Professor Fiona Sampson (MBE)
Interviewed by Dr. Omar Sabbagh
You have had many different careers and vocations in your artistic and working life to date. Though, arguably, your intellectual trajectory from adolescence to the present has been one arching, if multifarious, development, what significances have you come to attach, retrospectively, to the notions of risk, vulnerability and failure in the way you’ve come to achieve what indeed you have achieved?
This is such an interesting question. Risk, vulnerability and failure are almost entirely left out of most creative writing teaching, indeed even from such searching literary dialogues as the Paris Review interviews. And yet of course they’re intrinsic to the creative process. If you don’t take the risk and go even slightly beyond what you’ve already done and know you can do, how on earth can you ever make new work? Leave alone work that stretches itself?
But of course the downside of taking risks is that you might be ahead of your readers. I’d say that the way I was writing in 2005, 2007, for example in The Distance Between Us and Common Prayer, was then regarded as disobedient and “wrong” in Britain. British poetry was then still quite tight, narrative, culturally non-diverse and with its range of imagery dominated by tropes from white male British popular culture. It was ok to write a short poem, about a petrol station, a football match or going to a city pub, in which nothing much happened; it was not ok to use stepped lines and write long-form poems which ranged over philosophy, history, the environment, personal experience. Whereas now, these same forms (if not quite the same content) are seen as totally “the thing”. Now everything that differs from this is seen as unfashionable – but I’ve moved on! I expect that in ten years’ time my current form, single-sentence poems in lines of regularly numbers of stresses, will be “the thing” – and I’ll have moved on again…The real problem with this form, actually, is that hasty readers don’t notice the form – which doesn’t matter, unless they’re poetry critics – or, worse, what the poems are doing.
They are not free verse and they are absolutely not pastoral description.
And of course long form poetry: last year, I really enjoyed Robin Robertson’s The Long Take; but when The Distance Between Us came out, everyone thought it was funny and odd to write a verse novel.
I guess there are two kinds of failure, artistic and worldly. At one level of course to be a writer is always to be a failure in worldly terms. You’re never going to make a million from your books, unless they’re airport rubbish. But there’s a tighter distinction between the appreciation of that highly tuned-in audience, your peers, and the slightly dog-eat-dog play of unbridled ego that is the poetry world, at least in Britain. I spent years trying to work to balance that world out a bit, so more and better voices would get heard: years of reviewing and editing. And I think I did help make a difference for a while. At least, while I was at Poetry Review I published hugely more new contributors, and debut poets, and multiplied many times over the number of BAME poets which that most influential of British poetry periodicals brought to readers. I’ve always tried to promote the excellent and under-heard at whatever stage or level, rather than run after whoever’s already famous, which is the usual pattern of poetry provision in Britain. But it didn’t do me personally any good, because of course the mediocre want it to be about nepotism, so they don’t have to face the lonely work of trying to write truly, deeply and well. Now I keep my distance from British poetry, and enjoy international participation more.
In your careers as a now distinguished literary figure in the anglophone world of letters and of course beyond, you have inhabited many different and at times complementary roles, such as: editor, critic, theorist, translator, teacher, health and social care worker. Could you say something perhaps about the risks and failures risked involved in different ways when you don different literary masks? And also: whether having so many facets to your literary profile adds to or reduces the significances of risk and of risk of failure for your career? Or is such literary ambidexterity purely positive sum?
I think my pattern of working in literature as well as being a writer started out as a necessity. I found it very, very hard to break into nepotistic British poetry when I was starting out. I didn’t live in London, and it was possibly the heyday of poetry #MeToo.
Also I needed to earn my living! Working as a violinist had taught me that if you can’t earn your living in a field, you’re not a professional at it. You must remember too that I didn’t go to university till I was 25, finish my doctorate till I was 34: so a straightforwardly academic career like yours, something which has always been within the range of the writing life, wasn’t open to me. I had to find other ways. So I transferred my experience of working with music in hospitals to writing, and worked a series of amazing but gruelling years-long projects in health care. Then I got trapped in that professional identity; but finally escaped by way of a life-changing 3-year AHRC Creative Practitioner’s grant, which parlayed that experience into an opportunity for my own writing.
I also wanted the poetry world to come to me if I couldn’t go to it, and set up and ran an international poetry festival in Wales for 5 years, which led to more and more work with poetry in translation, poetry promotion, and so into editing.
All these things meant I was living my life within literature so to speak, and I did love this. But I had to fight to hold onto the sense of myself as a writer, which was my starting point and always what I wanted to be doing at any one time more than anything else. For years at a time it didn’t seem to be any one else’s version of me.
