Sam Sampson's second book of poems, Halcyon Ghosts, published by Auckland University Press this month, presents thirteen poems, thirteen shapes of knowing – from ‘The Kid’ that brings together the poet’s grandmother and Charlie Chaplin (both attended the same London orphanage), to ‘Six Reels of Joy’, celebrating the birth of the poet’s daughter. We ask Sampson a few quick questions about the book, followed by a series of stunning photograph and poem pairings that make Halcyon Ghosts a visual as well as poetic feast.
1. How did the pairing of the photographs and the poems come about?
I met photographer Harvey Benge at a book launch a few years back where we discussed the poetry of William Carlos Williams. After this initial meeting we now meet at regular intervals during the year, where Harvey shows me his latest photobook and we discuss what we’re both working on. It was during one of these meetings he gave me his photobook Birds (photographs taken from the deck of a Devonport ferry as it headed into Auckland Harbour on the afternoon of Thursday, 15 July 2010).
As I see and hear the world through poetry, such a series opened up possibilities of a type of presentational immediacy, and more generally, a formation, or frame for language. In this instance the words articulate, and are mimetic in loosely following the flight path of migrating birds (the bird’s the word) but in my work I hoped to disrupt the reader by starting the poem on the recto (right) page, then moving the poem to a more traditional left-right reading pattern. The words loosely follow nature (birds), until the last frame, where my stanza becomes nature: the words and birds are both committed and identical. (I was reminded here of the wonderful Ed Harris Pollock movie, when Jackson Pollock is asked by his partner Lee Krasner about why he didn’t paint, or imitate nature. His response: ‘I am nature’.)
The first poem in the book ‘The Kid’ is about, and dedicated to my grandmother. The last poem, ‘Six Reels of Joy’, for my daughter Lucia. Each is intertwined, inextricably linked. They are poems threaded through with a DNA, of not just genealogy, but memes, memories, meta-fictions, language of a recent and distant past.
My grandmother was in an orphanage in London, the same orphanage that Charlie Chaplin attended years earlier. Chaplin revisited the orphanage in 1931 (when my grandmother would have been eleven) and she remembered the visit. The poem attempts to blend, in a cinematic fashion (part vaudeville, part music hall) elements of her London life with the world famous Charlie Chaplin. I remember as a child the nursery rhyme she would recite, and this is extended to reel throughout the stanzas. The title of Chaplin’s 1921 movie was, ‘The Kid: Six Reels of Joy’.
The last poem in the book ‘Six Reels of Joy’, is for Lucia, and extends, and echoes the first. The Lucia in this poem is not just my daughter, but builds upon the etymology of the name, such as; a Lucia from the 12th century who was part of our family tree (and the coat of arms and heraldic description is from her family emblem)and another… as shadow, a light and body… being a variation on a line from: ‘A Nocturnal Upon Saint Lucia’s Day, Being the Shortest Day’ by the poet John Donne. The name also has origins with Saint Lucia (283–304) who was a Christian martyr: the Latin name Lucia shares a root (luc-) with the Latin word for light, lux.
Her feast originally coincided with the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year before calendar reforms, so her feast day has become a festival of light. This is particularly seen in Scandinavian countries, with their long dark winters. There, a young girl dressed in a white dress and a red sash (as the symbol of martyrdom) carries palms and wears a crown or wreath of candles on her head. In Sweden, girls dressed as Lucia carry rolls and cookies in procession as songs are sung. It is said in Sweden that to vividly celebrate St. Lucia's Day will help one live the long winter days with enough light.
My daughter Lucia, was born on Friday 13th, at 1:13 in the morning, in Room 13 at Auckland Hospital; my grandmother was born in London, on March 13th, 1920, and died in Auckland, on December 13th, 2009. The idea of repetition, of a loosely constructed numerical frame is part of the circuitry that makes up this book. I hoped the poems were both spontaneous and exacting – a reel of real… a dancing in chains.
Thirteen, consciously, and unconsciously, became an important touchstone throughout the book. There are thirteen poems in the book, the cover still: La lampada della nonna (Grandmother's Lamp) was produced in 1913, there are references to thirteen lunar cycles, thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, the sun travelling thirteen degrees across the sky, McCahon’s number poems, Rothko’s number titled poems, plus many of the stanzas add up to thirteen; for example: ‘The Tombstone Epitaph’ is written in XIII stanzas… thirteen ways, or cinematic vignettes of looking at the famous gunfight at O.K. Corral, and the subsequent pursuit of the Earp gang.
(Coincidentally Halcyon Ghosts was launched on Friday 13 June, and my last book Everything Talks, was also launched on Friday 13 June, six years earlier.)
I could go on, but this is just to say that thirteen, my grandmother, daughter, father and a ghostly fragmentation feed into the title poem ‘Halcyon Ghosts’, which is made up of seasonal festivals from around the globe – rituals of both fact and fiction, celebrations of beginnings and endings; memories of Titirangi, of halcyon days. Where alternatively, ‘halcyon’ is also a type of kingfisher, or mythical bird said to breed at the time of the Winter Solstice in a nest floating on the sea, and have the power of calming the wind and waves.
3. In what ways does this collection depart from your debut book Everything Talks, for which you won the 2009 NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award for Poetry?
It’s not really a departure but more a book where I’ve let time do its work. As Auden said in one of his poems: Time will say nothing but I told you so…and this book definitely carries over frames, and referents from the last collection. I see myself as writing one book of poetry, with, of course, variations within the body of work.
In this book there is a synchronicity. I can join more dots when looking at the book as a whole, but saying that, I’m not sure how to describe the poems. It seems reasonable primary that facts have been lost, other facticities I have created to replace forgotten fact, certain memories I have erased, or chosen to omit. When trying to chart poems, frames of reference will only take me so far, and images make me believe there was an event connected to each and every poem. I hope in this body of language I’ve let the subjects find themselves and inadvertently resurrected the dead. The dead here, I take to mean, not just those that have passed away during the writing of this book, but also the language that has been unearthed, the unearthed vestiges.
In coaxing this book into existence my maternal grandmother died, my daughter was born, and at the end of January, I took my father home to die. This book means something, but at the moment I’m too close to it, and not sure what, or even if it will ever be accessible to me.
People have told me my poetry will alter, not by any act of will, but because of a process, a process whereby living inevitably reconfigures one’s relationship to the world and to one’s sense of mortality and life. This book is a type of reel, a reel of life… in my beginning is my end… and the halcyon ghosts that manifest in this circuitry of life, live beyond their deaths – where names displaced by light / are dark but not lost….
Photographs are by Harvey Benge. Please click on the images and poems to enlarge.
Sam Sampson was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and grew up in Titirangi. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Auckland and has taught in the University’s ethnomusicology programme. Sampson’s poetry has been widely published in journals and chapbooks and his first collection with Auckland University Press, Everything Talks, won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award for Poetry at the 2009 book awards.