'I like to make people smile': Win Saha, still performing her poetry aged 93
Wolverhampton-based poet Win Saha is still writing and performing at the age of 93. In an interview with Emma Purshouse she tells of meeting Mae West and Paul Robeson, some poetry advice she received from Irving Berlin, how her background as a journalist influences her verses, and her next gig – at Wolverhampton’s City Voices in May.
Where were you born?
I was born in Altrincham in Cheshire in 1923, just as the Depression was looming. My father moved to find work and I’ve lived in a great many places. I think I probably went to about nine schools. I’ve been a rolling stone and I’ve probably gathered a certain amount of moss, but not too much.
When did you write your first poem?
I started writing at the age of six. We were asked to do a poem at school, and when I took the poem in the next day and my father came to collect me, the teacher, Miss Hughes, said: “I imagine you must have helped Winifred with this poem?” And he said: “No!” I think I can still remember it…
The daisy is my little friend
I see it in the grass.
It turns to make a graceful bend
As many breezes pass.
It has a white and crimson frill
Around its golden head,
Which closes up just like a cap
When daisy goes to bed.
I started writing about all sorts of things after that, dogs and cats, and then I went to stay with my aunt who lived in Fleetwood and I was watching the boats come and go, so I wrote a lot of patriotic things which I probably wouldn’t write now. I was having poems published in the Leamington Evening News when I was still at school.
How did your writing develop after school?
I went to work in the Rover company in Solihull, and there was a Russian chap there. And as soon as he knew that I was a writer of poetry he said: “You should be writing some patriotic poetry. If you lived in Russia you would be given that job as your career.” So I wrote one about the battle of Dunkirk which I left on my office table, and somebody picked it up and the next thing I was telephoned by the Birmingham Weekly Post. They wanted to print it! I also used to get work into various places like the RAF magazine.
The war hadn’t quite ended when my father got a communication from the Birmingham Gazette and Evening Dispatch, they wanted a reporter and they said: “If Winifred would like to come we’ll give her a job.” I started my journalistic career with weddings and funerals and sometimes the compositors got the funerals mixed up with the weddings. We were housed in a building which had been bombed, no carpet on the floor, one typewriter for all the reporters. We had to stand in a queue.
I ended up writing the women’s column, and reviewing film and theatre. I met a lot of interesting people. Mae West was starring at the Birmingham Hippodrome. She appeared rather like a statue, beautiful complexion, not a mark on it and enormous eyelashes. And I said to her: “Are your eyelashes your own?” And she said: “Whaddayah think I’m trying to be? Alluring?” So then I asked her about her teeth. And she said they were made out of mother of pearl.
Paul Robeson came as the first breath of civil rights that was drifting across the world. We all sat round a table, all the reporters from all the Birmingham newspapers, and he was going on about the situation in America. He had the most enormous hands, almost like the size of a dinner plate. I met Bob Hope. He came in front of the curtain before the show and said he’d come to play to enlisted men only, and that the officers should get themselves “and their molls” out to make room for more of the ordinary servicemen. And when his show started I guessed why. It was not very delicate. I never wrote poems about the famous people I met, because of libel.
I loved my job as a journalist. I enjoyed every minute of it. And I think what I do now is less poetry and more journalism, because it’s comment. I’m commenting on things I see around me. Political sometimes. I have a general interest in what is happening. Yes, it’s journalism put in poetry form. For years I wrote a poem a day. And then suddenly I had a little chat with myself: “Why are you writing these?” There are piles a foot high all over the house. I’m not joking.
When did you start performing and reading your work?
When I came to live in Perton, near Wolverhampton, in 1988, I was asked to go and talk to the ‘Ladybirds’ which was a group attached to the church. So I thought I’ll do a poem about ladybirds. And I started off about the insects and then I thought no … wait a minute …
Women like ourselves
Can be typed by personality.
When men discuss us so we’ve heard
It’s she’s a lady, she’s a bird.
The lady has her role in life
As perfect mother, loyal wife.
The bird un-tuned to such delights
Is whistled at from building sites.
The lady sits around in parks
In pleated skirts by Marks and Sparks.
The bird appears in magazines
All hair and handbag, modelling jeans.
Be ladylike and you will find
That men will love you for your mind
And then proceed to lumber you
With all the jobs the bird won’t do.
The lady cooks an endless spate
Of goodies for the village fete.
The bird who turns a lengthy leg
May never need to boil an egg.
So is there a moral that we miss?
Well, basically it comes to this,
The lady does what must be done
And the bird, we fancy, gets more fun.
Are there any poets that influence you?
John Masefield, who was the poet laureate at one time. And I did like Betjeman, although that was later. He sort of says: “Come on in. You can understand this.” I don’t want to have to read something half a dozen times, and then think I’m sure I don’t know what this is about.
I don’t read very much poetry. When I was living in Solihull during the war, I wrote a lot of poetry about American soldiers, and these were passed to Irving Berlin who was running a show called This is the Army in Birmingham. He sent them to what they call the GI Bulletin, so the poems got out to where the GIs were serving. He gave me this advice: “Don’t read other people’s poetry, it will influence your style and take away its individuality.” I’ve got the letter somewhere.
What have you had published?
I’ve done about 20 pamphlets over the years, but mostly with a charitable intent. I pay for the cost of publishing, and then they flog them. I did one for the British Legion. I’ve done things for the Street Pastors. Offa’s Press published a collection of my work, called Win’s Top Thirty a few years ago. This was as a result of my reading at Wolverhampton’s City Voices over the years. We started in the Clarendon hotel. I don’t mind reading in public. Although, sometimes I feel like I’m standing in the middle of a field by myself and all around the edge are the modern poets. I feel a little isolated at times. I can do poems that don’t rhyme … or start to do them ... but the rhyme sneaks in. It does.
How do you decide what to write about and how do your research your work?
I used to have a slot on community radio. They’d give me a topic and I’d have to come up with something by the following week, like teenage pregnancy. It was a good exercise, a discipline. It’s the old editor’s thing: “Do something on that and I want it on my table in 35 minutes.” You get accustomed to doing things in a very short time. I like a deadline. The library sometimes ring me up and say: “We’ve got a woman in the library who has been looking through the poetry books we’ve got, because she needs a poem for her husband’s retirement.” Or something. “Can’t find one, so do you think you could do one?” I research by listening and watching people mostly.
What do you want your audience to take from your poetry?
I’d like them to identify with what I’ve written and read to them, so that they remember how something similar has happened to them or they know somebody who something similar has happened to.
I love writing. But I’m always disappointed if I can’t get a little quirk of humour in somewhere. I like to make people smile. Because I think we need it. The world is a terribly serious place, isn’t it? Satire comes under humour but that can be cruel. As long as it doesn’t progress to that level I think it’s fine. I do satirical stuff but try not to be too unkind unless it’s about politicians.
Have you written a Trump poem?
No. I’ve thought about it. I’m trying to see exactly how it unfolds. I think there are too many facets to that man that we haven’t quite discovered.
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to write something about changes I’ve had to face … how the world has changed.
Do you have any gigs coming up?
I’m performing next at City Voices on the second Tuesday in May, in Wolverhampton.
PHOTOGRAPH: EMMA PURSHOUSE