The Write Out Loud interview: Fiona Sampson
Leading poet Fiona Sampson talks to Frances Spurrier.
It's a concern of some magazine editors that there are many people writing poetry but not enough people reading it. Do you agree?
Poetry Review gets 60,000 submissions annually. It has 4,000 subscribers. Why is this? Most people have literacy, most people can write. So everyone thinks they can write poetry. It is like photography. If I take a photograph and it comes out OK, I think There’s nothing much to this, I could be a photographer. Of course, that’s not true. Not everyone who plays occasional football for fun will get to play at Wembley, nor do they expect to. The problem’s not with quantity but with attitude: hear the difference, have curiosity, read poetry, recognise the rules, do the hard work.
It seems to me that poetry is getting a bit of a raw deal in schools. I have read that many teachers at secondary level are afraid to teach it, feeling they don't understand it well enough themselves. Do you think contemporary poetry raised the bar in some way for poetry educators?
I don't think the problem is contemporary poetry. When I was at school we were taught Heaney, PJ Kavanagh and the dead poets. I think there is a vicious circle involved here. Teachers lack confidence because they didn't encounter poetry themselves and there is a lack of confidence about poetry in society in general. Poetry in school should be encountered through pleasure, in its truth, humour and qualities of language. Poems should be experiential. Young people do not have to be educated to the music they love - choosing it is tribal, part of their self-definition. For the few teenagers who do find poetry for themselves, it may be equally part of the self, but this happens much less often.
Do you think westernisation (advertising, profits before all, collecting stuff, X Factor) affects our ability to read and therefore to write in general, but poetry especially. In other words, have we blunted our own sensibilities with too much getting and spending?
Laying waste our powers? Yes. This is definitely true. We’ve changed our emotional metabolism and powers of concentration and can no longer dwell on things. If we can't dwell then we can't go further into the moment or experience. I do think we have become dumbed down. By that I don't mean we’re less intelligent, but that we have become more impatient. I do believe that in schools everyone should be taught the canon. It is not elitist to teach that certain writers can be thought of as amazing - to present that as a fact. There seems now to be this awful 'apologeticness' surrounding our presentation of music, art and literature in general. It is a massive own goal, for effectively this is saying to young people - don't be amazing. We should remember that teens are bored in class anyway - so why be afraid to equip them with experiences that will last a lifetime, just because in the short-term they’d probably rather do something they can think about while texting under the table?
Following on from these questions, I wonder if, with increasing economic hardship and political instabilities around the world, people are seeing poetry as increasingly irrelevant. Yet many of the finest poets (Neruda, for example) came from politically unstable countries.
Yes, I believe political instability can generate poetry. Being in extremis is a great head-clearer! I think good poetry does not arise from false consciousness - by which I mean not being honest with oneself. Besides, poetry is a very inexpensive form of entertainment!
One of your great interests has been poetry in healthcare settings. Can you talk a bit about this work?
When I was a musician I became involved with music in hospitals. Classical musicians tend to believe that music connects with a spiritual part of the self. Later I became writer-in-residence for a health authority. I think poetry is the highest form of discourse to which we have access; it is no coincidence that it is used widely at weddings and funerals. Following this idea, I believe it is relevant for people who are ill, institutionalised, etc – again, people who are in extremis.
What would this involve in practice?
Poem posters, hospital radio poems, workshops with a loosely evoked theme; using poetry as a way to talk about things. I was involved with these groups for 12 years. In my work as editor for Poetry Review, if I am uncertain or hesitating about a poem, I still test it against those healthcare and community groups and their reactions. What would they have thought of it? Pretentious or genuine? They always knew the difference. That is why I am fearless about the risk of elitism in my work as an editor. Having worked in prisons, in hospitals, alongside people with disabilities, I know these people were moved by the real thing, and only the real thing.
In your book Poetry Writing, The Expert Guide, in the shape-shifting section, you discuss writing haiku. Haiku is sometimes used as a “way in” to poetry for teaching because it’s short but of course it's a difficult form to write well. Do you feel contemporary writers should study the haiku masters perhaps a little more than they do?
Honestly, no! It is a very hard form to translate into English. The sensibility of the haiku is about being very limpid and still - and this seems almost impossible to reproduce in English.
This brings me on to translation. You have translated Jaan Kaplinski's Evening Brings Everything Back and The Soul Descending, which is in his new Collected Poems from Bloodaxe. There is a wonderful lyricism to his poetry. What are the main issues facing the translator of poetry, apart from needing to speak the language?
