Interlitq Interview Series
DG: In a large number of poems from your most recent collection, Come Down, there are symbolic overtones related to colors, along with light and darkness. In the piece, “Deaf,” for example, a powerful line reads: “darkness falling from your feet / so deep you could fall through it,” while in “Lady of the Sea” the poem’s speaker hints at the “black mask” of the Virgin Mary, and if she lets it fall, “could she / move among us?” Throughout the collection, there’s a strong emphasis on movement, whether it be literal and physical, but at the same time, the speakers within the individual poems never cease to understand that death is likewise ever-present, as the poem “Boat Lane,” along with its epitaph by John Davidson suggest: “I’m following / my father / who belongs / to marsh water / and to the sea.” Indeed, the sea both symbolizes movement but also death in the case of the great aforementioned Scottish poet; it’s a place where things both rise from (if we speak of divine beings like Venus, for example), but the sea is equally comfortable submerging even the most powerful mortals. You’ve chosen to title the collection Come Down. Can you, then, perhaps discuss these overarching themes related to movement, perhaps in the sense of following, but also in terms of leading and being lead—the movement from life to death, navigating depression and sadness, and why you ultimately chose colors along with notions of darkness and light to symbolize this movement?
FS: It’s interesting you’ve picked up so much on John Davidson. He’s not a very important poet to me, or indeed to most British poets working today. It’s just that he wrote a poem about Romney Marsh, the area where my poem ‘Boat Lane’ is set, that’s very resonant for those who know and love it. The Marsh remains somewhat remote and unspoiled even though it’s in the crowded south-east of England: ‘As I went down to Dymchurch wall /I heard the south blow o’er the land /I saw the yellow sunlight fall /On knolls where Norman churches stand.’
(I should add that the poem ‘Marsh’ was by contrast a poem commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival about its venue, Snape Maltings, and its great founder-composer, Benjamin Britten. But I like the cross-hatching of this thematic link in the book.)
‘Boat Lane’ is a poem about my (adoptive) father, who is still alive, and who grew up on the Marsh. We used to go there on family holidays, and it the place is part of my imaginative hinterland. His father was the vicar of one of those ‘Norman churches’, and we used to go and visit my grandparents there on family holidays when I was a child. It’s quiet, secretive and forgotten country. But the skies above it were the setting of the Battle of Britain, and – as my poem mentions – my father is old enough to have seen active service in WWII. He rescued crews who had to ditch in the sea.
Beyond this, the South is very much a shared European dream. I’ll leave aside the extent to which traditional British culture was Mediterranean in origin (the Bible; the classical Greek and Latin which long formed the education of those few who received any schooling at all). Nor does it just have to do with sun-seeking tourists. There’s an almost tidal longing, a nostalgia for something we never quite had, that the South – in this poem, the South wind – conjures up. As in the great nineteenth century Macedonian poem, ‘T’ga za Yug’, ‘Longing for the South’, written in chilly Moscow by Konstantin Miladinov about his homeland.
DG: Another important symbol throughout the collection is that of the wind, which strongly correlates to the movement referred to earlier. In his famous novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s narrator describes the main character, Kurtz, as a “tree swayed by the wind.” Indeed, the further Kurtz sails downstream, the more he gives in to the darkness of his own psyche. Having already mentioned the important symbolic connotations of water in your collection, it’s pertinent to touch upon the wind as well, which is strongly connected to the oceans and sees. Returning to John Davidson’s suicide, for a moment, it’s possible to see it as an occurrence of fate, which he himself predicted in his last book, The Testament of John Davidson; at the same time, however, if we see life in terms of a ship metaphor, perhaps it’s possible to adjust our “sails” and to some extent control direction, as the titular poem “Come Down” seems to hint at with its line of strangers sailing away on “difficult waters” (once more with the connotation of leading and being lead), along with the “distant ship” which “dreams of a child” who believes she “can reach Australia.” In stark contrast, then, to John Davidson’s suicide, the poem “Cold War Afternoon” pays tribute to the great Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, who passed away suddenly, without any premeditation. In both cases, hence, we can say that fate doesn’t distinguish between events which are planned and those which occur accidentally—both Davidson and Farrokhzad, it could be said, were individuals of their own unchangeable fate. Since wind and water figure so frequently in your work, how do you perceive the life of an individual? Is everything purely chance as the title suggests—that things come down in a way which is based solely on the principles of gravity—or is there another message, such as the one in “Marsh,” for example: “We choose the room / we need to live in.” Can you perhaps elaborate on this tension running throughout the collection?
