London's Sarah Maguire is one of the most respected female lyric poets of her generation. She is author of Spilt Milk (Secker), The Invisible Mender and The Florist's at Midnight (both Cape) and a stunning horticultural anthology Flora Poetica She is the only living English poet translated into Arabic. Currently she works for The School of Oriental and African Studies, and her latest collection, provisionally titled The Pomegranates of Kandahar is imminent.
After leaving a rather snooty London all girls' school at the age of seventeen, you became the first female gardening apprentice for Ealing Council. Did you harbour ambitions back then of being an internationally renowned poet?
No I didn't. I don't think anyone has a great idea of what they are going to do at seventeen. I was writing poetry very intently at the time, and I had this rather middle-class English notion that gardening would give me a lot of time to think. However, manual labour allows little time to think. I stopped writing for a while and became politically active, not writing again seriously until my mid-twenties. To save a lot of fuss I wish someone had told me when I was seventeen that I would be an internationally renowned poet!
You are now a director (at SOAS). How did your interest in translation come
about, and is the directorial role ongoing?
In 2001 I was on a placement with the Royal Literary Fund to teach writing skills, and
what I realised was that there were people at SOAS who had access to some of the most
phenomenally wonderful poetry in the world. I started running poetry translation
workshops to bring some of these people together and to make some of this poetry more
The workshops have been going for two years now and have been incredibly successful.
We've translated poetry from over 15 languages, from many poets who had never been
translated before. From the success of the workshops I set up a Poetry Translation
Centre at SOAS, where I have a directorial role. From doing all this I realise how much
poetry thrives on translation.
I think there has been something quite stultifying about certain aspects of English
poetry. What's needed is an injection of fresh blood. I think it is very important that
poets in this country now have access to poets of all different cultures, poets beyond
the European. It's very difficult for us to understand the creative perspectives of
anyone who has been bought up in an Islamic society for example. Poetry in Islam is the
most important art form, a central part of life.
Overall, poetry is the best way of finding out about another cultures' subjectivity. My
directorial role is ongoing. I hope to bring over six international poets for a
festival next spring, including a very important Somali poet Gariyeh.
The Somali language was only written down for the first time in 1972. It's an oral
culture, so poetry is more important than anything to the Somalis. Their poetry is
fantastic and I feel that people need to know about it here. For us to take an interest
in their poetry would be a sign they are welcome here. Nothing would mean more to them.
I hope to make it possible and, in doing so, build on the good foundations we have laid
down at SOAS.
Although each of your collections comprise of a strong horticultural streak,
your poems, in fact, travel a wide-range of subjects. Your second collection The
Invisible Mender, for example, has some hugely emotive childhood sequences. Because of
the successes of your botanical writings, do you think people might overlook your range
as a poet?
Well all my books are out of print at the moment. The Invisible Mender has
been unavailable since 1999 and Spilt Milk disappeared before that, so other
than the horticultural poems, many people don't know about my work. It's difficult to
know that new people can't properly read you. It's quite painful to be honest.
Do you have a garden?
I've never lived in a house with a garden, but my house plants are in pretty good nick.
Flora Poetica was edited soon after a residency you had in the Chelsea Psychic
Garden. Did the experience inspire you to collate the anthology?
Definitely. I started a project where I wanted to plant little poems relevant to each
of the plants themselves. Consequently I had to search for lots of horticultural poems
and match them up with their plant. I suddenly realised that I had a whole filing
cabinet of these poems and should do something about it.
I've ordered the book by plant families which was really enjoyable to do, and one of
the great things about doing this is you get poets who wouldn't usually be alongside
each other. Strangely, Aphra Behn shares with Tom Paulin and Sylvia Plath and Ted
Hughes still share the same bed!
Who is the most gifted poet you know?
That's a really difficult one to answer because people have different gifts and
sometimes it's impossible to compare them to each other. Also if I say the wrong
person, I might get shot! Yet August Kleinzahler is definitely up there. His musical
range is stunning.
When people think of technically gifted, they think of people that can manage form. Yet
August's poems don't rely on form as such. Adrienne Rich has said that it's more
difficult to write very good free verse than it is to write formally schemed verse.
Anyone who can write well in free verse I find interesting. There is that great divide
in poetry between form and verse, and I'm with the freedom fighters.
Can poets be trusted?
Some of us can be. Others you know are fakes from the beginning. There are some poets
who have an uncanny knack of tapping into the zeitgeist, producing what the age wants
to hear. Though it may suit in the time it was written, it may not be trusted to
breathe so well outside its era.
