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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Playing the heart-strings - 'Banjo' by Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch

A warm welcome - 'croeso' as we say in Wales - to the poet Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch. To me, Samantha is part schoolgirl and part legend. You see, I was once her English teacher, and I can still remember thinking, 'Thank God they don't all write stories as long as hers or I'd be marking forever.' At fourteen, her handwriting was big and round - I can still picture it - and of course the stories were excellent. I failed miserably and lost Samantha to the clutches of Classics and History but then the legend began. In 2001, we both had books featured in a Welsh publishers' summer reading promotion and our paths crossed again.

Has success turned her into one of those literary demons who avoid eye contact with me because they're looking for someone more important? Not a bit of it. The more successful she is, the more open she is and if you get the chance to learn from Samantha, take it.


Samantha's web-site
It is daunting to interview a writer described as 'the incredibly exciting' Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch and  'a major voice in contemporary poetry'. She has published three collections of poems, ‘Rockclimbing in Silk’ (Seren, 2001), ‘Not in These Shoes’ (Picador, 2008) and ‘Banjo’ (Picador, 2012). Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Independent, Poetry London, Poetry Wales and Poetry Review. In 2005 she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship and in 2007 a grant from the Society of Authors. In 2009 Samantha was shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year and in 2011 she won a Leverhulme writer in residence award. In 2012 Samantha was second prizewinner in the National Poetry Competition.

Amazon link


Bonjour Samantha, and bienvenue. Croeso!

Congratulations on the publication of ‘Banjo’. ‘Not in These Shoes’ was a hard act to follow. Do you feel under pressure from your own success when you write?

Bonjour, Jean and thank you for inviting me to talk with you on your blog. To answer your first question, I hope that I am developing as a poet with each book that I write. I’m aware I still have a long way to go until I reach the standard that I would be happy with. So it’s more a case of looking forward rather than writing in the shadow of a book that I’ve already completed.

I read ‘Banjo’  'cold' and then looked at your website and reviews, after I'd let my own responses brew. I loved one poem in particular, partly because as a photographer I identified with Ponting and was fascinated by the difficulties of shooting film in Antarctic temperatures. Clearly I wasn't the only person who loved it, as it won 2nd prize in the prestigious National Poetry Competition 2011 (link to poem). What drew you to Ponting and his story? To the Antarctic expeditions?

I’ve always been fascinated by perception and particularly by the eyes of the photographer behind the lens of the camera, by why they choose to represent something this way instead of that and what that particular angle brings to our understanding of the picture we are presented with. Although I love Ponting’s remarkable photographs taken on the Terra Nova expedition, I am more interested in what happened behind the camera lens when Ponting wasn’t there, when Captain Scott was taking the pictures on the final leg of the journey to the Pole (Ponting not being a member of what was known as ‘the Pole Party’ and so he had already trained Scott up in advance). For example in the photograph which was taken at the Pole, it was a collaborative effort between Scott, who set the camera up, and Henry Birdie Bowers, who pulled the string so that the camera would take a self-portrait of all five men to prove they had reached the Pole. I was also moved to think that all the negatives of the photographs taken by Scott at the Pole and during the last lap of their journey, remained in the tent with their corpses from March until the bodies were found in November 1912 (see my poem In Silver Bromide).

Particularly when inspired by historical documents, how do you decide whether you've given enough background context within a poem for the reader to understand it? Did you consider footnotes for 'Banjo'?

That’s a very good question. I never really considered footnotes because I wanted each poem to stand on its own two feet and to contain all the information needed to understand it. This was the most challenging aspect I faced when writing the collection, and as you rightly point out, is a balancing act between weighing down the poem with too much historical detail and giving the reader enough context with which to engage with the narrative of the poem. Once a poem becomes top heavy with facts you will lose your reader. With each poem there was a slightly different level of detail required so I had to be constantly on my guard to make sure I wasn’t overloading the poem.

When you give a reading, what's your favourite 'story behind the poem' to share with your audience?

