Interlitq: Could you tell us about what you consider to be key moments or watersheds in your professional and personal development?
FS: For me what’s key is steadiness, variety, pushing myself to continue to produce a body of work of the highest quality I can possibly manage. I know that sounds disingenuous, but I really do think it’s like a sedimentary accretion. Just trying to do good work all the time. (And to be collegiate, though I care less about that now, it seems rather pointless as most people aren’t so interested in such a space... though Interliq is.) I’m probably resistant to the notion that any professional moment sums me up, therefore… they all seem like a swirl in the pattern in the carpet. But not to be the carpet itself.
Interlitq: What do you consider to be your most considerable artistic achievement to date, and why?
FS: Surviving, despite being a British woman intellectual (itself an oxymoron), and getting the chance to do some interesting work!
That aside, I believe in a body of work and in a rich, thickened definition of a writing life: one in which translation, editing, reviewing, prose, and poetry all deepen each other and are all part of the same profound curiosity about, and desire to explore, life. So I’m really glad I’m working across a range of genres and practices, and I hope to do more. I’m most proud of my most recent books: though I think all writers are, so who knows whether this is accurate. I think Coleshill (2013) and The Catch (2016, both are Penguin Random House) are my best collections so far, and I’m proud of Lyric Cousins for its synthesizing thought, of Limestone Country for its way of reading life in a landscape, and In Search of Mary Shelley for being, well, a big prose project that allows me to look closely at people and the evidence about them - and to tell a story.
Interlitq: Has your early training as a concert violinist impacted on your literary career?
FS: Being a violinist first meant I came late to writing, after that “golden” window of opportunity we have in our twenties. Perhaps this is why I’ve never had a mentor, never been “boosted” or sponsored, but had to make my own way. I regret music as a wrong turn, in short: but your life is your life. I would like to change much about the way mine has been so far! But I hope things are getting easier, or anyway that there will be moments of ease and of opportunity in the years to come.
But the music stays in your ear and under your tongue, so to speak. And last year I published Lyric Cousins: poetry and musical form (Edinburgh University Press), which looks at the forms, like breath and chromaticism and density, that are common to both genres - very much from a maker’s perspective. It’s coming out in paperback in February, at which point it will finally become affordable.
Creatively, a musical training made me assume a number of things: that one should work in the field itself, not expect to be able to go deeply enough into an art form if it’s a hobby; that technique is the groundwork for creativity; that sound/performance/enchantment matter; that the literary profession would be a meritocracy. Only the last of these assumptions has turned out to be false.
Interlitq: Could you tell us more about your childhood and early life and how these formed you.
FS: Oh, in a thousand ways! But if I told you all about the tenor, mood and feel of each of those Wordsworthian “spots of time”, I wouldn’t have them to write about any more… I grew up partly in England and partly, during the formative years from six to twelve, in West Wales. There I went first to the village school where we had a wonderful, charismatic and poetry-loving headmaster, and then to the local comp, which was completely chaotic and quite violent as we were the first “mixed” kids to be sent into what had been the old secondary modern school. Also I went in two years younger than the rest, which was rather nice because I got spoiled and looked out for by my classmates. The Welsh-language-speaking elders of the local council kept the grammar school for their own, Welsh-speaking kids. …Then my dad got a job in Gloucestershire where there were still state grammar schools. That was a happy school, but see below…
Interlitq: I read somewhere that you had an English teacher who was quite hostile to you. Was this the case and, if so, why do you think it occurred? What were the dynamics of this relationship?
FS: How to speculate on the motivations of those who hate us? They just hate the whole way we “live and move and have our being”. She - this English teacher, who was also our form teacher, and whom we had for year after year because she had sort of half-adopted or anyway got too close to a girl in our class - was a kind of Miss Jean Brodie. She had pets and scapegoats and, well, let’s just say her boundaries were completely shot. I think things would be different today.
As for me, as usual for ages I didn’t notice: I was used to tough discipline. I just thought it was impersonal. But it wasn’t, and it’s a sadness because my life now is the legacy of that unkindness. Had she been a normal teacher, I would presumably have continued to love writing, and reading, as I had until she came along when I was about 13: I’d have gone straight to university at the usual age, made friends with a generation of writerly (instead of musical) peers, and - well, had years more to learn to be a writer. As it was, I ran away from her - and school, and writing - into music. I left school at sixteen with two A’levels.
Was there anything good about all this? It was an early lesson in the way you tend to be punished for doing something well: if you’re a girl, at least.
Interlitq: You have stated that nothing moves you as much as late Eliot. Could you elaborate on this sentiment, and tell us more about the ways in which Eliot has influenced you as a poet, especially in view of the fact that you term yourself a post-Christian poet.
