Episode 11

Lockdown Sonnet LIX 

by Jacqueline Saphra

 

Jaqueline Saphra reads ‘Lockdown Sonnet LIX’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

One Hundred Lockdown Sonnets by Jacqueline Saphra

One Hundred Lockdown Sonnets book cover

Available from:

The Publisher: Nine Arches Press

Bookshop.org: UK

Amazon: UK | US

Lockdown Sonnet LIX   20th May 2020

by Jacqueline Saphra

‘Europe should brace for second wave’ says EU coronavirus Chief – The Guardian

Remember Brick Lane Sundays? Bagel bake,
garam masala, artisan baristas,
sellers of hip and vintage on the make,
the smell of weed, the Sunday lager drinkers,
trestle tables, strangers skin to skin,
the men who stood outside the curry houses
flaunting menus, beckoning you in,
how you walked by, assailed by choice?
Remember Shadwell station and the sight
of dealers on the corner, fried chicken round
the clock, the homeless begging late at night,
how you never liked the Overground?
Remember how you wished the world would change?
Remember when the trains were just the trains?


 

Interview transcript

Mark: Jacqui, at this point, I usually ask my guests, where did this poem come from? But in this case, it did not come alone, did it?

Jacqueline: No. No, it didn’t. It came as part of a sequence of poems that was actually 100 sonnets written during lockdown, during the first lockdown starting on the 23rd of March, 2020. And I had no idea that this was going to end up being 100 sonnets. I just started on this adventure because I felt like I had to do something to keep myself going, to keep myself sane. In fact, I tried writing a diary and it was incredibly tedious. So I thought, ‘What do I do well?’ And I thought, ‘Well, I’ve written a sonnet a day before, so I’ll have a go at that and see how far I get.’

Mark: Okay. Because I mean, I remember seeing you on Twitter saying you were doing this, and I was gobsmacked by the energy and the courage because I was thinking, ‘Isn’t there enough to do without having a sonnet to do every day?’ But I mean, how did that feel to you? Did it feel like adding on to the challenge or did it help with the challenge?

Jacqueline: The formal challenge of the sonnet you mean?

Mark: Or even just saying, ‘I’m going to do a poem a day.’ And I know you’re raising the bar with it being a sonnet but I mean, isn’t there enough to think about, I guess, some people might think?

Jacqueline: I think there was a lot to think about, but I think that, if you are a serious writer, one of the ways that you process things is by writing. So, for me, it seemed the logical way of coming to terms with what was going on, both the internal and the external weather, and charting events as they happened. So it was just a way of keeping myself going. So, far from being something that made life more difficult, I’d say, although the challenge of the sonnets is huge, actually made life more bearable for me. Drove my family nuts!

Mark: [Laughter] Did they have to listen to them every day?

Jacqueline: Oh, no, no, no, no! Generally not but they did have to put up with me banging my head on the wall, not literally, but metaphorically as I was, trying to get to grips with the formal challenges of the sonnet more than anything, and occasionally, just trying to find something that I felt strongly enough to write about.

Mark: And I know this wasn’t your first rodeo as a sonneteer but even so, it’s a lot to write by the time you get to 100. I mean, I’m kind of curious because I got this impression, as with quite a few other sonnet sequences is that as it went on, I really got that vivid sense of this is you thinking things through and maybe even feeling things through. To what extent did you start to think in sonnets during that period?

Jacqueline: I definitely started to think in pentameter, you know, those dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum, that’s in my mind. And the more I got into it, the more I was thinking that way. And I’d wake up with lines of pentameter running through my head in the middle of the night. By the time I got to Sonnet 50, it was becoming a way of thinking. I’d say it was less a way of thinking of the actual structure of the sonnet. Although those final couplets that you find in the Shakespearean sonnet, those ways of winding things up, those felt as if they were in me, and I was constantly struggling with this question of how you end the Shakespearean sonnet because it’s a really tricky one. You know, finding that couplet that isn’t going to sound awful or a bit pat, or a bit like doggerel, but something that really has some meaning and can reverberate back up the poem again.

