Online Essay: Poetry Siblings by Sarah James

Poetry Siblings

or Smile please, but don’t say ‘cheese’!

If you’d stopped me on the street a few hours before I started writing this and asked how my three The Lonely Crowd poems were connected, I’d probably have replied that they weren’t particularly linked at all. As a writer, I tend to put submissions together along the lines of the best poems / poems that cover the widest range of possibilities that might suit a particular journal. Superficially then, ‘Seed through the eye’ is an analogy-influenced coming of age poem, ‘From the Attic’ is an everyday evocation or imagining of the writing of letters discovered in the attic, while ‘The Swing’ is an attempt to reproduce Renoir’s brushstroke style (for his painting by this name) in words.
When I looked deeper though, I realised that beneath the surface, they share important traits: all three focus on family / relationships (from a female viewpoint), all three have a strong narrative strand and all have lighter or stronger elements of coming of age. Take the mention of family and the notion of writer / creator as parent, then they are perhaps ‘poetry siblings’.
Siblingship in real life has always interested me most though when it comes to the differences. As with real life, the differences in these poems are starkest in proximity to each other.
‘Seed through the eye’ started life in a Poetry School reading course lead by Clare Pollard. When I first started writing, I went on a lot of writing courses and workshops. But one thing I discovered through my masters in creative writing is that I can often get as much inspiration from reading, plus the added enjoyment of close interaction with others’ work. One prompt on Clare’s course, ‘‘’Out of the ash I rise’ – reading Sylvia Plath’s Ariel”, came from ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ where Plath uses these two things as personal symbols. Clare asked what objects might symbolise our own parents?
The symbols I chose come from the realms of sewing and gardening, which are interests I associate with my Mum and Dad respectively. But I’m not a confessional poet. Most of my poems have some elements or emotions taken from real life but these details are almost always then worked into a fictional world. As I love symbols and analogies, this poem was among the easiest of the three to write, with most of the editing focused on then pruning (gardening!) and trimming (sewing!) the images.
‘From the Attic’ is again a daughter reflecting on her parents’ relationship. In this case, the poem is more influenced by Eavan Boland’s ‘The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me’ (, with the daughter-narrator imagining her parents when they were young, before she was born. At the heart of this poem though is exploring if we can do that successfully and whether we would really want to in any detail. Discovering her parents’ love letters to each other in the attic, my narrator starts to read them, only to find this feels like trespassing into a private world meant for their eyes only. Should she, and does she, continue reading?
‘The Swing’ is probably the oldest and most reworked of these three poems. Inspired by Renoir’s painting of this title, ‘La Balançoire’, I wanted this to be ekphrastic not just in contents but also in style. The poem’s content combines the woman in Renoir’s painting with my own experiences of love when I lived in France for a year in my early 20s. It was constructed around the idea of a repetitive line structure mirroring a swing’s motion – so that every odd line opens with ‘backwards’ and ends with ‘forwards’ while every even line opens with ‘up’ and ends with ‘down’ until the poem and motion stop. In keeping with both the motion of the swing and the fluidity of Renoir’s painting style, there are no sentences, just a series of comma-ed clauses, one after another. Instead of the usual one space between words within each line, I also fully justified the lines so that it would create different size gaps between the text, reminiscent (hopefully!) of an impressionistic style of painting…
And that is the short verbal family portrait of these three poems, through my parental eyes at least. Readers can find them, each striking their own individual pose, in the latest issue of The Lonely Crowd.


sarah jamesSarah James is a poet & short story writer. She is also editor at V. Press, the poetry & flash fiction imprint. plenty-fish – poetry collection from Nine Arches Press. The Magnetic Diaries – narrative in poems (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2015). Highly Commended in Forward Prizes. Into the Yell – poetry collection, Circaidy Gregory Press, 2010 – third prize, International Rubery Book Awards 2011.

Copyright © Sarah James, 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.