Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
LIDIA VIANU -- FIONA SAMPSON
I’m aware that my writing doesn’t belong to any particular school. But this is involuntary.
Interview with FIONA SAMPSON (born 1963), British poet and editor
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: You are the editor of a singular literary review in London, entitled Orient Express, in memory of a pre-war Europe, almost nostalgically. As you say in its preface, ‘The lingua franca of Europe after communism, the new Latin, is English.’ I say singular because you publish Eastern European writers at a time when they are no longer the latest fashion. You publish them for their literary, not political value. Besides your PhD in the philosophy of language, you are also an expert on the literature of post-communist Europe. How have you become one? Why? Why this review?
FIONA SAMPSON: I can’t explain exactly why Central Europe feels like my cultural centre of gravity. I know it has something to do with my first life, as a violinist. Up until my mid-twenties I worked as a soloist and chamber musician – in fact I studied briefly in Salzburg – and part of my total immersion in that world – an immersion that was necessarily physical, emotional, mental – was an understanding that the cultural heart of Europe was somewhere between Vienna and Budapest. A long way from Bucharest: but equally far from Paris. As from London.
To be a violinist was to be in a kind of condition of cultural displacement – not exile, that would be too strong a term – and to have, probably even to enact, a sense of meaning’s originating elsewhere. But that, in the end, is what being a performer is like. The meaning is always elsewhere, and you turn towards it. I wanted to be a meaning-maker. That sounds hubristic, but I meant it in quite a local way! I wanted to make my own meaning. Which is probably why later, in my research, I found philosophies of language which allowed me to think of language use, of poetry-making, as making a way through the world.
All the same, if I’ve managed to work round to my own ways of thinking and working since the time when I was a violinist, I might have been expected to lose this somewhat blind, migratory sense of the significance of Central European culture. But: I recently met the Austrian painter Johann Julian Taupé and was struck by the way he used ‘serious’ to mean ‘important, valuable’. That attitude – that orientation towards what’s difficult, what’s more than cultural surface – probably encapsulates Central European culture and thought for me.
I started working with writers from this region when I ran an international poetry festival in Wales, 1995-9. And then later when I was Director of a trust with a big literary translation programme (1999-2001). I began to be invited to the countries we worked with; and like many before me I was simply seduced by South-Eastern Europe. Why? A hundred years ago it might have been Italy; sixty years ago, Spain. I am, after all, a Northerner: and I grew up in Wales, that small rainy country facing away from Europe across the Atlantic. I think we tend, we Northerners – if we have any sense of the solipsistic dangers of staying home – to experience those countries of the South, where a sophisticated, old culture is nevertheless open to the sunlight, as something like stepping out of Plato’s Cave. Culturally, much is the same (though much is different too) but we see everything, including our own work, differently. Perhaps more clearly?
Orient Express itself was first thought up at a British Council conference in Constanta in Autumn 2000. Key co-conspirators were the poet Denisa Comanescu, translators Irena and Elena Radu; and, from Serbia, Rasa Sekulovic. None of whom wanted the continuing work of being Editor. Then there was the long haul to get funding, which is why the magazine took two years to be launched. But: you’re right to say that my own interest is in literary rather than political value. I am a writer, not a politician: and think that ‘reading’ texts as literary writing is a basic form of respect for often-extremely distinguished colleagues from the countries OE covers. Countries whose literary culture enthuses me. And something else: though there are many aspects of recent European history one would be a fool or worse not to condemn, there are many other aspects of recent social and political experience – including revolution and war – on which I strongly believe no-one who has not experienced them should legislate. This too is a kind of respect.
LV. Your lines are both clear and loaded with ambiguity, as good poetry should be. But clarity is a sign of your respect for the reader. I take this respect for the reader’s understanding to be a major sign of Desperado literature. Writers have got tired of Eliotian or Joycean encodings. They want their audience back, and now they have it. Is this a reason why you write with such apparent simplicity (even though you hide unbelievably sophisticated emotion)?
