Leah Fritz talks to Fiona Sampson about being a concert violinist, a poet, an editor and more …
and about trying to “get it right” in everything
LF – When, because of your extensive and impressive accomplishments, I dubbed you a ‘Renaissance Woman’, you came back at me claiming to be just a ‘nerdy specialist.’ Perhaps at the moment you consider just one art – poetry – to be your speciality, but you are actually expert in several. For one thing, you began as a concert violinist. This was early on, wasn’t it – before you entered Oxford? Fill me in on that a little.
FS – I played the violin when I was younger, left school at sixteen, went to music college, won prizes, entered the profession as a chamber musician. It was, looking back, a wonderful and innocent life. As I’ve said many times, classical music was then, at least, a meritocracy. People (promoters, prize-givers) didn’t want to be shown up by bad performances but they wanted to be associated with good ones. I like that kind of transparency and concentration on the thing itself. It frees you up – it makes for a very creative atmosphere.
I had wonderful, wise, distinguished, charismatic violin professors; and through several key years of secondary school an English teacher who was very down on me. So it was a no-brainer. Young people – people, really – are like water. We flow in the direction we need to, but we take the route of least resistance. Had my English teacher been kinder my life would have been different: but then I would have missed out on music, and that really was a joyous experience.
But my mother tongue, as it were, is language. I had to take the difficult step of acknowledging that and becoming truer to myself, even though it was tricky in practical and worldly terms.
LF – The discipline required for a musician is perhaps greater than that required in any other art – the hours and hours each day of practicing, for one thing. Did that prepare you for the 18 books of prose and poetry you have so far written, the 60,000 poems you had to consider annually as editor of Poetry Review, your lectures, translations, your workmanlike approach to so many commitments? I’m not flattering, Fiona; if anything, I’m understating. Tell me how you fit it all in, and with such excellence.
FS – Actually, I think you are flattering, Leah, but it’s true that the discipline I learnt then came straight into the self-discipline I practice now. It’s not about “not having a life”. But it is, for me at least, about accepting that to do anything as well as one can requires pushing oneself to the limit. We don’t think it’s weird when athletes do this: we can see their bodies and their achievements are the result of almost superhuman effort. But, in whatever you do (being a good mum, playing the violin…), unless you do push yourself there will always be some part of yourself which you haven’t bothered to realise. This doesn’t matter if you’ve no longing for the perfect text, the absolutely faithful interpretation, the best possible start in writing life for your students. But if you have that longing, you can’t forgive yourself for all the occasions when you’ve said “That’ll do”…
And after all, you don’t just fail yourself. I feel strongly that all judging, teaching and editing must be done painstakingly and with the utmost attention. If you can’t be bothered with encouraging other people and their work, don’t take public (or even private) money to perform that role. If you care about poetry, then care about “getting it right” in every intervention in what we could call the Body Poetic. (This is not about getting it right all the time; but it is about trying to all the time!)
LF – I’d like to move on now to your poetry. One of your admirers said she believes you are the finest poet of the first decade of this century. I gasped at this remark, but reading though your collections as I have been doing now, I think perhaps she’s not far off the mark. Immediately, in your first full collection, Picasso’s Men (Phoenix, 1993) – you were 25? – I was struck by your candour and delicacy in a group of erotic poems. The narrative, ‘Flying Nude’, about an attempted rape, begins:
‘The man chasing her runs low like a rabbit,
smelling her salt on each tree,
seeing the flash of buttocks in the pale lichen
that blots the forest floor.
She runs with knees akimbo – a spindly, round
woman, her breasts push in front, her hair
flies back. She flies like an angel. Oh
her face exclaims Oh the song of terror.’
It ends: ‘…The woman longs, agape, for the lamplight// that will yellow her skin/ when she curls up like a child/ who tastes of honey,/ tucks away her parts.’
In ‘Lady of the Camelias’ you write: ‘…// ‘where the small white youth/ files mummy’s nails/ with all the damp frenzy/ of his ardour/ for voluminous net knickers blossoming/ nightly in his// dreams/ like camellias.’
The elements of surprise and recognition (knickers like camellias? yes, of course); (‘oh the song of terror.’) marked your early poems. I find that unexpected juxtapositions in real life often awaken my muse, but you unearth rare images to clarify the ordinary. Was it seeing these unlikely parallels that awakened you to poetry?
FS – Actually, what awakened me to poetry was the splendour of ritualised language: the liturgy encountered in weekly church attendance; the stagey beginning of Under Milk Wood, read by our charismatic headmaster in my Welsh village primary school; Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and Browning’s ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’, both of which I found, when I was about nine, in a text book that had been left in my form room desk, and which I used to read furtively to alleviate the boredom of morning registration – doing so with a wonderful sense of transgression and glamour. Poetry became associated, for me, with wooden benches or pews, mild bodily discomfort, smells of dust and ancient chewing-gum. Perhaps it still is…
And imagery: I resort to it to articulate thought, mood, emotion: I always have. I notice I use pictorial metaphors quite often when teaching (or thinking) philosophy, for example.
LF – Moving further into your oeuvre, I find sonnets that are not in traditional form but that are recognisable as such and, more importantly, work as poems. And then there is your free verse with their particular spatial arrangements – spaces to breathe in?
