I’m not and will never be local here: but I can belong in the sense of elective belonging.
NER poet Fiona Sampson,
photo by Ekaterina Voskresenskaya
Fiona Sampson talks with NER reader Sabrina Islam about belonging to place (while coming from “nowhere” herself), our current environmental tipping point, and eco-poetics. Her poems are part of the Contemporary British Poets feature in NER 41.2.
Sabrina Islam: Omar Sabbagh identifies the concept of “coming down” in your poetics. Your poem “Listen” begins, “Listen. Wind / is coming down / the hill in judgment / through the dark / it moves like a / new law.” What is the philosophy of “coming down”?
Fiona Sampson: Well, I’ve just published a collection called Come Down (Little, Brown/Hachette), so I confess I’m preoccupied by this trope. I have a vague image always at the back of my mind of two or three people—strangers, everyman and everywoman—coming down a hillside into a valley: it’s an image of arrival. The book begins my thinking about the country place I moved to four years ago: an old house (it may be thirteenth-century, in parts) in an old landscape. Thousands of years old. The bank of a Neolithic settlement runs through our orchard. There are Roman drainage works in the field opposite.
I’m not and will never be local here: but I can belong in the sense of elective belonging. And I do fit in to the succession of unrelated strangers who have come down into this valley to settle over centuries.
This matters—it has writerly “juice” for me—because human belonging to place matters in this world so much. And also because the countryside matters now more than ever, at our present environmental tipping point: I hope my rural setting doesn’t disguise how political I’m being. I hate the way the countryside, in Britain and Europe certainly, is appropriated for a predominantly white culture. There’s nothing intrinsically “white” about the natural world, or indeed the (subsistence) farming life. Also, it’s not all glossy recreational stuff. There are issues of rural poverty even in the west. On top of this, eco-poetics has to move beyond description to acknowledge our limited, human view onto the natural world. We need to keep digging through the archaeology of our relationship with that world: through myth and tradition and farming practices every bit as much as through species tracking and geology.
And finally, the visceral reason I’ve always been such a believer in elective belonging is that I come from nowhere myself. It was ironically an Irish Protestant writer, John Hewitt, who described himself as “not local here nor anywhere.” That’s me. I’m not an Irish Protestant, of course. But I am a nobody, who started life in care (do you say, as a looked-after child?) and was not brought up by my family. Two years ago I finally traced my Australian father. He had already died, but I suddenly had access to all the family stories of migration, dispossession, reinvention: the usual emigrant tragedies and triumphs. And so I found myself coming home to the fact of him and that half of my genetic self at the same time as learning to come home to this valley where I now live. Two very different ways of belonging—or of being disowned, depending on how you want to tell it. The book’s title poem, “Come Down,” is a single sentence, twelve-page, all-one-breath poem which shifts through these places and forms of identity.
SI: In your remarkably moving poem “From Zagreb” you write, “and if a train stops unexpectedly / you see late wasps return return returning / to a branch on the embankment as if / you only recognise the thing you know / already so that your life increasingly / returns to what you loved some first morning // and every place that’s loved too much decays.” If, as T. S. Eliot wrote, “home is where one starts from,” how do you justly respond to the impulse to venture negative capability?
FS: Thank you! I do think Eliot was wise to call poems “raids on the inarticulate.” I love that going just beyond what one knows, in the writing. That not looking direct at where your poem’s going, just keeping it there in the corner of your eye: that’s negative capability, isn’t it? A kind of leaving the door open for sleepwalking.
There are a million entry points to poetry, of course. As in Neruda’s “Poetry”: “And it was at that age . . . poetry arrived / in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where / it came from, from winter or a river.” Which always raises the hairs on the back of my neck.
For me it was the surplus of what is mysterious. In childhood I was carried away by church liturgy, in the old sixteenth-century language. One of the few beautiful things in a fairly plain suburban life. And—an unfashionable admission, but it’s the truth—there was Dylan Thomas. I grew up on the west coast of Wales, and Llareggub, or New Quay, was just a few miles away. When I was six, the teacher in the small local school read us the beginning of Under Milkwood. I didn’t understand a word but I was bowled over by what I now understand was sheer rhetoric: “To begin at the beginning. . . .”
