Fiona Sampson is one of our most important contemporary poets. Her book Common Prayer was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot prize; her next collection, Rough Music, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize and the T. S. Eliot Prize. Her work has been published in more than thirty languages. She is currently the Editor of Poem and Professor of Poetry at Roehampton University. Her most recent collection The Catch was published by Chatto in February 2016.
Interviewed by Patrick Davidson Roberts.
Fiona, I’m going to start just by asking about the gap between books, and the gaps between writing a book and it being published, and what role that gap plays in your writing life. The Catch (Chatto, 2016) is appearing 3 years after your last book Coleshill (2013), do you feel that there’s been much of a significant change, in that time, in your writing, and the way you approach a book?
It’s hard to remember the chronology! But yeah, three years… I think that there’s a cycle because publishers have increasingly to ration when and whom they can publish. But that there’s also a cycle because I nearly always can’t write when I’ve just finished a book. There’s usually a combination of something like self-disgust, and a more positive sense of the end of a project. But this time that hasn’t happened: that’s to say, I’ve carried on writing, which is the first time that that’s ever happened to me. I’ve carried on writing in the same vein, and that’s never happened before. I think that that’s probably because this book changed direction halfway through; this is a really recent book, there’s nothing in there from before about 2015 or so.
One of the changes that I’ve detected, in terms of the difference between The Catch and Coleshill is, not so much a lighter tone, but there is something perhaps more peaceable about it? The psychogeography is safer, in a way?
Well, someone said that the word most used in it is ‘light’. It’s also a much more “only connect” book, both stylistically and in content: insofar as style and content can even be separated…! Maybe Coleshill was “lapidary”: much more costly, hard-won, and there’s a sense of stoniness and of building blocks. Some of that is Waste Land-ish in terms of content, and perhaps it’s Waste Land-ish in terms of “style” as well. And I think that in the past I’ve perhaps tended to build poems in a Waste Land way – that is to say putting things together, you know, “shoring fragments against my ruin”, that kind of thing – building from discrete things rather than making one thing like a potter with clay on a wheel. Even if I don’t think they’re truly fragments, more dry-stone walling, I’m still assembling things.
But now, it feels much more like I have a unitary starting-point, and the poem is about breath, and about breath moving outwards. So the process is different, the technique is different, the world-view is different too.
But other books of mine that were like that too… Common Prayer (Carcanet, 2007) was quite long-lined, with step-lines, that longer breath. But then I met people like David Harsent who really knocked it out of me, and said that that kind of line was rubbish and it wasn’t poetics, and I shouldn’t be doing it, so I stopped. Which I probably regret, but… In terms of British poetics, which you have to remember were stringently narrow until very recently, Rough Music (Carcanet, 2010) and Coleshill are probably my most obedient books. I was always the odd one out, pulling at the corners in the tight little box of British poetry conventions. Now at long last there are lots of people doing it!
I love Coleshill, but even now, after three years of reading it, I still find it a very frightening book. It’s still very dark, very threatening.
It is, it’s a very unhappy book.
And if ‘light’ is the main recurring word in The Catch, then ‘grief’, ‘pain’, a sense of shock or terror, and knives – knives recur a lot – are the ‘main words’ of Coleshill.
I wonder about the locating of the books and poems. When Coleshill came out people were talking a lot about you having named your book after where you’d been living for a very long time, and suddenly the location was far more charged, despite a lot of Common Prayer and Rough Music having been written there too. The Catch, sadly, will be your last book written in Coleshill, because you’re moving house, but do you feel like that certain location has allowed you – since Common Prayer – to free the line a little, free-up your verse a bit?
I think it’s got less to do with the location than it has, I’m afraid, to do with pathetic fallacy. It’s undoubtedly true that seventeen years in Coleshill mean that ‘Coleshill’ became a psychological implement; something I could and did use to make a way through the world – both psychically and in practical terms. I used to love escaping London for this place that felt “clean” of all the networking and bitching of the workaday world.
It’s also true that – again, due to the pathetic fallacy! – when I’m happy the place looks beautiful and when I’m sad it looks lowering, and that sounds simplistic, but it’s also the truth. And it is true that I’m going to be all adrift when I move out this time. But it’s not automatically the case that I’m all adrift when I move. Like most people, I’ve tended to have bursts of writing that really develops when I’ve gone away for fellowships or sabbaticals or whatever: when I’m in a new and beautiful or interesting place that hyper-stimulates me all over again. Certainly my life is always psycho-geography, that is to say that I don’t separate a place from how I feel about it, and how I feel about it matters to me disproportionately much.
