INTERVIEW by Katherine Stansfield

NWR Issue 96

Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch

NWR: Samantha, congratulations on your recent success in the National Poetry Competition with 'Ponting', a poem from your new collection Banjo which explores Captain Scott's last expedition to the South Pole. Before we get on to talking about the polar section in the book, I wanted to ask you a more general question about how you approach writing. It seems to me that many of the poems in this collection and in your previous books, Rockclimbing in Silk and Not in These Shoes, end up in very different places from where they begin, in terms of physical location as well as in terms of theme and tone. An example in Banjo is the opening poem 'Sewer', in which a descent into the world beneath Paris becomes a journey through the body. When you begin a poem, do you know where it will end, and what prompts or shapes moments of transformation?

SWR: Thanks, Katherine. When I begin to read a poem, I expect to go on a journey, to be taken somewhere else by the end, and so when I start to write it, I want my reader to feel that they have travelled a long way and have worked through some unexpected obstacle by the time they reach the end, albeit in the space of ten or fifteen lines. I won't begin to write a poem unless I have already intuited a potential twist in the plot. What ‘prompts or shapes’ these moments of transformation is what I call my spadework template. I think of writing a little like gardening. Just as I dig over my garden to prepare the land before I start planting, I do the same thing with my page. I think of this process as spadework. I lay my writing tools on the desk. I divide the sheet into three with two columns in the top half. In the left hand column I write out the narrative of the poem: what happens, to whom and how. I will sketch out the story from beginning to end, using arrows or symbols to connect the characters and actions to each other in chronological order. Then I go back through the story and highlight the various points that could take a twist.

Once I have the story straight in the left hand column, in the right-hand column I jot down any images, phrases and similes that I might want to use. Not that I have to use them all. Rather, I think of this as my treasure chest that I can riffle through for whatever might be useful. Anything I don’t use can go back into the chest. This column might also include any lines that have come to mind and any research that I may have done. Once the tenor and shape of the poem is outlined in the two columns before me, I am ready to start writing in the lower half of the sheet. Although I may note down two or three possible endings, invariably the poem takes me by surprise part way through and my carefully planned ending is jettisoned in favour of something superior. But this new ending would not have occurred to me without all the spadework I had put in, because it is a process which creates opportunities for the poem, leading to inspired thinking, opening up the poem to new ideas rather than closing it down. The wider the range of possibilities I list in terms of the plot, its characters, imagery and ending, the more scope I am giving myself to do justice to the story the poem is telling.

NWR: I'd like to focus on that idea of 'the story the poem is telling', because of the presence of narrative there. Many of the poems in Banjo are dramatic monologues – a feature of your work generally – and I wondered to what extent you considered the stories these individuals tell to be fiction. Do the poems begin with a 'truth', perhaps from research or from the 'treasure chest' and then become fiction, based on the need to do the poem 'justice', as you say above?

SWR: When I write a poem, my aim is to make the story and the characters ring as true as possible. I am less interested in whether the story is true or not, but it does need to sound as if it's true because I feel that is more compelling for the reader. If I am listening to or reading a good yarn, I am taken outside of myself, enveloped by the story. This experience has made me want to do everything I can to write poems that will convince the reader: this or that event really happened to the speaker. As a result, I may tweak the events to ensure they are credible to the reader. For example in my poem, ‘Curtain Call’, which was published in Magma 52 this year, although Captain Oates' foot was indeed badly frostbitten, the mention in my poem of the men attempting to warm up his foot actually happened to another man. The reference is taken from Scott's Discovery expedition when the men on Officer Michael Barne's depot-laying sledge journey to White Island in 1903 successfully saved Seaman Ernest Joyce's frostbitten foot by taking it in turns to nurse it to their ‘breasts’ (according to Ann Savours in The Voyages of the Discovery, Chatham Publishing, 2001). I then blended this incident with another described in William Lashly's Terra Nova expedition diary where he praises Officer Teddy Evans for suggesting that the seriously ill Lashly place his foot on Teddy's stomach to warm it up, and finally from Teddy Evans's own comment on the same incident, ‘there is something objectionable about a man's frostbitten clammy foot thrust against one's belly in the middle of the Great Ice Barrier with the thermometer at fifty below’ (quoted by Diana Preston in A First Rate Tragedy, Constable, 1997). I melded these little-known incidents in the poem in order to make the better-known incident more alive for the reader.