Mark: Yeah, because there’s a lot of expectation, isn’t there, once the reader has clocked what you’re up to? And, I mean, maybe just to help some listeners who may not be so familiar with the sonnet, could you just remind us of the outline of the Shakespearean sonnet and what is resting on that couplet?

Jacqueline: Well, the Shakespearean sonnet, you can usually divide it into three quatrains, that is to say, three, four-line sections. And it’s a kind of development of thought that leads you to that final couplet. And in the Shakesperean sonnet, it will traditionally kind of wrap it up and tie it up with a bow. I think in contemporary poetry, we prefer a more open ending. So, it’s always a question of balancing those two things in the final couplet. How do we keep it open but still preserve the spirit of the Shakespearean sonnet, which does lead to that kind of something a bit conclusive? So you’ll notice that in the sonnet I read, there are two questions at the end. So that’s a way of getting around that feeling of having to come up with an answer, a solution of precis, or a summary, or something like that.

Mark: Yeah. Yeah, which is absolutely appropriate to the subject here because well, here we are, over a year later, but certainly on the 20th of May 2020, nothing was wrapped up and concluded, was there?

Jacqueline: No. No. And actually, I’ve been reading along my own sonnets as the dates have gone by a year later. And so much… That hasn’t really changed that much. I mean, a few things have, obviously, but the spirit of what’s going on is not knowing, is continual, isn’t it?

Mark: And do you think poetry is particularly good helping us stay in that space of not knowing while still doing something constructive?

Jacqueline: Yes, because poetry doesn’t try to answer everything and it’s not factual. For me, it’s a very emotional medium. I know that’s not so for a lot of poets, but I like a really big, emotional thwack from a poem. And for me, that’s enough to carry me through. It doesn’t matter whether I’m hugely intellectually stimulated, although that is wonderful if that can happen along with the emotional thwack of the poem. And, of course, the sonnet is an ideal form for putting thought and feeling together. So, my ambition is to let both those things happen but sometimes one will come to the foreground more than the other.

Mark: Yeah, and I think as well… I mean, obviously, what we’re doing today is we’re zooming in on one, but this is what, number 59 out of 100. So really, to get the full experience, folks, I’d strongly recommend you read the whole sequence. It’s quite an amazing journey, even only a year later, and we’re still in it, it really had the sense of revisiting something very powerful. And I think going back to that idea about thought and feeling, one of the things that really struck me about the whole sequence is the relationship between objective fact and your subjective experience, your thoughts, your feelings, your own personal concerns, because you’ve got headlines as epigraphs, all the way through, which is another really interesting choice you made. Could you maybe talk about that and the relationship between the voice of the headlines and the voice of the poem?

Jacqueline: Well, it felt important to locate these sonnets in time and space, I suppose. So it’s a question of how to do that, whether I was going to embed some of the information into the poems or whether I was just going to say it upfront. And for me, it was really helpful to have those epigraphs just to anchor the poem in the real world but then enable me to move somewhere else, wherever that was going to be. And occasionally, I can admit, I did add a little bit extra when it came to revising the poems. If I felt that it was not clear where the poem was, I added another little epigraph or I maybe changed the one that I had because I didn’t want the poems to end up weighed down by fact or… Yeah, you know that was it. I didn’t want them to be weighed down by fact. I wanted the fact to speak and then the poem to speak in a different kind of way.

Mark: So you did revise them? I mean, it reads…

Jacqueline: Oh God, yeah!

Mark: Because it reads wonderfully fresh. And taking you back, and I guess the newspaper headlines, that helps with that. But what journey did each of the sonnets go on then in that case?