FS: Another way to think about this might be that the book Come Down as a whole is concerned with breath. You will see that the poems are each a single sentence – all-one-breath – this includes the nine-page title poem. The form is given internal tension by regular numbers of feet or stresses per line (but the feet themselves are not regular: they’re as various, just as they are in speech).
I’m using a single breath, and declaring punctuation redundant, while retaining meaning and music, as a way to connect every part of a poem to every other part. Of course, poetry is a chronologic art like music. Poems unroll through time, even when you read them to yourself. But there are ways to perform such poetic transformations as bringing things together to ‘speak to’ each other. And one that I’m very interested in right now is this all-one-breath movement in a poem. This is the culmination of a long development through my last four collections away from punctuation and towards composing on the breath.
There are also traces of the idea of the breath-of-life, the human spirit, in the book’s preoccupations with both how to live and how to live meaningfully. The Forough Farrokhzad quote I’m thinking of is ‘The wind will carry us’ which, as I’m sure you know, is also taken by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami as the title of that stunning 1999 film.
DG: In a rather subtle and most pleasant way, the concluding poems of the collection emphasize symbols of nature, most notably that of the earth. Especially poignant is the piece “Juno’s Dream” with the opening salvo: “Juno lies / under the earth / her great dreaming / has begun,” and these lines are powerful because they invert the ancient goddesses role as the overseer and protector of Rome; in this sense, the effects of time are brought to the forefront in the most ingenious way because Rome—once a great empire—has long ceased to exist and even its language is now extinct; at the same time, the city itself bears tribute to the glory of its past and the ruins lying among the earth are the ultimate testament to that. Juno, hence, simultaneously lies under the earth and dreams of Rome’s insurgence but since we also speak of her, she’s not completely invisible. Similarly, the tribute poem to Mary Shelley, “Last Man,” harkens back to things underneath the surface, using powerful nature images to evoke the sense of passing time: “the bare feet in the bare / orchard,” along with the surrounding bareness of winter powerfully evoke the notion of “walking / through the frost / under bare trees,” which harkens back to the impermanence of all things—from Rome to simple frost and snow (the latter being a symbol which likewise recurs often in the collection from start to finish). Also, too, in “Wild Equinox,” the natural properties of cold are used a symbol of alienation and movement (both literal and figurative); the poem ultimately returns to the imagery of light and dark to accentuate the tension between fate and freewill: “ everything is / and knows it is – / wild equinox / balancing light / with the / inseparable dark.” Indeed, as humans we both are and know what are—the tension of simultaneously being a part of the wilderness, yet, at the same time, having left it for civilization is a sign of the balance we’ve achieved in this world; even stranger, however, is the fact that the aforementioned evolution also signifies a type of darkness as we continue moving through time and further destroying that which we came from. Since these are recurring themes within the collection, it would be interesting to hear your perspective on perhaps the fate of humanity. In “Manoeuvres,” for example, you seem to take a satirical tone regarding civilization alleviating all our problems, subtly challenging John Bruton’s statement that the EU is “the world’s most successful invention for advancing peace.” In that sense, do you think the solution to our problems lies in politics or must we find the strength within ourselves to improve the world? And by extension, given the degree to which Greek and Roman mythology figures in your work, do you think a Roman-style collapse of the EU is inevitable or can we mitigate it in some way?
FS: The opening poem of the book is called ‘Come Down’, and the closing poem is ‘Surfacing’, and the long title poem is also (of course: it’s the title poem!) called ‘Come Down’. I think you can see that this maps a descent and then a departure by ascending. But since the descent is into a valley full of rural imagery, ecopoetic arguments, and myth – rather than being in any way the Valley of the Shadow of Death – I guess it’s a book about arrival, settling, and ‘putting down roots’. Really, a sequence as much as a book.
Life has a grainy texture, doesn’t it? Living is decidedly not a slick operation. There are lacunae and losses, terrors and stresses. I want the book to be alive in this way, not inert on a scholar’s table. I would rather poetry took risks and was messy than it be irreproachable and dull. I mean that as a reader and as a writer. Let my prose be well-behaved! But let my poetry have fiercely incorporated technique (so well-incorporated perhaps that slack readers miss it) but let it be fierce in what it takes on, from life and for poetry too.