I have used the other activities, then, to keep a roof over my head, to keep me in touch with literature and, yes, sometimes to deflect my own attention from how hard I initially found it to break into British poetry circles.
You are in my view primarily a poet, whose poetic métier and indeed poetics extend with real versatility into different literary genres and modes and forms. Which of your books, which have all been successes and successful of course, is your favorite and why?
I think you always love the new book best! But aside from that I am particularly fond of The Distance Between Us and Common Prayer. The Distance Between Us has huge flaws but it’s ambitious, and is still the most widely-translated of my books. It was a great step forward for me, and I associate it with my ardent internationalism. Perhaps that’s partly because it deals with a long-distance love affair, among several themes. And Common Prayer is maybe of my poetry collections the one that gets closest to what I was trying to do at the time I wrote it. I think the thought in it remains, and remains interesting. And then I’m very fond of The Catch. It’s a book of happiness, a praise-song; and it too was a great step forward for me, into the new poetics I’m still using, and into poems that arrived in outline all at one sitting (though of course they may need lots of revision), and away from effortful built poems.
I have recently completed the first book-length work reading through and across your major works to date. And I have noted there, I think correctly, that after your 2013 collection, Coleshill (Chatto & Windus), namely, from The Catch (Chatto & Windus, 2016) through to your latest collection, Come Down (Corsair, 2020), your poetry changes style and mood in telling ways, becoming among many other things far more aerated. Could you say something about what these changes might have been in your own authorial estimation?
Yes, your reading of this is accurate – as your reading of my work in general is so wonderfully accurate.
I’ve been moving away from punctuation for a while. Rough Music and Coleshill both move away from rule-following commas, etc, towards using only en-dashes. At that point (2009-2013) I was thinking about W.S. Merwin and his “punctuation staples a poem on the page”. But the real precursor of my all-one-breath poems, the kind I write now, is Common Prayer, from back in 2007: which is perhaps another reason I still like it more than some of my other books. There too I was trying to catch the lifted, all-one-breath quality of the sung line – the aerated, as you call it, quality. Only I was doing it there phrase by phrase, trying to keep them aloft on the page so that the poem opened up horizontally and vertically on the page and in meaning – and in the ear, with the stepped lines playing off each other.
Throughout your oeuvre, whether in prose of different kinds, or in verse, again of different kinds, you have insisted and persisted in opposing dominative literary gambits which foreclose possibilities for voices and meanings to emerge and to keep on emerging. How might you connect this evident urgent concern of yours from the beginning of your career with the vital role this kind of encouragement to otherness may play in creating and in sustaining a flourishing literary culture at home, abroad, or both?
Thank you for this. Yes, I believe poems – literature, the arts – are for everybody, but not in the sense that they have to be dumbed down. They seem to me so much to be the common good that everyone has a right to. This maybe started when I worked in health care, where I saw daily that really amazing poems speak to everyone, however little literacy or conventional education they’ve had, if we let them. Or maybe it’s just my politics.
I also think poetry is probably my ‘common prayer’: I was brought up in a very religious family and meaning seems to me the thing we can oppose to meaninglessness and amorality, existential chaos, the little limits of the ego. So of course I’m interested in being interested in the world around me – and that means wanting to read the poetry of languages I’ve never learnt, and so on.
There is much intimacy as well as much contemplation from what is in my estimation your first major work of poetry, The Distance Between Us (Seren, 2005) through to your very recent book, Come Down (Corsair, 2020). In that first, book-length sequence the vagaries of desire, yours and/or that of others, is often a presiding theme. But the life of the viscera, boons, banes, has been both a dominant concern within your narratives, whether in verse or prose, as well as a dominant resource and mode by which you have conceived and executed much of your most thrilling work. Tell us a bit about how you think of the senses in relation to the making of sense in your work(s)?
I don’t think schematically about the senses but I am very interested in paying real attention to wherever one is – so when I imagine, I also do so very viscerally.
I also think you can’t exist as a woman in the twenty first century, or probably any other, without being constantly made aware of your embodiment. It’s a matter of limits. You grow up knowing it’s not safe for you to do this or that; then you learn that even the life of your mind will be policed because of the way you happen to be embodied; finally you understand that you can never speak beyond the body. We are all limited by our concrete life situation. Every poet falls silent when she dies.
Your Mary Shelley biography, published in 2018 with Profile Books, has achieved much acclaim. Can you say something about your views on Mary Shelley’s own risks and failures, and how they may have purchase on your own as, in a way, not only one of her most recent biographers, but one of her avatars no doubt – a later female creative artist and intellectual?
