Writing update 

Two poetry events this week: Monday at the Troubadour to celebrate 21 years of Coffee house poetry run by the indefatigable Anne-Marie Fyfe. A wonderful evening of new poets, and four poets who read in the first year. Including my wonderful tutor Mimi Khalvati, as charming as ever. Great to hear her reading her own work. And Maura Dooley- exquisite, lyrical poems.
Wednesday at Kings Place for a reading and discussion about the American poets Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore: mental health and eccentricity. And constant revision. Suzy Orbach gave her take on this ‘revisioning’ as related to the process of psychotherapy. Fascinating.

As for my own writing: lots of free-writing around swimming and floods. And going swimming myself – exercise as well as research! All very rambly but some kind of story is rising up from the depths…
Reading: ‘Manhattan Beach’ by Jennifer Egan; ‘The Silvering’ by Maura Dooley
Googling: New York

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About reading

“Always be reading something…Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.”

From Ali Smith’s Autumn

In the novel Daniel gives this advice to his young friend, Elisabeth as an important way of understanding the world. It seems to me essential advice for anyone who sees themselves as a writer. You have to use all your senses, be on the look out and ready. Without being obsessive (well not completely). Read and think about what you’re reading. Don’t switch off your critical sense. Analyse what the writer is doing. How she achieves the effect on the reader. Listen to the chat on the bus, or the one-sided phone conversation. Examine how you really feel when you’re: with family, on your own, in a thunderstorm, crossing a bridge, standing in a queue.

I remember my friend who worked for the Inland Revenue being asked what he would do if he overheard a conversation in the pub about tax avoidance. His answer: ‘I work for the Queen.’  Just what you need to do as a writer: keep making sense of the world. Or how can you write with any authenticity?

Writing update 

Now that my novel is in the hands of my agent, there’s been a strange hiatus (I think this happened last time too). A sense of energy fizzing around with nowhere to go. A lack of purpose. And, all the time there’s something telling me to ‘Get on with it!’ So that’s what I’m doing. After a decent month of submitting a few poems and short stories, and generally sorting out my house, I’ve started researching the next novel… 

Of course (if you’re a writer) you’ll know that’s not strictly true. Ideas have been surfacing for nearly a year. But research is now what I’m doing: making notes, googling, taking books out of the library and mostly following my nose. A messy amorphous stage which is so much like playing it feels self indulgent, on a critical day. Or, on a good day, like being a student again. That sense of both opening up, of being what the French writer Gide (tell me if I’m wrong) called ‘disponible’, but at the same time intensely focused. 

Reading :‘A night to remember’, about the Titanic. 

Googling: the height of St Paul’s Cathedral. 

Making notes on: possible main characters. 

This will all change!

Review: Swing Time

Swing Time**** A prodigiously talented writer who became a best seller with her first novel White Teeth in 2000 at the age of 25, Zadie Smith has gone from strength to strength.

Swing Time examines female friendship, class and race and the way none of can ever really know ourselves, yet alone another person. The novel moves from council estates in north-west London where the narrator and her best friend, Tracey attend the same dance class, to success (or what is viewed as success) in dance or politics or music, and back again via a Madonna-like international pop star and her  bid to create a school for girls in West Africa and to adopt a baby.

An ambitious novel, long-listed for the Booker this year, the novel is over-long but still a great read. Truthful, perceptive and, in spite of its exuberance, ultimately very sad.

Review: Days without end

by Sebastian Barry, 2016

*****

Days without end

A story of endurance and love set against the American Civil War. Thomas McNulty, in old age, is looking back at his early life as a young Irish immigrant. When he meets John Cole they become best friends. ‘We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are,’ so they do anything to survive: join the army against the Sioux Indians, dress as women, and go back to the army in the Civil War to fight on the side of the north to end slavery. ‘We worked back and forth through the milling bodies and tried to kill everything that moved in the murk.’ They are so young that ‘time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever.’ Despite everything they endure, there is a sense of optimism.
The language is amazingly fresh and inventive, with imagery always taken from the world Thomas and John Cole inhabit. Buffalo are ‘a big boil of black molasses in a skillet, surging up.’ The weather is described as ‘endless yards of rain as thick as cloth.’ Or – ‘there’s a great jamboree of lightning and noise that makes the far hills stand out black as burnt bread.’
What makes this novel stand out, is an openness to wonder at the beauty of the world, and the possibility of love in the darkest times – love between men, across races and parental love.
A harrowing, beautifully described story with a unique voice by a writer at the top of his game.

Review: All my mad mothers

All My Mad Mothers

At the core of All My Mad Mothers lies a complex network of parent figures. For the poet, this has meant the challenge of growing up with a kaleidoscope of mothers, fathers and step-parents, especially the ‘mad mothers’ of the title poem. We see mothers: driving ‘round and round in shrinking circles’ or ‘in a bath of extra virgin olive oil’ or ‘dispensing strings of aphorisms on the subject of assertion’ or who ‘bagged up all my old words, took them to / the charity shop’. Yet, rather than fragility, there is a sense that the ‘I’ of the poems has achieved strength and resilience. She’s learned how to adapt to these shifting patterns of parenting, both as a daughter and later as a mother.

Many of the poems and prose poems in this collection are playful, inventive and surprising. In Crete, 1980 Jacquie Saphra gently sends up early attempts at sexual relationships: she is ‘girlish and abandoned,’ and ‘I howled into the drunken dark for / stupid reasons’. In Virginity she recalls her mother’s advice to lose her virginity before a continental holiday rather than ‘drag / the weight of it / along with my other baggage / all that way across the English Channel.’ Volunteers, 1978, a poem about working on a kibbutz, perfectly captures the frivolousness of privilege and the ignorance of youth, when military service and the possibility of being shot is ‘really, really funny.’ There are also poems about the surprise and pleasure of love in later life. In a beautifully achieved villanelle, Kiss/Kiss, she describes: a ‘deeper’ love that in a kiss has ‘all the years of reckoning pressed / between our lips.’

There is humour and warmth as well as pleasure in the poems that focus on friendships but, as in Soup there is often a sting in the tale – friends discussing ‘why death, that common leveller, always comes / as a shock’ find themselves imagining how it would be if a friend were to die on the day of another’s wedding. In the deeply sad and moving poem, The Sound of Music the poet realises that problems in later life are already encapsulated in innocent childhood games: when a sister takes an overdose – ‘you can squander a lifetime / trying to stay small and pretty’.

Poems that deal with the loss felt when children grow up and leave, coupled with pride in a daughter or son’s achievements are poignant. Many of the poems evidence a strong thread of feminism. In The Doors to my Daughter’s House the narrator has ‘lingered’ until her daughter is ‘one with the horizon’ – and ‘she’s made it plain that I must never lean against / those doors she’s carved,’ – a beautiful image of how children move away and start their own lives. In listing all the ways in which children mark out their own individuality – the ‘dogs and woks and all things green’ we feel ‘the helpless / love one creature must bear another.’

This is a delightful collection of moving, funny and clever poems with snippets, anecdotes and observations that always ring true. As a contemporary, many of these poems resonated with me. Ultimately Jacquie Saphra gives us a wry look at life that, in spite of everything, always returns to the strength of friendship and the love of family, to soup and safety. All My Mad Mothers is a collection to come back to and reread.

 

Jacquie Saphra’s new book, A Bargain with the Light: poems after Lee Miller from Hercules Editions will be published in September 2017.