Jacqueline: Well, they were hugely variable, you know. Some of them arrived almost fully formed but many of them needed work. And my objective in reworking them, which is perhaps different to any other kind of reworking I’ve ever done, was to be true to where the sonnet was written and what I knew at the time that I wrote it. So, I was really trying not to use hindsight in any of these poems, not to look back and be able to rewrite what I’d written to incorporate what we know now that we didn’t know then. And to a large extent, I think I succeeded in that. I had to really put myself in that space, ground myself in the space of the poem and think, ‘Within this poem and what this poem is getting at, how can I keep it true to itself and, not mess around with it too much?’

But particularly those conclusive couplets, they were the ones that took the most time. They always do with the Shakespearean sonnet. And these are not all Shakespearean sonnets. So there are some Petrarchan sonnets in it with the eight lines kind of argument and then the counterargument with the next six lines. And there are also some sonnets that break right out. For example, when Donald Trump suggested that we might inject ourselves with disinfectants. And there was that wonderful video of Dr Birx sitting on the sideline, her face! I thought Birx is just a great word to rhyme with. So I wrote a whole sonnet where all the end drives were running with Birx. And that was enormous fun, you know. So I didn’t really stick all the way through to the formal sonnet structure. Sometimes I let myself wander. And I think that is… Actually, I think if I’d done formal sonnets all the way through this sequence, it would have been a bit tedious, actually.

Mark: Yeah. And that one is really funny. It’s a lot of fun to see you just changing… I guess, maybe in the way that Mr. Trump changed the premise of so many things… But anyway, let’s not go down that rabbit hole! So, it was interesting when you said you were talking about revising, being true to the original experience, true to the original time because, I think a lot of time people think of revision as I don’t know, improving or layering something on top. And there’s, of course, the Romantic idea of the original effusion of inspiration. How do you approach revision?

Jacqueline: Lots of different ways, but quite often, a poem, for me, will go through maybe, 50, 60, or 100, drafts, honestly. And for me, there’s no such thing as free verse. I prefer to use the term ‘open forms’ because I think every poem has to have a form. I think it’s more a question of whether that form is given or whether you invent it or create it or something like that. So, with a sonnet, it’s more meticulous I think the revisions that have to happen. They’re very much more particular, much more craft-based from quite an early stage, whereas, with an open form, I often will try so many different types of lineations and so many types of shapes before the poem realizes itself because I’m a great believer in the poem, realizing itself rather than the poet realizing the poem. So ‘What does this poem want to be?’ is the big question always.

Mark: And maybe we don’t always hear it or get it the first time around?

Jacqueline: Yeah, or even the twentieth time around! You know, I’ve left things in the drawer for years, and I’ve got them out, and I’ve thought, ‘Oh, that’s what it wanted to do’, but you can’t rush it sometimes. So this, of course, was a very different process because normally, I would expect the poem to find the form rather than the form to find the poem. And in this case, of course, because of the nature of the sequence, I had the form already. And thank goodness the sonnet is such a malleable form because it really enables you to try lots of different ways of approaching it, so it doesn’t become formulaic in any way, because you can keep messing with it, as many people have.

Mark: Yes. Okay. And then if we can look a little more closely at number 59, which you’ve read for us today, I mean, I love the basic premise of this, ‘Remember Brick Lane Sundays?’. I mean, that’s something you might say, ‘You remember, Paris in the 1920s?’ or whatever, but it was only a few weeks ago.

And for anyone who doesn’t know this part of London, Jacqui has absolutely evoked it, beautifully. I mean, it was particularly nostalgic for me, I guess, because I moved out of London, four or five years ago. But it must be even weirder if it’s just down the road and yet you’re nostalgic for that, that basic premise that you have.

Jacqueline: It’s funny, really, isn’t it? That the things that used to annoy me, I suddenly feel really nostalgic about. You know, there’s another…

Mark: That’s it.

