Fiona Sampson is a poet, writer, and editor. Her poetry collections include Folding the Real (Seren 2001), The Distance Between Us (Seren 2005), Common Prayer (Carcanet 2007), Rough Music (Carcanet 2010), and Coleshill (Chatto & Windus 2013).
Hi Fiona. Congratulations on your latest collection The Catch. It’s been observed it doesn’t possess the same darkness of tone as your previous book Coleshill and is stylistically different in its lack of punctuation. Do you feel The Catch might mark a new phase in your poetry writing in this respect or is still too early for you to tell?
Yes, I’m really conscious that The Catch is a new phase in my writing. It’s not the first time I’ve tried to find a new way in a new book: in fact, rather the opposite. For every book I’ve painstakingly reinvented the wheel. I’ve always felt I had to; that the way I wrote got “used up” by the end of every book and became facile.
So the long lines of Common Prayer, linking lots of things and using the breath to measure phrase length, were replaced by Rough Music’s short lines and interest in mediaeval and ballad forms, while Coleshill wasn’t mediaeval at all but a much denser diction, psycho-geography, concerned with making it new instead of old.
And before Common Prayer was a verse novel, The Distance Between Us, which was as emotional and confessional as Common Prayer was led by ideas and the senses. The Distance Between Us was the most modernist book I’ve ever written but Folding the Real, before it, was sort of modernist too, and quite tight – lots of syllabic sonnets − the most closely related to Coleshill in a way.
But The Catch really does feel different; as if something has been released. You’re right that the all-one-sentence form has helped in that. It allows me the kind of “paint-brush” connected movement I’ve been looking for. The closest I got before was in the rhythms of Common Prayer; but now the rhythm is in fact regulated (there are regular numbers of stresses per line, and each line is roughly a unit of sense), which gives it the momentum that allows a poem to turn one thing into another.
Also, techniques like assonance that I started using in Rough Music to keep the poem “sounding together” are now also part of the poems. And because these things are clearer I can play more with the clarity of the sense, so a phrase or word will often be a pivot, belonging both to what’s come before it in the poem and what comes after it.
Unusually for me, I am still writing in this form, exploring what I can do in it, almost a year after completing the book. So it seems like it will come into my next collection, too. I’m currently working on a book with the Swedish photographer Jan-Peter Lahall, and the poems I’ve written for that do use this form.
But this book will also be published with the poems in Swedish translation, which brings me to the big question about my new way of writing. It’s so much concerned with keeping every element in balance, and I fear it will be lost in translation except in the most painstaking of processes.
This matters greatly to me, as I tend to be translated rather a lot, and am very keen on that readership from beyond the little world of Britpo. The Distance Between Us is still my most translated book, with editions in Romanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Albanian, Hebrew and now in preparation Portuguese, although it came out back in 2005! But it has narrative and emotional momentum, and is quite image-led so I think is easier to translate.
Some of the poems – ‘Bora’, ‘Dush’, ‘Zoi’, ‘Street Music’, ‘Unconsoled’ – first appeared in a joint pamphlet with David Harsent published by Rack Press as part of a collaborative project with Wandsworth Heritage Service. Can you tell us a bit more about the commission and the resulting poems?
A couple of years ago Poet in the City placed poets in London archives and asked us to respond to what we found on them. I was in Whitechapel. Ruth Macleod, who is the Wandsworth Borough Archivist, came to my presentation at the end of this project.
As the University of Roehampton, where I’m the Professor of Poetry, is in Wandsworth, she asked whether I would be prepared to do some work with that borough’s Archives. I was delighted, and suggested a collaboration with David Harsent, who’s my colleague at Roehampton.
The Roehampton Poetry Centre, which I direct, has a brief that includes outreach in our area of London, as well as raising the profile of poetry in general. David had already published one sequence with Rack Press, and so I suggested he approach the poet Nick Murray, its publisher, who produces handsome chapbooks. It all came together!
We each wrote in response to particular “stories” we found in the Archives: and Rack Press published them as Address Book. I wrote three poems each about two figures. One was Edward Thomas, who spent his childhood in the Borough; one was Florence Turtle, a female book-buyer for the big London stores in the interwar years.
Between that chapbook and the collection I changed the names of the dogs from hers to mine; and gave the wind that troubled Edward Thomas a Slovenian name and context.
The final sequence – ‘A Path Between The Trees’ – seems to be something of a coalescence of the earlier concerns of the collection and to bring things full-circle. How long did it take for these dozen poems to come together in their finished form and was it clear to you early on they would form the closing part of the book?