NWR: I think the issues of truthfulness and authenticity are complicated for any writer who, as you say, wants to make an idea or incident 'more alive' for a reader. The poems in the second half of Banjo focus on real individuals and actual events, looking at Scott and Shackleton's expeditions to the pole. Did you have any anxiety over 'blending incidents' and departing from what is considered to be the known 'facts' of the expeditions?

SWR: That's a good question. As you say, the second half of Banjo takes its inspiration from real characters and historical events. You mention the 'facts' of the expeditions, and those are the facts we know about (from letters, diaries, memoirs) but there are also the facts that we don't know about, which I think it is reasonable for a writer to reflect on. For example, if expedition leader A and expedition leader B both had difficulty crossing the crevasses on the Beardmore Glacier then it's likely that expedition leader C also faced a similar challenge, even if this is not documented and this is what I have imagined. The sequence isn't after all, intended to be a biography in verse; rather, it is inspired by a series of events in Antarctica between 1901-1916 and the resulting poems are merely my 'take' on documented events alongside my interpretation of what might reasonably have been the reaction of one explorer given the documented reaction of three others in similar circumstances. The minute a poet puts pen to paper, regardless of the subject matter, the poem takes on an exciting life of its own and as a result turns into fiction even if it is inspired by fact.

NWR: I agree that poems become fiction, though I often find that many readers treat poetry with a different set of criteria than for prose fiction, assuming that poetry has more roots in fact, and that the 'I' is always, in some way, the poet. In a sense, it is, of course, because the poet wrote the poem, but fiction writers seem to be granted more invisibility in their work. As we've touched on, dramatic monologues feature heavily in Banjo, and I was struck by the fact that though we hear from key figures on Scott and Shackleton's expeditions, including Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Henry Bowers and George Marston, Scott and Shackleton themselves aren't voiced in the collection. Was that a conscious decision from the outset of the project?

SWR: Yes, I decided to steer clear of the more well-known names and instead try out the mantle of other expedition members such as cooks (Thomas Clissold and Charles Green), photographers (Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley), artists (George Marston and Edward Wilson) and doctors (Edward Atkinson and again the hugely talented Edward Wilson) so as to enable me to approach the spectrum of expedition life from editing The South Polar Times to playing football matches on ice floes. In addition, I was interested in interpreting the expeditions at a double remove, not only from that of the one hundred years that stand between then and now but also from the remove of looking down the lens of the expedition's photographer or peering over the shoulder of the expedition's artist. When I sat in the little corner of the scientists' lab on Discovery (Scott's first Antarctic ship, now berthed in Dundee), in the very seat where Edward Wilson had painted his watercolours at five every morning during the winter months of complete darkness, I knew immediately that I had to take on the challenge of writing myself into these characters in the first person, to become the person holding the paintbrush.

NWR: 'The spectrum of expedition life' is a useful phrase with which to approach the events, I think, because the everyday, more light-hearted aspects of the expeditions are often overlooked in the over-riding narrative of loss and sacrifice which still has cultural currency today, seen recently at the anniversary of Scott's death. Many poems in Banjo focus on how the men kept themselves entertained during long periods on the ice. 'The Ministrels at Minus Sixty' [first published in NWR 93, autumn 2010], for instance, features members of Scott's team dressing up and acting out plays, with the only audience 'the ship's complement / and silence for miles towards the Pole'. One of the epigraphs of the collection is a quote from Apsely Cherry-Garrard that his days at Hut Point 'would prove some of the happiest' in his life. Did it surprise you, when researching, just how diverse their lives were and how much they enjoyed themselves? And why did you decide to focus on this side of the expeditions?