One thing I think is fascinating about Mary Shelley is that she was never a careerist. She didn’t say, what do I need to do, whom do I need to cultivate, where do I need to be seen, to “build a career”? Of course, neither did the men around her. For one thing, there was just a lot less literacy and leisure about, so there wasn’t the competition among writers! But also the idea of writing as a “career” you might enter like, say, the hospitality industry or banking, was just unknown. Mary Shelley believed in her own talent, but she didn’t have to think strategically, except in her widowhood when she was always trying to get work to earn money. That’s not a career strategy though – that’s a survival technique.
One of your earliest roles and practices as a writer and thinker involved working in health and social care settings. What did these prolonged experiences teach you about and for your literary career as it would develop?
Writing in health care taught me, as I was saying, that really profound poetry passes some fundamental psychic test with everyman and everywoman – though they may need to be in a stage of needing psychic or spiritual refreshment before they let themselves acknowledge this. That was incredibly enabling as an editor, because it meant that – especially at Poetry Review, where there was such pressure to cosy up to whoever was well-known regardless of merit – I was never afraid that I would publish stuff that “went over people’s heads”.
I also didn’t have ivory tower, or metropolitan, forms of snobbery which would have made me assume our readers weren’t “special, like us” and so would have seen me patronise them. Though that comes from going to ordinary, not very good, schools – unlike many British prose literati, the default for whom (if they don’t belong to strongly demarked communities of any kind) is to have been privately educated.
Finally, it’s important to remember that I didn’t have a mentor, or even a writing tutor, or any privileged “insider status” way in to literature myself. This means that I’ve always genuinely expected to find excellent work in the slush pile – or the workshop.
In your latest poetry book, Come Down (Corsair, 2020), you enact some seminal poetic narratives for yourself. Can you elaborate on this search for family, home, refuge and what this searching to make familiar what was or is unfamiliar means to you at the present moment in your life as a writer and as a woman?
Come Down is a book about belong/not-belonging. First, it’s about humans in general belonging in the environment: as in every one of my books, it’s an appeal to pay attention to what is radically foundational for us all: the ecosphere we live and rely on. The source of our myths and magic and understanding for millennia. The what-is that can provide revelation.
Second, it’s about moving to the valley where we live now and seeing the history in the landscape as earthworks, ruined structures, archaeological traces all around us. These ghostly ancestors to whom I’m not related go back to Saxon, Roman and Neolithic times and were palpably not just nearby but right here. The outer defence work of the hill fort went right through our orchard in old photos; the beams of the old kitchen are thirteenth century. And so on. Belonging because this is shared cultural and environmental history, but also not belonging because I’m not their descendant.
And then third it’s about family, about tracing my father at last only to find he’d died the year before I found him, but in so doing discovering half my family and my identity have been lost and found in Australia, a continent I’ve never visited despite being half Australian –in a five or six generations, immigrant sense. So there’s the palpable belonging, and the belonging to a place of the mind.
You have I believe just completed the manuscript of your second work of literary biography, a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, due to be published in 2021. Can you tell us something about the experience of writing this latest book and why you chose this historical literary figure after choosing Mary Shelley?
Yes, I’m just doing the final revisions to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Having been asked to write a biography of Mary Shelley because I’d worked on Percy Bysshe Shelley (I edited the Faber Poet to Poet Shelley anthology), I discovered I was indeed interested in how she solved the central problem of being a woman writer: who speaks, and what are they allowed to say? Elizabeth Barrett Browning also married a poet whose fame has tended to eclipse her own; her story isn’t a story of the development of the unconscious, as I believe the story of Mary Shelley is. It’s a story about conscious determination and desire: to be a great poet above all, but also of course for her famous partner, and her son.
But for my next prose book, I hope to return to the territory of Come Down.
Fiona Sampson is a leading British poet and writer. Published in thirty-seven languages, she’s received international awards in the US, India, Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Fellow of the English Association and Fellow of the Wordsworth Trust, she’s received an MBE from the Queen For Services to Literature, and published twenty-seven books. National prizes include the Newdigate Prize, Cholmondeley Prize, Hawthornden Fellowship, and various awards from the Arts Councils of England and of Wales, Society of Authors, Poetry Book Society and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. A former violinist, she is also a broadcaster and newspaper critic, and was editor of Poetry Review 2005-12. Her biography, In Search of Mary Shelley (2018), has been internationally critically acclaimed and was shortlisted for the Biographers Club Slightly Foxed Prize. The poems in her new poetry collection Come Down (published Feb 2020) have received two major European prizes, the 2019 Naim Frashëri Laureateship of Albania and Macedonia, and the 2020 European Lyric Atlas Prize, Bosnia. She is Professor of Poetry at the University of Roehampton, and has recently completed a new biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.