Interview with Maggie Sawkins for Two Ravens Press

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John Haynes was the winner of the Costa Prize for Poetry in 2006 for his collection, Letters to Patience (Seren). John lives a little north of Portsmouth, Hampshire.

What influences your own writing?

I have only hypotheses about that. From the point of view of formative experiences, I suppose having a need for an imaginative life when sent to boarding school, prep school at that. A sort of sense of exile. Being already a little ‘déclassé’ being the child of showbusiness people. A need to keep in touch with the child within.

Literary influences: I suppose the early reading counts for most even if some of the enthusiasm I had then has waned or altered. Ezra Pound despite his politics – especially I now find even though I’ve moved away from the free verse I found from him, the medieval roots of such. Chekhov for the sense of being human against all the odds of nature, and related to that, Chaucer, especially the Boethius element. I’ve had various love affairs with authors, Brecht, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Bernard Spencer. I’m in love with Nadine Gordimer. Mazisi Kunene is ‘the’ African poet for me. Wittgenstein informs almost everything I write.

What type of poetry is getting published today? What are the trends, do you think?

I don’t take enough notice of this. Trends are dangerous if you take them seriously. On the whole I like poetry that engages with something in the world ‘out there’ or ‘in here’. I think talk about British ‘insularity’ and American whatever the opposite is, is very over-simple. Also the tendency to think in terms of ‘formalists’ versus whatever the opposite is restricts the area of enquiry in the way that some kinds of bigotry can paint the bigot into a corner of his/her own making, and this gets worse when ‘formalism’ is equated with ‘tradition’ thus reified. I take a simplistic view of poetry as being a way of writing which has a range of rhetorical devices which allow you to say things in such a way that there is a sense that ‘the language itself’ is saying it through you. It’s all too easy to convince ourselves that poetic speech is qualitatively different from other kinds. Everybody interested in poetry needs to read Jacobson on the poetry in all kinds of language and also, coming back to ‘formalism’, to see how interested he was in the ‘inventions’ of (‘formalist’) Pasternak and others. There are plenty of kinds of invention, not only to do with where the margins go. Of course poetry needs to be original, but where does that come from? I remind myself of the great Leopold Staff:

“Seeking novelty
You will creative nothing new”

I began writing with a passion for imagism, Pound’s and others’, and that’s gone on into Robert Bly, and I see Sharon Morris has developed an almost ‘Levinasian’ form of it now. I’m less attracted by Carlos Williams. Now I’ve got much more interested in moving away from the still extant fascination with the ‘lateral’ relations of language (allusion, intertexuality etc) and more into the ‘dynamic’, what makes it flow forwards, and so in syntax. The ‘lateral’ way in which meanings are left to jump like sparks (if you can make the connection in your own synapses) is connected to the obscurity of a lot of modern poetry, and in that sense I’m interested in the problems are articulacy, where things are connected up but hopefully in insightful ways. This, of course, raises the unfashionable notion of ‘closure’.

Then I wonder, perhaps, am I really focusing on another aspect of Pound and searching for what he really meant by ‘cadence’.

I’m sorry if I’ve answered this in an overly subjective way. I’m not a literary critic. What I mean, I suppose, is that I see two broad trends, one involved in carrying on with the ‘avant garde’ project and being more and more formally ‘adventurous’, and the other involved in some sort of search for meaning, meanings. My original interest in Herbert Read’s theory of ‘organic form’ stemmed from this, but recently I found that the apparently ‘external constraints’ of a structure more readily reflect ‘things as they are’, the necessities within which we are able to mean, love, understand. I know I should be interested in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry because it’s allegedly influenced by Wittgenstein but I don’t think it really is so influenced, but may eat those words when I’ve had yet another go at it.

Poetry published by small presses is seldom sold in major outlets such as W H Smiths and Waterstone’s. What advice would you give to poets recently published by a small press?

I lack this worldly knowledge! I’m sure poets who are now on the bookshelves of Smiths and Waterstone’s deserve it, but there are probably plenty of good poets are not recognised. I suspect that some of the people you see there are there on other than their intrinsic merit. Pound’s advice, in one of the Cantos, about how to ‘become known’ was to ‘take up charioteering!’ Anyone who goes into writing poetry needs to be realistic both about the chances of worldly success and the value to be attached to it if achieved. Ars Longa, as the man says.

Which poetry magazines (if any) do you subscribe to and why?

For decades I subscribed to London Magazine, partly because Alan Ross encouraged me and published my first collection. I liked the Wordsworthian ethos of men (women) speaking to men (women), and his humanity... Through LM I got to hear of Bernard Spencer, and Singh’s translations of Montale, and he published the earliest Sylvia Plath, I think. Also he had an interest in poetry from the ‘Third World’, himself having been born in India, though there was a bit of a gap in political writing there. Stand was a good counterbalance to that, and Silkin too was a good and indeed encouraging influence on me. It was through him I came across Geoffrey Hill’s early work, Ken Smith, and a sense of Europe. I liked his concern with ‘the other half’ and his sense of history, particularly, of course, that of the Jews. I’m glad to see Stand come back into that position. I’m not a regular subscriber but I enjoy Agenda and Poetry Review, and because of my interest in Nigeria I subscribe intermittently to Wasafiri and Kunapipi. Rather irregularly I read Ambit, Magma, TLS, Poetry Chicago, The Rialto. I’d like to know Kenyon Review better. I’m limited by my limited purse. I wish I could afford to subscribe to them all.