FS. Well, this is a difficult question to answer because you already have! I’m very glad you mention this – perhaps – tension between emotion and ‘straight’ surface. Again, there must be something about music here. I find I need a poem – whether in free or formal verse – to shift into completion in a way which always has something to do with rhythm. Sometimes I resist this. The ‘dying fall’ of tunefulness could be a seduction, a falling-short of what a poem might otherwise have come to. And yet: I do and always have read for voice, for texture. This applies to novels too. Probably comes from my school years, when I read my way round the Municipal Library, guided by only a rudimentary sense of ‘having heard of’ some authors. I had to make my own mind up about what I read: and had a strong sense that some books were hard to read – sticky, gloppy – because they were badly written. Whereas the ‘Real Thing’ – whatever its diction, and I do include the Modernists in this – had a kind of directness. Maybe charisma. Maybe mastery. Something, anyway, to do with unchallengeability. So of course I aspire to that. And, also because of that history of autodidacticism, I do believe in The Reader – not just The Ideal Reader – their responsiveness, their intelligence and their significance.
LV. Some Desperadoes resort to autobiography in their poems, others reject it firmly. In fiction it is just the same. This is an ancient issue, but it is somewhat more obvious now: most Desperadoes are unashamed of their lives and make that the web of their literature. You are one of those – within limits – and I just wonder what you feel about those writers who claim they prefer masks, imagination, trips into other lives, anything but self-revelation?
FS. Which brings me on to this question. Yes, again I agree with your analysis of what I’m doing. I have a horror of the Ivory Tower. I quite violently dislike poetry which seems to me to be playing by itself or to itself. Poems about conceits – chemistry can be a metaphor! feminism comes to the farmyard! – whether narrative or not. – And then? I want to ask. Surely we should use chemistry/the farmyard as a metaphor on the way to something? It’s the same with the play of masks/roles/post-modernities. These things can surely be rich – I note how much I’m enjoying characterization in the verse-novel – but not as topical ends in themselves.
In fact I struggle to repress the idea of immorality! It’s not only that, if we want there to be a place for the poet in society, we have to take (on) that place. It’s that, I’m afraid I feel, people in every society deserve to have a poetry. This is partly the result of my earning my living, for years, pioneering the use of writing in health and social care. Creative writing and reading: including with people with no literacy, people with profound learning difficulties, people with mental health problems. Who have no difficulty responding to the most challenging, the most profound poetry; and who want to read and write it.
…Of course this isn’t the same as being populist!
LV. A poem like Hotel Boulevard betrays your having seen Romania. You publish Romanian poets in your review. How did you come to know Bucharest, what do you think of Romanian literature?
FS. … Though one British reviewer thought it was a poem set in a Spanish resort. Hurrah for close reading!
Yes, as you guessed I do like Bucharest a great deal. The nineteenth century residential districts: the squares and odd junctions where children play and there are trees; the smell of linden everywhere in the centre; the way everything is displayed on the pavement – the girls strolling (with that kind of arrogance), the stray dogs, the kiosks – as if everything is lived out there. The churches. Magda Carneci told me once that the reason Orthodox churches are so small and dark – womblike – is that they reflect the Orthodox God, who is already there, loving and protective whatever the faithful do: unlike the gothic Catholic God, who must be moved by prayer, supplication. I like the sense of protection Orthodox churches give me.
But I’ve only been twice (so far). Once when I was scouting for writers for the literary trust I mentioned, in the summer of 2000; once en route to a British Council conference in Constanta that autumn. On that occasion I spent a little time in the city and read at the Literature Museum with Ioana Ieronim and Saviana Stanescu.