SI: You’ve had a career as a concert violinist. In Lyric Cousins you locate a link between the big emotions—birth, love, death—and the abstract and sensory elements of language—its “singsong.” How has your experience as a performing musician shaped your understanding of language and poetry?
FS: Perhaps I’m particularly aware of the abstract, purely formal musical shapes of language. In Lyric Cousins I bang on about the phrasal unit, breath, music and poetry as chronologic arts, among other things. Incidentally, I’ve also been left with an abiding interest in technique. It should be absolutely there—and as invisible as possible, there not to be noticed but to be unnoticed.
SI: In the introduction to Limestone Country you write, “After all, how can we separate what a place is from what it is for us? Places are meanings as well as conditions.” Since we so easily associate ourselves with places, what is your process when you listen for the spirit of a place?
FS: This brings us back to the territory of Come Down, doesn’t it. I’m also interested in what I call radical attention: to the ecological, to the other—including someone in a position of discursive weakness such as a healthcare “patient”—and within the interpretive arts of musical performance, editing, and translation. We can’t ever escape our own viewpoint, but we can actively disengage from automatically valorizing it, and try to listen to what is difficult to hear.
SI: You recognize writing as a kind of exploration, where writers actively engage with their material in order to shape texts. Writing, you maintain, helps us to think for ourselves. When you work on poetry with users of healthcare services, do you witness writing decisions leading to “soul-making”?
FS: There’s less space and time in the structured hospital day for deep development than there is in a writing course of any kind, from residential week to MFA. First base is just the “in your own words,” disobedient and individual character of poetic writing. But yes, there have been amazing things it’s been a privilege to witness, perhaps particularly in working weekly with groups over the longer term, in mental healthcare units (psychiatric hospitals: not sure what you call them there) and with adults with learning disabilities. And also in hospice, where every last word in those last days of life counts.
SI: You’ve written a deeply thoughtful biography of Mary Shelley. You also have a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning forthcoming. What draws you to explore women in writing?
FS: Well, truthfully, I was invited to write about Mary Shelley: and that was because in preparing the Faber Poet to Poet edition of Percy Bysshe Shelley a couple of years earlier I’d written an introductory essay that seemed to resonate for some people. And indeed I found I loved writing In Search of Mary Shelley—loved trying to excavate that wonderful mind and its experiences—and so wanted to do more. There hasn’t been a solo, full-length biography of EBB, as Barrett Browning called herself, since Margaret Forster’s in the 1980s. Was that even published in the US? It’s delightfully told, especially about the earlier years, but was published before whole tranches of the correspondence were available. And EBB too has been half-obscured by myth. I felt she deserved revisiting as hugely influential writer. Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Browning, is in production now here, and Norton is publishing it in the States in early summer 2021.
I think we do write from what we know: and women writers, even in the nineteenth century, experienced some of the difficulties of soul-making, to use your term, that we—or I—still experience today. They offer us a way to work through those experiences again—and again. Also they are our literary foremothers and we—still it seems—need to work hard to keep that canon audible. Of course, every biography is partly a self-portrait. But I’ve tried to be aware of that and so limit somewhat the harm this can do a subject.
I don’t think I’ll do a third: at least, not for now. My next prose book is about the Romantic legacy in the countryside (again for Little, Brown). In the chapter I’m working on right now, I’m walking the Green Desert of Wales with Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Borrow.
SI: How does your sensibility as a poet inform your work as an editor?
FS: Well, I adored editing Poetry Review. It was the time when everything in my literary life made sense: there was a feeling of service, of trying to help keep the poetry community healthy, thriving and fair-dealing: and also there was this tremendous excitement and curiosity. I came in very much as someone from outside the London literary village. Indeed I couldn’t afford to move to London, and continued to commute during the seven years I served—but I always felt this was a strength. I felt that as the national magazine of record the magazine needed to offer our readers something better than the old formulas of coterie politics and repeated names. Many of our subscribers had no other contact with contemporary poetry and relied on us to know what was going on—what poetry could be: schoolteachers in small regional cities, for example. I wanted the magazine to drop through their letterbox every quarter and be inspiring, high-stakes, engaging. And a handsome object too.
