Jacquelin Saphra

- United Kingdom -

Jacqueline is a poet, playwright and teacher. Collections from Nine Arches Press include All My Mad Mothers, shortlisted for the 2017 T.S. Eliot prize and Dad, Remember You are Dead (2019). A Bargain with the Light: Poems after Lee Miller (2017) and Veritas: Poems after Artemisia (2020) were published by Hercules Editions. Her newest play, The Noises was nominated for a Standing Ovation AwardJacqueline’s most recent collection One Hundred Lockdown Sonnets (2021) will be followed by Velvel’s Violin in July 2023, both from Nine Arches Press. She is a founder member of Poets for the Planet and teaches and mentors for The Poetry School.

Jacqueline Saphra’s poems are replete with small details, careful noticing, and the remaking of the stuff of everyday life into what is new and strange – suggestive, full of hints. Her poems transform, transmute.


‘Mazel’ is a beautiful celebration of the small gifts and joys (and the great gifts of a son and daughter of course) to be found and treasured in each day: 


The blinds rise to mazel

as they let in the light, the summer shines it

in sky-shades of forget-me-not, a son brews it

in the blessing of morning coffee; a daughter 

carries mazel home, baked into hot bread


The poem flows down the page in a series of semi-colons and sentences that stream into each other, reflecting Saphra’s complete mastery of form in in the service of her poems. This has been remarked upon by many critics. In relation to her collection Dad, Remember You Are Dead, Penelope Shuttle notes that form forges “a conduit for emotions so raw, taut and explosive that the book might shatter into fragments without form’s stern control over this primal material.’ This collection about fathers, disturbing relationships, power, the patriarchy, the male canon, begins perfectly with a redacted poem which makes that particular form completely necessary to suggest what cannot be said, how hard it can be to speak out, to find the words, to find the courage, to find the voice, and in that sense it becomes a completely universal poem. There is also Saphra’s trademark wit and humour, as in ‘The Canon’ where the poet will ‘kiss the poets’ inky fingers’ and in return:


Milton reminds me of my fall from grace,

Wyatt tries to bridle me and Spenser sits

too close.


This collection followed on from Saphra’s T.S. Eliot Prize shortlisted collection All My Mad Mothers, which walks the line between the confessional and the invented. As Clare Pollard writes, ‘It’s a feminist book, unafraid to show all the messy contradictions of being a woman’. And it is rich, full of sensual descriptions, lush, colourful, energetic, vibrant and alive. There is so much that is relatable in the compressed narratives of poems such as ‘In the winter of 1962 my mother’.


Saphra’s mother is the heart of this collection. A colourful and seemingly flamboyant, opinionated and larger than life woman. The poems are also a lament for women born at a time of restrictions and limitations – not taught how to escape (for example a bad relationship) – but plunging ahead nonetheless:


travelling round and round in shrinking circles 

not sure how to execute the move outwards 

into another lane never having been 

properly taught how to make an exit


The poems reflect how women are taught to loathe their bodies, to mould them, disguise them, remake them into some image of perfection as in ‘My Mother’s Bathroom Armoury’ with its ‘Iron clamp of eyelash curler’.


Saphra won the Ledbury Poetry Competition for her poem ‘My Friend Juliet’s Icelandic Lover’ which is tremendous, world-building flourish of a poem that begins ‘He floated in through the window/ on an ice floe, pissed as a puffin.’ and is sustained with glorious energy right to the finish.


Saphra writes about her poetry, ‘I believe that writing, and especially writing poetry, is a balancing act between the conscious and unconscious. I also believe that the poet must make some sort of discovery in the course of writing the poem’. The nerve it takes to dive into the depths of the self and unearth what is there, is the first step, and then the next step is to make public through publication and then more courage is needed to perform poems, especially if you are creating poems that are confessional, autobiographical, and poems that confront power or systems built on violence, domination and silencing. Saphra writes movingly about this in her blog on her poem ‘Spunk’ – how she overcame her nervousness around the subject matter, the language. This honesty is characteristic of Saphra’s work and gives her poems such resonance and a wide and passionate readership.


Most recent poems include a series of Lockdown sonnets, such as Sonnet LXV written on 5th June 2020 as the UK exceeded 40,000 Coronavirus deaths. Again, the form is a perfectly chosen container for lines of pain, anger and witness, and the poem:


it does the human work. Hold tight. Believe

the Sad, give it some air and let it breathe.


Velvel’s Violin, Saphra’s latest collection, also contains that urge to testify or bear witness. It places us on the shifting ground between past and present. Through its search for missing histories of the Jewish diaspora, Velvel’s Violin is a call for empathy and a warning to a world where the legacy of the Holocaust echoes current narratives of prejudice, war, displacement and migration. As Tamar Yoseloff writes, “It is about the strong and sometimes terrible legacies of the past that we continue to carry with us, and only a poet as brave as Jacqueline Saphra can give us such a clear and unflinching view.”


Essay by Chloe Garner