Romanian literature: a big topic! I haven’t found my way into the fiction so much: I’m not so enthused, as we’ve already discussed, by the more mannered post-modernisms. Certainly not where it becomes a cliché. But the poetry! You have so many extraordinary poets at the moment. I think first of all of the women: Ana Blandiana, though I confess I prefer her on the page, where I can give her poems my own mental voice; Liliana Ursu; Denisa Comanescu who’s not, I think, writing so much at the moment – I suspect her of modesty; Grete Tartler; Mariana Marin; Nina Cassian; Ioana Ieronim – I love her Triumph of the Water Witch for its intensity and movement allied with concrete detail; the hugely prolific and charismatic Magda Carneci; Herta Muller who’s now in Berlin; Diana Manole who’s now in Toronto. And then Mircea Cartarescu, Liviu Stoiciu, Augustin Pop… it’s hard to know where to stop. Impossible to generalize: but there’s an energy and richness in all this work which is absolutely engaging. I mean, too, that what might be free-floating surrealism on the one hand or scenes from daily life on the other seem to be anchored – to each other? – so that instead there’s a metaphorical, transformative range which is absolutely rigorous and worked for.
LV. Love is a grave mood with you. The poignancy is veiled by meditation, and you place a certain distance between yourself and pain, between your lines and the reader’s sympathy. Desperado writers – poets and novelists – smash love into particular emotions, migrate from lyricism to memory. Unlike them, here, you are preeminently lyrical. Whether love or compassion, your lines communicate feeling overtly. Your ambiguity lies in the quality of images, not in the attempt to conceal experience. Is writing a diary to you? A refining of experience into concentrated but mainly accessible words?
FS. No, I wouldn’t say writing is like a diary for me. I think the content of my writing has little or no function in my life. Which isn’t to say content’s unimportant to me: just that it belongs to an inner world of reflection. In which lines of thought go along somewhat independent rails from those of experience. Of course, everything that happens feeds one’s writing self. But at the very least, there’s a time-delay before I find I can write about something which has happened to me. But I do find writing itself very calming. Very stabilizing. All the more so because it will be about something other than what’s going on in my life.
But you’re right about how love is with me: also about the distancing. What a burst of gratitude one feels on being read ‘right’ (as I’d claim)! I think the distancing happens because it’s at this moment – of reflection after the fact – in the cycle of an experience that it becomes ‘mine’. Somehow I’m not so interested in poetry which expresses an emotional state. I want to ask – so what? Tell us something we don’t know, show us something in a new light! It seems too easy to write stuff which isn’t mediated, isn’t shaped.
LV. How would you describe your ideal reader? What do you expect of him?
FS. At various times my ideal reader has been abstract; at others concrete. That’s to say, one particular individual I have in mind when I write, and to whom I will actually show the manuscript. The wider question is more interesting, but more difficult (of course!). Maybe it’s a little like being asked to imagine a god: some absolutely understanding, intelligent attention which is paid to each word. A being who is by definition right; whom one can trust.
At the moment I have two – let’s say mental readers. They’re both writers, of course. One, the British poet Tim Liardet, is an old friend. Our poetic enthusiasms are roughly similar, though it’s always painful when they diverge: if he doesn’t enjoy a poet I like, or if he has a phase of writing only in certain genres, for example. We’ve read each other’s work closely for five or six years now. The other is the Macedonian writer Aleksandar Prokopiev. He can’t read me so closely for language; but I would say he is very in tune with the project, the content, of what I write. Certainly, he’s my imagined reader for the verse-novel I’m working on now. Needless to say, both are writers whose own work I admire enormously. Both are also individuals I trust: I mean I trust them to be generous, not competitive: and to tell me what doesn’t work as well as what does.
LV. You have a PhD in philosophy of language. Has that changed your attitude towards words and has it helped you write? Has it made you choose poetry? You are currently writing a novel in verse. Is fiction more appealing than poetry?
FS. Poetry made me choose philosophy, rather than the other way round. Though of course that way of thinking – that training, and it really did feel as though my mind was being trained: quite painful and quite unlike the practice of literary criticism I’d come from – informs all the other thinking and writing I do. I started studying English as an undergraduate, but changed to PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) when I found I wasn’t able to explore ideas sufficiently. And yet I’d loved academic literary criticism: it felt exciting, heady, liberated. A paradox, probably one that’s central to my way of going on: freedom and adventure on the one hand, the importance of discipline and ‘doing it right’ on the other.
