loved Edward Lear and Hilaire Belloc. I wrote at school too. In those days there were no targets to speak of and no SATs. Friends and I would disappear into a small spare room at the end of a corridor somewhere and write poems together.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I suppose it was my mother, who would read to me every night until I learned to read to myself. I was an insatiable reader of novels too. Certain primary school teachers were very influential too and would encourage us to write whatever poetry we wanted to as part of the school curriculum – it was considered important by those teachers to encourage us to be creative without any objective in view.

3. How aware were and are you of the dominating presence of older poets?

ha ha. I’m an older poet! I’m not sure how much older poets ‘dominate’ these days – I think that’s a bit of a myth now, although it certainly used to be the case. We can learn a lot from our ‘older’ and more experienced poets – they’ve been at it a long time. There is a dominance of youth, if anything: the new, the fresh, the young seems to get a lot more attention and often some of our more experienced and brilliant older poets are pushed into the background. If you are looking for really great poetry there is a lot to be said for experience (of life and of writing). My new book does do a bit of a head to head with the male canon though because I believe that women need to reclaim the space. Being older is a real issue for women poets, who often start writing later because they’ve been bringing up families and often working at the same time but are taken less seriously and valued less than new young poets. I’ve blogged about this. https://jacquelinesaphra.wordpress.com/the-slow-game-women-poetry-and-the-cult-of-youth/

4. What is your daily writing routine?

You’re asking that question at a difficult moment. My new book is out in September and my play, The Noises has just finished its London run so I haven’t been writing much. Fallow periods are important and I have two or three projects in my mind to occupy the next couple of years.

However I normally try to show up most days in case the muse wants to visit. You have to leave the door open for her!  If the writing isn’t happening (and sometimes when it is), I read poetry or poetry criticism. In between writing, I often go the gym for an hour or two.
My other habit is to go away to a friend’s cottage in Suffolk by myself for as long as a fortnight and create my own writing retreat. I find I can work for hours and I take long, thinking walks along the marshes and take my notebook with me.

5. What motivates you to write?

I just have to. I have things to communicate, things I feel strongly about. I can’t write a poem without a feeling.

6. What is your work ethic?

Mainly it’s ‘Don’t wait for inspiration to strike’. Pasteur said ‘Chance favours the prepared mind’. You can always do something. Poetry can be like practising your scales before you tackle the Beethoven Sonata. Not everything you write needs to end up in a book, or even being read by someone else. Lots of it can end up in a drawer or on your metaphorical cutting room floor. Be prepared for plenty of ‘wastage’, knowing that everything you write – especially your (many) failures are contributing to the poems that make it out into the world. Often a whole series of failed poems might be the dress rehearsals for the actual ‘performance’.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I’ve already mentioned AA Milne, Edward Lear, Hilaire Belloc, but I’d add to them Coleridge, Blake and of course Shakespeare. Then there was Leonard Cohen and also Bob Dylan. From them I learned about metre and rhyme – not very fashionable these days, but rhyme and metre are the historical roots of poetry and often give it a uniquely emotional effect and of course its music. In my early twenties I read many of the 60s, 70s and 80s feminist poets like Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde, Marge Piercy …  I lived in a flat with three other women and we used to read and recommend those books to each other. Those writers were formative for me because they taught me that politics with a personal perspective can be part of the poetic discourse. And of course they were women. If they could do it, why couldn’t I?

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I could go on and on so here are a few (I seem to be drawn to American poets particularly): Marilyn Hacker (formal skills and great storytelling), Carol Rumens (unsung beauty) , Tony Hoagland (emotional honesty, understanding the line in free verse, use of narrative, humour), Natalie Diaz (huge emotional courage and skill to harness it), Alicia Ostriker (political, passionate and  brave), Naomi Shihab Nye (both political and humanitarian perspective), Ellen Bass (gorgeous, immediate and great storytelling).

9. Why do you write?

To communicate. Because I have to. Because I love it.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read and write. In approximately those proportions.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

My one-woman play, ‘The Noises’ just finished a three-week run in London after years of development. I’m gearing up to write another one, this time with more characters in it. ‘The Noises’ was accessible to visually impaired and blind people and I’m trying to incorporate access into my next script. It’s a huge creative challenge and opportunity to enrich the work.

My next book, ‘Dad, Remember you are Dead’ will be out from Nine Arches Press in September 2019.

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