FS: I’ve moved away from rereading Eliot in recent years. I don’t think I love him any the less; but I don’t like to be static in my reading/development. Also, I think I remain a modernist as a poet, but a different kind of modernist. Now, my influences are more deeply bound-in to my writing; less tessellated, more architectural. Eliot gave me permission to entertain influences in the first place by the way he displays his own in his late poetry. Now I love integration into a single speech-act; the unitary movement of a single breath, single sentence poem. That’s what I explored in The Catch and I continue to explore it.
Interlitq: As an international poet and editor, not only the former Editor of Poetry Review but also the former Editor of Orient Express, what are your current views on Brexit, and do you foresee any artistic implications arising from such a development?
FS: Brexit is a catastrophe. In the summer I devoted a double issue of Poem, the magazine I edit now, to women on Brexit; of course, it elicited some wonderful writing. British literature suffers from our typically Anglophone cultural isolationism anyway; it also suffers from sharing a language with the giant US, a literary culture which doesn’t respect our own yet is only too happy to come over and snaffle our national literary prizes. The future on our tiny overcrowded and under-resourced rock in the North Atlantic is very depressing indeed. I would desperately like to get a European passport.
Interlitq: You have stated that, as is the case with many writers, you have needed an “elsewhere” and that for some years you found this “elsewhere” in your partner’s illness. Could you tell us more about this artistic period or do you find it hard to talk about? I am especially drawn to ask you this question in view of the years you spent working in healthcare.
FS: The elsewhere wasn’t his illness: it was his culture. He was (and is) from the South Balkans: cultures which are both similar to and hugely removed from most British cultures, including the hyphenated ones. Because it was an impossible relationship – because his illness, and also his professional reputation, kept him in his country of origin - it was both incredibly vivid and yet also dreamlike. It was nothing like my long years of work in healthcare: those were about being a tabula rasa, the privilege of assisting at bad places in peoples’ lives. Whereas my relationship was all about me (and him): visceral, felt, identity moulding.
I’d like to point out that after a dozen years I “chose life” and am now happily married to an Australian, though he, like my ex, is a fiction writer!
Interlitq: In a previous interview, you stated that “the poetry world can be so disgusting and frankly abusive”. Can you elaborate on this sentiment.
FS: Not without giving examples!
Interlitq: As Editor of Poetry Review, you were preceded by Muriel Spark. How do you consider Muriel Spark as writer and woman?
FS: I think she was well-named! Sparky in both the intellectual sense and in the sense of having evident personal charisma and courage. For me she’s a real role model and, again, a writer with a whole body of work, much of which has become canonical (as in my own passing reference to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, just for example). I think that Spark was very badly treated by the Poetry Society and by other male amateur poetasters she tangled with… and that their impulses, their arrogance, their assumptions that a woman writer is always “a woman of no importance” – that the phrase is a tautology - are still absolutely familiar today. Even though we no longer wear Fifties fashion, little else has changed. Also, I think that not only does talent get resented, but that the worst resenters are the untalented. A good male (or female) writer doesn’t need to waste time trying to undermine some passing woman – he has his (she has her) own work to get on with…
Interlitq: You have written a book on Shelley. What were the factors that drew you to Shelley rather than to, say, another romantic poet such as Keats, Coleridge or Wordsworth.
FS: The Faber Poet to Poet edition of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which is in fact an edition plus introduction rather than a whole book written by me, was a commission. I tried very hard to duck towards a poet I was more enthusiastic about, but they were adamant. And in fact I loved trying to find a readable Shelley, a version of Shelley as a poet (not as an object of academic study, or an historical cultural artifact) for today.
Interlitq: Could you tell us more about your forthcoming biography In Search of Mary Shelley : the girl who wrote Frankenstein to be published by Profile in 2018. How did this artistic endeavour come about?
FS: My psychological biography of Mary Shelley was also a commission, and arose from having done that poetry edition. I was absolutely delighted to stretch myself and find these new ways to write and close read the evidence of a life… and I admire Mary hugely as a result. I think she’s a very sympathetic character but also that she’s a real person, someone nuanced and inconsistent as we all are. I’d love to have met her… Profile are publishing the book on January 18th 2018; Frankenstein was published 200 years ago on January 1st 1818.
Interlitq: What are your artistic objectives for the rest of this decade?
FS: I’d like to write more about place – and particularly about the Balkans, as well as more biography and other literary non-fiction. I hope my poetry continues to develop and grow. I’d love to write a libretto.
Interlitq: How do you think posterity will remember you?
FS: I don’t know, because I hope I’m not yet halfway through my writing life – remember, apart from anything else, what a late starter I was… Even if I only make three score and ten I’ll have time to do as much again and more… and I want to live longer than that!
Interlitq: Could you tell us more about the time you spent in Wales. How strongly do you identify yourself with Wales and Welshness? Do you rate Dylan Thomas highly?