The ideas I’d wanted to explore had to do with the role of poetry. I wanted to find a way, other than the misty-eyed Leavisite claim, of arguing for poetry, especially the poetries I felt were the ‘real thing’. I wanted to think about what language does, how it inflects all our experiences. And what the heightened language – that’s to say, thought – of poetry might do. I found some particularly helpful ideas in late Wittgenstein and late Heidegger. Though I still use the tools – and ideas – I acquired or developed in thinking and writing on these topics when I want to address another practice – such as cultural translation – I’d say I don’t have the same fierce curiosity I had while studying: because I have found a way to articulate my experiences of language. Which is not to say I believe mine is the only way to do so!
Poetry has always seemed to me like the ‘real thing’: more profound, richer, more permanent than fiction. Which one could think of as weakened by anecdote. Of course that’s not the whole story: in Britain, the novel is seen as the serious literary form, partly because it’s considered to extend outwards from ‘the writer’ (narrator) into fictional character and action. Poetry is seen, even by many cultural critics, as marginal, perhaps narcissistic. This is compounded by the rise in serious critical reception of pop culture. It seems unhealthy to be always marginal in one’s own society: so last year I decided to write a novel, Night Map. The novel’s not yet out. But I enjoyed writing it – it seemed easier than writing poetry – and thought I’d like to capitalize on the experience. And I enjoy verse-novels. There are lots of very strong recent examples in English, as I’m sure you’re aware: Seth, Murray, Walcott, Raine, Carson… And I wanted to write in a longer form. If I hadn’t started work on the verse-novel I’m sure I’d be writing sequences. And I wanted to explore migration, distance, communication… All these things came together. But, unlike the novel, The Distance Between Us is the most difficult writing I’ve ever done. It requires the concentration of lyric verse, without offering the same chances for epiphanies. Much of the time is spent in redrafting which feels thankless, incremental and not at all poetic while you’re in the middle of it. But control of the whole structure as it emerges is important too…
LV. Who are your models, if any, and who are your contemporary friends? Desperado writers usually reject grouping. They are each his or her own trend. They are, however, blatantly similar in their dissimilarity. Do you feel you belong to any group or tendency?
FS. I’m aware that my writing doesn’t belong to any particular school. But this is involuntary. I’ve often wished it did! And when I started writing, I served myself an apprenticeship of modeling my work on writing I admired. I was influenced by Eliot’s idea that this is how the young poet starts out: half as an intimate reader. And I had a very rapid series of readerly intimacies, each lasting about three months, with a whole range of poets, from Roethke to Bishop, from Eliot to late Hughes. Now I still have occasional ‘reader romances’ when I discover someone new or become besotted by a book, even one I know well already (recently I spent a month in Spain, where I read Neruda’s One Hundred Sonnets and a collection of Tsvetaeva’s longer narrative verse, both in parallel text). Poets I return to over and over are Rilke and his inheritor Tranströmer; Milosz; Carver; Bonnefoy; Murray; and a whole group of North American women: Clampitt, Glück, Carson and Graham. Again, it’s hard to stop listing! But I will.
