Episode 33

Sentience by Maggie Sawkins

 

Maggie Sawkins reads ‘Sentience’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

The House Where Courage Lives by Maggie Sawkins 

Cover of The House Where Courage Lives

Available from:

The House Where Courage Lives is available from:

The publisher: Waterloo Press

The author: paypal.me/magpieisle

 

Sentience

by Maggie Sawkins

When I think about how I lose myself in the making
     of a meal, I begin to love
my parents whose passing I did not mourn.

Lately I’ve pondered on the things they taught me –
     the safest way of separating
the yolk from the white,

how to cool soup by blowing into the steam,
     why, if you put a lid on the pot,
the water boils faster.

I guess they loved me, their insular daughter.
     My orphan parents, you’ll never know
how I spent my childhood grieving.


 

Interview transcript

Mark: Maggie, where did this poem come from?

Maggie: I think the idea came when I attended poetry masterclass with the poet John McCullough about five years ago. And I think the prompt was, as I remember, it was to write about acquired tastes, and then what followed was just a piece of flow writing. So, when I was thinking about where this poem came from, I actually looked back and found the notebook from the exercise. So, that was quite interesting to look back on sometimes. I can read you some of the notes that I made straight away.

Mark: Oh, please do, please do.

Maggie: So, it’s… yeah, ‘I have learned to love the taste of wine. I’ve learned to love the taste of avocado and olives. I’ve learned to love walking on my own, lying on a beach with no one there, sleeping alone. I’ve learned to love country and Western music, a touch sentimental. I’ve even loved to learn my insomnia.’ And then it goes on, ‘I’ve learned to love my parents because they are no longer here. And I’ve learned to love addicts and people who have nothing. And I have learned to love cooking.’ So, you can see there that the germ of the poem has sprouted, I guess.

Mark: What a lovely way to describe it. And thank you, like, this is so fascinating. I think we rarely get to see the germ of a poem, or maybe the conception of a poem, like this. And again, this is a little bit contrary to the myth of poetry, isn’t it, that you’re kind of wandering lonely as a cloud and then the inspiration wafts to you over the hills and you take it down and that’s the sacred text that never gets altered, that there’s something precious about the first draft.

But what I get from that is, very often it’s not the first thought, it’s the tenth thought, it’s the thought that almost slips in when you’re into the rhythm. And suddenly, that really amazing surprising line, ‘I’ve learned to love my parents,’ after all the other things.

Maggie: Yes, kind of like an epiphany that you’d hoped to find in a poem. I think, in writing a poem, you’re kind of digging away until you find out what you’re trying to say, I think that’s how I write most of the time.

But having said that, I think that thought about coming to love my parents after their death is something actually that I’d been thinking about for years, in a way, and the whole thing about grief. Because I kind of reached the age where a lot of my friends’ parents are dying of old age, and I sometimes find myself kind of envying their grief. And I think that is because, if I’m honest, I felt very little when my father died. And when my mom died later, to be honest, I felt relief.

And, you feel like it’s not something you should admit to. And I guess there was a bit of a perplexion there about why I felt like that. And I think it’s because some people, you can spend a whole life, while they’re alive, grieving for them, and I think that’s probably why I didn’t grieve when they died. And I think that’s because probably… well, one of the reasons could be is both my parents didn’t have any parents of their own or their parents… my dad didn’t know his father, and then his mom put him in a children’s home at a young age because she couldn’t control him. He was a manic-depressive.

And then my mom, who was Irish, she never knew her mother, she died when she was about three. Then her dad died when she was eight. So, they were like orphans really, both. I think that’s what they had in common, that they were abandoned, you know.

And I think for a child that has parents like that, I think you take on the burden of their unhappiness, in a way. So, like the title of the poem, ‘Sentience,’ if you take away the ‘i’ it’s like, ‘Sentence.’ Yeah, it kind of feels like a sentence. So, I did like that. I was very conscious of that, the other connotation of the word ‘sentience,’ which is the capacity to experience feelings and sensations. But I like the, you know, if you take ‘i’ away, that you get ‘sentence.’ And also the sentence of writing a sentence as well. I like all the different connotations.