Yes, you’re absolutely right, ‘A Path Between the Trees’ did emerge while I wrote the book as the sequence of poems which − I’m so glad if they do − coalesce the book’s concerns. In fact many of the poems in the collection were written over last summer. I had been writing poetry before that but last summer I chopped half the manuscript collection away: it was a sequence of object studies, a ‘Microcosm’, of increasing difficulty – on the lines of Bela Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. Or so I hoped!
But these new poems were of much more urgent interest to me, so I took the plunge and went completely over to them. The Path poems were pretty much the last of these to arrive and I knew they were a sequence, but it took a long time to understand I could name them and group them as such in the collection. They were interleaved, for a while, with the others: but that just didn’t work.
Your editorial work with Poetry Review and Poem, and your Beyond The Lyric poetry map, points to someone who is very engaged with the contemporary scene. I’m curious if there are any recent trends which have excited you and do you predict any new schools of poetry that might emerge to prominence in the future?
I’m passionate about poetry and can’t imagine a moment at which I won’t be obsessed by it, and therefore fascinated by what everyone’s doing.
At the moment there’s a huge new freedom, it seems to me, for emerging British poets. The baby-boomers have finally released their contradictory, simultaneous stranglehold on both the positions of power and the role of being “young and new”.
Other poets and poetries are being allowed in. Other publications, periodicals and websites and publishers, too. I can’t begin to explain how impossible it was in the Nineties if you were outside the golden triangle of Faber-Cape-Picador and their particular London-based feeder groups.
Many of the youngest poets today tend to be much less concerned with euphony and more with discursive insight than was the case even five years ago, I think (and I think it’s a good thing, too). Coincidentally they seem less interested in the anti-intellectual, troubadour, “gigging” model the baby-boomers lived by when they were young, and instead are much more “professional” or careerist about the whole thing.
The arrival of the compulsory MA in creative writing is both good and bad. Of course, it can seem like those of us who are neither baby-boomers nor Young Turks − the Generation X of Britpo − remain as relatively inaudible as ever, only now we have another generation we’re also not part of ignoring us, too!
Seriously, though, I am tremendously proud of and excited by the greater variety of poetries now being published as well as written: this much wider and refreshed mainstream is what I campaigned for at Poetry Review, and why I published such a high proportion (it was one fifth: unprecedented and still unparalleled) of material by poets who were not yet at first book stage.
I do feel my work there helped create this newer, more open climate. I’m also fiercely proud of the rise of BME poetry in Britain. For too long, young British BME poets were being hived off into performance poetry/spoken word. Which always seemed to me a piece of typecasting which is as frankly racist as saying a young person of colour can be an athlete but not a scholar. And a regression, since the poets of Afro-Caribbean heritage who took Anglo-American poetry by storm in the Eighties were recognised as both oral performers and textual “page” poets.
Now at last, thanks in part to the terrific The Complete Works project, the poetry establishment has opened its ears and understood the variety of language, not to mention imagery and speech patterning, that cultural variety and variety of experience may bring with them is a poetic gain. Obvious, you’d think, no?
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this year or are looking forward to?
After a bit too much rushing about doing readings and lectures this summer, I’m hoping for a quiet autumn with lots of writing time. I’m really looking forward to the publication of Lyric Cousins: Poetry and Musical Form by Edinburgh Press in October: it’s my full-length book, building on the Newcastle Lectures, about the way elements like the phrase/breath/line are structural to both music and poetry.
In November I’m off to Banja Luka to receive a prize, the Slovo Podgrmica. I’ll be Chairing the Jury at the European Lyric Award, and I’ll be doing something for The Echo Chamber on BBC R4 in October.
And in 2017 both my biography On the White Plain: the Search for Mary Shelley with Profile, and my Limestone Country with Little Toller are out. A big prose year!
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
My poem ‘Valley Calf’ is partly about sacrifice. The fatted calf, and all of that. And the way all calves are, since they’re raised to be eaten. And we’re all raised to, um, die. This white calf seems so exceptional, too delicate for the mud that she is in fact quite comfortable with, that she must be the specially chosen one.
But at the same time she’s just a real part of the herd of Herefordshires on the hillside opposite. We’ve moved to a steep-sided but sunny valley, where all day the cattle move across the field opposite, first one way then the other. So it’s also about the townie notion that nothing happens in the countryside, and that nothing in the countryside is of significance for them. Whereas, of course…
Clouds move as fast
as stipple on the hillside
where a white calf walks
behind its mother who
follows the line of trees
across a hill browsing
toward the great absence
of sky and nothing
is taking place something is taking
place with great patience
and delicacy a calf
lifts and places her white
feet in mud.