We caught up with T.S. Eliot prize-shortlisted poet Jacqueline Saphra to ask her a few questions about poetry, music and Verve. She is performing on Sunday with Tania Hershman as part of Mad & [or?] Glow. She also came second in this year’s Verve poetry competition, so will be reading at the City Poems event on Saturday. On top of this, she will feature in the Verve City Poems anthology, which will include a selection of the poets who submitted to the competition and read at the event. I think it’s fair to say that we love Jacqueline and her work, and are furiously happy to have her involved with so many parts of this year’s festival.
VERVE: Can you remember writing your first poem? If so what was it about?
JS: Yes, I vividly remember it. I was five or six years old. It was called ‘The Daisy’ and I still have it by heart. It was incredibly (now I look back on it) in blank verse and I remember how much I loved writing it, which should have been a sign! But after that I went on a journey through songwriting, prose, playwriting, screenwriting and even standup comedy before I rediscovered my love of poetry and realized that was where I had belonged all along.
If I Lay on my Back I saw Nothing but Naked Women has featured some musical accompaniment in the past. What relationship do you see between poetry and music and when did you first start reading your poems to a musical backdrop?
Poetry and music are blood sisters I think. But poetry is its own music so great care must be taken when it’s combined with music. My collaborator, the composer Benjamin Tassie, who loves poetry, is very sensitive to that and works very intuitively and smartly with the written word. He created musical ‘miniatures’ for live cello and piano to go with the prose poems in If I Lay on my Back I Saw Nothing but Naked Women and succeeded in enhancing them. It’s probably easier to do that with prose poems because although they have their own internal music it’s often less pronounced than the music of poem poems.
Still, Benjamin and I also created a show from All My Mad Mothers my new collection from Nine Arches. Benjamin electronically looped the cello tracks from the ‘Naked Women’ and combined them with live piano. It helps that we know each other very well now, and that Benjamin can really get inside the poems and give them an extra dimension rather than distracting or competing. It’s a tribute to his musical intelligence! We employed Tamar Saphra, my daughter, (who is handily a theatre director), to help us and we performed the show at The Ledbury Festival last year. These are exciting times for poetry; collaboration and genre-crossing is happening more and more: poetry combined with dance, music, visual art, and film for example. This helps poetry to expand its audiences beyond literature lovers and enriches the art form – that’s definitely part of my personal poetic mission.
Where were you when you found out about your T.S Eliot shortlist?
I was sitting at the kitchen table doing something really boring to do with accounts and I received a message from Jane Commane, my editor at Nine Arches Press, asking if I’d had ‘an important email’. The prize was not even on my radar, so I had no idea what she was talking about. There followed a fairly protracted text message correspondence because she was in a reading at the time! Eventually, after she’d advised me to sit down and pour myself a glass of something, she told me the book had been shortlisted. I actually couldn’t breathe, it was so surprising and amazing. What an adventure being part of that shortlist of exceptional poets! I’ve enjoyed myself hugely being interviewed on Radio London and Sky TV and I had the time of my life up on that huge stage at the Festival Hall in front of the biggest audience I could hope for. It’s been an honour and a privilege.
How has ‘Mad & Glow’ progressed since its debut in Swindon last year? Have you got anything special lined up for Verve 2018?
We have indeed. Tania Hershman (great Nine Arches poet and short story star) and I realized when we read at the Nine Arches Christmas party in 2016 that we have similar preoccupations although our styles are quite different. We both come from a theatre background and really love collaborating. We created a show juxtaposing and sharing our work (you may not be able to tell whose work you are hearing) with the help of Tamar Saphra again. So useful having a director in the family! It’s great to be onstage with another person; the chemistry is so different and the result is dynamic. We relished the show’s first outing at the Swindon Poetry Festival and since then we’ve worked on expanding and deepening the material, which goes darker now, but retains its sense of humour. There are sandwiches, a bit of audience interaction (nothing scary) and a few theatrical surprises. We’re thrilled to be performing at Verve; can’t wait actually!
What makes a good poetry reading?
I always think about the arc and flow of my reading and loosely plan my introductions. I rehearse. I mostly memorise my poems as that helps me feel confident and also provides new insights for me about my own work almost every time, which keeps it fresh. I think good preparation shows a respect for the audience, who are giving up their time and money to come and see me and I believe an audience knows the difference.
I went on a residential course called ‘Freeing the Poet’s Voice’ a few years ago, with the renowned voice coach, Kristen Linklater. It was revelatory. She was the one who taught me the benefits of memorising my poems. But more importantly, I finally understood the importance of the poet inhabiting her poems as she reads them. It’s an act of courage and faith to do that. I can tell if a poet is truly engaging with their own words at a reading, and if they are, they will always hold my attention. There’s nothing more thrilling than hearing a poet read their poems and really commit to what they are reading.
Who are you most looking forward to seeing at Verve 2018?
I can’t wait to hear my amazing editor and publisher Jane Commane reading from her debut collection from Bloodaxe, ‘Assembly Lines’. But there’s so much to love at Verve. Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf reading with her translator, the poet Clare Pollard from ‘The Sea Migrations’ will be so exciting. And what about the dream team of Pascale Petit, Hannah Lowe and Sandeep Parmar, three brilliant women? There’s an embarrassment of riches happening at the festival. It’s going to be wonderful.
Jaqueline will be performing with fellow Nine Arches poet Tania Hershman as ‘Mad and Glow’ on Sunday at 11:00pm. She will also read at the City Poems event, on Saturday. You can purchase tickets here.