Coleshill is a small estate village in the Vale of the White Horse in Oxfordshire. The houses, all dating from 1850 to 1860, were built in the Victorian cottage Gothic style, and today belong to the National Trust. The population is 200 – "the same as it was in the Domesday Book", remarks the poet Fiona Sampson, whose new collection, Coleshill, evokes the magical, odd place she has lived in for the past 14 years.
It's a richly rewarding and thematically coherent work, written with an avid attention to light effects, atmosphere, and the natural world. "What I like is the space, the landscape; it's very open and flat, water meadows. I'm not very good at suburbia. I like deep country, wild country," Sampson muses.
A wild poet among the tinkling teacups of the National Gallery café in London! Sampson, exquisitely dressed, coiffed and poised, could almost be any lady up for the day from the Home Counties, but for an edge, an intensity to her words. "I moved there from living on a Welsh mountain. I miss verticality," she says vehemently. "I like extremity." She's certainly had a lot of that in her life.
"I think Coleshill has been in my books ever since I've lived there," she goes on. "But I liked the idea of letting it be centre stage. Then I found it's not hard to write about a real place but it's really hard to write about real people. Because you want to – not exactly sanitise, but to see the best in people and it doesn't make for a good poem! So I had an awful lot of achingly banal poems about friends and neighbours, all of which I kicked out. In the end, it's psychogeography. Also I was going through a period in which I was doing a lot of feeling." She laughs, but it's laughter with an edge. "I don't want to say 'pathetic fallacy' but I couldn't separate it from what I was feeling."
The poems are very different from her earlier work, I observe. "Every book I start I think I have to find a new way to go on," Sampson explains. "It can't be more of the same. My last collection, Rough Music, was full rhyme, forms slightly invented by me, but influenced by medieval carols. The book before that, Common Prayer, was very loose and musical. And I do love writing sonnets of various kinds. My first book had syllabic sonnets – 14 syllables and 14 lines and all in one sentence. There are 14 sonnets in Coleshill and they are the most catholic sonnets I've written. I wasn't feeling very expansive, so it's much more like every word is a thorn or a shard of glass."
This observation strikes a disquieting note. As well as the music, the slow sense of seasons unrolling, the peace and the beauty expressed in Coleshill, there is also a profound darkness that comes up in poem after poem.
"Yes, it's a dark book," she replies. "It was written at an extremely unhappy time. But I think darkness is interesting. If you're me, you keep it out of your daily life. But daily life is about not letting your demons get the better of you. I don't mean poetry is therapeutic – it's not at all – but I'm interested myself in reading things where people have gone down the mine shaft."
Sampson has certainly been down the mine shaft in the past few years. As only the second woman editor of Poetry Review (after Muriel Spark), the most influential poetry magazine in Britain, she was involved in the crisis which rocked the Poetry Society in 2011, leading to the suspension of its Arts Council grant and the resignation of its board. Sampson left the Review in a flurry of recrimination and has bounced back at the helm of the recently launched, British-based international magazine, Poem.
"It's a love-it or hate-it name, isn't it?" she says, tackling her lunch with gusto. "You have two choices. You can either have a name that's like Poetry Review, or you have a name that's whimsical. And I think a whimsical name always ends up suggesting a school or a generation. Editorial taste and personal taste are not the same. So I think Poem advertises that. Also it's an international magazine and 'poem' doesn't need translating."
She talks with huge enthusiasm about editing and promoting other writers. "When I took [Poetry Review] over, the circulation had gone down a great deal because it had become a specialist magazine, but we got it up again quite quickly in a year or so," she says cheerfully. "I think I made it readable. If the only contact someone gets with contemporary poetry is Poetry Review, I want every time it lands on the mat for it to be a box of delights. To have a sense of glamour and excitement, because that's what I wanted from it when I lived miles from anywhere; I wanted to feel encouraged and in contact with poetry. I think it's a lifeline."
Given that the spat split the poetry world into separate factions, I ask her whether she feels you automatically make enemies in a job like that? One of the Coleshill poems is called "The Death Threat", after all.
"I don't think you have to make enemies and it is important to be diplomatic. And I think I was extremely courteous. I don't think that any of the people campaigning [against me] had ever met me." And she had support from some good names, I add. "Yes, that was lovely. But the whole thing was extraordinarily painful. It changed my view of human nature absolutely. 'Everyone is muddling along, fundamentally decent, basically we're all the same.' I don't believe that any more. I also have a darker view of the press."
At the end of the interview, she says quietly that it would be a shame if the piece harped on about her recent woes, "because I've survived. I'm still alive, I didn't kill myself, which I nearly did. I don't want this to be all about Poetry Review, otherwise it's always there; it's a bloody albatross." Coleshill and Poem are the first, bold steps in getting rid of it for good.
The Death Threat by Fiona Sampson
From 'Coleshill', Chatto £10
'He changes shape. The
permit this, with their
mint of smells, the ash-and-damp notes of a dream you remember, blurred
flurrying into a windscreen: huge eyes, blackened by
the lights, because sometimes he's an owl. Or he's a swan, or "Caucasian male,
clean-shaven, age unknown" – or this plumed and
gleaming angel at the door, with a knife.'
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