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Literary Parlor: interview with poet Fiona Sampson

in Literature/Philosophies/Poetry

LeipGlo column: Literary Parlor

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, Fellow of the English Association and Fellow of the Wordsworth Trust, she’s also 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, and various awards from the Arts Councils of England and of Wales, Society of Authors, Poetry Book Society and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

A former violinist, she is also a broadcaster and newspaper critic, and was editor of Poetry Review 2005-12. Her biography, In Search of Mary Shelley (2018), has been internationally critically acclaimed and was shortlisted for the Biographers’ Club’s Slightly Foxed Prize. The poems in her new poetry collection Come Down (coming February this year) have received two major European prizes, the 2019 Naim Frashëri Laureateship of Albania and Macedonia, and the 2020 European Lyric Atlas Prize, Bosnia. She is Professor of Poetry at the University of Roehampton and currently working on a new biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Fiona Sampson by Ekaterina Voskresenskaya
Fiona Sampson. Photo courtesy of Ekaterina Voskresenskaya

Interview by Svetlana Lavochkina

You made Mary Shelley come alive for us, making us feel like her close friends. You will have done the same with Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Did you sometimes feel like you were merging with your heroines personally while working on their biographies? Which of these women is closer to you mentally or spiritually, if any?

That’s a very kind thing to say! Thank you. It’s just what I hoped to do. I don’t find a procession of facts without any contextual meaning to join them together very interesting. If we’re to think about the individuals behind the great works of literature, I think we need to try to understand them, or how they came to write as they did, or anyway what’s individual about them. Not their differences from us, but their similarities to us. The difference is in the astonishing degree of gift – but everything else about them is simply human. Also, isn’t it the writer’s task – to transform mere reportage into something with the merit of human understanding and that engages the reader?

I admit I became very fond of Mary and I did have a sense of recognition as I wrote about her. There was something very emotionally literal-minded about her. She wasn’t manipulative, and she didn’t understand manipulation: that’s me, for sure! She had a terrible marriage which compromised much of her life, and my own very happy marriage is more like the Brownings’ than the Shelleys’. But I’ve known men (and, at more of a distance, many male poets) who were recognizably of Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s emotional type – and I’m sure my feelings about them got into the book too. I admire Elizabeth enormously, and feel we share a certain work ethic and dogged determination to be an intellectual and a writer despite being women.

Come Down by Fiona Sampson (© Corsair, 2020)

Have you ever envisioned writing a novel?

When I married my husband, Peter Salmon, who is a novelist, we promised each other that he would never write poetry and I would never write a novel. But in fact we have both been working on literary biographies this year. His is on Jacques Derrida (An Event, Perhaps, Verso, October 2020). And we seem to have sailed close without it harming our relationship. So you never know! But it’s not a current plan.

You are an aficionado of international poetry, of foreign artistic voices, and a virtuoso translator yourself. Why has this passion become an inseparable part of your artistic credo?

I think it started because I was first a violinist, which means (if you’re at all good at it) having an internationalist perspective. You study abroad (I studied in Salzburg and Paris) and expect to have an international reputation – and to meet and work with players from other countries. Above all the repertory itself is international. That’s how poetry is for me, although we have different languages. I love meeting other poets, of all generations and reputations, in the generous, free space of international collaboration

Besides, many other countries and cultures value poetry more highly than Britain does, and so the poetry that gets written is in a healthier relationship to a readership and audience. It doesn’t just talk to itself – it matters to readers too, the way only prose does in Britain. It’s not like the often claustrophobic, fashion-led national space, though I love working to open that up, too, for example when I was the Editor of Poetry Review, or in teaching at universities and workshopping in hospitals, or setting up an international festival in Wales. And the best way poets can work together is by co-translation, advocacy, travel, mutual publication.

Also I just adore editing.

What do you think literature will look like in, say, a century after us, if such a forecast is possible at all?

I think poetry will absolutely remain. It is so important in the cultures of the Middle and Far East; important too in the Slav world and the Caucuses. And poetry is like water, it changes shape to find its place – it is different in different languages and at different eras; and it can adapt to being wholly oral, whether in archaic epic or performance poetry, or wholly textual, like sms and other social media poems. I think it will remain diverse and quite language-specific in its differences. In every human time and place there has always been poetry, of one sort or another.

I think the novel will be doing less well. It’s actually such a young, local form – born in Europe in the late eighteenth century. (Yes I know there was Cervantes, Boccaccio, and there were also Romaunts, before this. But these Don Quixote and the Decameron were one-off texts.)

People will always want stories, but there will be film, and the more-portable short story form, and also non-fiction stories. Because non-fiction, whether essay or memoir or testimony or history or polemic or religious tract, has been around as long as there has been writing, and it is so capacious – it lets us think in deeper, slower, more profound ways than even the most brilliant conversation.

Cover of In Search of Mary Shelley book
In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein by Fiona Sampson (© Profile Books, 2018)

The last question is rather trivial but your answer would still be invaluable for the aspiring poets among our readers. What advice would you give to those in their poet-fetus stage?

Read! Read widely, madly, obsessively, falling in love with some poets and finding everything they wrote. Read your own time and place in poetry and prose, and read the canon. Do not forget that. And translation, if you have the interpretive modesty to want to really pay attention and bring the poem across in the best way you can, is the best way to get very close to another poet’s work and learn how it happens. And I would say, Good luck!

Svetlana Lavochkina is a Ukrainian-born novelist, poet and poetry translator, now residing in Germany. In 2013, her novella Dam Duchess was chosen runner-up in the Paris Literary Prize. Her debut novel, Zap, was shortlisted for Tibor & Jones Pageturner Prize 2015. Svetlana’s work has been widely published in the US and Europe. It appeared in AGNI, New Humanist, POEM, Witness, Straylight, Circumference, Superstition Review, Sixfold, Drunken Boat and elsewhere.

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