Q&A with Fiona Sampson

We speak to the professor of poetry at the University of Roehampton’s new Poetry Centre. Plus the latest higher education appointments

December 12, 2013

Source: Jemima Kuh

Fiona Sampson is an award-winning poet and former professional violinist. Last week she launched the University of Roehampton’s new Poetry Centre, which she will lead as professor of poetry

Where and when were you born?
I was born in London. I’m a Libran, but I don’t expect that’s what you’re asking – I hope not, anyway!

How has this shaped you?
Being born in such a polymorphous place is like being born everywhere and nowhere. But I grew up in Hampshire, Somerset, Wales and Gloucestershire. West Wales gave me a love of poetry. Gloucestershire, and family life, gave me a love of music.

Describe your new job in 140 characters.
I get to teach, write and think about poetry: and to do all the other things, like editing, translation and advocacy, that enrich a poetry life.

What will the Roehampton Poetry Centre give the world?
A London focus for research into, and the writing of, poetry; a model of good practice; opportunities for collaboration and exchange; an international if not quite comparative perspective; POEM magazine; a major reading series; two prizes; combining best translation and publishing practices with poetry; leading poets; rigour and excitement!

What’s special about the Roehampton Prize?
Non-specialist judges, currently fashionable, produce erratic results. Ours will be poets. Uniquely, to avoid “hit-and-run” international winners, only books by poets who, regardless of nationality, live in Britain will be eligible.

Do you miss being a violinist?
No: if I’d wanted to carry on doing it, I would have. It’s a great deal easier to be a concert violinist than to be a poet.

Does your music influence your poetry?
Profoundly. I write by ear and can’t separate thought from sound, any more than I can separate the most interesting thoughts from words. For a long time I tried to clean music out of my writing, though, because it’s seductive.

Have you had a eureka moment?
I wish!

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t be so idealistic. It’s too costly.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
The Polish Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz repeatedly found himself in the eye of the historical storm: at the end of the Russian Empire, in the Warsaw uprising, as a Cold War defector, and at Berkeley in 1968. Yet he wrote beautifully and wisely about individuals, which requires great modesty and great skill.

What keeps you awake at night?

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to write books, which I took to mean novels. I had friends whose mother was a writer. She sat in their garden being vague and beautiful. The girls used to eat paper till they were sick, which even at five I thought Freudian (I didn’t know the word, obviously!)

What’s an undergraduate degree worth?
In a way I think undergraduate degrees are worth more now that there are more of them: they’ve become more indispensable for young people who want some choices. Several of our most intellectual and distinguished poets are autodidacts, and some utterly misplaced anxiety about this fact seems to remain with them.

Will poetry ever become redundant?
Poetry predates other forms, like novel and film, by millennia, and is far less culturally specific than they are even today. So I suspect that it’s one of those human activities, like making jokes, that people find themselves doing, in various ways, in every time and place.

Can you write us a haiku?
Absolutely not!



The University of Derby has appointed Rod Dubrow-Marshall deputy vice-chancellor. Professor Dubrow-Marshall will join from the University of Central Lancashire in March.

Judith Bennett has been awarded the Salters’ chair in science education at the University of York. The Salters’ Institute and the university jointly fund the post, which focuses on curriculum innovation and research.

The University of Southampton has named Judith Petts pro vice-chancellor (research and enterprise). Professor Petts was previously dean of Southampton’s Faculty of Social and Human Sciences.

Stuart Egginton, previously reader in cardiovascular physiology and director of the Angiogenesis Research Group at the University of Birmingham, has been named to the University of Leeds’ leadership chair in exercise science.

Durham University’s business school has named Euros Jones-Evans, chief executive of entertainment group Tanabi, as entrepreneur associate at the Centre for Entrepreneurship. Mr Jones-Evans will assist in the development of the school’s teaching programmes as well as conducting guest lectures and workshops with students.

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