Change of Editor for Poetry Review 

Fiona Sampson has succeeded David Herd and Robert Potts as editor of Poetry Review. Her first issue will be out in July. Here she talks to Bernardine Evaristo about her artistic career, her new book and her plans for the magazine

Fiona Sampson has extensive experience in the world of poetry and literature. She has published four collections of poetry including Folding the Real (2001) and a new verse-novel The Distance Between Us (2005). She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Orient Express: contemporary writing from Enlargement Europe, she co-authored The Self on the Page (1998) and Writing: Self and Reflexivity with Celia Hunt, and she edited Creative Writing in Health and Social Care (2004). Fiona also co-edited The Arc Anthology of New Poetry from Central and European Europe (2005), and she has been a contributing editor to a number of European publications including the American Review of European Poetry, Absinthe. Fiona had a pioneering role in the development of writing in health care in the UK, and she also set up the Welsh poetry festival Poetryfest in 1995. She has won a number of awards.

 

BE: I was interested to discover that you initially trained as a violinist. Can you tell us about your transition from music to poetry and if you feel your musical training has influenced your poetry? At what juncture did the latter supercede the former?

FS: When I was a child growing up, music was one of the colourful, pleasurable things. It was where you were allowed to show off; it was also where I learnt about form, about the working-out of an idea, register, tone. And where I learnt about professionalism. If you're a violinist you start young. When I left school at sixteen I was already giving several solo concerts a month. I was lucky: I studied with the best teachers, did things I'll never forget. I had the magical sense of being in the presence of the Real Thing with those professors, in a way which school just wasn't. It took me a long time to realise it was this "Real Thing-ness" I was in love with; that I wanted to put down the fiddle and speak. And then, like any physical skill, it's all or nothing. If you've done it well, done your six hours a day for years, you don't want to do it badly later on.

Classical music is European in the narrow sense of being Western; but it's also European in the positive sense of being internationalist. One legacy of my musical life is that I've always had a sense of being part of a Europe whose axis is Vienna-Budapest, not points west of the old Iron Curtain. And that has certainly had an influence on my working life now!

 

You also have a strong academic background, culminating with a PhD in the philosophy of language. How has this rather profound erudition impacted both on your own poetry and your skills as a translator and editor?

Well, you have to know it's the other way around. After I gave up the violin, and rode-out the scandal that generated, I started doing residencies (I was trying to be a short story writer in those days). Because I'd had the same ridiculous idealism when I was a musician, I found myself doing long-term residencies in health care. I believed (I still believe) passionately in the importance of the quality of the poetic input in community work: and in the significance and richness of what people write. But I didn't know how to articulate these beliefs, so I put myself through university (I'd had a grant to go to music college, so this meant working and studying full-time – it was tough). First an undergraduate degree (PPE at Oxford) and then, when I'd recovered from the exhaustion of that (!) a PhD. Stupid, stupid idealism.

 

The academic work is always interdisciplinary: well, that's ok, because the most interesting developments tend to happen at the margins, in collisions between (cultural) practices. But you feel like a plate spinner, rushing from one strand to the other of the case you're making. For example at the moment I'm writing a piece on the Troubles for an international politics journal, and talking about translation as the paradigm of "listening out of the box". I think it's a shame people in our field tend to think all academic work's reductive. They forget that poetry, too, is passionate thought. I do have an un-British softness for literature of ideas.

 

2004 saw the publication of the Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski's mesmerizing poetry collection Evening Brings Everything Back, which you co-translated with the author. For those of us for whom it's a mystery, what is the process of translating poetry into English from a language you do not speak? And how has exposure to European poetry influenced your own poetry?

Hugely! I think I turned to European poetry when I was looking for more poetic nourishment. I like the ambition of the tasks most poetries from Europe and beyond set themselves. I guess I'm a disobedient writer and reader; and I want poetry to transgress itself, though whether it does so in formal, linguistic or narrative terms, in content or in voice (if those are separate things), I don't mind. In The Distance Between Us, which is about a long-distance European love affair, for example, the first chapter is a "Cante Jondo"; the settings include Belgrade, Bucharest and the Andalucian desert; I read Balkan magical realism, Celan and Tsvetaeva's long poems while I was writing it.

I've spent lots of time working in Europe, translating, being translated and reading at Festivals there, and think I've learnt to "listen through" formal differences between traditions. But a sense of excited engagement remains. Co-translation is one such engagement. It's a shame translation isn't an automatic part of poetic practice here. Distinguished exceptions prove the rule: Sarah Maguire, Jamie McKendrick, David Constantine, Jo Shapcott, Sean O'Brien, Daniel Weissbort, Stephen Watts . . . I could go on.