In Common Prayer (Carcanet, 2007) there are two sonnets I find especially intriguing. The first precedes the long title poem and is called ‘Take, Eat’. It compares kissing to praying, and determines that the same mouth does both; therefore, I assume, they are both holy in your eyes – yes? You italicise:
‘I’m yours alone. Nothing else
could mar my devotion. Self,
ambition, fall away here. See,
my praying mouth vouches for me –
Over and over the lips part.
In shy darkness they lie, they gasp.’
‘The Dream of Monstrance,’ the sonnet which precedes the long poem, ‘Scenes from the Miracle Cabinet,’ is more regular in its rhymes and off-rhymes, and in a few lines recalls Michael Donaghy to me:
like street lights straining a spacious sky
Now – angle
your gaze along this, till you meet
whatever travels the other way;
And in that longer poem I hear echoes of T. S. Eliot, of course:
‘My metaphysics of presence –
that I am, I am
in the mirror
inside the miracle cabinet
of the lift –
Leaving a fingerprint on the pane
between here and here,
I say ‘of course’ because there is no way to write a modern or post-modern philosophical Christian poem without harking back to ‘Ash Wednesday’ and ‘Burnt Norton,’ et al. But all your poems are nonetheless quintessentially Sampsonian… Still, this is perhaps the moment to ask the question about your influences. So…?
FS – The T.S. Eliot of the Quartets remains for me the exemplar: at least for writing since then, in English. I know that poetry should be at ease with a more unified version of itself – the lyric tradition – and that a drier, wittier tone after Auden is also desirable. These are things I respect and often enjoy profoundly. But nothing moves me – nothing speaks to the universe of my own experiences and questions – quite like late Eliot, and the sources he draws upon. I’m a pretty massive fan of the Geoffrey Hill of Tenebrae, too. I love a lot of Ted Hughes – after having had a long falling out with his bonier work – and for the last many years my pantheon has also included Czeslaw Milosz, Vasko Popa, Yehuda Amichai, Mahmoud Darwish, C.P Cavafy, Tomas Transtromer…
These are all men, I hear you say. And so they are. I enjoy being stimulated (as a reader!) by the sex that has had the whole resources of poetic identity (not to mention education, even literacy…) for so much longer than our own. Of course there have been innumerably more of them doing it well: they had the opportunities! It’s the problem of Shakespeare’s sister, as Virginia Woolf pointed out not so far off a century ago. So these poets show us some of the resources of poetry… and I’m like Elizabeth Bishop only in the sense that I want to write as a poet, not as a woman poet. My dream would be the ability to do everything poetry can do.
But I am a woman poet, and very happy and proud to be one; and I also read galleries of women, having different readerly crushes at different times. And this feels like reading my own language, no question about it. So here are some of those much more intimate influences: Bishop, Moore, Plath, Sexton, Jennings, Carson, Graham, Gluck, Pegeen Kelly, Ryan, Stainer, Hill (Selima), McGuckian…
LF – In connection with Common Prayer, I notice that you have recently been in conversation with, interviewing and reading with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in his other incarnation, as a poet. It appears that you have things in common besides prayer (if I may). One issue of Poetry Review under your aegis was entitled ‘Poetry and Spirituality’ – although of course spirituality comes in many guises, not always Christian or even religious. Would you comment on the connections between your poetry and Christianity, if any?
FS – I am (at the moment) a post-Christian poet. It’s true that recent life events have pushed me back towards some sort of religious take on the world. When we’re wronged, we long for the truth to have the last word, and that’s one of the things the idea of a God can promise. “God is not mocked” is the Christian version of this but I think it’s deeply embedded in every religion – indeed, every metaphysics. A metaphysics is a kind of existential bottom line, isn’t it?
At the same time, I’ve always felt a kind of glorious immanence in things. The sky! Light (anywhere, in fact)! That sense that things are more than the sum of their parts… it is a happy thing, even if it’s just a short-circuit in the brain. It’s also a kind of modesty. I’m quite a believer in knowing one’s limits. I can’t make the world in my own image, however much positive thinking I go in for… I am not the centre of the universe.
LF – Your most recent collection is Rough Music (Carcanet, 2010), the title a term which you translate into several languages and define as a kind of bullying or, in American (my native language), ‘riding rough-shod’ over someone. These poems were written, I assume, in a difficult period for you, and about which I won’t ask. Although they assay a variety of subjects, here you are most yourself, I feel: It’s as if you have come home. The last poem in the volume, ‘The Hare’, is a sumptuous sonnet that metaphors the whole tragic story in its 14 lines, but it is in ‘First Theory of Movement’ that I find a resolution:
‘Wishes and complaints
tumble together on a bed.
And it is spring,
the evening at the shore
where lilac’s in green bud
and behind sea-facing windows
a little skin is bared – ‘
You have at last come home, have you not, Fiona?
FS – Well… remember that this is a poem set in Estonia! What does that tell us, I wonder, about how at home I feel – when I’m at home?
My new book, Coleshill, out in March (2013), is named for my village, which might suggest some real home-coming. …Except that “my” Coleshill is a piece of psycho-geography, more ‘Wild Wood’ than Country Life. It’s pretty dark, and wild. I think that’s where I live, in the liminal and slightly culturally disobedient territory of a writing practice (and probably a life) that is trying harder to be authentic than to be fashionable.