SWR: On a visit to Discovery Point Museum in Dundee a few years ago, I came across a photograph of members of the crew of Scott's first Antarctic ship, Discovery dressed up as black and white minstrels and I began to reflect on the fact that a group of white men sailed south to the coldest place on earth, and when they arrived they regularly dressed up as black men and sang African songs. What did all this mean? The poems became a journey of their own towards answering this question. There was also another photograph in Dundee of Discovery's crew dressed up for some kind of detective play and they all look like the Michelin Man because of the layers of longjohns and jumpers required to stave off the cold before they could even don their costumes. Much has been written about the tragedy, and rightly so, for that will always be with us, but less has been said about the more mundane aspects of the expeditions and even less about all the fun that was had. These were the elements that I wanted to explore. For example, in addition to their stores and equipment, the crew packed a few bearsuits before leaving Britain. Why, you might wonder? Because they wanted to be well prepared for crossing the Equator which usually involved a ceremony for first timers who might be ducked in water, have their heads shaved and then be chased round the ship by bears. This is a tradition which I have celebrated in my poem ‘Crossing the Line’.

NWR: Yes, I was really struck by the amount of fun that was had, often forgetting for a moment that I was reading about events connected to expeditions I previously thought I knew a fair bit about. But I also found that though many of the polar poems in the collection are light-hearted and playful for the most part, their endings have a more sombre note. For instance, in 'The Ministrels at Minus Sixty', Clissold says 'you could bury me in that get-up', and in 'Mind How You Go', which is voiced by Bowers and written as a letter home, the final lines mention a discarded novel 'whose last five pages / were missing and we all tried / to guess the ending'. I found it difficult not to read these lines through the lens of hindsight, returning to loss. Was this what you intended for the endings of these poems?

SWR: I think that's right. I recognised that the reader would inevitably read the poems through the lens of the tragic events of Scott's last expedition but I also hoped they would read with the awareness that in the case of Shackleton's Endurance, all twenty-eight of the crew survived after their ship went down. It's interesting that you mention the poem that is written as a letter from Bowers to his mother. Expedition members would have been writing letters home on a regular basis both on ship and shore. When these letters were posted was a different matter: for those who stayed out in Antarctica for two or three years at a time, their letters would only have been posted once or twice a year: either when the ship in question arrived in New Zealand on the voyage south or when she returned to the UK. In the case of Discovery, it was when the relief ship (the Morning) went home. As for those letters written on the way to the Pole, they would have been given to members of the support teams who would leave the Pole Party in stages to return to base. Scott, Bowers and Wilson's final letters were found on their bodies eight months after they died and I refer to these in my poem ‘In Silver Bromide’. In a world of immediate communication, it's quite a sobering thought to reflect on the months that passed between the time a letter was written and when it was read.

NWR: It really is. I think it's a way, too, of making it clear to the reader just how much time has passed since these events took place, in terms of technological change but also the way we view the world. Scott and Shackleton were exploring uncharted territory in incredibly harsh conditions, but since then we've pushed the boundaries of exploration further still, going to the moon and the bottom of the sea. I'd like to ask a question about Banjo as a whole, as the polar poems form only the second half. I'm intrigued by how you put the collection together, and whether you feel the first half of the book offsets the second. They are very different, but there are links too; for instance, the theme of fossils in 'Ladies with Hammers', which features early women geologists, and 'Geology', in which Cherry compares the bodies of Scott, Bowers, and Wilson to quartz, digging them out of the snow. Do you see the two parts as linked and in dialogue, or inhabiting separate poetic spaces?

SWR: I like to think that the non-Antarctic poems in the first half point towards the Antarctic journeys of the second. The speakers in the poems in the first section wander from France to Hong Kong to Holland to North America to Dorset, culminating in ‘Emigré’, in which the speaker directly addresses a nineteenth-century violinist who emigrated from Liverpool to New York, leaving readers at the end of the first half with the call of a flute and the flap of the huge sails on square-riggers in their ears. The opening poem in the second half is titled ‘The Piano’ which picks up the musical theme (every leader of an Antarctic expedition a hundred years ago would try to ensure he had a piano on board). Then the reader embarks on the range of experiences associated with Antarctic expeditions: packing stores, sailing south, depot-laying sledge trips, Scott's march to the Pole and finally Shackleton's 800-mile boat journey on the James Caird to rescue his men from Elephant Island.