Jacqueline: …one about the Central Line, where I’m just talking about how I missed being crowded on the Central Line on the Tube, which I hated, you know. And this poem, similarly, I used to get a bit scared when I was going through Shadwell Station late at night, and sometimes, people would be quite difficult on the train. And, you’d have to deal with all of that but looking back on it, suddenly, it seemed very precious, you know, that I might have wished the world would change but it was as it was, and that we weren’t struggling with this huge cataclysm that we were facing on the 20th of May 2020 and we’re still facing now, of course.

Mark: Yeah. And I think, for me when you say that, it strikes me, this is how you’ve resolved that tension between the 12 line of the four quatrains building up and then the couplet at the end in the Shakespearean sonnet, because on the one level, this is a list poem. You know, you’re listing all the things that you remember, the bagel bake, garam masala, artisan baristas, and so on. And even just that in itself, I mean, poets love lists, and it’s just delicious to just enumerate it and kind of salivate as you go through it. But then, when you read it… I started to notice bits leading up to the questions at the end. So you’ve got this phrase in line eight, ‘Remember how you walked assailed by choice?’ – choice used to be a nuisance. It was the guy standing at the door trying to get you to come into his restaurant and people were pushing past you because there’s so much choice going on in a place like that. And then, of course, you say, ‘Remember how you never liked the Overground’ and ‘you wished the world would change’. And then that fantastic last line, ‘Remember when the trains were just the trains?’

Jacqueline: Yeah, well, they didn’t have any meaning other than they got you from one place to another place. Sometimes it was annoying because they were crowded or sometimes it was upsetting because someone was drunk or angry or abusive. You know, there were all those things going on but the trains were just the trains. We didn’t really think about the possibility they might not be there anymore or we might not be able to go on the trains, which is actually what happened, wasn’t it?

Mark: Yeah. I don’t know, I really loved those two last lines when you were wishing something would change, and now it has changed, and be careful what you wish for!

Jacqueline: Yes, exactly. Yeah. I guess, we were all dissatisfied with how things were but this was not the change that we wanted.

Mark: No, no, ‘that is not what I meant at all’. And, it’s traditional in the sonnet for the couplet to introduce a new perspective, or shift in meaning, or whatever. But, what you’ve really done here is just mirror this huge shift in life and what the everyday objects that you’re enumerating, what they mean, are very based on what’s the existential level.

Jacqueline: Yeah. And actually, as we’re talking about this poem, I’m thinking, ‘Who am I asking these questions? Who is the addressee?’ And I think mostly, it’s myself. You know, obviously, a poem is about communication but it’s not clear who I’m speaking to. So I can be speaking to my reader, and obviously, I am. But I think I’m also interrogating myself, which is something that I think I was doing throughout these hundred sonnets one way or another.

Mark: And I also think there’s something about the situation that we’re all in right now, which means we’re all living through some version of what you’re describing. You know, it’s obviously different in different parts of the world, even different parts of the country. But I think on some level, it’s like the unique, subjective experience of a poet maybe is more relatable and even maybe more newsworthy than it might be in the old, fragmented world that you’re looking back on, that now, in a way, we’re all in the same boat.

Jacqueline: I like that. I like the idea that there might… I like the idea that poetry is useful. And I felt that I was actually… I began to feel as I started to sort of tentatively push these poems out into the world, mostly on social media, they were a bit like meals on wheels, in an emotional sense, that I was, in some way, gauging the temperature of the world and responding to it in a way that people could relate to. So they were seeing their experience mirrored in some way in what I was writing about.

There was one I wrote quite early on about loving everybody and loving everything suddenly. And this was about a week or two into the lockdown. And everyone was thinking that, or a lot of people were anyway and a lot of people were feeling this love for everyone around them. And it didn’t last sadly, but there was a point at which everyone was experiencing this incredibly positive feeling. And I put this poem out on social media and got a kind of wave of response and reverberation coming back to me about how people knew exactly what I meant. And I think there is something that poetry can do to give people a mirror so that they can see themselves in the poem. And because I think these were written, at a specific time when everyone was experiencing some shade of the same thing, I was able to tap into a general mood or a feeling. I mean, that sounds terribly vain. I don’t mean it to sound vain but I suppose… Yeah.