Which includes the political. I don’t think we can live outside politics – it is everything in society, even when it pretends not to be. ‘I’m not political,’ says the political conservative – meaning, ‘I see no need to question how things are or to change them’: which is a deeply political statement. I’m sorry that ‘Cold War Afternoon’ reads as though that I’m challenging John Bruton. I want to do the opposite. We have had peace in Europe, apart from in the former Yugoslavia, for the longest time in Europe’s history: and that is because we have created and cemented alliances instead of jockeying for local national advantage. My aged parents are typical of their generation, the one that actually remembers what war is like, in grieving Brexit. They say it has destroyed everything they spent their lives building.
Unlike Rome, or indeed the old European empires, the EU is not an empire. I can think of countries that have imperial ambition, that meddle in the affairs of others: but the EU is a stabilizing check and balance on rogue governments, on global capital, and on mega-businesses cruising in from the US, China, to asset-strip us. It has raised the living standards of millions, and the standards of hygiene, water, food, medicine: all the important things. Because it had no vested interest in doing otherwise. Our future now, outside its protection, is as a vassal state of the US, a place for dumping cheap goods and fighting proxy wars with, in particular, Russia.
DG: Perhaps the most sui generis poem in the collection is “Old Man.” Quite outstanding in its stand out way (from the rest of the collection), it takes multiple risks not just with theme but also language, posing a question throughout, yet never using the punctuation mark to emphasize that fact; in this sense, it reflects life, which is inherently composed of questions we either don’t dare ask or will never have an answer to—hence the form and structure of the poem itself can be thought of a symbol. The piece ends on a note which spares no embarrassment or shame: “I tried to touch you after / we fucked stroking your wide / back made you groan / with pleasure your eyes shut.” In reality, this poem isn’t really a departure from the rest of the collection because its theme returns to the passage of time, the movement of emotions, and the disconnect which can happen as a result of those things. In terms of the title, Coming Down, do you see, then, age as a symbol of drowning or is it a form of rising from the sea towards wisdom and enlightenment? The poem seems to suggest the former, but poets rarely place everything on the surface of a poem. Aside from the poem itself, how do you feel about the issue of age in general?
FS: I think we live in an era of catastrophic ageism, a commodification of the body but also, worse, of the human self. And that this is being compounded by coronavirus, which has made it crystal clear that youth culture has created such a self-centred take on life that younger people at less risk of serious illness really think their ‘right’ to go to a party is greater than the right to life of other generations (incidentally the ones who wiped their baby noses and bottoms, labored to educate them, etc). This seems to me as jaw-droppingly immoral as condoning modern day slavery (through human trafficking, sweatshops etc) on the grounds that our ‘right’ to have cheaply painted nails/throwaway fashion/sex is greater than the right of other people to freedom and life.
I certainly hope there is nothing in Come Down that suggests I think age is a form of drowning! I want, when I do get to the point of beginning to age myself, to continue to function as a free energetic agent, just like my many friends and colleagues who are multiple decades older than me.
But the poem ‘Old Man’ is a specific revenge poem, taunting a particular someone who has been quite vain but who is by now, I think, too old ever to secure another lover like the one I was for him some years ago. Even though he is a man, and of course ageism is not nearly so crushing of life chances for men: I give you the ages of American presidents, for example. It’s just me having what I hope is the last laugh.
As you’ll gather, I am very strongly committed to human rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit, if not of happiness, then of a meaningful life. I am equally strong in believing these rights are unvaried by identity. Doesn’t matter who you are: you have these rights (even when people steal the opportunity to exercise them from you). I am very interested in identity, but not as a variant on rights, but as part of the mystery of individuation. So the long title poem ‘Come Down’ is about tracing my half own identity: two years ago, discovering my Australian natural father and my entire Australian family history of emigration. (I traced the other half of my identity more years ago.) My father had died before I found him, but the poem’s epigraph, ‘I wanted to know the true nature of the otherness I had been born into’, is so telling about non-indigenous Australian identity, and it was written by the greatest Australian artist to date, Sidney Nolan, who ended up living near the valley in which my book is set, here on the Welsh border.
About Fiona Sampson
Fiona Sampson has been published in thirty-seven languages and has just received two major European prizes: the Naim Frasheri Laureateship 2019 and the European Lyric Atlas Prize 2020. She has also received the Zlaten Prsten (Macedonia), the Charles Angoff Award (US), the 2016 Slovo Podgrmec Prize and the 2015 Povelji za međunarodnu saradnju Award (Bosnia) and the Aark Arts International Poetry Prize (India), and been shortlisted for the Evelyn Encelot Prize for European Women Poets. She received an MBE for services to literature in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours, 2017.