Which doesn’t mean I was dumbing down: but the opposite. Working in healthcare had taught me that the best poetry speaks even to people who usually have no interest in it. So for our readers, too, I knew from the outset that only the best would do.
I’m most proud, though, of how I served the poetry community. I published a many times larger proportion of BAME poets and of women than my predecessors—indeed I was only the second woman editor in the magazine’s then-100-year history, after Muriel Spark in the 1940s—and than other comparable magazines at that time both in the UK and abroad. I also published a huge number of debutantes, who weren’t just making their debuts with us, but were not yet even at first book stage.
In short, I read the slush pile myself—and this certainly came from my experience as a poet. Not only should the pile not be ignored; I believe it’s too important to delegate to the office’s junior editor or an intern. (Luckily perhaps, I had no junior editor.) The 60,000 unsolicited submissions annually were a huge part of the job. I was shocked when I started working in London to find how few poetry editors read their slush pile. Novels, okay, are long: but a submission of a half dozen poems? How else will you come across the submission by someone no longer fashionable, but very fine? I brought back a lot of older women poets, in particular, who are less able in the UK to network (ageism, sexism). And how else will you know about new voices, rising talent? I’m afraid the answer is nepotism: and I wanted to clean the Augean stables.
For the same reason I introduced out of London launches, meet the editor sessions and editing masterclasses . . . I wanted the Review to access to very best talent, and to be accessible to the very best talent.
SI: Who are a few of your favorite writers and poets?
FS: Really infinitely too many to mention and different on different days. But currently on my “special” pile are Sean O’Brien’s new collection It Says Here—he’s a great poet of the personal as political and the political as person—Brenda Hillman’s Extra Hidden Life, Among the Days, such sophisticated, aware work, which proves you don’t have to do polemic to make important eco-political points; various collecteds of Bill Merwin, Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, and Charlie Williams; and—away from poetry—always some John Berger. I’ve been enjoying the novels of Mathias Enard recently, and I keep returning to the limpidity of (poetry again . . .) the Bulgarian Tsvetaeva Elenkova and the Romanian Liliana Ursu, while the energetic Danish poet Pia Tafdrup always gives me courage to keep going.
SI: You’ve written about translation as a form of literary curiosity and attentiveness. Elsewhere, you also endorse Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s notion of translation as “hospitality.” What is the purpose of creative translation, globally?
FS: This is a huge topic for our last question, and I feel I may not answer you fully enough and do it justice. Thank you again for these thoughtful, sensitive questions. But briefly, I think Spivak is absolutely right: translation requires an effortful coming forward to meet—Spivak is talking about doing it well, so the translated text sounds brilliant and eloquent—and this is a fundamental and necessary orientation towards the world. But it also serves to gratify and at the same time continually develop the kind of deep literary curiosity we all ought to keep brightening. The alternative, surely, is cultural solipsism.
SI: Thank you so much for your time, Fiona.
Fiona Sampson is a leading British poet and writer. Published in thirty-seven languages, she’s received international awards in the US, India, Macedonia, Albania, and Bosnia. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, of the English Association, and of the Wordsworth Trust, she’s received an MBE from the Queen For Services to Literature and published twenty-seven books. National prizes include the Newdigate Prize, Cholmondeley Prize, Hawthornden Fellowship, multiple awards from the Arts Councils of England and of Wales, Society of Authors, Poetry Book Society, and Arts and Humanities Research Council. She’s also a broadcaster and newspaper critic, librettist and literary translator, holds the Chair of Poetry at Roehampton University, and was the editor of Poetry Review 2005–12. Her In Search of Mary Shelley was internationally acclaimed and her biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is out next spring. She recently received two major European prizes, the 2019 Naim Frashëri Laureateship of Albania and Macedonia, and the 2020 European Lyric Atlas Prize, Bosnia, for her new book, Come Down (Hachette, Feb 2020, a Financial Times Pick of the Year).
Sabrina Islam, who reads fiction manuscripts for NER, is from Dhaka, Bangladesh. She spent her early childhood in New York, Connecticut, and Florida. She holds an MFA in creative writing from University of Maryland, where she teaches college writing and creative writing. Her stories can be found in Flock, Acta Victoriana, Prairie Schooner, and the Minnesota Review.