Mark: I would absolutely agree with you on that. I mean, I remember reading that one and just thinking, yes, that was real, that did happen. And we’ve all had a version of that. And also, maybe particularly the sense that we’re all having that together, we’re all feeling the same things together, a lot of the times, it’s like the world’s worst football match, where, it’s guaranteed that all the people around you have got some version of the same feelings that you have, that maybe makes it more bearable. And so, for me, I found, Jacqui, this whole sequence a really moving experience, a really valuable experience on a personal level. And I also think, you’re right, there is something useful about poetry because although, in the newspaper world, we say, ‘Okay, but we all felt that for a bit and now we’ve all fallen out, and, we’re divided again’. But actually, having it in the poem and in the sequence means no, it was real. I don’t think you can just dismiss it because we then moved on to something else in our kind of linear timetable, or train timetable.

Jacqueline: Yes, I think that’s right. I think we are all on a journey and vestiges of all these things, remain in us. And, indeed, that whole feeling of love and connection with each other, and with people we didn’t even know, I think has been consistent in some ways throughout this period, even if some awful things have happened as well and some terrible divisions have happened, that there is some truth in the fact that that positive feeling doesn’t go away. It’s still there. It’s still in a lot of us. And I think the poem reminds us that it’s still there. So alongside all the anger in some of the poems, because there is a great deal of political anger, and some of them are very overtly political and absolutely furious, there are these positive moments and these moments of human connection that I think we need to hang on to at the moment. And I think poetry is a very good way of connecting us because it’s short. You know, it’s succinct. It’s, emotional, emotionally literate.

Mark: Yeah. Well, Jacqui, those moments of personal connection, I think there’s so many of those in the book. And I really just feel like in times to come as Shakespeare might say, people will look back and this will be one of the ways that we remember it. So, I would certainly encourage anyone who has enjoyed today’s one, there’s 99 more, you can read the whole book because it’s quite an extraordinary journey Jacqui takes us on. So maybe we can finish up by hearing Sonnet 59 again.


 

Lockdown Sonnet LIX      20th May 2020

by Jacqueline Saphra

‘Europe should brace for second wave’ says EU coronavirus Chief – The Guardian

Remember Brick Lane Sundays? Bagel bake,
garam masala, artisan baristas,
sellers of hip and vintage on the make,
the smell of weed, the Sunday lager drinkers,
trestle tables, strangers skin to skin,
the men who stood outside the curry houses
flaunting menus, beckoning you in,
how you walked by, assailed by choice?
Remember Shadwell station and the sight
of dealers on the corner, fried chicken round
the clock, the homeless begging late at night,
how you never liked the Overground?
Remember how you wished the world would change?
Remember when the trains were just the trains?


 

One Hundred Lockdown Sonnets

‘Sonnet LIX’ by Jacqueline Saphra is from her latest collection One Hundred Lockdown Sonnets, published by Nine Arches Press in 2021.

One Hundred Lockdown Sonnets book cover

One Hundred Lockdown Sonnets is available from:

The Publisher: Nine Arches Press

Bookshop.org: UK

Amazon: UK | US

Jaqueline Saphra

Jacqueline Saphra portrait photo

Jacqueline Saphra is a poet and playwright. Her recent collections are All My Mad Mothers, shortlisted for the 2017 T.S. Eliot prize and Dad, Remember You are Dead (2019), both from Nine Arches Press. A Bargain with the Light: Poems after Lee Miller (2017) and Veritas: Poems after Artemisia (2020) are both published by Hercules Editions. Her most recent play, The Noises (produced at The Old Red Lion in 2019) was nominated for a Standing Ovation Award. Jacqueline’s latest collection, One Hundred Lockdown Sonnets, was published by Nine Arches Press in 2021. She mentors and teaches for The Poetry School.

JaquelineSaphra.com

Photo: Naomi Woddis

 

A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

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The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

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