Fiona Sampson, editor of Poem, was appointed a Member of the British Empire in the 2017 New Year’s Honours list, for her services to literature and the literary community. In the second of two interviews, she offers her thoughts on the field of poetry and the wider literary community.
How can we ensure that poetry continues to play a key role in academic writing and the literary community?
Poetry does best when taught by poets, as it generally is in academic creative writing courses. That’s because scholars have a tendency to treat it as a series of crossword puzzles that need to be solved. Poetry is dense with resonance and allusion and multiple meanings; but the poet has worked immensely hard to bring these all together into one new thing that works as a whole, as a single music. That is what making a poem is – not the scaffolding of intention and history, but the house of the poem itself. Poets, however hardworking, remember that the point of poetry is pleasure, art, experience, music, thought, revelation. Not literary history or theory. It’s achieving this that is difficult, the tremendous discipline. Anyone, pretty much, can scribble down some ideas if they don’t have to format them; or can “express themselves”. This is not what poem-making is.
How do you think the increasing use of technology has affected the way that academics experience and write about poetry? Have you noticed any shifts in the field?
Alas, I’ve noticed little innovation. Though there is a shift away from the kind of post-structural theories that were really just a form of close reading, towards the kind of post-modern approaches that say “anything goes”.
How do you see the literary community evolving in 2017? Are there any upcoming trends to look out for?
I’m not sure what is changing except that Anglophone poetry is becoming more diverse in the UK, and locked into fewer models in the US. But there are wonderful exceptions there too. I am currently involved in an Arts & Humanities Research Council -funded research project into poet to poet translation: what actually happens when poets get together with each other and a third party language expert, what is the actual making process? The project leaders are Francis Jones and Bill Herbert from Newcastle University, and myself. And of course I’m writing quite a lot of prose myself at the moment. I just completed Limestone Country for Little Toller, out in May, and On the White Plain: the search for Mary Shelley is out from Profile in January 2018. In October I published Lyric Cousins: musical form in poetry (Edinburgh University Press), so my personal hope is this year leads to some collaborations with musicians!
Fiona Sampson MBE is published in thirty-seven languages and has received international prizes in the US, India, Macedonia and Bosnia. A Fellow and Council member of the Royal Society of Literature, she’s published twenty-seven books, received the Newdigate Prize, a Cholmondeley award and numerous awards from national Arts Councils, the Society of Authors, PBS, and twice been shortlisted for both T.S. Eliot and Forward Prizes. Her new books are Lyric Cousins (EUP), The Catch (Penguin) and Limestone Country (Little Toller, May 2017).