I always enjoy reading out my poem 'Table Manners'. First of all I thought people wouldn’t believe me if I said that I went on a table etiquette course to improve my manners, which sounds plausible but isn’t true. What really happened was that I went on a table etiquette course because I wanted to write a poem about table etiquette. It was a form of research, to amass enough information in order to be able to sound authentic when writing the poem. I can’t stress how important it is to sound as though you’ve really been there and done that, which is why I use the first person a lot, whether I’m reflecting on an experience I’ve read about in a newspaper, an experience I’ve been through myself or the experience of a character from history or a combination of all three. I always try to make sure that I put myself into the shoes of that person so as to bring the scene alive for the reader.

What do readers most often ask you about and what are your answers?

I’m often asked what inspires me. I have to say that I’m not usually stuck for ideas; in fact I have a backlog of poems waiting to be written. The greater challenge for me is time management: trying to carve out writing space and to make sure that I don’t overload myself with teaching. Whilst I love working with students and learn a lot from the discussions that we have, I really value the peace and space of my creative time.

How do you feel you have evolved as a poet since your first book?

I think it takes me longer now to write well, probably because I am aware of the many pitfalls! It reminds me of when I lived in France: the better my French, the more I realised how far I had to go until I spoke it like a native. I find it’s the same with writing.

Worse than comparisons with your own previous books, is a comparison with someone else's, so that's exactly what I'm going to inflict on you. A large section of 'Banjo' is based on Scott's Antarctic expeditions, written first person from the viewpoint of members of the expedition. Have you been influenced at all by Sheenagh Pugh's poetry? I certainly have been, as she was the first poet who inspired me to write in historical persona. When reading 'Banjo' I was reminded of her work partly because in 'The Beautiful Lie' Sheenagh Pugh takes on the voice of the widow of an Arctic explorer.

As it happens, I started writing 'Banjo' in 1999 and had completed the poems by 2001 (the year before 'The Beautiful Lie' was published) but then I put the manuscript away in the proverbial drawer as I had lost my confidence with it. I got it out again after 'Not in These Shoes' was finished and started editing the poems. I’m a huge admirer of Sheenagh’s work and regularly dip into her blog. I do remember you encouraging me to write a story from the point of view of a Mediaeval teenage boy during one class in school – so I think I have you to thank for inspiring me to write in the voice of historical figures!
I don't think I deserve the credit but I'll be happy if that's all you remember from those days!

Another point of comparison with Sheenagh Pugh, and many other contemporary poets, is that much of your work is in free verse couplets. I don't really understand what seems to me to be a fashion for couplets. I find that the interruptions given by such frequent line breaks work against narrative poems. Why do you like this form?

Yes I do love couplets, as long as the frequent line breaks are used for a good reason, for example to underline the message of the poem or to convey a particular point in each verse. In terms of my own writing, I think it’s high time I had a go at writing sestinas – they always look so hard to me. I’ve tried villanelles but I always end up sounding silly.

I note that 'Banjo' is available as a kindle. As a poet, what is your attitude to ebooks and electronic publishing?

I have a Kindle, which I use mainly for reading novels when I travel. I tend to read books at home. I don’t see why the two can’t happily co-exist. I’m glad that some of my work is available on a Kindle, although I myself don’t like reading poetry on a Kindle – I prefer to be able to feel the collection as a whole and weigh it in my hand. And I worry a little about what changing the font size does to the line breaks.

On the personal side, you have two very talented sisters. At one time, you were Poetry Editor for a top literary journal and Francesca was overall Editor. I imagine you to be like the Bronte sisters, growing up in your own imaginary worlds. To what extent are you involved in each other's work? To what extent do you need your own space?

We work in different but complementary media (poetry vs. novels) and in different geographical places. By the way, we also have a very talented brother who is currently writing a novel! I have benefitted so much in coming from a family of writers: I have found it a very supportive environment, not only in terms of the help and encouragement I receive from the other three, but also in the way they all come along to readings and are at the end of the phone if I need advice. That has been invaluable and I couldn’t write without it.
I didn’t know you had a brother. He must have stayed under my radar in his schooldays :)

You're a very experienced mentor and writer in residence. Do you enjoy this aspect of being a writer?