That used not to be a set of ecological concerns, but now I have strong feelings about what we might call ecological rights, partly because I have feelings about rights in general, but also because of having been surrounded, in Coleshill, by both good and bad farming practises, so I have strong views about what’s degrading certain parts of the environment.
There was a lot of work in Coleshill particularly of nightscapes, of night-driving, or evening travel. One of the recurring themes or templates in The Catch is that of the Aubade – the morning-song – which to me has always been a sign of poetic security. Fine, Larkin and Empson both wrote poems called ‘Aubade’ which are to do with fear, or departure, or threat, but the idea of waking up somewhere, to dawn, that is a sign of having found a home, found somewhere safe.
I think that’s true – to get up and go, you still have to have a starting-point that’s relatively stable. But also I used to write last thing at night in bed, a lot. Now I write first thing in the morning. It’s as literal a translation as that.
I was interested to see Declan Ryan reference Larkin in his review of The Catch for Ambit (April 2016), and that’s a very particular poetic strain to have identified, and an unusual one for you. We’ve talked in the past about the role that editing, reading and publishing other poets has had for you, with Poetry Review when you were editor of that, and now with Poem; how much does other people’s poetry impact on your own, from an editorial standpoint, but also from one of reading? Specifically how does reading poetry not from the UK, or not originally in English, factor in to all this?
Well, international writing is an unavoidable influence; but in a way that’s been there for a very long time. Before I edited Poetry Review I edited Orient Express, published poetry and prose from post-communist Europe only. And it’s no secret that I had a relationship with a Balkan writer for twelve years; and that just does have an effect. Even if I wasn’t physically in the Balkans, psychically I was. So much of my imagination was elsewhere.
And like many writers I need an ‘elsewhere’. And for those years I really had one, not just a geographical elsewhere but in my partner’s illness. It was such a deferred elsewhere. So pressing and so major that it became part of my ‘here’. So yes, all that informed just this sense of a tremendously open field in terms of poetics. In other words, not only do you have to try and find where you belong in British poetry, but also where you belong in international verse: and I think that I’ve always cared more about the latter, really. I don’t think that that’s gone away. But editing used to subsume so much of my working life, and now it doesn’t. Editing Poem is wonderful, but it’s very far indeed from being a full-time job, it doesn’t absorb my days. That’s a big shift for me.
Big shifts. A big shift in The Catch is the lack of punctuation, and of capital letters, and those formal restraints. I mean, you’re not doing it at the end of things that someone like e e cummings was doing it, or Crispin Best, where everything is lower-case, but it is a marked shift for you. What informed or encouraged that?
Punctuation is something that I’ve problematized for a long time. In Coleshill quite often there’s a dash to replace the ‘spottiness’ of punctuation. I mean, in prose I use colons and semi-colons all the time, but in poetry I was finding them too bureaucratic. Bill Merwin says that punctuation staples a poem to the page. I think for a long time I’ve felt, albeit in an incoherent way, that a poem should be song-like; should have a sort of clarity, a sort of line of song, line of thought, and shouldn’t need this other apparatus which is punctuation, but should make its sense. I’m not trying to do what Prynne, for example, does: where the verse is beautiful in an audibly lyric way, but I’m not sure what it’s engaging with. I want to do both – engage the ear and engage with what we might call subject-matter – and so, by side-lining punctuation, I get a sense of everything in the poem being connected and fluent, but perhaps not quite stable. That’s to say that I try to make each line into a unit of sense, and not have an awkward word like a conjunction at the end of a line. So I do have a sense of lineation’s being important. But the lineation doesn’t only replace punctuation. It’s something else, it’s more as if it steers this veering line, and allows you to play with how far you extend the sentence. But it’s not a word-puzzle game, it’s more… to track the connectedness of the world…
What you’re saying there about breath-length, and line-length that is responsive to or reliant on breath, that’s something that I think you share with Andrew Motion: he’s often very breath-based with these short, tight lines, but he’s also willing to let out the line if he’s handling reported or borrowed speech – something outside of his own breath, I suppose. Do you think that there’s a responsibility to the reader, to do with breath, and line-length? That you shouldn’t write a line that you can’t say all of in one breath?
