Fiona Sampson on poetry, music and language

Noella Chye 13 November 2017

I first see Fiona Sampson as she ambles through John’s towards the Porters’ Lodge alongside Peter, her husband. She fits right in here, her mustard-yellow coat tinged with a hint of grey almost an extension of the faded brick walls of the buildings around her, and bright red scarf billowing gently in the wind.

By the time I meet her, my head is swarming with her poems, words and thoughts from nights’ worth of immersion in her collections of poetry. When we sit down, at last, in the Lightfoot Room of the Old Divinity School, one question springs forth before all others.

“I found, in your poetry, such rich imagery of… I don’t want to say nature, because that’s narrower than what I mean, but of the world, and a certain rhythm of the world.” I ask, “Do you see that in your daily life, or is it something that only comes through when you’re writing?”

She begins, “I like the fact that you said ‘rhythm of the world’, because I haven’t really put the two together before.” She seems to latch on first to the notion of rhythm, and says, “The rhythmic part is because I was a violinist in my first life, so I’m extremely interested in the relationship between music and poetry, or rather, I can’t help being interested.

“I don’t choose to be. I don’t think about it consciously, but it’s quite embedded in my practice. […] You can’t help but be listening as you’re writing.”

Then she turns to speak of her relationship with nature. “[I’m] kind of trying to fire up the potency of the experience of the natural world, but without saying it’s a sort of other, that it’s for the weekends”, and utters the last word with the hint of a sneer.  “It’s life”, she finishes.

I soon notice that Sampson speaks often of the technicality involved in writing poetry, and more specifically, the effects of different techniques being used in isolation or together. At one point, when I ask about her experiences with both music and poetry, and the connections she has found between them, she tells me, “I have written a book about musical forms common to both music and poetry, called Lyrical Cousins. And that doesn’t look at metre, but rather fundamental things like phrase or breath, density and simultaneous things, chromaticism, sort of slippage in poetry’s second meanings and resonance.”

She seems to exhibit the same intellectual analysis when it comes to her own poetry. When speaking of her more recent collections, she tells me about the form she has been using, which, frustratingly, reviewers haven’t picked up on, she adds.

“It’s more like speech rhythms in which you use different feet. They’re all muddled up together. And they’re single sentence poems. And I’m finding that allows a fluidity.

"I always believe in poems that grammar should be accurate, should add up at every moment, but in a long, single-sentence poem, you can just shift it, slant from line to line. You can sort of turn a direction of a phrase, or pivot on a noun, and I’m finding that very rich in terms of the quality of thought it allows you, because it allows you that notion that everything is connected, but without becoming fuzzy and unclear.”

I want to ask more about her personal relationship with poetry, and say, “When you write, do you feel like you’re writing towards something?”

She pauses to consider it, then says, “I think I am. I think if there were a spacial conceptualisation of the process, that would be it. Or at least I’m writing into something. At the beginning of a poem, I definitely know which way I’m facing.

She tells me that this hasn’t always been the case. “I used to write longer poems, and I used to have a change of direction into separate parts, and so [I’d] sort of pause and face a different way, and often deliberately look around as if to think, ‘What might be the next thing that must be brought in to make a different note?’

“But now I tend to write unified single-page poems. So I know which way I’m facing, and I know there’s something…”, and here, her voice quietens, and she raises her hand in front of her, almost as if trying to pick something out from the air. “… there… that’s got a flavour, or sort of odour… something like that. It’s got a shape, but the shape isn’t discernible yet.”

I am struck by the ease, and the naturalness, with which she speaks of this spacial conceptualisation of writing. It reminds me of my surprise when I first discovered her past career as a performing violinist, during which she attended the Royal Academy of Music. For one to have been a musician and a professional poet seemed, to me, for them to have lived two vastly different lives. Music and poetry, when done at Sampson's level, with their unique capacities to envelope, and sometimes engulf you, seemed to take so much out of a person that there was little left to pour into another form of art. Yet here Sampson was, perfectly nonchalant, seemingly unaware of the rarity of her complete ease of stepping into these different worlds.

I ask her about her experience of both music and poetry, and if she has ever found that they bring with them different perspectives of the world, and equip the musician, artist or writer with them. She says, “Sometimes I think that for me, the idea would be that if I could write a poem purely abstract, or purely shape and colour,”, then hastens to add, “not that I like poems that fail the language — I don’t like that, I think that’s easy and halfway house”, and tells me, “but at the same time, I tend to have a three-dimensional metaphorical notion of thought. I think of thoughts and ideas as having shapes and destinations too, so… in that sense, making a line of poetry becomes very much like making a line of music.”

I'm curious if she identifies more with one form of art than another, and she replies with complete certainty, “Oh, I’m a poet.”

“When I was small, in primary school, I had a wonderful teacher, and I’d used up the schoolbooks. And I had a year when I was allowed to just write, which was blissful. I was 8… 8 or 9. I felt that I was a poet then. That was formative. Of course, it goes deep down into your personal prehistory.

“During my teens, I had the opposite experience with teachers. So then I had wonderful violin teachers, so I became drawn into that, and I think, probably, it was all proxy for being a poet. I didn’t know it at the time, and I loved music.

“[So] I stopped writing poems in my teens. I didn’t stop reading, but I read prose. I read a lot of literary prose. And non-fiction too. And then, suddenly, when I was 23, I realised that my heart wasn’t in music, and that it was in writing. It probably always had been, but I’d been in denial.

“I think that when one’s younger, one thinks you have this huge responsibility for your life, this responsibility to get it perfect, and that if you don’t, the weight of failure will be on your shoulders. It’s really hard, and it’s much harder if you’re high-achieving, as you yourself are.

“But one of the few good things about getting older is that actually, there are many paths to the source. And even ones which feel like big loops round are fine.”

When I first discovered her background in philosophy, after learning that she wrote a PhD thesis on the philosophy of language at Oxford some years ago, the philosophy student in me is dying to ask what her thesis was about, and if her acquaintance with the philosophy of language has influenced how she uses language when she writes.

Sampson tells me, “It was applied philosophy of language. It was late Heidegger and late Wittgenstein, asking what a poem is.

“I was doing that because I was a mature student at Oxford, because I’d been a violinist, so I was already working beforehand, and I was developing writing in healthcare. I wanted to theorise why it was an art practice, not just a theory in good works. In order to do that, I wanted to theorise what made a poem a poem.

“In the end, it became a bit like discourse theory. I ended up saying that a poem was a poem because it’s used as a poem. But I was very interested in Heidegger and Wittgenstein even though they’re both very different, because they’re both very radical critiques of the notion that language is innocent. They both say that language does its own thing, and I was very aware that the poems people I worked with were making and reading were things in themselves. They were cultural artefacts. They were events in language. I wanted to articulate why I thought that was to the point.”