How can poetry reach wider audiences?

It’s easy to upset people on this question, and obviously the answer isn’t by playing in some way or other to the gallery. I worry about ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Terry Eagleston wrote movingly about Adorno in a recent London Review of Books, and I can’t decide where I stand. My daughter is teaching me that there are several music cultures that I’d think of as ‘popular’. And the answer to your question seems to me – in all my ignorance on this subject – that perhaps some good poetry or song will emerge from the popular music culture, though it’s never going to be as popular as the charts’ number ones.

Yet the Marxist in me (still) warns that really the’ interest‘ of that culture lies with those who see their own ‘interest’ as keeping us blind, dissatisfied, and emotional. Perhaps England always has been relatively philistine, but that there have been movements against it through the Church and in the work of artists including poets. But the development of consumer capitalism makes philistinism okay, indeed a seller of goods when appealed to, a sustainer of the economy, never mind the sweatshops or industrial history.

I mention the debate about culture because popular music that does in a technical sense contain poetry, certainly has solved the problem of getting an audience. In the thirties Auden, Macneice, Day Lewis and others worried about how a socialist society might arise in which people read poetry and were thoughtful and emotionally educated. They made the point that the interest a society shows in poetry has something to do with the society itself, and we have a society in which for most people education, and poetry in particular, is either a complete turn off or a meaningless game of hoop-jumping-through to achieve some other goal than thinking or feeling. We have a society which - I hasten to say overall - is hostile to genuine art. The writer who tries to gain the attention of this society is going to have a hard job remaining a serious writer. Of course there are still elements in this society that retain an interest in poetry and they’re willing to persevere with a text because they have something ‘in’ them that can respond. On the whole, I’d guess, these are mainly relatively privileged people, who get their sensibility from the family. They’re not the working class. For a genuinely people’s culture you’d need to have a society enriched by those whom Gramsci calls ‘organic’ intellectuals, figures like Tony Harrisons who is so important to people with a similar background, and struggle.

I’m confused on the cultural ‘dumbing down’ issue, partly because I myself come from parents who were professional popular musicians, and I understand the ‘on its own merits’ line of thinking, and am moved by music hall numbers and the poetry you do find in, say the Kerns

He made his home in
That fish’s abdomen

What a rhyme!

I suppose, if there is a ‘way out’ of your question – or rather the whole debate that lies behind it – it might be in drama. But the poetry would have to work for it. It’s drama, perhaps radio, drama I want to think about when I’ve finished the two books I’m writing now. But I also want to study popular songs more carefully and see if I can write something song-like, and in the course of that diffuse some of my ignorance.

How has winning the Costa Prize for Poetry affected your life as a poet?

Very little except in the area of vanity. My children have found a new respect for me! Editors are friendlier to my submissions. People I meet have ‘heard of’ me. Last year I got invited to a lot of things and made actual money out of being a poet. That was a change. I’m able to look at my work through the rose-coloured spectacles of some very generous reviews by people I respect. I suppose I do, for what a probably self-deceptive reasons, feel that much more sure of myself. Above all it’s good to know people are reading what you’ve written. And it helps to feel that my next book has a good chance of being published!

Which poet, dead or alive, would you invite to dinner?

You mean apart from you, Maggie? Well, I think it would be Shakespeare. Apart from the obvious attractions I find what I’m writing now keeps coming back to his way of drawing attention to the full meaning(s) of a word by contradictory repetitions of it, turning it this way and that, as, for instance, he does with his own in The Sonnets. It so happens that the long love poem I’m doing now is in the form he used for Lucrece and A Lover’s Complaint. I might get a few tips.


'Tongues and Grooves' interviews John Haynes

by Maggie Sawkins

Maggie Sawkins was born in 1953 in Portsmouth. She began writing poetry at the age of 9; her first poems were published in Hampshire Poets when she was 17. After a series of office jobs, including three years with The Exeter Flying Post, Maggie gained an MA with distinction in Creative Writing. For the past 12 years she has taught students with specific learning difficulties at South Downs College near Portsmouth. In 2004 Maggie co-founded the popular Tongues & Grooves Poetry and Music Club in Southsea, where she now lives with her husband, younger daughter and a growing menagerie. Flarestack published a pamphlet collection, Charcot’s Pet, in 2003. The Zig Zag Woman is her first full collection: click here for more information about Maggie and the book.


The Zig Zag Woman
Maggie Sawkins

ISBN 9781906120085





My Poetry Books

My Other Books

Some poems

About Poetry

On Letter to Patience

Reviews of Letter to Patience

John reading from Letter to Patience

Film Interview

Radio interviews

Web interview

Work in Progress

John reading Ashes