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Ekaterina Voskresenskaya

Ledbury Poetry Festival: An Interview with Poet in Residence Fiona Sampson

14 May 2017 | Laura Garmeson

Fiona Sampson is one of the most accomplished British poets of her generation. She has twenty-seven books to her name, her work has been published in over thirty languages and she has received an abundance of prizes. She is also former editor of the prestigious Poetry Review, and was recently awarded an MBE for services to literature. This July she will be assuming the role of Poet in Residence at Ledbury Poetry Festival, which takes place over ten days in the Herefordshire market town. We spoke to her ahead of the festival about Ledbury, her life and work, and what it takes to be a poet today.

Ledbury Poetry Festival is an old friend of Fiona Sampson’s. ‘I went to the very first festivals,’ she says, 'I used to do the community programme there.' So how does it feel to be returning in 2017 as Poet in Residence? ‘It’s like going full circle. It’s lovely.’ Now entering its 21st year, Ledbury is one of only a handful of festivals in the UK devoted to poetry. Sampson is sanguine about the situation: ‘there isn’t actually a proliferation of poetry festivals.’ At a time when literary festivals are increasingly used to promote the latest celebrity memoir, and on top of dwindling arts funding, poetry festivals are growing scarcer. ‘As a result, the festivals that do remain are disproportionately important to us as poets,' she explains, 'they’re a place where we can actually meet the public and try and grow the audience.’


Church Lane, Ledbury
 
Bringing poetry to new audiences and opening doors for others are some of the most admirable hallmarks of Sampson’s extensive career. ‘The nice thing about being Poet in Residence is that you do a number of things,’ she explains, ‘so I’m curating a couple of the events, and I’ve chosen to curate international events, because I think that’s sort of value I can add.’ She has invited a group of Romanian women poets for a special event, and will also be chairing a cross-cultural discussion between three poets hailing from the Ukraine, France, and the US. Sampson points out that ‘we tend to be, in Britain, rather lazy about international poetry.’ Exposure to other modes or schools of writing can help poets avoid merely ‘iterating the same stuff that you’ve read before,’ or worse, succumbing to cliché. ‘Writing should be always at least making fresh, not just repeating yourself.’


Ledbury Poetry Festival
 
Sampson’s route into poetry certainly seems to have eschewed cliché, given that she started out life as a violinist who trained at the Royal Academy. ‘When I was very young I’d wanted to write poetry,’ she recalls, but ‘it was something that you couldn’t do if you came from an ordinary school like me, and you were just a provincial girl. It was what dead white men did.’ Feeling that path was barred to her, music became the closest thing, and for a while Sampson lived the life of a professional musician. But she soon realized performing wasn’t enough: ‘I’d always wanted to do the making.’ After a difficult wrench, she left music to become a short story writer, which soon crystallised into poetry.
 
Fast-forward to present day and Sampson remains prolific, publishing broadsheet reviews and scholarly studies alongside her poetry, as well as attending countless festivals and giving frequent talks and lectures. Her current writing focuses on psychogeography and our relationship to place (a major theme of her collection The Catch published last year). At the end of May her monograph on geology, Limestone Country, is to be published in a beautifully bound edition by Little Toller, and right now she is putting the finishing touches to a psychological biography of Mary Shelley to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein next year.


Image Credit: Tom Chivers, Malvern Hills overlooking Ledbury
 
It is perhaps this openness to eclecticism, combined with a meticulous attitude to her work, that also makes her a sought-after judge for literary prizes. ‘Judging is a pleasure, because you always hope you’re going to find something new.’ At Poetry Review she used to receive around 60,000 unsolicited poems a year, so she got used to ‘very quickly knowing what’s definitely no good.’ This year she is all set to judge the Poetry Competition at Ledbury, so what is she looking for? ‘There’s something about really good writing which is like a superintelligence, almost like a sixth sense of emotional intelligence,’ Sampson says. ‘There’s a leap of the banal exposition, which is left out – you leap over it, and just say something in a much more insightful, characteristic, fluid way.’
 
But there is a difference between writing good poetry and being a good poet; the latter also requiring intense resilience. ‘For most really good poets,’ she says, measuredly, ‘it’s such a costly thing to do, and it’s such a struggle to get there, that it’s sort of like a refining fire.’ The path to becoming a professional poet is long, and those who are not of the right temperament can fall by the wayside. ‘If it doesn’t matter to you,’ says Sampson, ‘absolutely profoundly, you’ll stop doing it.’ Although this may not be the case for all poets, Sampson’s career is certainly a product of these two things at least: ironclad resolve and a deeply held conviction that making poetry matters – now perhaps more than ever.
 
Fiona Sampson MBE is Poet in Residence at Ledbury Poetry Festival, which runs from 30 June – 9 July. Tickets go on general sale 20 May; for the festival programme see here. Fiona Sampson’s new books include Lyric Cousins (EUP), The Catch (Penguin) and Limestone Country (Little Toller, May 2017).

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