Mark: How clever. So, that bit, I lose myself in the making, in the first line. And I was thinking, ‘I lose myself in the making,’ made me think of poetry because I’m much more likely to lose myself in making poetry than a meal. And I was thinking about that… because, obviously, you’ve highlighted the word by making it the title, and I couldn’t resist looking at the etymology. And it’s from the Latin ‘to feel,’ ‘sentire’. And it’s the same root as ‘sentimental,’ but this is a really really unsentimental poem, isn’t it? And you talk about being honest and admitting to these feelings. You know, is it that the poem is a place where you can be honest about things that maybe would be difficult to admit to or be honest to in other contexts?

Maggie: Definitely. I always think if anyone wants to know me, just probably read my poetry and probably get to know me a lot quicker than talking to me. Maybe not so much now but, in the past, and there’s that reference to ’the insular daughter,’ which insular’s got not very good connotations. But I like it also means like an island, doesn’t it, a bit aloof as well.

Yeah. So, I think you can… well, I can be more honest in… well, actually, I don’t know if it’s intentional. I think it’s, as I said before, you just start with something and keep writing until you get to the truth. So, it’s not like, I’ve got a grudge or something I’m going to write the truth, I think it’s more paring away… or not so much paring away in my case, plugging away word by word, line by line, image by image until you find out what you or maybe what the poem is trying to say. And often that’s, like, that epiphany moment, I think. And I think that’s why I liked this poem because it did kind of tell me something rather than me telling it something. Do you see what I mean?

Mark: Well, it certainly, you know, that accounts for the surprise for the reader, I think, the first stanza, ‘I lose myself in the making,’ and there’s a line break and then, ‘of a meal,’ which is a bit of a surprise because we don’t know what’s coming next. But then you say, ‘I begin to love,’ line break, ‘my parents,’ and that is so surprising and so arresting for a reader. And it’s interesting that, in a sense, it was… I mean, it sounds like it was something you were kind of aware of but it surprised you in that draft, in John McCullough’s class. So, where did you go from there? You got that little epiphany when you were doing that draft in the writing exercise, what happened next?

Maggie: I think probably, like, quite a lot of my poems just start with a strong first line coming into my head from who knows where. Perhaps that is a little bit of inspiration. But I think that’s often how I do start or continue with a poem because I think, ‘Oh, that interests me,’ it’s a bit like a song and a hook, I’ve got something to go on. So, I think it was that I really like that when I lose myself in the making. I think because you could almost stop the poem there, in a way. So…

But then I suppose I was thinking about things I enjoy doing, and I think you can lose yourself in activities, and one of the things that I enjoy doing is cooking. And I think that probably led me back also to actually my mom was a good cook and was one of the things she did enjoy. And that led me on to thinking about the different things that your parents, the good things about your parents, I think it’s quite easy, if you’ve not had a very happy childhood, to think about all the bad things, unfortunately. I don’t know why that is but… so that, I started thinking about, yeah, what are the good things that my parents did, you know. And that was one of the good things that they did teach me things besides, sort of cooking, knitting, riding a bike, and different things. And also little words of wisdom every now and again.

But then again, I was kind of aware, like in the second stanza, of the metaphorical associations too. Like, ‘the safest way of separating,’ then that pause and the line break. And, of course, when they separated, when I was 13, it was absolutely terrible and all the things they taught me went out the window because, it was very very acrimonious. And it went on for years. So, that was a little bit of irony.

But I do remember, that lovely bit where… how to separate the yolk from the white by tipping the yolk into the other half of the egg cup, egg shell. So, that was something they taught me. And then I also thought about… oh yeah, how to cool soup by blowing the steam, we had lots of soup when we were growing up, so, that was quite… I liked how they combined science with cooking.

And also there is the metaphorical thing about why, if you put a lid on the pot, the water boils faster. And that’s like not letting out your emotions, which ties in with ‘the insular daughter,’ which was something I didn’t do very much when I was younger.

Mark: It’s very suggestive. And I was thinking about it again this morning, that the poem is called ‘Sentience’ and yet you’ve got this wonderfully distant and suggestive way of communicating this feeling, sentience, through these inanimate objects that don’t feel anything. The yolk, the white, the soup, the lid and the pot. And yet, as you say, it’s wonderfully metaphorical for what was happening in the lives of those people.

Maggie: Yeah. Actually, and I’m sort of quite interested in Zen Buddhism and meditation, and there’s one school of thought that says, ‘Even stones are sentient,’ and stones figure quite a lot in my poetry.

Mark: Yes. Yes, they do.

Maggie: Yeah. So, when I read that, I thought, ‘Oh… ’

Mark: Well, maybe you have put your finger on the Zen truth there.