It’s important to me because I’m quite asthmatic-y and bronchial. I can’t do pentameter for that reason. I simply can’t write a five-stress line, it just becomes dead, because I can’t say a pentameter line. (I am a fan of it in other people’s work, but I can’t make it “speak”.) I’m only comfortable with four stresses or fewer – ideally fewer. Two, three. So yes, I do very much think there’s a responsibility to the reader. I also think that all the information on how to read it should be there in the poem itself, in the scoring. The reader can simply follow the instructions on the page, the lineation is the sound. I don’t want to mystify in a poem. But I like that not necessarily difficulty, that radicalism through sound, which gives the poem an edge.
But I don’t want to be wilful, and I don’t want it to be a visible technique. I want poetic technique to be so incorporated that nobody notices what’s going on.
So on the one hand it exasperates me when people say ‘Oh, you’re writing ‘Free Verse’ – no I’m not – but on the other hand it’s a compliment because they haven’t noticed what’s actually going on; that there’s a regular pattern, either 3-2, 3-2, or 4-3, 4-3, or now it’s 2-2, 2-2: a regular number of stresses, plus all these other things to do with sense.
I found your rhymes more noticeable in The Catch.
I think that’s something to do with breath, with filling out the vowel. Also I’m using repetition a lot in The Catch, so there’s the sense of the full-chime. But Coleshill is actually a lot more rhymed: lot of slant-rhyme end-rhymes.
Going back to your sense of an Elsewhere, specifically that of illness. Illness, for better or worse, is a Sampsonian topic – it’s there a lot, whether because of an ill partner, or to do with the time you’ve spent working in healthcare. But in the past those parameters have often restricted and placed illness within a building such as a hospital or a care centre. With The Catch, illness seems literally rooted to the landscape, the natural world – that sense in poems like ‘Migraine’ of the illness reaching up out of the ground, or being transferred via the poet into the ground, or out of it. Have you detected a shift in the way that you write about illness? Has the natural world become so much of a presence in your writing that it’s become so routine – ‘animals going about their errands’ as one of The Catch’s pieces puts it – that any sort of problem, or illness, is inextricable from the world around?
Well, in this book the illnesses, largely, are not life threatening. I mean, the stroke in ‘Stroke’ could have been, but wasn’t. (It’s one of the things the book gives thanks for.) So they’re more incorporated, they’re less Sex-And-Death, they’re more just part of the givenness of embodied life. I feel that I’m much less theatrical about illness now than I was.
Right – has there been an unexpected ‘coming to terms with life’ crept in?
No! I’m just not writing about that illness anymore. I’m not writing about a particular person with a terminal diagnosis, because, although he’s still a dear friend, I’m not with him anymore: I’m with someone else, who’s living. “Choose life”, as it says at the end of Trainspotting: only I mean it for real, not sardonically. Not living with that continual daily grief just absolutely changes the division of my life, absolutely changes how much mind I’ve got spare to be, in a sense, not elsewhere, but to be ‘here’ instead.
Is there also the risk, I don’t know if you’ve done this, of using someone else’s illness – writing about someone else’s illness – as a personal laboratory to explore or reflect on your own feelings about mortality? Or do you feel like you have enough mortality whirling about you?
I do feel that, yes, I’ve got mortality whether I want it or not! But also, and maybe this is an awful thing to say, but you do feel terribly alive when grieving; and grieving is what coming to terms with a terminal diagnosis, as with the case of my ex-partner, is. You’re grieving for someone who’s still alive. And you want so much to be in life, but you’re in life and you’re also divided from someone by death, by their diagnosed death.
But it’s also more like the opposite. I’m more limited to the banal matter of my own life expectancy now, rather than this somewhat grand drama of the wrenching heart of life, that I used to be concerned with. I can remember that feeling but I don’t have that feeling, whereas before I had it all the time, and for a long time.
I should add that during all the years I worked in health care I was rigorous about not writing about the people I met there. I felt that would be voyeuristic and unethical in that new field we were developing. Now I think I was probably too hard on myself; I silenced this terrific topic I was working with every day! But I also still think I was right.