NWR: In that sense it's a quite a restless collection, always moving to another place and taking up another story. Is that in any way related to how you feel about writing more generally, that there's a compulsion to move forwards, to push yourself as a writer?

SWR: Every writer, I think, is aiming at new challenges with each collection. I have much to learn and a long way to go, so I am always working on my craft, trying to improve every day and to take advice from other writers. At the moment I am Leverhulme Poet in Residence at the National Wool Museum where I am interviewing and recording the voices of weavers to create a sound archive that will then form the basis for my next book so as to preserve the traditions, memories, expertise and processes associated with the weaving industry. It's quite a leap from ice to textiles, but one which so far has proved very fertile ground for me.

NWR: I know you are in the early days of your Leverhulme project, but do you have a sense yet of how you will use that oral archive to bring the next book together? I've been listening to some of the BBC Radio Ballads from the 1960s recently, which wove (if you'll excuse the pun) interviews with people involved in different industries or social groups (eg boxers, miners, herring fishermen), poems and songs to give a really diverse insight into events or a way of life. Are you coming across phrases in the interviews that may make their way into poems, or are they working more as jumping off points?

SWR: Yes, as you say, I only started on my new collection three months ago and so at the moment I'm just at the research stage. I've come across some fascinating voices but drawing all the strands together will be a process I'll be tackling in two years' time when I come to the end of the writing period. Not only am I intrigued by the voices of the living, but also by the voices of the dead. One aspect that I'm particularly interested in is social responsibility in business. I've been looking at the life of Robert Owen, a Welsh social reformer who moved to Scotland where he bought the New Lanark Cotton Mills in 1799. I'm up in New Lanark this week, visiting Owen's house and seeing how his factory worked. He was a man of vision and an energetic campaigner who was far ahead of his time in reforming living and working conditions for his employees. For example, as well as introducing free education and medical care for his workforce, he decreed that two evenings a week should be devoted to dancing. He also wanted his mill at New Lanark to be surrounded by gardens because he thought it was essential for his workforce to have somewhere to reflect and walk outside factory hours. I find that once I start on the research, other avenues open up leading to new poems, and that's the most exciting part for a writer because you never know where the road will take you.

NWR: It sounds like a really interesting project, with freedom to pursue those avenues when they present themselves. We've spoken before about the fact that each of your collections contains a poem which points forwards to what you'll be working on next, and I think it's an intriguing idea that in each collection there's another one in a nascent stage. In Not in These Shoes, your previous collection, the poem 'Abandonata' wanders through Scott's hut, perfectly preserved by the cold, then asks the reader to think about the women left behind by the polar expeditions which Banjo then goes on to explore. In Banjo there are quite a few poems focusing on fabric and patterns. 'Cable-knit' in particular, a poem spoken by Gerald Doorly, an officer on a supply ship to Scott's expedition, links the weave of the men's jumpers, cabling to plot routes, and the ties that bind in relationships. Is this a poem that you feel points forwards to the kinds of things you're writing about for the Leverhulme project?

SWR: Yes, I think that's exactly right: 'Cable-knit' was intended to be a cameo which drew together various threads of expedition life and at the same time pointed forward towards elements I'm hoping to cover in my next collection. Not only the aesthetics of fabric and texture, but also the way in which finished woven pieces remained after weavers died as a testimony to their working lives as well as to their relationship with their colleagues, families, and their looms (a changing relationship once the looms moved out of homes and into factories during the Industrial Revolution). This has led me to reflect on the journeys the fabric took as it was transported by ship to different corners of the world. I think that's where we started, wasn't it, with journeys?


previous interview: Horatio Clare
next interview: Plus Gainsbourg Que Gainsbourg


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