Maggie: Yeah.

Mark: And, of course, what you’ve given us in terms of context makes real sense of that unforgettable phrase, ‘my orphan parents.’ I mean, that phrase just kind of upturns all our sense of that relationship, doesn’t it?

Maggie: It does, yeah. Because, well, I guess sometimes my brother and myself, we felt like the parents, just this… I think, I don’t know, what’s funny about people that haven’t received much love when they were children? I think maybe some of the things they do when they’re older, as parents themselves, I think one way I’ve tried to understand it is to think, ‘Well, actually, they just couldn’t help it.’ I sort of looked for explanations for some things and I don’t think there are any. I just think they can’t help it, otherwise why would people do things that aren’t… you’re supposed to love your children, aren’t you? So…

Mark: So, maybe they hadn’t had that experience themselves to follow?

Maggie: No, definitely not, no. My mom always said that she never was told that when I was a child.

Mark: Yeah, which didn’t necessarily make it any easier for you when you were younger. But I think one of the things that is so moving about this poem is the sense that it’s a poem of appreciation of, as you said, the little things that they taught you. Even if it wasn’t maybe the big things that you might have wanted them to teach you more often but you’ve memorialized and you’ve appreciated those, what they handed on to you.

Maggie: Yeah, yeah. And I suppose they’ve made me the person I am anyway, which… Philip Larkin poem, isn’t it, ‘This Be the Verse.’

Mark: Yes, that’s right, that’s right. That would get us the explicit tag if we quoted that one, wouldn’t it?

Maggie: Yeah. But I think Alan Bennett wrote an essay sort of referring to Philip Larkin’s poem and saying that, ‘Actually, if you didn’t have an unhappy childhood, then you well and truly fd there.’ Got nothing to go on.

Mark: Yeah, you can say the word, it’s Podcast Land. As long as it’s aesthetically justifiable, we can say the word. And so, can you say anything about the way that the form evolved? I mean, what you’ve got as the final form is quite typical of your writing. It’s just beautifully judged, there’s a real delicacy and precision about the way you’ve laid the words out on the page. It’s a fairly short poem but, as we’ve already seen, there’s an awful lot going on inside it. Like the pot with the lid on. How did you get from that initial list that you were doing in John’s class to what we’ve got here?

Maggie: I had the first line and then… mainly, it was, as I say, I sort of do construct my poetry almost word by word. I’m not someone that starts with a lot and then goes back and has to edit it, edit out loads of adjectives. I would say I don’t really work like that, so, I didn’t have to edit this poem that much, I don’t think. I think I actually wrote it in about a week, I did work on it. And mainly, I was looking… yeah, other poems I write take a lot longer, but I think I did sort of go about it line by line and, obviously, choosing the things and remembering the things that they taught me. I quite like the list of threes is quite a good thing for writing I’ve learned. So, I didn’t want to add loads of things so I just added three things that they taught me.

Mark: And you’ve got three-line stanzas?

Maggie: Yeah, I quite like that. So, mostly, I was thinking about line breaks when I was putting it together, once I’ve got the basics, how it looks on the page, and also that tension between the enjambment of moving from one line to the other and making that surprising. And I was conscious of that. Yeah.

And then, of course, the last verse, I was also conscious of the echoes of sounds because in free verse, obviously, you don’t use rhyme to lead you, or meter. But, so, it needs something to make it poetic. And so, I think what makes this poetry rather than prose is the repetition and echoes of, like, assonance, the vowel sounds, like ‘insular,’ ‘faster,’ ‘daughter,’ ‘taught me,’ that goes back to that at the beginning. Yeah. I think you have to be conscious when you’re writing if you’re writing a poem, that, even if it’s in free verse, which actually follows small conversation or the way we speak, that you still need to make it into a poem rather than just a bit of dialogue or a bit of a story or…

And then, I think the last thing I look at, which is quite important to me, is how the poem actually looks aesthetically on the page surrounded by the whitespace. So, I do sort of play around with that a little bit kind of, that’s probably why… well, you can’t see it. Oh, you can see it currently on the website, but the indentations, I liked the look of that.

Mark: That’s right, it’s beautiful, isn’t it? So, if anyone’s just listening, then Maggie’s got three-line stanzas, and the middle line is indented, so, it’s almost like a kind of filigree effect down that left-hand border. And this is what I mean about, you know, the delicacy of the appearance on the page, it’s almost like lace work or something. And there’s a wonderful contrast between that and, if you like, the emotional pressure of the content.