I co-translated this work, ie worked from a rough translation into English done by the author. I do not speak Estonian! Nor do I speak Hebrew but have also translated two books from that language. Translating is not so much about linguistic fluency. In fact, a little learning can be a dangerous thing. Linguists don’t have the original literary sensibility, nor a complete hinterland of cultural being, even if fluent. It is like the person who regularly visits a foreign city, stays perhaps in the same hotel, visits people and places, believes he knows that city. He does not. Instead, literary translation involves questioning every word, over and over. Taking each thing step by step. For example, in Hebrew “living water” means just fresh water. It has no biblical or spiritual connotation that such a phrase might have in English. Translation is about trying to get a glimpse of what it was that excited you about the work. About trying to keep the note right. Translating reminded me of my work with the healthcare groups. Asking, and trying to divine, what someone really means by the unusual things they say.
Many readers and users of the Write out Loud website are interested in performance poetry. Although not everyone sees a distinction between performance poetry and written poetry, do you agree that there is such a distinction, given the oral traditions of poetry and storytelling?
Given those oral traditions, no. All poetry is performance poetry. There may be the occasional exception (eg, concrete poetry which is designed to be seen on the page) but it is the exception that proves the rule. There are particular kinds of performance emerging at the moment - by that I mean that performance poets are producing texts which may be incomplete without the author's performance of them. But authors have always performed their own work. Where a text can survive the author, then it is just a poem. For example, British Caribbean poetry in the l980s was closely related to the oral tradition but also lived on the page. I refer to the work of Grace Nichols, John Agard, James Berry. But now poets are forced to choose. If they want to use that folk, oral tradition, they have to distance themselves from the rest of poetry and I think that is a shame. Any dilution reduces the amount of creative energy in the art form. Poetry is very largely to do with sound, music and rhythm. It is an out loud form.
Tomas Tranströmer has recently received the Nobel prize for literature. The judges said that "through his condensed, translucent images he gives us a fresh access to reality". Is that what all poets should attempt to do?
Not necessarily. Poets have different ways of giving us “fresh access to reality”. Tranströmer’s poetry is wonderful in that way, other poets are wonderful in other ways. For example, the work of Czesław Miłosz is generous, urgent and beautiful, not condensed or translucent at all.
Your collection Common Prayer (Carcanet) was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize in 2007 and a poem in it for the Forward single poem prize. Your new collection Rough Music (Carcanet) was shortlisted for both the TS Eliot prize and the Forward prize in 2010 for best collection. If I'm right there's somewhat of a search for ancestral voices going on in your work - links to myth and spirit. In your own work what would you say are the main influences?
Metaphysics in general is very important to me. I am very interested in first things. Who are we. What are we doing? The mystery of being human. I am always trying to write about the nature of experience, to clothe abstract thoughts in concrete metaphors. My starting point will usually be an abstract thought about being in general. For example, in Common Prayer, I use longer poems to examine notions of 'home' and what is home, homeliness. Whereas Rough Music is more from the music outwards. Much tighter and more formal. Every book I've written is very different from the previous book. Once I've finished a book I really feel that I have finished with that approach and must start again with the whole question of poetry. I never arrive at a place where I feel, That's it, I understand what poetry is. Or else it becomes a trick, feels emptied out.
So do you believe in the writer’s voice?
I think there is one but would like to get rid of it! I look for a music that's working. CK Williams said that he couldn't write a poem until he had the music. This is not just about rhyme or meter, but a kind of grammatical logic.
Who are your poetic heroes/heroines?
TS Eliot is huge for me. And Milosz - a truly great poet of witness. Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva: they took up the burden of meaning-making in terrible times and didn’t ask for any concessions because they were women – so we as readers don’t have to expect less of them because they were women.
Fiona Sampson’s most recent books include a new edition of Percy Bysshe Shelley for Faber (2011, Poetry Book Society Book Club Choice) and Music Lessons: The Newcastle Poetry Lectures (2011). She is published in more than 30 languages, and has been shortlisted twice for both the TS Eliot Prize and Forward prizes. She works as a translator and editor (her A Century of Poetry Review was a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation), and is currently Distinguished Writer at the University of Kingston. Her critical survey of contemporary British poetry, Beyond the Lyric (Chatto) appears this September, and her next collection, Coleshill, also from Chatto, in January 2013.
Photograph: Adrian Pope