Maybe this plays into that: with Coleshill there was a lot of you using recognisably Christian language; grace, Christ, things like that, and to a certain extent that has been present since Common Prayer, but with The Catch I’ve detected a lessening of the liturgical aspect, less use of that language. Again, a conscious choice, on your part?
Yes, that’s true. Again, it’s not a sort of reaching-beyond, but just the what’s-here. I’m not using borrowed language, and I’m not layering. It’s not such a Modernist book! I think that Coleshill, Common Prayer, and probably The Distance Between Us (Seren, 2005), whatever their strengths and weaknesses, are extremely Modernist projects. They problematise the lyric direction, or stretch the lyric direction – which is what every book should do anyway.
There was a lot of moaning and whingeing when you wrote your map of the UK poetry world, Beyond the Lyric (Chatto, 2012) about what people saw as you proscribing categories. The difference between your more stridently Modernist projects, and something like The Catch, might lead people to think that you can just move between those categories at will or whim. Did you find the writing of Beyond the Lyric creatively helpful, or did it give you more a sense of where you were on that map? You didn’t include yourself in the book, of course.
If anyone had actually bothered to read Beyond the Lyric, they’d have seen that it was actually doing the opposite of the very strategy that it was being accused of. The book actually making the case for – and states this explicitly, over and over – celebrating and welcoming many ways of going on, as a poet. That’s how I edited at Poetry Review, too: I let in diversity. I also let in lots of emerging talent, at pre-first book stage, and I think the two were related. I could hear how good they were because I had got used, through all the international stuff, to hearing lots of different kinds of poetics. Beyond the Lyric actually says that we should read poems for what they do and not what they don’t – Rather than failing to do ‘X’, they’ve succeeded in doing ‘Y’ – it actually says that… But of course the poetry world can be so disgusting, and frankly abusive… To the things themselves – and by that I mean poems, good poems, not the bad behaviour that will always be some part of human enterprise.
And with the freer form, with the happier form of The Catch, it’s clear that you have made a step away from that tight-knit, bitchy approach to things, partly through choice, but also through the certain freedom that saying fuck-this-for-a-game-of-soldiers buys you, with institutions. J. M. W. Turner is always my go-to on this: once he’d been savaged by the art world for his ‘Slave Ship…’ painting, he was able to do what he wanted, was able to be freer and less restrained. People are always going to bitch and moan, but fuck ‘em, bluntly.
One of the more obvious departures from Poetry ™, in The Catch, for me was the lack of a sonnet sequence. Sonnet sequences have always been a really important part of a lot of your books. Have you lost interest in sonnets?
Haven’t lost interest, just haven’t got any to do at the moment!
They have become terribly, well, ‘in’, recently, sonnets…
Well quite. I think you can do something for too long. And I think that there are people who do. It’s also to do with a book being an era of writing, for me, and this era wasn’t one which had sonnets in, simple as that. I’m still interested in other people’s sonnets, but at the moment I haven’t got anything to do with the sonnet form. I haven’t got a feel for it, I suppose. There isn’t a particular exploration that sonnet form suggests to me at the moment.
And The Catch is different, for me, because, well, it’s a happy book! And a happy book that’s been a long time coming. And it makes me realise ‘Wow, people who live happy lives – god, they’re free, aren’t they!’ They have all this scope, all this psychic energy, this not-having-to-constantly-cope-with-stuff, so they have all this freed-up energy to put into their writing. Imagine what that would be like, imagine having that kind of life: the ‘normal’ amount of support when you’re emerging, the ‘normal’ amount of support when you’re mid-career, and your life doesn’t go disastrously wrong at any point… It’s sort of unimaginable, but of course, many people have that – probably most people who make a go of things have decent luck at some point in their lives. And of course, we’re living in peacetime, in the West. So really, no need for people to make it difficult for each other… is there?
But happiness doesn’t write white.
Happiness doesn’t write white. People who say that haven’t had long periods of crappiness in their lives; they don’t know how hard it is to keep going, to manage the shit in your life and also carry on writing.
Is writing, at the end of the day, most often a declaration of survival?
Yes, it is. It’s saying ‘I’m still here’, isn’t it? And incidentally, that was always my argument for writing in health care: not that it’s therapeutic, but that it makes the individual back into an agent… what we used to call a subject.