And, you know, you’re talking about what makes it poetic. I mean, for me, one of the things that really stands out in your poetry is the way that individual words can bear so much examination. Like, the way we looked at ‘sentience’ and ‘insular’ and, the metaphorical resonance very often of the objects. And so, it was really interesting to me to hear you say you write it word by word. It does feel like that, it’s not like Wordsworth, just chuntering on with reams and reams of stuff and then just, cutting it off with scissors at the end. It really does feel very considered and conscious, the way it’s built up. And, hopefully, that invites us to read it in a considered and conscious way.

Maggie: I hope so, yeah. Yeah, it’s kind of strange. I mean, I’ve got umpteen journals where I do just give my imagination free rein. And I know quite a few poets, they use that for their poetry. But I don’t often go back to them, I just write it. And sometimes I look through it and I think, ‘Oh, actually, that’s quite good, I could’ve made a poem out of that.’ But I don’t consciously do that. But maybe it just feeds into my imagination somewhere. So, it’s not wasted, I don’t think.

And also, I don’t know, perhaps that’s just part of me, the very digging away word by word. And that was another thing my mom used to say when I was a kid is she would say, ‘Gosh, it’s like trying to get blood from a stone,’ getting me to say anything. Not very complimentary. My dad was a bit more poetic, he used to say things like, ‘Oh, still waters run deep… ’

Mark: Right, okay, okay. That was a premonition then.

Maggie: So, that was more of a compliment. So, maybe it’s just the way I am really. I do find, or maybe it’s the expectation of writing something that someone’s, hopefully, going to read or listen to kind of makes me painstaking to write it, I think. Whereas the journal stuff, I don’t think anyone’s going to read that, so, I’m not so inhibited, I guess, writing that.

Mark: Well, thank you, Maggie. I, for one, am very glad you did take the pains to make it repay consideration. And so, maybe this would be a good point for us to hear it again.


 

Sentience

by Maggie Sawkins

When I think about how I lose myself in the making
     of a meal, I begin to love
my parents whose passing I did not mourn.

Lately I’ve pondered on the things they taught me –
     the safest way of separating
the yolk from the white,

how to cool soup by blowing into the steam,
     why, if you put a lid on the pot,
the water boils faster.

I guess they loved me, their insular daughter.
     My orphan parents, you’ll never know
how I spent my childhood grieving.

The House Where Courage Lives

‘Sentience’ by Maggie Sawkins is from The House Where Courage Lives published by Waterloo Press.

Cover of The House Where Courage Lives

Available from:

The House Where Courage Lives is available from:

The publisher: Waterloo Press

The author: paypal.me/magpieisle 

Maggie Sawkins

Maggie Sawkins portrait photo

Maggie Sawkins grew up on a large housing estate north of Portsmouth where she began writing poetry as a child. After returning to education she gained an MA with distinction in Creative Writing. Since then she has facilitated creative writing projects in community and health care settings, working with people from all walks of life including prisoners, those affected by psychoactive substances and, most recently, the refugee and asylum seeker community in Portsmouth. Her live literature production Zones of Avoidance, won the 2013 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. The House Where Courage Lives is her latest collection.

Hookedonwords.me

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.

You can hear every episode of the podcast via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your favourite app.

You can have a full transcript of every new episode sent to you via email.

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.

Listen to the show

You can listen and subscribe to A Mouthful of Air on all the main podcast platforms

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Related Episodes

The Kraken by Alfred Tennyson

Episode 36 The Kraken by Alfred Tennyson Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘The Kraken’ by Alfred Tennyson.Poet Alfred TennysonReading and commentary by Mark McGuinnessThe Kraken by Alfred Tennyson Below the thunders of the upper deep;Far, far beneath in the abysmal...

Ə [Schwa] by Paul Blake

Episode 35 Ə [Schwa] by Paul Blake  Paul Blake reads ‘ə [Schwa]’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.This poem is from: A Massacre of Hummingbirds by Paul Blake Available from: A Massacre of Hummingbirds is available from: The publisher: Stonewood Press...

Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Episode 34 Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘Kubla Khan’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.Poet Samuel Taylor ColeridgeReading and commentary by Mark McGuinnessKubla Khan Or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment. by Samuel Taylor Coleridge...

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

1 × 5 =

Arts Council England logo