Who are my contemporary poet-friends? Well, in Britain they’re not so many: Tim Liardet (dreamlike, filmic), Douglas Houston (a powerful formalist), George Szirtes, Pauline Stainer (a unique meditative voice), Ewald Osers (poet and very distinguished translator), Michael Hulse (a prodigy in the ‘80’s and also now known as a distinguished editor, currently of Leviathan), the group of us who clustered round the magazine Thumbscrew, now defunct. I’m also happy and proud to be part of the rather European group on the website. Sue Stewart, Herbert Lomas. Novelists Patricia Duncker and Lynne Alexander. Some of these friendships are personal more than poetic. But in Europe my friendships are more clearly based on the work: the Finnish poets and writers Eira Stenberg, Kirsti Simonsuuri (different though they are), Lena and Vaino Kirstina; Estonian Jaan Kaplinski, who latest manuscript in English I co-translated with the author; in Norway the young but very poetic novelist Ingeborg Arvola; the Catalan poets Susana Rafart and Marguerita Ballester (a wonderful tradition: surrealism with the simplest of dictions); Anatoly Kudryavitsky, Muscovite living in Ireland, and Marina Palei, from St Petersburg and living in Rotterdam; Denisa Comanescu, Diana Manole, Ioana Ieronim, Magda Carneci (you know where they’re from!); the Hungarian Istvan Csuhai, formerly editor of Jelenkor, and his wife Anna Gacs; poet-essayist Marija Knezevic and translator and editor Rasa Sekulovic from Serbia; and then fiction writers Aleksandar Prokopiev (flamboyant postmodernist from Macedonia), Beverley Farmer (Australia) and Leslee Becker (USA). In the USA I also have an ex-student, from whom I hear only erratically and who hasn’t yet published. But who is an extraordinary and dedicated young fiction writer: Karin Bolender. Important to me in analogous ways are a group of academic friends in International Relations departments; and several visual artists. And, at Oxford Brookes, Steven Matthews (a formidable literary critic, and also one of my ‘readers’ of The Distance Between Us) and Rob Pope (well-known in English Studies for his work with critical re-writing; but with an eastern European perspective too) are, although I’m new in the Department, increasingly important allies.
This sounds like a long list (and I’ve probably left some people out) but I suppose it represents several things: a kind of supportive network; a constituency; people with whom one has so much in common it’s almost impossible not to be friends. We don’t email all the time – and some are more regular correspondents than others – but we do try to see each other when I’m in the various countries.
LV. Your sensibility quivers. You are so easily hurt. And yet your poems are so strong. Do you see yourself as a strong poet? A poet who can transmute personal pain into art and be happy because of it?
FS. This is very perceptive too! Yes, I think I am a strong poet: because I try not to let whatever happens compromise the poems, whether or not they’re directly about something difficult.
LV. Having read Folding the Real I realize I know next to nothing about your immediate experience. When were you born, what was your family background, what is your present life? What is your education, what brought you to poetry? Do you flirt with other arts as well?
FS. I was born in 1963, in London, and spent much of my childhood on the west coast of Wales, in Aberystwyth. As for education, well, by now you know about that: I left school at sixteen to pursue a career and studies – simultaneously – as a violinist. I didn’t go to Oxford till I was twenty-five, by which time I was already working as a writer. And you know about my career since then. Residencies pioneering writing in health care (all the time I was studying, in fact), and after a while Poetryfest and the development of some expertise in international writing, alongside a research career. I still publish books and go all over the place to lecture on writing in health care. Yet I never saw it as my key identity. And now I have a three-year Research Fellowship at Oxford Brookes University to write my verse novel, though the book will be finished before the Fellowship is. I live with my partner in countryside half an hour’s drive from the city of Oxford.
LV. Many contemporary poets give readings and one of them said that this was a way of survival for poetry. What do you think: is poetry going through a communication crisis? Is the computer screen going to prove stronger and win the battle? Can’t the internet help poetry, bring poets together and become an ally?
FS. I suspect that the screen will be an ally. The internet certainly is in my working life: look where my literary friendships are! E-mail is so literary: it’s immediate as a phone call (well, not always of course: some of my friends have intermittent access) yet it’s textual. You can write your phone call! You can attach drafts of the work you’re talking about, as soon as they’re finished. No more endless photocopying. E-mail makes a project like editing Orient Express possible. And I’m sure people bother to get in touch more because one’s accessible: look at you contacting me because I share a website with Ruth Fainlight! And – as I say in answer to question thirteen – I love using a computer and print out to ‘iron out’ my terrible typing, my hopeless handwriting.
In other words, I think the screen will be a tool for us, not a replacement of us. It’s a category error to think one precludes the other, really, isn’t it? Poetry and digital information processing just don’t do the same things… But all the same I love readings, and I love festivals where one meets lots of other writers. I love the sound of poetry, and I love the way a writer’s personality re-inflects their work when they read live. So I hope readings continue for a long time to come!
