Interview by Zoë Brigley
The sonnet seems like a safe room to me. It has known dimensions, the four walls of its rhymes and the turn.
Gloria Gaynor belts out I Will Survive on the downstairs radio where mum's alone humming while she sways, dancing all her moves. I want to ask her what the late-night crying means? Why she stays? She twirls her skirt then meets my eye and then I’m dancing too and it’s like our home has lost its shadows, and all the silences withdrew, if only for the length of one song. It was my mum in some other woman's clothes, not my mother, but the person beyond, like a swan, shocking the air as she rose, with a sudden, wide opening of her wingspan, clapping the wind with each stroke as she lifts, straining skyward, as far as she can.
I really enjoy how this poem recognizes the complexity of our family, especially our parents, who give up parts of themselves sometimes to be caregivers, and it is very important for thinking about mothers in particular who experience so much pressure. Am I on the right track here regarding some of things you might have been thinking about when writing the poem?
Yes, I do think as children we maybe don’t understand how our parents have a self beyond their role as parent. Despite this, there are times when children catch a glimpse of something else in their parents and this can be confusing. Who is this person? There can be a colour to the experience too, lending it a sense of the mysterious. I wanted to try and capture something of the half-grasped, a gesture to the otherness of someone not just a mother. In taking flight as a swan, I also wanted to infuse the moment with love. The child might not understand but will always want their mother to seem happy.
I have a fondness for sonnets, and this is a sonnet-ish poem. Do you write sonnets often and what do you think is their enduring appeal?
I have an advanced case of sonnetitis. I love the form (and its many variants) for two reasons. The sonnet seems like a safe room to me. It has known dimensions, the four walls of its rhymes and the turn. In creating this safe place, the poet can drop in with difficult or upsetting or emotional subjects and know they can in some way be contained. This becomes almost therapeutic.
The second reason I love the sonnet is the form requires two distinct modes from the poet. The first mode is the creative, when thoughts or feelings are transferred into words on a page. The second mode is the critical or editing mind. This second mode, focused as it is on wrangling the words into some conformance with the sonnet’s ‘rules’, enables the poet to achieve a degree of distancing from the subject of the poem. This can enable the poet to hold something fierce or challenging with a set of tongs and look at what’s there from a safe distance.
It can be hard to represent joy successfully but this poem manages it. Was it difficult to write though?
Thank you. I’ll go back to another effect of the sonnet: the turn. The first half of the poem includes something seeming sad, but also confusing to the narrator. There is an element of yearning too, the happiness being witnessed ‘if only for the length of one song.’ The fact of the turn then generates an alternative interpretation: the woman behind the mother. I wanted to find an image for what this woman seemed like. She seemed to be rising up from the mother and moving beyond her, taking fight. Thus, the swan. The sonnet led me to a way of representing what was the child was seeing. So, I think the answer is to do with the first part of the poem being one thing and then the second, of necessity, having to be another. Perhaps we see joy most clearly in contrast to something like its opposite?
Adam Cairns is a poet and photographer who lives in South Wales. His poetry is widely published in journals and is working towards a first collection. He is currently studying for an MA in Poetry Writing at The Poetry School and Newcastle University.
You can find him on Twitter @AdamAcorns, and on his website www.adamcairns.co.uk
Poetry Wales One Year Print Subscription | RecurringFrom: £20.00 / year
Poetry Wales Student/Low Income SubscriptionFrom: £2.00 / month and a £5.00 sign-up fee
Poetry Wales Print Subscription | Non-Recurring (One or Two Years)£27.00 – £102.00
Poetry Wales Supporter SubscriptionFrom: £7.00 / month and a £11.00 sign-up fee
Poetry Wales Two Year Print Subscription | RecurringFrom: £48.00 every 2 years
Poetry Wales Digital Subscription£5.99