John Clare I revere, yet during his life, of course, he was neglected and not thought
well of. Even his contemporaries didn't even trust him and thought him mad. So many
poets were not trusted in their own time. For every Wordsworth (who was of course
deeply respected by his generation) there is a William Blake (who was not).
Flora Poetica displays an editorial embrace of international poets from Malawi
to Aborigine. Have you always read poets from different cultures?
I've always been interested in difference, perhaps partly because I was adopted. My
adopted parents brought me up to appreciate cultural diversity. Nowadays, some of my
best friends are from Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan etc. and I need to know about their
cultures to be close to them.
Is music an influence on your writing?
Yes, hugely. I was in a house with a lot of classical music around me and now I listen
to a lot of soul, hip-hop, reggae and jazz. You can learn from jazz about letting go of
timing and knowing how to put the right note in the right place. It creates its own
You didn't have your first collection published until you were in your
thirties. Do you think it is more difficult for female poets to make
There seems to be a confidence issue in being a woman poet that is different to men.
It's a more difficult identity to claim for yourself, if you're a woman. Being the
object of poetry for so many years, women will naturally find it harder than men to be
the subject of their work. It's very unfeminine to be a poet.
Sylvia Plath exemplified the tension in her life, and the struggle between being poet
and wife were horribly clearly. On one hand she wanted to be the greatest poet of all
time, and on the other she wanted to bake muffins and have babies.
Plath or Hughes?
Plath, though I do think Hughes is a wonderful poet. Yet Sylvia was exceptional in the
way she wrote about things, and in reading her, you don't know what will come next.
You were once described as having 'an American way of writing poems'. Are you
influenced much by American poetry?
Adrienne Rich has an important influence on me. Her courage in not flinching from
political commitments is exemplary, as is her embrace of internationalism. The space
and energy of American poetry influences me.
Of course this goes back to Whitman, but also to Emily Dickinson, who I think of as the
most important female poet of all time. She turned conventions on their head and
asserted herself in an extraordinary way. American women poets, because they had
Dickinson there, a lot of them were able to breathe more easily.
I once read a bone-picking review of the title poem of your first collection
Spilt Milk. Every word, every semantic value was dissected and discussed. Do
you think poems can lose their meaning if they are over-examined?
Not if they're over-examined, but how they are over-examined.
Close critical reading is a tradition in literary studies which goes back to I.A.
Richards in the 1920's. New forms of literary criticism which emerged in America in the
50's presumed that it could look at a poem abstracted from its social and political
context. That can be a useful way of looking a how a poem works technically, but I
don't think you can abstract a poem from its political context without losing the poem.
Writing about poems with that kind of myopia might be good if you are fascinated by
dactyls, but that analysis misses the point of Spilt Milk, in that is
essentially a poem about gender and power.
You have held creative writing residencies in a men's prison, at a hospice for
HIV sufferers, and now you are translating many international poets unacknowledged by
western civilizations. Do you think that as a contemporary poet, part of your duty is
to give something back to society?
I don't think it is a duty as such. It's also about fun. Working the in prison for
young men I was exceptionally miserable trying to finish a PHD at Cambridge and I was
offered this job. I couldn't refuse. The same is true of going to Palestine and being
under siege. I'm not going to say that's fun, but it is exhilarating, and more
interesting than sitting around with a bunch of middle-class kids hearing them talk
about their grandmothers' cats.
You write a lot about your travels to far-flung places. Do you find it easier
to write while travelling, or is there a period of reflection before writing the
Sometimes I take notes while I'm there. What's interesting for me is that I am
incredibly home-based and have lived in West London all my life, yet I write repeatedly
about foreign experiences. My parents never travelled anywhere, and I only travelled in
my late thirties, so I suppose it's still excitingly new to me. Often what makes me
write allows myself to be terrified of being so far away from home. Yet with the terror
comes a creative thrill. It was when I first went to Palestine that I first realised I
could cope in very different situations. Also I feel curious about the world and want
to experience as much of it as possible. The line from Louis MacNeice's Snow
comes to mind -
World is crazier and more of it than we think.
You say you've lived in London all your life. Do you still find it to be
Yes, I still love London enormously. I love the mess of it. Also the multicultural
aspect of London. I couldn't live in another part of England. I love the fact there are
300 languages spoken in this city. I love the mongrel nature of London. There are more
mixed race babies born in London than in any other city on the planet, which is great.
I love the buildings (even the bad ones).
The Thames too is hugely inspirational. In the past few years I've written a lot of
poems about the Thames. The Thames barrier in particular in stunning. The aggregate
factories brimming with industrial waste. Nothing makes me happier. I get a sense of
the sublime around there when I see the architecture. These Thames locations will creep
into my next collection, which I am currently finishing.
Questions: James Byrne