It’s been a privilege to have worked with so many enthusiastic writers and students. Last year I was Leverhulme poet in residence at the National Wool Museum in Drefach Felindre. Not only was it an inspirational setting in which to begin the research for my next book, but it was also great to meet a wide variety of local writers who became regular participants at the workshops I ran at the museum. Helping students to start writing has enabled me to reflect on my own creative process – it’s all been a virtuous circle!

Can you tell us about your plans to offer a writing retreat and mentoring in the beautiful coastal scenery of New Quay, Pembrokeshire? I have wonderful memories of watching dolphins play in the sea there.

Generations of my family, several of whom are artists, have sat and read and painted in the garden of our home here in the terraces of New Quay. I wanted to share something of this peace with other writers and creative people, so we decided to turn an old stable at the top of the garden into a writers’ retreat to sleep 1-2 people. Visitors will be able to write in a loft with a view, walk the Pembrokeshire & Ceredigion coastal path and curl up next to the woodburning stove with a shelf full of books. Barely a hundred yards from the beach, the retreat is a simple bolthole, with its own parking and terrace and will be opening in August this year; so when are you coming to try it out, Jean?
You have no idea how tempting that is! There is so much you could teach me. One of these days I will surprise you and book in…

Thank you so much for joining me on my blog and good luck with 'Banjo'. I googled the Scott expeditions and looking at the photos, after reading your poems, makes me shiver.
amazon link

My Review of 'Banjo'


See the world differently...

I love the wide range of places and people, themes and objects, that I can experience while sitting in a comfy chair and reading Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s poetry. I also love her sense of humour – sadly, a rarity in literary, prize-winning poetry but I definitely smiled at the Delft lady ‘whose apron said B ugge after she fell’. Most of all, I love the way she shows me the world, differently.

Samantha’s last book, ‘Not in These Shoes’, is one of my favourite poetry books, ever, and a tough act to follow, but ‘Banjo’ really is an experience, and a very different one. It took me from a Paris sewer to Scott’s Polar Expedition, by way of Hong Kong, a wedding in parachute silk and Ladies with Hammers. The precision in language and confident music of the unrhymed verse reward a second – and third – reading. I lived in Hong Kong as a child and the details of place all ring true, evoking memories of the tram up the Peak and the Star ferry; the research underlying the poem is meticulous and typical of Samantha’s work.

With this poet, always expect the unexpected. Hands can be ambiguously sticky – is it raspberry juice or blood? The city’s arteries are the body’s sewers. Imagery and double-meanings enrich the reader’s experience. ‘How composed, how cold’ is one of my favourite lines, describing the explorers in a photo. Sometimes this playful love of words and double-meanings hovers between fun and too-clever but it is always relevant, and a conscious choice, as in ‘Rust’.
‘Let corrosion corrugate us
as we conjugate conrodere:
to go red together’

However, Samantha is equally capable of plain-speaking and some of the lines that hit me hardest were the deceptively simple ones.
‘how there is only enough hay
to take eight of the ponies
up to the foot of the Glacier
where they’ll be shot
for dog food;'
The line break after ‘shot’ emphasises the harshness of what follows but the poet’s shaping is almost invisible – unless you try writing this kind of free verse yourself and realise the craft needed.

The narrative sequence based on Scott’s Polar expedition is a sustained tour-de-force and, as a photographer myself, I was fascinated by the character and work of Ponting in temperatures so cold                                      ‘He lost
the tip of his tongue where it stuck to the camera’
I would have liked more background information about the people and events of the expeditions, perhaps as notes, as some of the references lost me.

And what about the banjo of the title? That’s described from Leonard Hussey’s viewpoint, the group’s meteorologist – and banjo player. ‘All the boys inscribed
their names on my banjo’s skin.’
Samantha also writes as if on skin, and gets right under the reader’s.






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