LV. Do you type your poems directly into the computer or do you need the feeling of pen and paper when you write? Eliot used to type. He said it made his lines more ‘staccato’. How do you write?
FS. I write poetry longhand, into a book with blank (not lined) pages. In fact one of my indulgencies is to buy A5 books of quite heavy white cartridge paper (often sold for artists’ use) to write on. And I use ink, not biro. With phases of pencil. Then I redraft on computer, print out, revise with ink on the print-out, go back to the computer, and so on. And so on. But I write prose straight onto computer and then revise in the same way. I’m so glad I missed the age of typewriters! I type quite fast but I don’t touch type and I make lots of mistakes. I definitely need the print-out: when there’s a page of printed text I find it much easier to read and judge. And I have terrible handwriting, so although I also seem to need the human process of holding a pen, it’s not much use if I’m writing prose.
Where I write matters to me too, though of course I’ve done it everywhere – on trains, in waiting rooms, in classrooms before students arrive, at the kitchen table. But, if I can choose, I like a table below a window – an open window, ideally. And no-one else in the room. At home I’ve a shed at the bottom of the garden. I’ve painted it blue, and put some books and a table and a heater in it, and the cats and I spend as much time as possible there.
LV. How would you characterize British poetry today?
FS. I’m afraid I’m not enthused as often by British poetry as I am by reading work in translation, or from the USA. It’s odd that that culture, which is even more globalised and ephemerised than ours in Britain, has managed to preserve some place for the poet as some sort of mandarin presence. I don’t of course mean that I prefer dead, ‘academic’ verse! But it’s a question of the role of the work.
We also seem sometimes to lack continental range. Instead of ambition in our work, there’s largely a kind of defensive miniaturization of concerns and possibilities. One of the great glories of contemporary Britain is its cosmopolitan character: if you get on the Tube anywhere in London, any day, you’ll hear more languages than you can recognize. A Jamaican will be sitting next to a Kurd and opposite might be a Bosnian, a Pakistani or someone from Saudi Arabia. And that’s just the people who live here: leave alone the tourists and business travelers. Yet we have very little sense of this linguistic and cultural scope in our poetry. True, we have some token presences, many of them poets with Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, but nothing like the scope of the novel, which is changing hugely under Indian, African, Chinese and even European influences. So: there are some wonderful poets in Britain today. But there are missed opportunities too.
Poets whose work I like a lot: John Burnside (lyrical, rhythmic, studied); Alice Oswald (Hughes’ inheritor); Menna Elfyn and Gwyneth Lewis from Wales; Michael Donaghy (okay, he’s American); W.N. (Bill) Herbert (prodigious invention); the big boys: Douglas Dunn, Geoffrey Hill and Tony Harrison.
This is of course to say nothing about Ireland, a country whose poetry is too rich and complex for me to even start on here!
LV. Is literary criticism any help these days? Do you have any sympathy at all for academic, scholarly criticism? Would you be prepared to agree that if criticism is not literature it should not exist?
FS. Hurrah for the sustained attention span of an academic critic. Certainly in the UK there’s a lot of ‘dumbing down’ of literary criticism, not in its diction but in the requirements critics have of poetry. Accessibility is a watch-word. Which seems odd, since it’s so very easy to think of examples of great poems which one hasn’t altogether ‘got’ at first reading. Critics are often dim about formal devices too. They simply don’t notice them, because they simply haven’t been trained in prosody. Whereas academic critics have.
There remains some controversy about the approach of theory in British academic criticism. Much of this is typical British pragmatism – also known as empiricism –: never mind the big idea, let’s stick to the safe ground of what’s in front of us. Of course, the problem with this approach is that the big ideas are there in front of us in and around every text. Still, I’m in favour of criticism which doesn’t systematize the work a poem or other primary text is doing: which allows it to live independent of that criticism. I’m in favour, in other words, of some theory in academic criticism: providing it doesn’t approach too close.
Oxford, 13 December 2002