FS: I’m not Welsh but I have a longing for and a protectiveness towards Wales, and a continuing strong interest in Welsh arts culture. When I returned to Wales straight after finishing at Oxford, I set up an annual international poetry festival in Aberystwyth. Because the poetic traditions in Wales are long and deep-seated. I’ve talked about this elsewhere so won’t repeat myself.
It’s unfashionable to rate Dylan Thomas in British poetry right now but - ever the unfashionable - I owe my love of poetry to him. When I was in that village school in Wales, and when I was only six years old, our wonderful headmaster read us the beginning of Under Milk Wood in school assembly. It was way over our heads. I understood nothing - except that I thought it was amazing. Soon after that I started writing my own little poems in school. And apart from my teens when that English teacher knocked it out of me for about a decade, I just didn’t stop.
Interlitq: Is there a European culture that you especially identify with and, if so, does this attachment find expression in your work? Could you tell us more here about your work as a literary translator.
FS: For me literary translation is all about literary curiosity. It’s about close reading, and about finding how someone else “does it”, and - in co-translation - it's a most intimate form of dialogue. I love doing it. Non-Indo-European languages are more of a cultural “coup” in terms of big picture conceptual leaps, and I’ve loved working with Chinese poets including and through the wonderful Yang Lian, for example. I also love being translated from and into languages of all kinds of which I know nothing - Estonian, Hebrew, Chinese, Albanian - and entering the “whispering gallery” of work in languages I don’t know but in which I can find things I do: Slav languages, Romance languages. I am inordinately proud of my own books in translation, and I love the way my original poems haunt them.
At the moment I’m involved in a poet to poet trio (with language advisor) translation research project. Poettrio is an AHRC funded project with Newcastle University and Roehampton University. We’re working with Dutch and British poets; we’re also exploring the richness of contemporary translation theory and (alternative) practice. W.N. Herbert, Francis Jones and I are co-writing a full-length study; but I hope you’ll catch sight of the project in papers and publications before then too.
I do love Europe, not because I’m Euro-centric (I don’t think it’s better) but because, again, I love incremental, relational experience and knowledge. Europe adheres to my daily life, in a way… also, I try to be honest about what I know. I don't think going on holiday somewhere counts as knowing that place, really. Limestone Country (Little Toller), which I published in the summer, is about landscape and geology, and is a kind of love letter to limestone places I know well and one, Jerusalem, that I don’t… I’m fascinated by maps, buildings, the natural world, and by how people act upon and are acted upon by the places they settle. The book is about this, as well as about the particular places I love and know (a French hamlet, the Slovenian karst…).
Interlitq: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
FS: Read beyond this year’s fashion: read above all contemporary and near-contemporary poets, but read writers from all over the world and from every generation.
Interlitq: How highly do you rate confessional poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton? Do you consider yourself, to any extent, to be a confessional poet?
FS: I love the work of all three, but I also and equally love - to try for binary oppositions - early Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, and Louise Glück among so many others. Confessionalism was a very important moment for all of us, I think, even those of us not yet writing poetry or even alive: but I neither think it’s the only way nor that it’s entirely the wrong way. My The Distance Between Us (2005) is a verse novel but it’s also pretty confessional in parts: my most confessional book, I’d guess. But I write about big and bad things that have happened to me in almost every book (The Catch is the exception to this), and critics and readers never notice. So I guess I’m identified as non-Confessional or even anti-Confessional, which gives me a deal of privacy to write the poems I want, without irrelevant self-consciousness!
Interlitq: You invoke Sappho in your collection The Catch. Do you consider yourself to have been influenced by her?
FS: Not especially. She’s too remote technically and culturally to be an influence I think, though I love reading her in the many translations that exist. Anne Carson’s are some of the best of course.
Interlitq: Do you feel at home in the world of academe or do you perceive there to be any kind of clash between the academic and artistic worlds?
FS: I feel at home doing academic work in the academy. My PhD is in applied philosophies of language after late Heidegger and late Wittgenstein and I took it at Radboud University in the Nederlands under the supervision of the late great Graham Locke, who also supervised Étienne Balibar at roughly the same time and in the same place. It’s an irony that, now I’m earning my living as the Professor of Poetry and the Director of the Poetry Centre at the University of Roehampton, I do much less theoretical and scholarly writing and reading than ever before. I think the academy’s not always quite such a comfortable home at the moment for creative work, and that’s because of ways the two disciplines, academic and creative, have tried to find to co-habit. I went to music college myself, and found the rigour and the collegiate “learning environment” far exceeded even that at Oxford, where I went at the grand old age of 25. So I’m very comfortable with the teaching of the craft of an art-form in formal tertiary education. What’s a problem is I think is theoreticisation avant la lettre which sort of constipates the creative work itself: as it constipates whole departments when they’re filled with non-writers who nevertheless teach “creative writing”. I’m uncomfortable with the kind of approach these departments teach: it seems to me to be anti-writing, to want to take apart the primacy of the text.