Translation is close reading. It's the most intimate relationship you can have with a text, as you try to recreate it in a host language, trying to re-solve the same questions the poet had to overcome. You think with them. In co-translation, where the original poet (or someone with a profound literary understanding of the original language) gives a literal version in a lingua franca, the density and complexity of questions of nuance you'll find yourself discussing feels close to co-writing.

 

As a fellow verse-novelist, I very much enjoyed reading The Distance Between Us. What amazes me about the verse-novel genre is that every writer who uses the form does something totally different with it. What attracted you to the idea of this kind of poetry?

I agree entirely with you about the capacity of the form. I do think it's undergoing a renaissance in English (but not, oddly, in other languages). The verse-novel's no hybrid. It has the inner necessity of fiction and that of lyric verse: a doubling of, rather than dissipation of, focus. But it's a form which is less dominated by orthodoxy than the lyric collection. I like writing to book-length: I enjoy the extended project, the book-shaped thought. Probably one reason I enjoy editing. And I like the challenge of sustaining lyric intensity.

My last book was highly technical, it included a syllabic sonnet-sequence etc, and in this one I think technique has "gone underground". Certainly I've gone underground, into the unconscious. There's a range of diction, and I've been occupied by what happens where language breaks down (perhaps partly a legacy of my work in health care). Those breakdowns can be beautiful, and produce their own form and logic. They're also the insignia of distress, but where it's my own (characters') distress I'm exploring, looking for that beauty isn't voyeuristic, I guess…

Narratives and ideas always entail particular forms and logics, of course! In The Distance I wanted to frame scenes and voices which struggle with big questions of intimacy and distance – the ones we all have in our private lives and the other, public ones which have to do with identity and "belonging" in this globalising world – in their "own" terms, not those of fashionable "poetic correctness". I'm a great believer in the internal logic of texts, their authenticity to themselves, their need to work in their own terms. The Distance stages seven scenes: the distances within intimacy experienced by its protagonists (at work, in love, in violence). "Intimate alienation", it's been called (most of the book's already been published in translation abroad): I think this tension between intimacy and alienation's always at work in poetic representation. Each scene's prefaced by a short poem like a letter. You're quite right, I can't think of a precedent for this arrangement!

 

Orient Express is the only journal featuring literature from the entire E.U. Enlargement region. That's a helluva mission. How do you go about soliciting and selecting material, ensuring there's a good geographical and cultural spread?

I spend a lot of time in the Region; and I have a group of contributing editors – writers, critics, and editors, often of the younger or middle generations – from most of the countries OE covers. I've learnt how to keep my ear open for interesting new texts or the rumour of interesting writers. Actually, there's quite good infrastructure between the countries of "post-communist Europe" at least. (I use this term advisedly, because this infrastructure is a legacy of their shared past.) So interesting writers tend to crop up in several places: this kind of repetition is one of the things which will make me look at their work. Un/fortunately (I'd like to think OE resists rather than accelerates globalisation through its celebration of multi-culturalism), the English-language market is the one most writers from Enlargement Europe want to break into; so they often have material already translated. And nearly every country has a Literature Information Centre of one kind or another, with centralised resources for helping with just such situations. Most writers get translated into other languages a lot more easily than into English: they often have a body of work in a language I can read. And I listen to all recommendations, even if I end up ignoring them. I like each issue to have a predominance of prose; to publish both grand old "Nobel-isables" and young radicals; and to include points of coherence such as national groups of poets from one generation (or gender).

 

So now on to Poetry Review, the leading poetry journal in the UK which means that the job comes with high expectations from many poetry constituencies, most of which cannot realistically be fulfilled. You bring a whole range of skills to the post and must be brimming with ideas. In a nutshell, what's your vision and what are your plans?

I have high expectations too: and I've got to live with myself! Although I'm sensitive to constituencies, I edit, as one writes, for a kind of Ideal Reader. I want this reader – whether they're one of our best-known poets, a teacher, an avid reader, an academic, an emerging writer or someone who never picked up a poetry publication before – to read PR with pleasure and excitement: with a renewed sense of poetry as something which constantly opens up more possibilities rather than forecloses on us. I don't want to be radical for the sake of it, or conservative for the sake of "correctness". I think it's essential to read the post-bag. I don't want to publish to my personal taste but to my editorial judgement.

The Poetry Society's strap-line is "helping poets and poetry thrive in Britain today". I think that's sort of the journal's strap-line too. Some of the practical things I'm planning? Well, I'm going to increase the proportion of poetry in each issue, and its range. I'm going to introduce poets' essays, rather than critical ones. Intelligent, close-reading reviews, not the over-determining partisanship which is a British disease. No more art or crosswords in PR, I'm afraid (though the crosswords were amazing!), but poetry, poetry, poetry: international and national, with names you may not know well enough in every issue alongside poems which leap out of the canon.

 

Bernardine Evaristo's novel-with-verse, Soul Tourists, is published this June by Penguin.