“He was sitting there with a big plastic bottle of white cider, with this heroin he was smoking and he had an axe on the floor. He had one eye and one ear, and I looked at him and said: ‘My daughter wants you to go or I’m going to call the police.’”
Between fits of giggles Maggie Sawkins is sitting at her kitchen table telling us about the time she had to evict a drug dealer from her daughter’s house on Christmas day. Having spent over twenty years as the mother of a heroin addict, the award winning poet has recently documented and performed her experiences in the play, Zones of Avoidance.
Of course, being the mother of an addict isn’t what defines her life, or her poetry, but it has played a significant part. “I thought it was important to keep a record of what was going on,” explains Sawkins, who combined diary entries, unsent letters and verse with a range of music, video sequences and audio testimonies from recovering addicts, to produce a haunting one woman show that won the 2014 Ted Hughes award for new poetic works.
“I had all this stuff and I knew what I had was powerful,” she says about the process which began with Sawkins presenting fragments of her decades worth of writings for recovering addicts. This saw her teaming up with director Mark Hewitt, who helped develop the project and secure Arts Council funding for it. And what resulted was a fascinating and personal look at her daughter’s descent into addiction and schizophrenia.
So far the play has been performed at the Lewes Prison literary festival, as well as in small local productions, and its London premier run at the Cockpit Theatre, where we saw it. “My own pain was in the writing, rather than in the theatre performance,” Sawkins insists. “I enjoy performing… it’s like running a hurdle race.”
The final result is impressive. As Sawkins moves around the stage, taking up positions on armchairs, casually drinking wine at a desk, or carefully flicking through TV channels… she smoothly switches between intense monologues and heartfelt verse. And you’re right there with her in the moment through the intense, intimate performance.
“Writing is quite personal, and sharing this story with the public was something I was quite nervous about,” says Sawkins. And, of course, it wasn’t just the public reaction she was worried about. “I was nervous about what my daughter would say, and what [healthcare] professionals would think about exploring suffering for your art.”
Maggie Sawkins has been running writing workshops, and working therapeutically, with recovering addicts for years. And it was during some of these workshops that the audio recordings of real life experiences were made for Zones of Avoidance. It is also the idea behind these recordings that has formed the backbone of her next project, Diving into the Wreck which will look at the progression of addiction.
Like Zones of Avoidance, this new work also involves Mark Hewitt, the director who helped put together the multimedia aspects of the show. And as before, he has managed to secure Arts Council funding. “I’m quite interested in writing about fear and what keeps people going. It’s amazing that more people don’t do themselves in,” says Maggie, giving us another glimpse of the deadpan, dry humour that seems to lie at the core of a lot of what she does.
And whilst her new play is being developed, Sawkins is putting plenty of effort into bringing Zones of Avoidance to a bigger audience. “After the Ted Hughes award we thought people would be knocking down the door.” Despite the prestige that comes with the award, the media coverage has been quite sparse, and interest from large organisations and festivals has been very limited.
As of yet, the poet’s daughter, referred to throughout the play as Sunny Girl, has still not seen the production. “She knows about it,” Sawkins tells us, “and I hope that one day she will see the play” and perhaps even want to talk about it. “I had to be truthful, without being sensational…. and I didn’t want to sanitise it.”
“I tried to make art out of it,” she concludes. “I hope I’ve given it integrity and a life of its own.”
Maggie Sawkins on Video
Maggie was kind enough to perform a couple of her poems to camera. Please excuse the shoddy camera work, sound, editing etc…